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Yoga therapist working with an older woman on pose - what is yoga therapy

What Is Yoga Therapy & How Can It Help Me?

Yoga therapy uses yoga practices like poses, breathwork, and meditation on a gradient to help you heal mentally and physically. And if my predictions are correct, it’s due for a spike in popularity.

More and more people are searching for holistic alternatives that are backed by science. And yoga therapy is quickly emerging as a viable alternative or at least adjunct to some of the mainstream, but less desirable options.

In this post, we’ll explain everything you need to know about yoga therapy including the 9 most common types, conditions it’s been used for, and make it as simple as possible to understand.  

The Difference Between Yoga and Yoga Therapy

Firstly, it’s important that you know the difference between the two because, admittedly, this can be confusing. 

Yoga in general is therapeutic and healing. 

The basic framework of using breathing, postures, and meditation is also useful in addressing mental, physical, and emotional needs. 

Yoga is also a great way to stay flexible, toned, relieve pain, reduce stress, and to promote mental and physical well being in general. 

However, yoga therapy takes these concepts and expands them one step further.

In addition to basic yoga training, yoga therapists have an in-depth layer of training that gives them the ability to assess the needs of their clients on a therapeutic level. 

They work on specific goals rather than leading you through a series of poses/asanas like you would find in a normal yoga class. 

A goal will be developed based on your specific needs and that’s what you and your therapist will work towards.

The range of practices recommended by your yoga therapist might include:

  • Breathing exercises
  • A variety of movements, from gentle to vigorous, based on your ability 
  • Visualization and meditation practices
  • Postures designed to address your areas of discomfort and specific structural imbalances
  • Combinations of tools and exercises tailored to heal your symptoms

Unlike general yoga classes, your yoga therapy session is conducted one-on-one or in a small group so it can be tailored to your specific needs and your progress can be closely monitored. 

Benefits of Yoga Therapy

balancing rocks

There’s a rapidly expanding field of scientific evidence that endorses using yoga therapy to treat mental and physical health issues from PTSD to chronic back pain and many things in between. 

One interesting study shows that it’s been successfully used as a treatment modality for children with autism in helping them increase their imitation skills. Something that traditional yoga probably wouldn’t be able to improve. 

Another article, Meditation and Yoga can Modulate Brain Mechanisms that affect Behavior and Anxiety-A Modern Scientific Perspective (here), outlines studies conducted by Harvard, Yale, and MIT on the effects yoga has on neurophysiological functions. 

The studies concluded the positive results from yoga are attributed to its ability to boost the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). GABA levels are low in individuals who experience depression, anxiety, and higher stress levels.

The growing list of other mental health conditions that may benefit from yoga therapy include:

  • Stress
  • Schizophrenia
  • ADHD
  • Eating Disorders
  • Postnatal Depression

There has also been a great amount of success in treating and relieving a variety of physical conditions including:

  • Back Pain
  • Heart Conditions
  • Asthma
  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Hypertension
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Effects of Chemotherapy
  • Diabetes
  • High Blood Pressure
  • COPD
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Obesity
  • Insomnia
  • Arthritis
  • IBS

History of Yoga Therapy

The Minded Institute tells us that the term ‘Yoga Therapy’ was created in the 1920s by Swami Kuvalyananda. 

He believed that it was possible to measure physical and mental changes through yoga and began using yoga therapy for healing purposes. 

Swami Kuvalyananda’s beliefs and success inspired researchers to study the effects of yoga further.

As a result, yoga became an institution. 

A whole new field was created to apply yoga therapy for the alleviation of mental and physical issues.

The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) was also developed to empower individuals to improve the health and well being of others through yoga therapy. 

This method of therapy has become so popular that it has been reviewed in medical journals and is the subject of multi-tiered research.

USA cardiologist, Dr. Dean Ornish has even had success in reversing heart disease. His therapeutic program utilizing yoga therapy as part of his treatment for heart disease has been so successful that it is now accepted by public health insurance.

How is Yoga Therapy Used?

older woman doing yoga therapy with her instructor

Like any physical endeavor, yoga therapy starts slowly and increases in intensity and time as your body adjusts. For those with serious medical issues, yoga therapy may begin with a single posture and breathing exercises.

The goal is to provide the students with exercises they can complete at home. It’s also more effective to achieve precision rather than quantity. 

The only exception to this would be if a series of practices were given that must be completed to relieve specific symptoms.

Students who are capable of handling more will be given exercises suitable for their strength and ability. The beauty of Yoga Therapy is that you will always begin at the level most appropriate for your condition and experience level.

What To Expect Your First Session

Before your first session with a Yoga Therapist, you may be asked to provide an overview of your current health, pain, conditions you’re experiencing, and your emotional and mental state. 

This information will be used to prepare your yoga therapist for your visit.

On your first visit with your yoga therapist, you’ll be interviewed so your therapist can determine your specific needs and goals. Your therapist may ask to see your posture, perform some movement, or perform some breathing exercises.

This evaluation is helpful for the therapist to assess your range of motion and breathing capacity. Once that has been determined, the framework for healing can be created.

Here’s how it goes:

  • A preliminary plan will be developed for daily practice
  • Three to six sessions are usually recommended to begin
  • The plan will include elements such as postures, breathing techniques, and meditation
  • You will be encouraged to continue with other forms of treatment since yoga therapy complements other healing modalities
  • Exercises will be prescribed for you to do at home

If you’re wondering what to wear, dressing for yoga therapy is simple. Wear loose-fitting clothes, and dress in layers. 

You want to wear clothing that won’t restrict your movement. Yoga can also be done in a hot environment or a room temperature environment. Dressing in layers will allow you to adjust to any temperature.

Depending on your needs and the type of yoga therapy you choose, how the sessions progress will vary. 

Sessions for alleviating pain will most likely be centered on postures, while emotional issues may be centered more on breathing exercises.

Each time you meet for a session, you will work with your yoga therapist to make changes that help you continue to make progress in the areas of healing you need the most. 

The ultimate goal of yoga therapy is to empower individuals to help themselves. The yoga therapist is only there to guide and facilitate this process.

Different types of Yoga Therapy

group of people practicing yoga therapy

Since each patient’s needs are specific and unique, a style of yoga that works for one individual may not be appropriate for another. Each person needs to be evaluated and the type of exercises is decided case-by-case.

A good yoga therapist will recommend an approach