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Female bodied person of south asian heritage lying in a restorative yoga post, supported by a bolster and blocks with an eye pillow over her eyes as she uses a yoga therapy practice to promote healing, manage symptoms, and improve overall well-being through the integration of physical postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), meditation techniques (dhyana), and other therapeutic tools from the 8 limbs of yoga.

What is Yoga Therapy?

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Yoga has gained immense popularity worldwide as a holistic practice that promotes physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. In India, yoga practice has been an aspect of healthcare for many hundreds of years. Yoga therapy – in the West is perhaps a century old – is now finding ways into the mainstream as a holistic healing art. It is a specialized approach that uses yoga practices to help you with specific conditions or health concerns. Yoga Therapy aims to promote healing, manage symptoms, and improve overall well-being through the integration of physical postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), meditation techniques (dhyana), and other therapeutic tools from the 8 limbs of yoga.

What is Yoga Therapy?

Rather than prescribe treatments, yoga therapy invites you to deepen your presence and awareness so you can heal. Using time tested, evidence based yogic approaches to deepen presence and awareness, we are able to know ourselves more fully. Out of that knowing, we are more easily moved to embrace the opportunity for change, growth, and enhanced well-being in body, feelings, thought, and spirit.

Yoga therapy is a self-empowering process, where you, with the help of your yoga therapist, implement an accessible, personalized and evolving yoga practice, that not only addresses illness in a bio-psycho-social-spiritual manner, but also aims to alleviate your suffering in a progressive, non-invasive and complementary way. Yoga Therapy is not an alternative to western medicine. Instead, it complements the care your primary care physician, dentist, optometrist, naturopath, osteopath, chiropractor, physiotherapist, massage therapist and other health care providers offer you.

The practice facilitates healing on many levels, so can be used for prevention or, depending on the nature of the condition, yoga therapy can be curative, or can be a means to manage illness. Its aim is to address illness in a multidimensional manner, and to alleviate your suffering progressively, in non-invasive ways that complement conventional treatment.

As the demand for yoga for wellbeing continues to grow, it's important to understand the distinctions between different roles within the yoga community. Specifically, the differences between yoga therapy and yoga teaching. Let's clarify some key terms.

The difference between a yoga teacher and a yoga therapist

Not all yoga teachers become yoga therapists, but all yoga therapists were and can be yoga teachers.

A yoga instructor or teacher typically is someone guides students through various yoga poses and sequences in a group setting. They may have completed a Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) program with between 200 and 500 hours of instruction and are knowledgeable about anatomy, alignment principles, and sequencing techniques.

A yoga therapist focuses on using yogic practices for therapeutic purposes. They work with individuals who have specific health concerns or conditions and tailor their sessions accordingly. Yoga therapists undergo specialized training of a minimum of 850 hours beyond traditional YTT programs to develop knowledge in anatomy, physiology, psychology, pathology, and other relevant areas of study.

While both roles involve sharing yogic principles with others, the differences in their approaches are:

  1. Focus. Yoga teaching primarily revolves around guiding students through physical postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), meditation techniques (dhyana), and relaxation practices. The emphasis is on enhancing physical strength, flexibility, balance, and overall well-being of the group. In yoga therapy sessions, your therapist will work closely with you one-on-one to understand your unique circumstances, including physical health issues, emotional concerns, or even chronic pain. By doing so, they can design a practice that suits your needs best. Yoga therapy is tailored to address your specific needs in the moment. This individualized approach allows for a more targeted and personalized practice that takes into account specific conditions or limitations. This holistic approach addresses not just the physical aspect but also mental and emotional well-being. It's important to note that while some elements of traditional yoga teaching may be incorporated into a therapeutic practice, such as asanas or pranayama techniques typically found in general classes; the primary distinction lies in the intention behind these practices - focusing on healing rather than general fitness.
  2. Scope. In contrast to traditional teaching methods which cater to groups of varying abilities and needs, yoga therapy focuses on individualized care. Your yoga therapist will evaluate your unique condition, works with you to determine short, medium and long term wellbeing goals, and designs adaptable personalized practices accordingly. This approach allows for addressing specific health concerns such as chronic pain, injuries, weight management, stress management, and mental health issues. Specific asanas or sequences may be suggested and integrated into a holistic practice based on your condition to alleviate symptoms or promote healing in affected areas. Breathing techniques can also be utilized to reduce stress levels and regulate emotions and your nervous system. Moreover, meditation practices integrated into yoga therapy sessions can help you develop greater self-awareness and cultivate inner peace amidst challenging circumstances.
  3. Training To become a certified yoga instructor or teacher, you would typically complete a 200 hour teacher training (YTT) program that covers foundational aspects of yogic philosophy, breathing techniques, yoga postures, and class sequencing. However, to become a certified yoga therapist a minimum further 850 hours of extensive training is required, though many therapists train for longer than that. This comprehensive learning experience spans several years and includes supervised clinical experience working with individuals with complex conditions. This additional training equips yoga therapists with a deeper understanding of anatomy, physiology, psychosomatics, and therapeutic applications of yoga.
  4. Integration Yoga therapy can be integrated into various healthcare settings and complements medical treatments. In collaboration with healthcare professionals, yoga therapists may work alongside physicians, physiotherapists, mental health practitioners, and other allied health professionals to provide comprehensive care for their clients. Yoga teachers, on the other hand, focus primarily on teaching group classes in studios or fitness centres.

What conditions see the best results from yoga therapy?

The strongest evidence is for yoga’s efficacy in treating mental health conditions in general including depression, anxiety and eating disorders. There is also evidence that yoga therapy results in improvements in:

  • perceived stress
  • mood
  • emotion regulation
  • social cognition
  • social connectedness
  • sleep quality
  • interoception  or your  sense of the internal state of the body which can support management of anxiety disorders
  • PTSD
  • substance abuse disorders
  • eating disorders
  • sleep disorders
  • schizophrenia.

Given that improvement in mental health will generally have a positive impact on physical health, such changes in psychological wellness tend to result in positive outcomes for:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • dementia
  • HIV
  • chronic pain
  • COPD.

Research also suggests the therapeutic application of yoga has potential in management of:

  • cardiovascular conditions
  • obesity and weight gain
  • lower back pain
  • type 2 diabetes
  • asthma
  • traumatic brain injury
  • musculoskeletal conditions

In summary, yoga therapy offers an individualized approach using targeted yogic practices for specific conditions or health concerns. By tailoring these practices according to each person's needs, it aims at promoting healing while addressing physical limitations as well as mental and emotional well-being.

When to Choose Yoga Therapy: Understanding Who Can Benefit from Therapeutic Approach

Anyone seeking a holistic approach to their health can benefit from working with a yoga therapist. Yoga therapy can be beneficial for you if you are looking for an accessible, personalized, adaptive therapeutic approach to support your physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, environmental, and occupational well-being instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to your wellness. 

Yoga therapists are experts in tailoring yoga practices and techniques based on your unique needs. It is particularly helpful if you have specific conditions or health concerns including chronic pain, stress-related issues, anxiety, depression, insomnia, digestive disorders, respiratory problems, and many others.

When considering yoga therapy as an option for treatment or management of your condition(s), it is important to find a certified yoga therapist. The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) is a globally recognized organization that ensures high standards in training and practice. By choosing an IAYT certified therapist (look for the letters C-IAYT after their name), you can trust that they have met the necessary requirements set by the association. 

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