By Sarah Swindlehurst
Certified IAYT-C Yoga Therapist, Senior Yoga Alliance Teacher, CBT Coach/Mentor and Hypnotherapist.
The whole scope of yoga therapy is far too great a subject to cover in its entirety within this article, however I will aim to convey a comprehensive explanation about what yoga therapy is, how it is different to ‘yoga teaching’ and the reasons for therapy, so that you, the reader go away with a much deeper understanding of it than before.
Yoga therapy appears to be a growing field of interest for yoga practitioners, teachers and professionals alike, certainly more so than when I qualified in 2005. I have been asked many times, what the difference is between a yoga teacher offering a student yogic techniques for an ailment, and that of what a Yoga therapist offers. To answer this is, that the main difference is that the former tends to offer a more general (surface level) opinion (based on their teacher training and experience), whereas a Yoga Therapist has usually more intensive yoga therapy training of at least 800hrs on top of their 200hrs teacher training. The Yoga Therapist will additionally present an in depth understanding and knowledge of: The various types of dis-ease, illnesses and conditions, how dis-ease can manifest within the physical, emotional, mental or/and spiritual fields of a person, how these might exhibit themselves (the symptom) in a person, and what yogic practices are most suitable considering this, and also acknowledge the client’s own limitations within the practices. A Yoga Therapist furthermore, takes note of the individual’s past and present circumstances in which may provide insight into the cause of the illness and into what might alleviate it.
Treatment (techniques and plan) can be very different for every individual and it’s not to say that the techniques offered by a yoga teacher do not help, they will, though with possible limitation. Yoga Therapist’s concede to look for the deeper subtleties within a person’s whole being. They will recognise which of the yogic models to refer to, and which yoga techniques will help the client the most on the energetic and physical level(s) to where the cause of the symptom may have begun. The location of the cause of a person’s symptom, could also be in a very different location to the manifested symptom and a Yoga Therapist will have an awareness of this. For example: – someone that has right shoulder issues may have hidden angers that first effected the Manamayakosha energy (Mental-Emotional body), and left untreated, then influenced the Pranamayakosha (Energy body) causing shortness and/or irregularly of breathing, and then spread into the Annamayakosha (Physical body) as a painful or injured shoulder. It is important to have an understanding of the Panchamaya Kosha model when treating and offering advice to someone with a dis-ease, and for a whole-istic understanding of the individual.
This is a just a small part of what would be taught on a Yoga Therapy training. It is also most definitely important that a student have completed their 200hr teacher training before embarking on a Yoga Therapy course, as this gives an excellent foundation to work from. From my experience as a Yoga Therapist and in my opinion, there should be no short cuts and no quick ‘intense’ trainings to become a Yoga Therapist, especially as a Yoga Therapist is in part responsible for another’s health and well-being on quite a profound level.
The area of Yoga Therapy is such a passion and purpose for me and I am constantly rewarded by working with clients that are dedicated to improving their existing health status. Some say that yoga is not ‘prescriptive’, however in yoga therapy sessions there is an amount of ‘prescription’ (of the best kind!) in that I prescribe yoga techniques and other modalities. These could be physical, mental/emotional, meditative or restorative methods from the vastness of the yoga that I understand to best suit the client and help them with their ‘condition’. However, at the end of the day, it is not myself that creates the results and any healing, it is the dedication, intent and focus of the client. When the client trusts in the Yoga Therapist, follows the instructions that have been worked out between both the client and therapist and commits to the plan, then the best possible results occur. It really is the client that does the work, and their health and well-being can improve immensely when they embrace the process fully. As the saying goes, ‘You can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink’. For treatment plans to be effective and successful, it requires complete trust from the client and compliance to practice the suggested techniques. A therapist (or teacher) should not state in any way they can ‘cure’ a person, as this is misleading, and one technique is not always suitable for another due the amazing intricates of every individual.
Yoga Therapy sessions ideally use various yogic models to explore and understand the complexities of an individual and their symptom(s). Many aspects of yogic traditions, practices and psychology come into consideration when working with a client, and with all yogic practices and techniques as a foundation, the Yoga Therapist delves a little deeper. Along with a postural analysis (even when the symptom is not physical – such as anxiety), the therapist looks at the breathing patterns of the client and uses Ayurvedic methods such as: checking Ayurvedic pulses, tongue and facial language. The yogic models are also addressed, such as the Panchamaya koshas, the Chakra system, the five Vayus (life force energies), the three Gunas (personality types) and the five Vŗttis (cognitive modifications). This is just to mention a few.
Other than the symptom itself, I look at the person’s background and present situation. On commencing a session, I encourage the client to choose an affirmation, a positive statement set in the reality of the now. This is simply a statement, beginning with, ‘I am’, ‘I can’, or ‘I have’, and saying/thinking it as it has already happened. If an affirmation is set in future tense, it will always be in the future, and never in the now (such as, ‘I would like’). Even if the client isn’t feeling like it (e.g. I am healthy and healed) in the present, the idea is that it will manifest at some point, in the now. The client then can focus on this affirmation throughout any of the practices I set for them, in the session and with the practices set as ‘homework’.
Affirmations are a small but very significant aspect of a client’s healing journey, as it is their unique and personal intention. This may also take me into looking at the aspects of the five Vŗttis with the client. The five Vŗttis were first mentioned by Patañjali in the second śloka of the Yoga Sūtras, which when loosely related to worldly gains and losses can become sources of klișța vŗttis and the cause of great pain and discomfort. Through yoga mental intent (cognitive) and yoga practice, these discomforts can be turned into much more positive and healthy outcomes and have a powerful optimistic effect on a client’s well-being. This underlies the start of a yoga therapy session. Furthermore, bring aware of the client’s personality type based on the three Gunas: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas can influence me as to what yogic techniques I might give them. Using suitable yoga practices may help a client gain a better, transformational attitude to their symptom and healing process.
Delving deeper and to that which I touched upon earlier, any imbalance in the Panchamaya koshas can create problems and disorders, and the healing of them is through the focus of rebalancing this. The Taittirya Upanishad predates the Yoga Sūtras and introduced us to the system of the Koshas. The koshas are said to be five distinctive energy bodies that vibrate at different rates/speeds in and around us, from the denser physical body to the subtler spiritual body. Each of them signifies a more refined dimension of consciousness. These koshas overlap and interact with one another and so if the Yoga Therapist is aware of possible issues in one or more of them (based on analysis) they can guide the client in healing the cause of their symptom(s) as well as attending to the symptom too. These koshas are known as, from the closest to the furthest: Annamaya (food/physical sheath), Pranamaya (energy sheath), Manomaya (intellectual sheath), Vijnanamaya (intuitive sheath), and the Anandamaya (bliss sheath). Sometimes, when the imbalance within a kosha(s) is dealt with, this can then have a knock-on effect to the other affected koshas/areas and positively influence them and the symptom into healing spontaneously.
There is quite a lot to work with, when consulting with a client, and this article can only cover an overview of the practices involved. When using yoga in Yoga Therapy as such, it ideally requires a person to become trained in it. This is mainly to ensure the health and safety of the client but also due to the realm of Yoga therapy being quite a complex system. It is one that requires considerable extra hours of training in, to ensure the therapist is fully equipped with a good foundation of knowledge necessary.
Yoga Therapy is a very rewarding profession and one which is becoming more recognised as a feasible method of treating a person. Research is continuously being carried out and more scientific evidence is coming to light too. It is an exciting time for yoga and many new ideas are being introduced also. However, we as human beings have not evolved very much over the hundreds of years, and the traditional healing yoga models and practices need to be carried forwards alongside any new theories that emerge in the future.