Teaching People Not Poses; An Introduction to Yoga Therapy
By Meghan Walsh, BFA, Certified Yoga Therapist
Imagine being prescribed a pill that gradually healed your back pain while eradicating your worry around the limitations it caused you and as a result opened your eyes wider to the gift that is your life. If you broke open that pill, inside you would find what is yoga therapy. This is not at all to say that the effects of yoga therapy come with the ease of regularly swallowing a pill, though it is a strong dose of ‘lifestyle medicine’ that is honoured daily through practice.
The general long-term goals of Yoga Therapy include:
- reducing the symptoms of suffering that can be reduced
- managing the symptoms that cannot be reduced
- rooting out causes wherever possible
- improving life function
- shifting attitude and perspective in relationship to life’s challenges
Yoga therapy is a complementary/integrative system of health, not an alternative one. It supports and works in conjunction with your normal medical treatments, as you are asked to consider continuing your personal health routine as suggested by your doctor or medical professional.
The healing path of yoga philosophy is known to us via Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, an ancient, inter-faith text containing 196 sutras – aphorisms – outlining the path to present moment awareness and self-realization. A therapeutic yoga practice is derived from these teachings, this philosophy and is one that adapts these techniques and practices and applies them to each individual’s goals and life circumstances. A therapeutic yoga practice will take into account the individual’s age, height, weight, strength, environment/climate, activity, desire, priorities, pain/strain, injury, allergies, sensitivities, preferences and aversions and may help any individual facing any health challenge.
A personalized therapeutic yoga practice may include some of the following tools:
- Pranayama (conscious and mindful breathing)
- Individualized movements sequenced appropriately for your circumstances
- Ayurvedic Wellness counselling (diet and lifestyle)
- Mindfulness Meditation practices (seated and ‘everyday’)
- Visualization techniques
- Use of Sound and Mantra
- Craniosacral self-care techniques
- Self-massage techniques for pain, tension and stress
- Conscious communication skill building
- Yoga Nidra (conscious relaxation)
Yoga is beneficial for our health in ways that modern science is only beginning to understand. Even though it has been applied with therapeutic intention for thousand of years, yoga therapy is now emerging as a contemporary discipline, as science begins to document the importance of understanding the interrelation of all existing things. As yoga techniques are researched and new data gathered, it becomes easier for science and the medical establishment to understand and accept the benefits of yoga therapy.
Yoga therapy is a neurologic re-wiring of the brain, a micro neuroplastic surgery, similar to mindfulness based cognitive therapy or other psychotherapies. In yoga therapy we do not sit and converse or analyze our lives and relationships. Instead we use the techniques and practices to gain present moment awareness, and through learning the philosophy we can change the way we filter the events of our lives. This in turn effects our neural firing, which shape our genes and in turn shape our microscopic anatomy.
Yoga therapy heals the individual by assessing and addressing the root cause of suffering, which means that it doesn’t always cure the individual, though it is healing. For example, if the individual is suffering from cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy or an alternative treatment, their daily therapeutic yoga practice would greatly benefit the mental and emotional state. A yoga practice supports our ability to cope day to day and to accept what the body is going through. One of the primary teachings of yoga is to accept and embrace impermanence; both in small, everyday ways and in the ultimate ‘we are all humans and have a body which will eventually expire’ way. By sitting with our fear we are able to reduce the suffering we experience as we work with our condition/disease. In some cases the individual’s cancer is cured and they move on with their lives, and in other cases it is not and they may pass with a sense of peace, grace and acceptance. Either way, yoga therapy supports the practitioner, regardless of the outcome.
Ultimately, by cultivating a daily practice of yoga and mindfulness, we cultivate healthier choices in our lifestyle, our diet and how we contribute and behave in relationship; fostering gratitude, joy, compassion and peace in our mind, body and hearts.
***This article was originally published via the clinic where I hold my practice, the Integrative Health Institute's Blog along with many many creative and informative articles on health and wellness.