Yoga Therapy is getting a lot of attention - yoga teachers, researchers and the media are all talking about it. But what exactly is yoga therapy? Here are two definitions of Yoga Therapy:
“Yoga Therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the philosophy and practice of Yoga.” The International Association of Yoga Therapists
That’s pretty vague. I prefer Leslie Kaminoff’s definition:
"We simply show people how to make more space in their bodies so prâna can flow more freely. It’s the body’s own resources that do the healing. In other words, the teacher doesn’t heal the student, the teachings do. This is my definition of Yoga therapy – it’s Yoga applied to the individual." Leslie Kaminoff
Kaminoff's definition includes the all important reminder that yoga therapists are not 'healers'. We don't do any fixing. Instead, we use our deep knowledge of yoga to support each client to remove whatever obstacles are preventing them from experiencing themselves as whole. That means that every yoga therapy practice looks very different - no two clients are identical and so every yoga therapy practice is unique to each client.
Yoga Therapists look at their clients through a series of yogic lenses. For example, they may consider the client's Ayurvedic constitution, or explore what is happening in all five of the client's Koshas (body, energy, mind, higher mind, bliss layer), or examine the functioning of the different pranas in the client's body.
Using that information, they then work collaboratively with the client to determine what practices will be most useful for that individual. Imagine you visit a yoga therapist for help with lower back pain. You're probably expecting to be given some stretches or physio style exercises, so you might be a little surprised to be given a practice that includes more chanting than postures. How come?
A good yoga therapist will have looked beyond the immediate symptoms and designed a practice that not only targets the musculoskeletal issues you are experiencing, but goes further to address the root causes of your pain. This might be connected to how you feel about yourself, your lifestyle, your circumstances, your thought processes and life experience. From posture and breathing patterns to moods and attitudes, the job of the yoga therapist is to disrupt the entrenched patterns that contribute to the presenting symptoms.
So how does a yoga therapist decide what techniques to use when seeing a client? By looking at the client through the many lenses of yoga therapy. These lenses include:
How are the Kleshas (the causes of suffering, according to Patanjali: Avidya, Raga, Dvesha, Abhinivesa, Asmita) influencing this student? Is their suffering worsened by their attachment to a person, idea or situation (Raga)? Perhaps they have a very fixed view of who they are and find it hard to adapt to new circumstances (Asmita).
The Panca Kosha (the 5 Sheaths)
Is the client experiencing challenges in the body (Annamaya), the energy system (Pranamaya) or psychological issues (Manomaya)? Perhaps there’s an overlap, but the client is more receptive to breathing techniques than movement. In which case, the yoga therapist might work with the Pranamaya which, in turn, influences the other four Koshas.
Is client presenting with an excess or Rajas or Tamas? Which approach will reduce Tamas and bring the student back to a state of Sattva?
How is the student’s energy system? The 5 Vayus (pranas) move in different directions in different parts of the body, affecting the student’s energy, physical experience and mental state. Perhaps a symptom such as constipation could be helped by offering practices to regulate Apana vayu, the downward moving energy of elimination?
The Tri Dosha
Yoga Therapy draws heavily from Ayurveda. Understanding a student’s Prakruti (fundamental constitution) and Vrkruti (presenting imbalance) is a helpful way of framing the client's symptoms.
There are many more lenses through which the yoga therapist views their clients, but you get the picture. No two individuals – even those with identical diseases – have identical physical symptoms, mental state, emotional capacity, intellectual ability, energy levels, anatomy, attitudes, preferences and life experience. That’s why a yoga therapist applies the philosophy of yoga to get to the heart of each client's issues, rather than treating the symptoms at face value.
And that is why yoga therapy often helps clients reduce or heal from their symptoms when other traditional and complementary medicine systems have failed. It is, as Leslie Kaminoff says, yoga applied to the unique needs of each individual - body, mind and spirit.