The healing benefits of yoga can’t be overstated. There’s no shortage of the science to back up the claims that yoga—and we don’t only mean asana here—has positive benefits on stress levels, blood pressure, mood, and general wellbeing. For those of us who have needed physical therapy, it is likely that familiar yoga asanas may even have been integrated into a physical treatment plan. But yoga instructors aren’t necessarily therapists, of either the mental or physical variety, regardless of what some students may ask. So what exactly is yoga therapy, and who is it good for?
“Yoga therapy is the use of all of the tools of yoga by a trained professional to help individuals achieve their ideal or optimum level of wellness,” says Laurie Hyland Robertson, MS, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500. Laurie is also the Editor-in-Chief of Yoga Therapy Today, Managing Editor of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and co-editor of the textbook Yoga Therapy Foundations, Tools, and Practice. “People often think of just the physical postures, or possibly just the meditative aspects of yoga,” she says. “Yoga therapy is a holistic practice. So it may involve movement, meditation, perhaps mudra, mantra, lifestyle counseling—really all the tools of yoga.”
As the yoga community begins to reckon difficult conversations around cultural appropriation and how to make the practice more available for all people, there are perhaps some lessons to be learned from IAYT. Because of the view of yoga as a set of holistic tools, yoga therapists are likely to nod to the philosophical and historical traditions of the practice. “But it’s also about integrating the philosophy and history into a modern way of approaching healthcare,” says Laurie.
How Yoga Therapy Relates to Modern Medicine
Unlike physical therapists and most Western medical care that reacts to a particular problem, yoga therapy instead looks at the bigger picture and the body-mind as a whole. This makes it a powerful modality for people suffering from chronic conditions, for example, or for unsolved medical mysteries. “If I get into a car accident,” says Laurie, “I want to go to the ER and be seen by the doctor with their Western toolbox. But if I have a chronic condition, I may need some additional support to achieve complete healing—regardless of my physical or mental condition.”
In this way, there’s certainly a place for specialized Western medicine, but yoga therapy is unique in that it can be helpful both in bio-psycho healing, but also in the socio-spiritual. “Yoga can really touch on and be supportive in all of those areas,” says Laurie.
What Makes it Yoga?
Yoga therapists work with individuals to determine a care program, so all yoga therapy treatment plans are unique. The community has seen many initiatives in recent years to make yoga more available to all, and while all yoga therapy is accessible, not all “accessible yoga” (think chair yoga) is necessarily yoga therapy. “Yoga therapy is a modality, a subset,” says Laurie. “You may use chair yoga or restorative yoga in your yoga therapy practice. A foundational intention of yoga therapy is that it’s accessible for the person you’re working with. It’s a co-creative process,” she says.
One important aspect, just like in traditional yoga, which Laurie stresses, is that the point of yoga therapy is to give people tools to create their own healing. “I don’t ever want the client to be dependent on me,” she says. “I’m just a guide. You are empowering yourself.” Because it is so specialized, the practice of yoga therapy can be healing for people with all sorts of different conditions: mental, physical, emotional.
“If we keep it grounded in yoga, that’s what keeps us in our scope of practice as yoga therapists,” says Laurie. “That’s what keeps is from being some form of psychotherapy or PT-light—or any of those things that we are not trained to do, which would be inappropriate for us to do unless we are also licensed healthcare providers.”
Founded in 1989, the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) was one of the first organizations in the yoga community to attempt to create standards around the practice of yoga in a way that created a safe and ethical space for students to embark on their yoga journey. It’s important to note that the creation of standards is not the same as standardization, says Laurie, which would preclude individualization and co-creation. Over the past 32 years, this approach has cemented IAYT as an integral voice in the community, particularly in the field of yoga science.
The upcoming Symposium—the first year that it’s being held virtually—promises to be educational and inspirational for all yoga therapists, and for anyone interested in learning how the practice of yoga and yogic tools can be practically applied in a healthcare setting. Because it’s virtual this year, speakers and presenters will be beaming in from all over the world, and it’s expected to be more accessible to attendees for whom travel is prohibitive.
“There are certainly things on the schedule this year that are in direct response to what’s happening in the world,” says Laurie, “which is also fairly typical. I think it’s more front-and-center this year with some of the Covid-related topics; there’s also our panel on the anatomy of microaggressions, which, of course, is a response to what we’re seeing in the world.”
There will also be practices woven into the schedule, so you “can experience these things for yourself,” says Laurie, meaning that “you might learn something that you’d like to explore further, and then ultimately take back into your work with clients or students.”