When YAP asked us its members for our opinion on yoga therapy, its definition, personal experience and proposed training etc. the first thing that came to my mind was the sticky fudgy question - how do we define yoga today? It would be easy to define it by traditional or classic standards but that does not answer to the reality of what is happening in the yoga industry today. The variance in how yoga itself is taught and practised, the intention and goals of both teacher and student, the depth and quality of study and application, adherence to tradition plus openness to new scientific research and many more factors make it very tricky to put a ‘true’ modern definition of what yoga means in 2018. Many people practice yoga asana simply as a physical exercise that makes them feel good and keeps them fit while others use all the various yoga practices, tools and meditation as a life path towards spiritual growth and freedom. Each has its place, each is worthy.
However, I believe that the same broad concept of meaning cannot be easily applied to Yoga Therapy. All yoga practice has a positive effect on both our body and our minds and this can be considered therapeutic, much like we can say that walking has similar positive effects and both act like preventative medicine.
Yoga Therapy differs in that the practices of yoga are used to treat and in some instances cure specific physical and psychological illnesses and conditions. Further, yoga therapy can be used as a restorative for those in post-operative, post-trauma and post-illness recovery.
The definition below given by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) is succinct but offers a broad interpretation:-
‘Yoga therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of Yoga’
We could come up with many more definitions, but the above interpretation offers scope for all traditions to develop a therapeutic application with skilled and well-educated teachers and therapists at the forefront. It is crucial in my opinion that the development and growth of Yoga Therapy are strictly guided by high standards of excellence so that Yoga Therapists can take their place in primary and integrated healthcare facilities. How we do that is another question!
In the US great advances are being made with the University of Maryland being the first to offer a Master Degree in Yoga Therapy. Interestingly this course is registered with IAYT so that both mainstream education and yoga education are working side by side. The language of yoga is intertwining with the language of medicine and more and more yoga is being used alongside allopathic medicine both in private practices and in hospitals and health centres. Here in Ireland, the integration is not that progressive but things are changing slowly. What will help accelerate the process is having well-trained therapists who have a strong foundation in yoga philosophy and practices and who also have a deep and full understanding of anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, biomechanics and pathology. Alongside this, the therapist must be able to speak to and understand medical terminology plus be able to articulate and use current research in the field. Does this sound like the average 200 or even 500-hour trained teacher?
Up until now, anyone can call themselves a yoga therapist, there is no regulation and no way of policing standards. Every day there is another overnight self-appointed ‘expert’ appearing in the broad field of yoga. In an age of google authority and where ‘alternative truth’ is a real thing we must in the yoga community (and through using professional bodies such as YAP) take a stand to protect and create standards.
Some questions we might ask ourselves now are
For inspiration, we can look to people like the late Desikachar & Mr Iyengar and many more around the globe who have been beating the path and changing lives with yoga therapy over the years. Going forward let’s use their high standards of professionalism and the riches of our beloved yoga tradition alongside ongoing medical research to make Yoga Therapy an integral and powerful tool in maintaining and treating health issues.
However, we have to be careful that we stay true to yoga as a spiritual tradition and as Georg Feuerstein has said in an article for IAYT ‘While this direction is necessary and inevitable (merging of medical science, research and yoga), it also exposes Yoga to reductionism, which must be avoided. Specifically, to the extent that Yoga therapy understands itself as little more than physical therapy or breath therapy, it will have failed in preserving the holistic paradigm of original Yoga’.
My first experience with yoga as a therapy was when in my late 20’s I suffered from extreme and debilitating (and depressing) back pain. I used a self-prescribed programme of Iyengar yoga, meditation and pranayama to rehabilitate a ruptured disc and to help me address the underlying problem of stress in my life. Since the early nineties, my clinical practice as a Massage therapist firstly and then as a Craniosacral Therapist involved integrating yoga both as part of each treatment session and as ‘homework’. I practised as a ‘hands-on’ therapist since 1992 and eventually moved my focus entirely to yoga teaching and therapy around 8 years ago. Private sessions with me now involve a yoga mat, props, a camera, some pretty funny sketches and some ‘touch’ mainly as a form of biofeedback and to deepen kinesthetic understanding for my student.
One thing is for sure, yoga works and I feel blessed to be part of this ongoing conversation about yoga therapy.