A student arrives at one of your regular classes and tells you she’s got a herniated lumbar disc. Just behind her is another student who mentions he’s got a bit of tendonitis. And there, right at the back, is a new student who you can see is struggling to keep up before the end of the warm up. How do you manage all these diverse bodies in one class?
And those are just the injuries and restrictions that you know about. With 1 in 2 Australians receiving a cancer diagnosis during their lifetime, 2 million Australians experiencing anxiety and up to 80% experiencing back pain, you can be sure that for every student who tells you about their condition, there are several others suffering in silence.
Yoga is, and always has been, therapeutic. But the rise of large group classes and the popularity of flowing vinyasa styles has created a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to yoga that just doesn’t work for much of the population. How do you stop and modify a practice for students with injuries when you are demonstrating a non-stop flow sequence?
It hasn’t always been like this. Yoga was traditionally taught in small groups or one-to-one, allowing the teacher to tailor each practice to the needs of the individual. In many classes today, ‘modification’ means adapting a general practice so that the injured student can stagger through without doing themselves a greater injury. That is not the goal of yoga therapy.
Rather than offering a prop or modification to help a student manage a pose that would otherwise be too challenging for them, yoga therapy goes back to the traditional roots of yoga and looks at each unique individual and asks ‘What does this person need?’ And the answer is sometimes surprising.
A Prescription for Yoga
I’m often asked by yoga teachers “what’s a good pose for back ache” or “what practice should I give a student with depression?” These questions are a great start, because they acknowledge that students with health issues require more than a general asana class. But they also highlight a way of thinking that is at odds with the principles of yoga therapy. Yoga therapy is not prescriptive – there is no single pose or sequence that fixes back pain, no pranayama that is good for everybody with depression. Each individual student needs to be treated differently and simply prescribing ‘two down dogs’ in the same way a doctor might prescribe pain killers simply doesn’t work.
One of my teachers illustrated this by describing a man and a woman who arrived at his yoga studio asking for help to manage the same health conditions – obesity and depression. In a Western medical setting, it's probable that these two people would receive a similar treatment plan. However, a yoga therapist pays more attention to the nuances of clients' health issues.
After spending time with the students, the teacher learned that the man had experienced symptoms of depression on and off for many years. He had recently been laid off from work, causing his mental health to spiral downwards. He started drinking more alcohol than usual to help him cope, staying home because his mood was so low and consuming mostly take away food because he didn't have the energy to cook. After several months of staying home and consuming high energy food and drink, the man had gained a significant amount of weight.
The teacher also learned that the woman had experienced bullying and discrimination as a young child because of her large body size. She had developed poor body image and been caught up in restrictive dieting patterns for many years. She had recently gained more weight after injuring her ankle and was feeling exhausted, uncomfortable and judged by her friends. She no longer enjoyed going out and missed socialising. Her mood had been deteriorating for several weeks.
Even though the man and the woman have the same symptoms, the causes are very different and so the yoga therapist offers different practices. The man was offered mantra, which is often used in yoga therapy to support people experiencing depression. The woman was offered mindful asana, a practice that invited her to pay attention to and connect with her body in a gentle and self-compassionate way. I’ve simplified the story, but it is a good example of how yoga therapy deals with the whole person.
But back to the question of how do you manage a number of diverse bodies in a group asana class? While there are many techniques to help you work with groups (the most important one being to educate and empower your students to practice in the way that’s best for them), students with specific conditions would benefit from private yoga therapy. As a yoga teacher, this offers many benefits. Firstly, you get to know your students and understand their bodies, motivations and concerns. Secondly, you can offer them a practice that specifically targets their individual needs. Thirdly, you can provide tailored guidelines to help your students get the most out of group class – for example, teaching them why and how to practice certain types of poses in order to practice safely.
In both group and private settings, yoga therapy is an extremely powerful tool for healing. It is a rich framework for understanding students, piecing together patterns of pathology and identifying the most appropriate practices to meet their individual needs.
Learn how Yoga Therapy works with the Introduction to Yoga Therapy Mini E-Course. This short online program introduces you to the principles, framework and techniques of yoga therapy - it's the perfect introduction to this fasciniating complementary health discipline.