What is Yoga Therapy?

There is a lot of buzz around yoga therapy right now since the Yoga Alliance put the smack down on the use of the phrase by any of their members. So, I thought I’d take this opportunity to clear the air and explain what yoga therapy is exactly.

Yoga therapy involves the adaptation and application of traditional yoga techniques and practices, including poses, pranayama and meditation, to help individuals facing health challenges at any level manage their condition, restore balance and move towards optimum overall well-being. While all yoga can be therapeutic on some level, there is a major distinction between traditional yoga classes and yoga therapy sessions. And with more healthcare practitioners referring their patients to yoga, educating the medical community, yoga teachers and potential students on the differences is extremely relevant as many yoga classes may aggravate rather than alleviate symptoms for an individual.

For example, I’ve had a client referred to yoga by her orthopedic surgeon after a microdiscectomy. She wasn’t referred to do yoga therapy like a physician might refer to a physical therapist (which is the hope for the future). She was just referred to do yoga and she just happened to find me when searching the internet. Doing sun salutations and backbends was not an option for her at first and it took her a long time to work up to it. Another client said he found the closest class he could find, a hot room and fast-paced class with lots of sun salutations and downward dog poses. This wouldn’t be an issue for everyone; however, he often experiences subluxation of both shoulders and has since he was a child. 

Yoga therapy isn’t about physical fitness or scoring a handstand on Instagram. When I am working one-on-one with a client or in a group yoga therapy class, we’re not going straight to sun salutations. And more often than not a client can’t even get into what we might think are the simplest of poses like child’s pose or on hands and knees in tabletop, so we may start in a chair. A session begins with a thorough initial consultation that includes a review of symptoms, looking at posture and observing range of motion or any limitations in mobility through simple poses chosen for their specific needs. And it’s not limited to asana. We might integrate pranayama techniques to help someone go to sleep at night or just begin to breathe at a fuller capacity, or guide them through a meditation to get in touch with the pain in their hip or low back. Yoga therapy focuses on all five koshas, so the entire being, and a session is designed to offer support and guidance so the client can work towards healing on their own. A group yoga therapy session would be very similar, but targeted to individuals with a similar condition.

The International Association of Yoga therapists (IAYT) is the organization that is working to establish yoga as a recognized and respected therapy, especially within healthcare. They have worked for years to create standards, scope of practice, code of ethics and now a designation for certified yoga therapists. Currently, they are in the midst of a year-long grandfathering period where prospective yoga therapists can apply to be granted the Certified Yoga Therapist (C-IAYT) designation. C-IAYTs are required to have a certain number of hours of education in yoga therapy, group and individual sessions and clinical practice. As of now, IAYT only offers a designation, but quite possibly the emerging profession of a yoga therapist might be licensed in the same way as many healthcare providers. This would vary from state to state.

Ultimately, yoga therapy is about empowering someone with tools they can use at any time so they can live a more enriched existence. It can help them walk up the stairs with one foot at a time. It can give them the strength and confidence to move large rocks in their yard without fear of re-injury. It can allow a husband and wife to go out to dinner in public again without triggering a panic attack. Even what seems like the simplest poses or breathing techniques can change someone’s life.

If you are interested in working with a yoga therapist, go to www.iayt.org to find one near you.

Alyssa Pfennig