Yoga Therapy Adapts to the Individual

The following piece was written for a local health related magazine this summer. It was edited liberally for publication in their September issue, however I thought it might be interesting to have the unedited copy here.

What is Yoga Therapy?

 There is an alternative, complementary healing field called Yoga Therapy that is expanding rapidly – drawing on what the sages of old knew; that yoga heals us. The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) describes Yoga Therapy as “the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and wellbeing through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga”. This is a broad definition as the knowledge base for the practice of Yoga Therapy is vast.

Just last month the IAYT began certifying schools to educate yoga therapists through 800 hours of training over a minimum two-year period (after 200 hours of teacher training, which is the basic level for yoga instructors who are not Yoga Therapists). The standards that the IAYT has outlined as basic knowledge for practice in the field includes: Ayurveda, The Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali and other foundational Yogic texts, Anatomy, Physiology and Kinesiology, the major conditions effecting the human systems, as well as both Eastern and Western models of health and wellbeing, along with close supervision and mentoring throughout an intensive practicum – and more.

In addition, a contingent of doctors and scientific researchers affiliated with the IAYT are validating interventions using yoga therapy for a variety of conditions and publishing these in a peer reviewed journal. Through these efforts Yoga Therapy is entering the mainstream of treatment alternatives.

What Does a Yoga Therapist Do?

As a Yoga Therapist I work in concert with my client: first understanding his or her view of the presenting difficulty, getting to know who the person is, and performing a complete assessment. We agree on the goals for our work together – relieving the discomfort that can be relieved and managing any remaining discomfort. Most importantly, the goal of Yoga Therapy is to treat the whole person, not just the condition, so it may be in addition to, not necessarily a replacement for conventional types of treatment.  We explore the pathway of Yoga Therapy together using the simple but effective tools of yoga which may include: asana (gentle movement), pranayama (breath work), meditation and relaxation, personal ritual, and lifestyle modification. These practices are adapted to meet the person’s needs.

Having worked with individuals with a variety of issues, no matter the presenting issue, each individual is unique and the resolution to their difficulty is also unique.

Transformation through Yoga Therapy

Jane was referred to me by a physical therapist. Although Jane had gone for bi-weekly P.T. appointments, the chronic tightness and pain in her upper back, shoulders, neck and jaw would  return the next day. She also suffered from an emotional condition that created much tension through habitual thought patterns. After our first appointment, where we explored some very gentle modified motions on the mat, together with a pranayama practice, I knew it would be a challenge to help Jane quiet her mind and discover that place within herself that was peaceful and stable. Until we could quiet her mind and teach her self relaxation, her body would remain tight and constricted. In addition, her anger over the chronic discomfort she experienced would create an unrelenting cycle of suffering. Drawing on the Pancha Maya Model, which views the human being as five sheaths: body, breath, mind, wisdom and bliss, I worked with her to make changes in her breathing and how she moved. Through this practice we could effect changes in her body, her thought patterns and other parts of her being – bringing her peace and a degree of control over her situation. Using the simplest of joint freeing motions for the upper body, with the body moving slowly and the breath guiding each motion like a moving meditation, Jane was able to focus.

I saw her regularly and after two months of practice Jane came for her last appointment. She let me know that she was able to prevent a panic attack at school by using her pranayama practice. She said that she loved her practice because she could use it anywhere to quiet her mind and relax, while easing tightness. We went through her practice together. After centering with a pranayama/ breath work practice, she moved with my instruction. She moved slowly, her breath was steady and her eyes closed. Her eyes remained closed for a time after the twenty-minute practice. Then she opened them with a relaxed and gentle smile. She said she felt solid and calm inside like she never had before. “Really, I have never felt like this in my life, I feel like a completely different person!” I replied that I was glad to meet this “new person” who has, in reality, been there all along.