What is Yoga Therapy?

Really interesting conversation with one of my students yesterday about Yoga therapy.  There's so much confusion about Yoga therapy.  There's so much confusion about Yoga in general too.  So, what's the difference between Yoga and Yoga therapy?   

Yoga can be a very healing practice for the body but that's not it's purpose.  The goal of yoga is to quiet the mind, find stillness and experience a deeper connection to your Self.  

I gained a lot of healing benefits from my asana and pranayama practice when I first started practicing yoga but that wasn't the goal of the practice and wasn't the main benefit that I experienced from my practice either.  By changing my relationship to my Self through my yoga practice I have changed my relationship to everything and everyone else.  The physical benefits I received because of my practice have just been a bonus.  I am more flexible and stronger and my body is much healthier because of my practice but ultimately these things haven't changed my life.  

Yoga therapy is different.  Yoga therapy's goal is to heal the body.  The goal is not to quiet the mind and experience a deeper connection to your Self.  

Here's a quote from Dr. Monro...

"Yoga therapy is the adaptation of yoga practices for people with health challenges. Yoga therapists prescribe specific regimens of postures, breathing exercises, and relaxation techniques to suit individuals needs.  Medical research shows that Yoga therapy is among the most effective complementary therapies for several common ailments. The challenges may be an illness, a temporary condition like pregnancy or childbirth, or a chronic condition associated with old age or infirmity." -- Dr. Robin Monro, Ph.D. 

I took the Yoga Therapy Rx training program at LMU with Dr. Larry Payne and Dr. Rick Morris to learn how to specifically heal people through yoga. This program, and other yoga therapy programs like it, teach you how to work in a one-on-one setting with a student who is dealing with a specific condition.  I would highly recommend it.  I also completely agree with Yoga Alliance that you are not qualified as a yoga teacher to practice yoga therapy after completing a 200hr and/or a 500hr Yoga Alliance training program.  It's important that we teach young teachers and educate the general public that yoga and yoga therapy are different.  A general yoga practice will help you find balance and may help heal your condition.  The practice is very healing and on the journey to the center of your Self the practice helps you find balance.  If you have a specific condition and especially if you are experiencing acute pain or symptoms you might want to consider yoga therapy or another healing modality that is specifically directed towards helping you with your condition.  

I've witnessed yoga teachers prescribing things to students for conditions that did not seem appropriate or helpful based on what I learned in my program at LMU.  Yoga teachers want to help.  Sometimes we shouldn't help but encourage our students to seek help from someone with the qualifications to offer help.

When I am teaching my classes I am teaching yoga.  I am not practicing yoga therapy.

When I work with my yoga therapy clients we are not practicing yoga.  We are using yoga practices to help work with the specific condition the student is experiencing, address the underlying cause of the symptoms.  

We begin with a total body assessment.  Students who come to do yoga therapy with me first fill out an in depth intake form before they arrive for their assessment and in this form describe in as much detail as they can the injury or pain they are experiencing and all of the potential contributing factors to their current condition. I look at their spine first in our initial evaluation and test for range of motion imbalances.  I then look at the range of motion in their hips and shoulders.  I do a number of strength tests, balance tests, nerve damage tests, and muscle firing tests, to assess if some muscles are hypertonic and doing too much work and if some muscles are hypotonic and not doing enough work, or not doing their job at all when they are supposed to be firing.  We finish with an emotional health and well-being test.  I also note the general physical attributes of the student: age, ht, wt,...etc., and check several kinds of vitals: blood pressure, heart rate, breath capacity...etc. 

After the initial consultation and total body assessment, I look over the initial intake form the students filled in and look over all of the results from our initial evaluation.  A picture starts to form and it's like putting together a puzzle.  Imbalances are usually present and it's often easy to see the root cause of the problem the students is experiencing.  It helps to work with existing medical procedures.  I usually organize my thoughts after an appointment and create what medical practitioners call S.O.A.P. notes.  I usually have a pretty clear picture of what is going on with the student and their challenge, or challenges.  If things aren't clear then it's important for me to acknowledge my limitations and refer the student to someone with more knowledge or a different set of skills. 

If it looks like yoga therapy can help my student I create a 15-20 minute program for them that will help to address the imbalances found at their initial evaluation. We usually will focus on the area that is in pain and the cause of that pain but also on the underlying pattern that may ultimately be the root of the problem.  It's important to look at the bigger picture.  Everything is usually connected.   

I teach my student their program at our next session together.  We meet again and make sure everything is going well.  They then work on the program daily on their own for 2 weeks.

We usually meet after 2 weeks and re-assess their program.  Changes are made to the program and sometimes the program is completely updated.  We check back in and see how the new program is going and then the student works on this new program for another 2 weeks.

I've found that most students usually see 20-50% improvement after 6-8 weeks of treatment with yoga therapy.  Sometimes Yoga therapy doesn't work, though, or I initially determine that yoga therapy is not going to be the best route for this students and their condition.  I refer them to someone else right away.  It's important that we all learn to acknowledge our limitations.  I once witnessed a yoga teacher who I know and respect but who does not have any yoga therapy training trying to help a student after a class who was experiencing acute pain from a herniated disc in their low back by focusing on their alignment in a specific pose that they probably shouldn't have been working on at all.  I intervened and insisted that the student seek treatment from someone for their condition.  This didn't go over well with my colleague.  

Yoga therapy can help you better understand the imbalances in your body, your breathing pattern, stress level and other contributing factors to your injury or condition and help you find balance and undo the pattern that is causing your pain. I would highly recommend doing an initial evaluation.  When I saw my first yoga therapist I was amazed at how quickly they taught me how to heal my specific condition and that's why I wanted to learn more about this modality of healing.  Even if you decide not to do Yoga therapy you have a huge amount of information to take to your Doctor or to another healthcare professional.  

I hope this is helpful for anyone wondering what we do in Yoga therapy. You can find out more information on my website: www.garthhewittyoga.com under the Yoga Therapy Tab.  My initial intake form is there too if you want to fill it out and schedule an appointment.  I'd be happy to work with you and help you find optimum health and get you back on your mat and into your regular yoga class, so you can work on quieting your mind, finding more stillness and experiencing a deeper relationship to your Self.