Made evident by the proliferation of yoga classes worldwide, this ancient tradition has innumerable benefits – physical, mental and spiritual. But not all practices are beneficial for every individual. For this reason, more and more people are turning to yoga therapy, an individualized practice that takes into consideration the totality of a person’s disposition, physical health, emotional needs, mental stamina, and sense of spiritual connection.

“Yoga therapy is not an intervention to achieve wellness from the outside, but to remember it within,” said Richard Miller, co-founder of The International Association of Yoga Therapists at this year’s Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research.  A truly “inside out” approach, yoga therapy assumes that every individual is inherently whole, and with the right guidance has the capacity to achieve balance and wellbeing.

In contrast to yoga classes open to the public, yoga therapy is highly personal and tailored to the client. Like most holistic approaches, the therapist incorporates different treatment protocols for each individual, even if the presenting issue or symptom is the same. Its modalities of care include postures, breathing exercises, meditation, self-inquiry, and foundational lifestyle change.

Although some of the practices used by yoga therapists may look similar to those offered in physical therapy or psychotherapy, the professions differ in their underlying philosophies and intended outcomes. Yoga therapy is not diagnostic and its assessments emphasizewellness and overall health, based in yoga philosophy rather than in the psychological or physical sciences. By empowering the client with a variety of yogic tools, the client moves toward internal peace and healing.

Who can benefit from yoga therapy?

People choose yoga therapy for a variety of reasons; to rejuvenate the body, to feel less stress, to cultivate emotional balance, to calm the mind, and to become reacquainted with the inner self. The practice can provide comfort to people of all ages and physical abilities, and because programs are individually designed, no experience is necessary.  After an initial intake session, the yoga therapist creates a unique plan, taking into consideration the client’s level of physical ability and lifestyle for the type and amount of practices recommended. These might include breathing exercises, movement, relaxation strategies, lifestyle recommendations or spiritual practices.

Practitioners who have been certified by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) have specific skills in client assessment and modification of poses and exercises.  They are trained to apply a tailored yoga practice to people with physical limitations and other various conditions. Because of this, yoga therapy is appropriate for a full spectrum of individuals, from those who cannot move at all to those who are vibrantly active.

“Yoga therapy focuses on the path of yoga as a healing journey that brings balance to the body and mind through an experiential understanding of the primary intention of yoga: awakening of spirit, our essential nature,” writes Joseph LePage, founder of Integrative Yoga Therapy.  Clients learn how to work with their body’s natural abilities in order to optimize wellbeing, and can even be done by people who are confined to bed by injury, illness, or physical limitation.  It addresses every aspect of life and the person, not just particular body parts or symptoms.

As a holistic form of alternative medicine, yoga therapy is being recognized for its effectiveness in helping people manage pain and insomnia, address neurological issues, improve balance, increase strength, ease the effects of aging, and decrease stress, anxiety, depression, trauma and grief by improving emotional resiliency and expanding spiritual awareness. It can also be supportive for those in good health who want to maintain optimal energy, clarity and awareness.

How does yoga therapy work?

Classical yoga has been practiced for millennia but is just beginning to be understood from the perspective of western science. More and more research is being done on its efficacy in alleviating chronic and debilitating conditions. It is being integrated into modern healthcare as evidence-based research shows yoga’s physical benefits for rehabilitating injury, moderating pain, and helping individuals regain functional energy. 

A valuable complement to other forms of healthcare, yoga therapy recognizes the interrelationship between body and mind. It offers many methods for regulating the nervous system, thus positively affecting how the brain processes information, which in turn contributes to the resolution of emotional and mental dis-ease.  Yoga therapy also addresses the spiritual component of our nature, acknowledging an inherent soul energy within. “I don’t call people ‘heart patients’ or ‘cancer patients,’ I say that they are divine beings whose body happens to have a certain imbalance,” says Nischala Joy Devi, author of The Healing Path of Yoga and developer of the yoga protocol for Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease in Yoga Therapy Today Magazine in 2013. By offering the methodology to gain true self-knowledge, regain balance, and become acquainted with the inner spirit, yoga therapy provides individuals an opportunity to transform at a profound level. Through personal learning, clients experience internal regulation and the ability to peacefully witness life experiences without becoming immersed in or identified with them.

How do I find a certified yoga therapist?
Just as yoga classes vary by style and teacher, so does yoga therapy. Every therapist will have a unique approach and specialty, so take the time to research their offerings and have a preliminary conversation about your needs. Expect the first session to include questions about your health, as well as developing goals for your work together. Follow-up sessions may include discussing your progress, personally chosen yoga poses, breath work, meditation and lifestyle guidance drawn from classical texts such as the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

Yoga therapists practice in hospitals, wellness clinics, and privately worldwide. The regulating body for yoga therapists is the IAYT, which upholds in-depth, competency-based educational standards and a rigorous accreditation and certification process.  A complete listing of IAYT certified yoga therapists is available on their web site.

By making the choice to proactively support your health and longevity through yoga therapy, you will increase physical vitality, emotional freedom, and soul awareness, while gaining techniques to reach an optimal, sustainable —  and lifelong — sense of wellbeing.

By Jennie Lee:

Jennie Lee is a Certified Yoga Therapist in practice for over 20 years. She is the author of two award winning books: TRUE YOGA and BREATHING LOVE. www.JennieLeeYogaTherapy.com 

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Yoga Hawaii Magazine is Hawaii's premiere publication for all things yoga in Hawaii. Yoga Hawaii magazine is a resource for yoga events in Hawaii, Hawaii's yoga studios and classes, and information about your favorite Hawaii yoga instructor. Yoga Hawaii celebrates and promotes the growth of our yoga enthusiast reader's personal and professional yoga practice. Whether you are beginning your yoga journey or far along into your practice, Yoga Hawaii Magazine creates content related to yoga culture in Hawaii that all of our readers can learn, connect and grow from.

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