You don't have to be an advanced yoga practitioner or certified instructor to realize the therapeutic benefits of yoga practice. Maybe you have heard a friend discuss how yoga has helped ease her carpal tunnel, or have seen a friend with a mental health issue find inner peace inside the studio. In India, the attitude towards yoga is that it is less of a form of exercise (contrary to how us westerners see it), and more of a medicinal outlet — yoga can deter sickness and illness as well as alleviate mental health issues.
Yoga therapy bridges the two very different yet compatible worlds of traditional hatha yoga with modern western medicine. Yoga as we know it today (hatha-based/asanas linked with the breath) dates back all the way to the second century B.C. to the times of Patanjali, but the modern yoga therapy movement is only about a century old. Yoga therapists utilize ancient techniques in conjunction with their education of modern medicine and illnesses to treat individuals suffering from a wide range of mental and physical health issues: everything from depression, eating disorders and anxiety to ruptured discs, arthritis … almost anything and everything. While yoga therapists typically help those who are already injured or suffering, they can also be helpful to those without health issues by aiding in prevention.
A certification in yoga therapy is much different than that of a typical yoga instructor. Typical yoga instructors have a basic working knowledge of yoga therapy, and are inclined to utilize it by asking students before class if anyone has an injury. The average teacher (not therapist) can assist those with injuries to work through asanas without doing further damage, and can help to modify poses which may be uncomfortable to those with injuries.
What to Expect at a Yoga Therapy Session
Going to yoga therapy is far different from attending a yoga class. It is a lot like physical therapy, where sessions are conducted one-on-one with an instructor, or in very small groups. Yoga therapists focus on the individual, not a class as a whole, and on that individual's specific health concerns and needs. Yoga therapy will treat the body as a whole, adapting the mind/body/spirit unification from yoga philosophy into modern medicinal treatment. Your yoga therapist will work within your limitations to achieve a reachable goal; for example, if you are suffering from carpal tunnel, you won't be doing handstands or downward dogs — those could further exacerbate your handicap. Instead, your yoga therapist will show you how to use wrist and finger stretches to help you manage and mitigate pain and symptoms (the goal). Your yoga therapist is specially trained and receives certification through the International Association of Yoga Therapists. This schooling focuses on anatomy, modern medicine, and Ayurvedic medicine (the ancient Indian school of medicine which has worked hand-in-hand with yogic philosophy for centuries).
With the rise in popularity of holistic and alternative remedies, yoga therapy is gaining momentum as an effective therapeutic tool. If you are suffering from an injury, going to class might make matters worse if your instructor doesn't have the correct training. Instead, opt for yoga therapy — a one-on-one with a yoga therapist — to address those health issues directly!