What Is Therapeutic Yoga?
What is “therapeutic yoga”? Is it just the latest yoga marketing hype? After all, isn’t all yoga therapeutic by nature?
I was asked to write about this for two reasons:
Second, the whole subject of yoga therapy has become a hot — perhaps even controversial — topic in the U.S.
Yoga is Naturally Therapeutic
When I was still a very green yoga teacher nearly twenty years ago, I had a regular student about whom I knew almost nothing, as she was a shy, quiet type.
One evening after class she came up to me and began to thank me profusely for helping her so much. I was momentarily taken aback as I could not imagine what I might have done.
She said that she had been a smoker and explained that the yoga classes made her feel very good. After class she would go home and smoke a cigarette, and the good feeling would go away. She liked the good feeling she received from the yoga class, so she began to go longer and longer periods of time before smoking a cigarette until she was able to quit altogether.
I had not done anything — I was simply teaching an 8-week beginner Ananda Yoga course, still using notes as I taught, so I could remember what I had planned to teach.
Was that a “therapeutic yoga” class because, through it, someone was able to overcome an addiction? Or because another student’s back problems were eased, another one’s pregnancy went more smoothly than expected, and others found themselves more and more often in good moods?
To me, the answer in all these cases is “no.” These were simply instances where the therapeutic nature of yoga produced positive results for people — physically, mentally and spiritually. There was not a conscious effort on the part of the teacher to obtain any additional specific results for individual conditions. The benefits were reaped naturally by the innate power of yoga to bring us balance in body mind and soul, thus bringing about therapeutic effects.
Working with Special Conditions
I feel that for a class to be labeled “therapeutic,” much more needs to be involved. After much practice as a yoga teacher, the notebook no longer was needed. As I began to work more intuitively, I was able to focus more on the individual needs of each student.
That meant learning who might be a smoker in class — and wanted to quit,. It meant discovering who had had knee surgery from a skiing accident — and needed to strengthen the muscles around the knee without aggravating the injury.
In short, it meant changing the class plan to accommodate the needs of the moment. Then I was able to going beyond simply “doing no more harm” for someone with an injury or special consideration, and actively working with them on ways to improve their condition through yoga. But I think that even this type of yoga class should not be considered “therapeutic” — it is simply a teacher doing her job to serve each student personally.
Now, if I speak with a student’s health care provider to learn the exact diagnosis of her condition and ascertain whether the practitioner advises moving into certain positions and avoiding others, and if I ask a student a series of detailed questions in order to individualize his program in either a private session or a group class, and if I create special classes for groups with special needs, then I consider that what I am teaching is “therapeutic yoga.”
I am applying knowledge gained from additional courses/workshops, books and articles, research, trial and error, on-the-job medical and research training, plus my deepening intuition as I deepen my own practices of meditation, and devotion.
Designating a class as “therapeutic” implies that an instructor has additional training and experience in a particular type of therapy that can be implemented through yoga practice. This could be the application of musculoskelatal (bones and muscles) knowledge, counseling training, or Kriya Yoga experience to the teaching of yoga.
Designing classes for special groups with special needs is another way that a therapeutic class can be differentiated from a traditional yoga class. Whereas some schools and individuals have focused on gaining knowledge in psychological areas and applying them to and integrating them with a yoga practice, I personally chose the route of gaining musculoskeletal and sports medicine knowledge to integrate with my yoga practice and teaching. For me it addressed the immediate concerns of most of my students, and for myself as well.
Over the years, working with people therapeutically on deeper psychological and spiritual levels has evolved naturally in the work that I do. I try to demonstrate how a personal practice of meditation and prayer can be of great assistance.
The Therapeutic Yoga Program
When I teach Therapeutic Yoga at The Expanding Light, the first thing I want everyone to learn is how to do no harm. Prevention is the best medicine in yoga, too! Then I like to arm the students with knowledge of anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, alignment, sports medicine, injury first aid and terminology.
Then we cover therapeutic asanas: when to use certain ones, and when to avoid others. Next we go a little deeper and cover the connection between the asanas, physical and mental imbalances and the subtle energy of the chakras. I also like to emphasize the importance of the affirmations — whether you are working with students on a spiritual, psychological or “purely” physical level. I try to demonstrate how a personal practice of meditation and prayer can be of great assistance.
So I like to define “therapeutic yoga” as applying the techniques of yoga to alleviate specific problems (physical, mental and/or spiritual) coupled with a combination of knowledge (specific to the problem), experience and intuition. Happily, most students find that using yoga as a therapeutic tool has very positive side effects, as their whole being comes into a healthier state of balance.
Learning more about therapeutic yoga is beneficial not only to someone who would like to excel in the therapeutic applications of yoga, or to a teacher who just wants to safely aid students who have challenges in a general yoga class, but also for an individual student who wants to learn more about his/her own special needs and how to address them for a safe and rewarding yoga practice.
Obviously, learning to teach therapeutic yoga in this sense takes much more training than can come from a five-day program! The important thing is to get started, to “get your feet wet” in the basics. My hope is that you’ll leave Therapeutic Yoga with tools to continue a lifelong exploration of therapeutic yoga.
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