yoga therapy explained: the ultimate guide

 

Below is a comprehensive guide to yoga therapy.

In this detailed and easy to read guide you’ll learn everything you need to know about yoga therapy, from the benefits, to philosophy, to the history and how to get started practicing.

If you’re looking to explore an alternative approach to healing a specific physical, mental or emotional condition, you’ll love this guide.

Let’s dive right in.

 

 
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CONTENTS

CHAPTER 1
What Is Yoga Therapy?

CHAPTER 2
Benefits Of Yoga Therapy

CHAPTER 3
Yoga Therapy & 
The Medical Model

CHAPTER 4
Yoga Therapists & 
The 5 Koshas

 

CHAPTER 5
The Difference Between 
Yoga & Yoga Therapy

CHAPTER 6
Yoga Therapy In Classes, 
Workshops & Private Sessions

CHAPTER 7
Yoga Therapy Origins

CHAPTER 8
How To Get Started

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Yoga therapy is yoga to manage or heal a certain condition, such as back pain or anxiety. And yes, yoga has been shown to have healing benefits for conditions of both the body and the mind. Yoga therapy can occur in private sessions or in a group of people that have a common focus of healing a specific condition, such as in our Overcome Anxiety Clinic or Yoga for Pain Management. A Certified Yoga Therapist (C-IAYT) provides yoga therapy.

 
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Yoga helps us to tolerate the things in our life we cannot change, and change the things in our life we need not tolerate.
— B.K.S. Iyengar

PHYSICAL BENEFITS OF YOGA THERAPY

Physically, yoga therapy can help you to manage pain, both chronic and acute forms. Yoga therapy can help you to have better body awareness and better posture (which often times are a main contributor to chronic pain). Being physically active and stretching, as you probably know, will help you to build muscular strength and better range of motion. Many people view yoga as a form of exercise, which can be helpful on its own. However, when you work with a trained yoga therapist (C-IAYT), you can receive much more individualized guidance on your physical body’s areas of “imbalance,” and what stretches or poses are best for you. This can be very helpful if you are healing from a physical injury, have been experiencing chronic pain, or are just starting up a yoga practice and want to be sure you are practicing safely in your body.  

Yoga also helps you manage stress in healthier ways (because you may have ways of managing stress that aren’t so healthy at times, am I right? I mean, you are human…) And, stress is no joke--it has serious physical health risks. You probably know that stress contributes to the muscle tension you may feel in your neck and shoulders at times, and you have probably experienced a “stress headache.” But, chronic stress and anxiety decrease the effectiveness of your immune, digestive and reproductive systems, and can cause a host of other physical problems. Not to be a downer, but chronic stress can contribute to high blood pressure (hypertension), which is a risk factor for heart disease the #1 killer in the US for both men and women. (Source: CDC)

 

More stats from the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention):

“One-fourth to one-third of U.S. workers report high levels of stress at work. Americans spend 8% more time on the job than they did 20 years ago (47 hours per week on average), and 13% also work a second job. Two-fifths (40%) of workers say that their jobs are very stressful, and more than one-fourth (26%) say they are “often burned out or stressed” by their work.”

And, that work-related stress contributes “to occupational injury, work-related musculoskeletal disorders, and cardiovascular disease.”

The yoga mat is a good place to turn when talk therapy and antidepressants aren’t enough.
— Amy Weintraub

MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL BENEFITS OF YOGA THERAPY

Mentally and emotionally, yoga therapy helps you to handle difficult situations with less reactivity and more clarity. It is very effective for managing anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms. A yoga and meditation practice are powerful tools for training the mind to stay focused, for reducing stress, and improving mood.

A 1:1 relationship with a yoga therapist can enhance and personalize the experience for you. Much like a counselor or psychotherapist can use their own skill set to help clients process difficult emotional experiences--a yoga therapist chooses specific yogic tools to guide and support you in your own healing process. Yoga therapists stay within the scope of their own practice. C-IAYT’s are not trained to help you process emotions or trauma--but we are trained to help you understand how your own emotions are connected to your own physical body. Yoga therapists can help you embody your own emotional healing process.

A personal crisis can be a gift on the path to spiritual maturity. Learn to accept this gift, and you’ll feel reborn.
— Bo Forbes

SPIRITUAL BENEFITS OF YOGA THERAPY

Some clients may seek out yoga therapy for guidance and connection on a Spiritual level, whatever that means for you. Yoga therapists do not “push” any religious agenda on students or clients, and yoga itself is not a religion. Even if you are unsure of your own spirituality, or if you don’t currently feel like you “are a spiritual person,” yoga may help you to experience a feeling of connectedness and wholeness, or of deeper meaning in your life. With practice, as you begin to connect with yourself on the levels of mind, body and breath--eventually, you will begin to connect with yourself on the level of spirit. It is only a matter of time.

Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.
— Chinese Proverb

THE YAMAS & NIYAMAS, 8 LIMBS OF A YOGIC PATH & THE KLESHAS

The Yamas and Niyamas (“Observances” and “Restraints”--or, the external and internal ethics of yoga) can be interpreted personally for your own spiritual growth.  These principles are often included in therapeutic practices as they are two of the Eight Limbs of a Yogic Path. (Link to below where I talk about 8 limbs of yoga).  Yoga philosophy can help you to  understand the ways that you are creating your own suffering. There are five kleshas (or main causes of suffering)--all of which come from within.

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
— Buddhist Quote

Yogic philosophy and living a yogic lifestyle helps you to avoid suffering and to live with inner peace and contentment.  Even when a condition is not “curable” by Western standards, yoga can help you to manage the condition with less pain, more joy, and with peace of mind.

 
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In the traditional medical model, the “mind” and “body” are treated as separate entities. Even different systems of the body are often treated separately. The body was looked at as a machine: If there was an injury or illness, that part of the “machine” was broken and you went to a specialist to fix that part of the “machine.” You go to a psychotherapist if you are depressed. You see a cardiologist if you are experiencing chest pain, and a podiatrist if you have foot pain. Within this model, the doctor or specialist may have “blinders” on to the rest of your body and being. The symptoms of the “dis-ease” may only be treated, while the real root of the problem remains.

*This is a very common example: Many people take over-the-counter or prescription medicine regularly for stomach upset or ulcers, but are unaware that anxiety is greatly contributing to their stomach & digestive problems. The medical model treats the symptoms. For example, your doctor may recommend that you take antacids, either over-the-counter or prescription. You have to keep taking them, because the “problem” never gets any real attention-- it is not your stomach’s “problem,” it is the fact that your chronic stress and anxiety are causing the stress response to disrupt your digestive system’s functioning.

The traditional medical/Western model has allowed for objective research to be done, consequently advancing and improving the ways that doctors can save the lives of patients and treat disease. The Western medical model has been slowly shifting to a more holistic model:

 
 

“The holistic approach to medicine and health care emphasizes the integrity of each person's physical, mental, and spiritual being, the psychosocial context of health and illness, the importance of health promotion, a respectful partnership between physician and patient, and the actual or potential utility of techniques derived from a variety of healing traditions. It represents a recent attempt to enlarge and humanize the perspective and practice of modern biomedicine.”  (-Pubmed.gov; “Holistic Medicine: Towards a New Medical Model; Gordon, J.S.)

 
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YOGA THERAPISTS, C-IAYT’S:

  • are trained to work with/supporting practitioners of the medical model: medical doctors, physical therapists, psychotherapists, and chiropractors.

  • do not diagnose as a medical doctor would, but can use a medical diagnosis to choose specific mind/body practices to assist in healing your condition.

  • are trained to examine your condition from a holistic point of view, from a place of integration of the mind, body, and spirit.

  • do not only look at what is “wrong,” but also involve your strengths in the healing process.

  • does not give advise that only a medical doctor is licensed to give (such as to stop taking a medication). If you are working with a doctor to stop taking a medication, however, the Yoga Therapist will support in that process by helping you use holistic ways of managing the condition).

  • refer to practitioners and specialists within the medical model when some of your needs are outside the scope of practice for a C-IAYT.

  • observe and analyze posture, body awareness, lifestyle, diet, stress, breathing patterns, sleeping patterns, physical /psychological constitution, areas of muscular strength/ and weakness, flexibility or range of motion, qualities and awareness of the mind and emotions, and even connection to spirit.

  • guide and empower you on your healing journey, keep you accountable with your own personal goals, encourage deeper self-awareness, and help you be a catalyst for your own healing.

 
 
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THE FIVE KOSHAS

In yoga philosophy, these different layers of your being are called koshas, or “sheaths.”  A yoga therapist observes all 5 koshas and notices how each level effects the others:

  • Physical Body (Annamyakosha): Your muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, organs...your physiology

  • Breath/ Energy “Body” (Pranamayakosha): Breathing; energy centers of the body, movement, containment, and release of energy in the body

  • Mind/Emotional “Body” (Manomayakosha): Our thoughts and emotions; the “mind-stuff”

  • Witness/ Observer “Body” (Vijnanamayakosha): The “one who observes” all of the other layers (If “you” are observing the thoughts or the body, that who is the “you”?)

  • Bliss or Spirit “Body” (Anandamayakosha): “Enlightenment.” “Nirvana.” The experience of connectedness or wholeness. The feeling of being “at one with all things” or “feeling god’s presence.” Time seems not to exist. Sense of your separate “self” dissipates (the pleasant feeling of “losing yourself in something” ). A deep sense of contentment and bliss.

A true teacher is one who helps you discover the teacher inside yourself.
— Thich Nhat Hahn

BENEFITS OF WORKING WITH A YOGA THERAPIST

The benefit of working with a yoga therapist is that you can develop a new awareness--a more complete awareness-- of yourself and any physical or emotional challenges you are struggling with. It is important to reiterate that C-IAYT’s are trained to work with your doctor or therapist, not against them. Yoga therapy can help you unlock your own healing potential and finally allow healing to occur at every level of your being.

Sometimes, it is hard to describe to a doctor what you feel is wrong. You may have “passed” your physical exam, but you still feel “off,” or still not well. They aren’t sure how to help you, since there is nothing that can be diagnosed. From the yogic perspective, simply the absence of a disease does not equal health. Yoga therapy can help you get to the root of what feels “off,” and guide you along your path towards wholeness.   

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“I have been practicing yoga and working out with Kirsten Higgins for five years and cannot say enough about what our work has done for me! I have significant mobility issues as a result of arthritis and weekly chair yoga and restorative yoga have kept me on my feet. I have no doubt that this studio will be a welcome addition to the wellness community in downtown Chicago.”

- C.D.

 
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Yoga itself can be therapeutic, when practiced safely and with a guide of an experienced teacher. However, it may also be viewed as simply a form of exercise. Yoga is much more than just exercise (although a regular yoga practice will increase your flexibility, strength and balance). Yoga asana, or postures are only one of the eight limbs of a complete yoga practice.

 
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The 8 Limbs of Yoga are:

  • Yama (ethical standards of how we conduct ourselves within the world)

  • Niyama (internal and spiritual practices)

  • Asana (posture and movement)

  • Pranayama (breath control)

  • Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses/ tuning into your inner world)

  • Dharana (concentration)

  • Dhyana (meditation)

  • Samadhi (transcendence, enlightenment, or connectedness with all things)

 

In a typical yoga class, the teacher will usually have their own plan or agenda. It is “teacher-centered.” They may also integrate several, if not all, of the eight limbs into the practice, but the yogic tools chosen will not necessarily consider the individual healing journey of the students in the class. A well-trained yoga teacher will guide students through a yoga class, cuing clearly and being mindful that all students are practicing safely.

On the other hand, Yoga Therapy:

  • is student-centered, rather than teacher-centered.

  • involves a trained C-IAYT considering a specific physical or psychological condition (or even more than one condition)--and the needs of the individual in that moment.

  • incorporates tools to facilitate healing on all levels of being (the 5 Koshas).

  • still uses the 8 limbs as framework, but the knowledge base and level of training of a C-IAYT is much deeper and more comprehensive. (A Yoga teacher may have 200 hours of training or sometimes less. A C-IAYT has 1000+ hours of training, 1:1 client and therapeutic group-teaching hours, and has worked underneath the mentorship of at least one other yoga therapist, and has passed the standards of the International Association of Yoga Therapists to become accredited.)

  • often integrates other modalities, such as functional movement/ corrective exercise, somatic movement, and Ayurveda (the “sister-science” of yoga).

Using yogic tools, the yoga therapist facilitates an experience that is designed to empower. To experience profound healing and wholeness on all levels of being. You have all the tools you need within you, the yoga therapist simply guides the journey.

 
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Yoga’s healing powers reside in the one-on-one relationship between teacher and student.
— Katie Holcombe, Founder of Healing Yoga Foundation

YOGA THERAPY IN OUR CLASSES

A typical weekly class on our schedule is not necessarily yoga therapy within the technical definition, but they are therapeutic in nature. We pride ourselves in having a wide range of styles of classes, and teachers with different therapeutic specialties. Some of our teachers are yoga therapists, or yoga therapists in-training. Some of our classes are extremely restorative (meaning: all postures are done on the floor, deep stretching & relaxing), and some classes are more energizing or vigorous. There is something for everyone, both beginner-level as well as for the seasoned practitioner. Either way, our teachers are all highly trained and experienced, and our small class sizes insure that no one’s needs get lost in the crowd.  

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“This is an excellent location, you can stop in on your lunch hour take a class and return to work rejuvenated. The instructors are very caring and are very mindful of special needs. I went into a class with a lot of tension across my shoulders feeling a lot of pain and after the relaxation class I felt no pain and was ready to deal with the rest of my day pain free. I love that because of the class size the instructor can also give special attention to those that need it. I highly recommend it to everyone.”

- LUCY

YOGA THERAPY IN OUR WORKSHOPS

Within a workshop format, you have the opportunity to dive into a more specific topic that interests you. These topics all fall within the wide spectrum of yoga therapy. Workshops look similar to a class, but you may receive handouts or materials on the topic, and you have more time to fully explore and have a personal experience with the topic.

YOGA THERAPY IN A PRIVATE SESSION

Before having a 1:1 yoga therapy session or before the first session in a therapeutic group, such as the Overcome Anxiety Clinic, you will fill out a confidential questionnaire so that the yoga therapist or instructor has an overview of your health history, past yoga experience, goals, challenges, lifestyle, etc. Which yogic tools are chosen for you in your session depends on your needs.

In a private session, there is always some form of a check in, (which may include a body scan meditation) in which you are able to observe the body and mind in the present moment. Your needs that day determine the flow of the session. Yoga therapy sessions look very different from one client to another. The yoga therapists supports you in your unique journey of healing.

Depending on your specific goals and needs, yoga therapy sessions can include any of these tools:

  • Yoga posture (asana)

  • Breath control (pranayama)

  • Meditation techniques

  • Functional movement scans & posture training

  • Somatic movement (slow, meditative movement that trains the body to move in a more functional way)

  • Journaling or self-reflection exercises

  • Yoga philosophy

  • Mantra or affirmation

  • Assistance in creating a home yoga practice

  • Vinyasa yoga (movement with breath)

  • Yin or Restorative Yoga (longer holds and deeper stretches)

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“I was visiting Chicago on a work trip, and within the first few days of arriving, I started suffering from anxiety. I tried looking for yoga studios near my hotel - but literally NONE of them offered classes that I could squeeze in between the hours I was in the office.

I came across Infinity and started looking around the website and saw that they offered Private Yoga sessions. I was a little apprehensive at first - but being that I couldn't shake my anxiety, I ended up reaching out to the studio to see if they could fit me in on short notice. Kirsten (the owner) was the one who responded - and SO GRACIOUSLY accommodated my busy schedule and offered to meet with me for 6:45 AM sessions.

I told her that what my overall goals were when it came to the couple of sessions we had together - and she tailored it perfectly. She's very welcoming and I immediately felt comfortable with her. The way she describes the poses are easy enough to understand for even the newest of "yogis". If I were to ever find myself back in Chicago, I will definitely make it a point to come back to Infinity!

- MELISSA L.

 
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“Yoga therapy” is a term for a relatively new field, although the art and science of yoga dates back to thousands of years. Yoga stems from traditional Indian medicine and originally looked nothing like the complicated poses you may associate with yoga today.

Thousands of years ago, the practice of yoga was written down in the ancient texts called The Vedas in the language of sanskrit (The Vedas are the oldest written scriptures known to man, and sanskrit is the oldest language). At the time these texts were written, it is believed that these yogic practices were already several hundred years old and had been passed down from teacher to student verbally before being written down.

Yoga, in its original form, had nothing to do with physical fitness. Yoga was more in the realm of “the science of the mind,” whereas Ayurveda (which translates to “the science of life”), is more in the realm of “the science of the body” and physical health. Ayurveda is also referred to “the sister-science of yoga,” and stems from traditional Indian medicine (5,000 years old).

In the ancient Vedic texts, there were only 4 yoga postures (and none of them involved downward dog or doing a handstand). The 4 postures were for meditation. Then, the ancient sages started noticing aches and pains while they were meditating, so they came up with a few more postures that were meant to release tension in the body so that they could meditate more effectively.


Yoga has been defined in different ways by different traditions, but the core of yoga is a practice of self-awareness and self-healing for ailments of both the mind and body. (In Indian medicine, we are viewed as a whole, mind and body are not separate entities.) In other words, yoga has been used for therapeutic reasons for thousands of years.


The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (which were written between 3000 B.C. and 500 A.D. by Sri Patanjali--most likely by many people that held that title) systematically clarified the practice of yoga by breaking it down into 8 Limbs:

  1. Yama (Ways to conduct yourself in the world)

  2. Niyama (Inner/ spiritual practices)

  3. Asana (Posture)

  4. Pranayama (Breath control)

  5. Pratyahara (Withdrawal of senses)

  6. Dharana (Concentration)

  7. Dhyana (Meditation)

  8. Samadhi (Super-conscious state/ Enlightenment)

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Over the years, the practice of yoga spread through the world and had many different influences. (The book Yoga Body:The Origins of Modern Posture Practice is an incredibly interesting, in-depth source of information on how modern yoga practice came to be what it is today. An excellent & revolutionary read.)

In a very incomplete nutshell:

  • Yoga went through a period where only the lowest in society practiced yoga; “yogi” was a dirty word to call someone. They were vagabonds, and shunned wherever they went.

  • Holy men in India started practicing it to see if they could find a shortcut to enlightenment. They tried self-starvation, hanging themselves upside down from trees for days, cutting themselves, etc.--all to see if putting themselves through excruciating pain could create enlightenment. They failed. They decided that the 8 limbs were the best route after all.

  • Yoga became popular among royalty in India. Only the most rich and privileged men were allowed to practice yoga. Yoga was taught 1:1 or 1:2. The personal teacher/ student relationship is highly valued. Women were not allowed to learn.

  • The 1800’s were a big century for Yoga: Yoga postures were used to train soldiers to be more agile and focused. Yoga received influences from German gymnastics and European contortionist culture. Enter: All of the twisty stuff and Sun Salutations. (Ashtanga yoga origins from this era.)

  • Yoga was first officially brought to America by Swami Vivekananda in 1893. A Parliament was called with all of the early American scholars. They had a goal: to integrate culture from east into American culture. The result was the Vedanta Society, a lineage of yoga that still exists today in US.

  • Indra Devi (“The First Lady of Yoga,” 1899-2002) became the first female yoga teacher under Sri Krishnamacharya and had already started her first yoga school in China before moving to California in 1947. She became a “yoga teacher to the stars”: Greta Garbo, Jennifer Jones, and Gloria Swanson. She lived to 102, and has been photographed doing handstands in airplane aisles at senior citizen status. Devi used her knowledge of the physical practices of yoga, the esoteric practices of yoga, health food & lifestyle practices to create “yoga” as we know it today. (Indra Devi was a bad-ass. Look her up. Just sayin’.) Until she brought yoga to America on her own terms and broke through glass ceilings, yoga was a male-dominated discipline. People flooded her classes, and reported relief from  asthma, anxiety, headaches, insomnia….benefits that have since been studied and can back up the effectiveness of yoga. Indra Devi was responsible for creating this new awareness in the Western world-- a true period of “yoga therapy” rising.  

  • Light on Yoga” by B.K.S. Iyengar was published in 1966. “Iyengar Yoga” develops as a standard for alignment in yoga postures, and incorporates yoga props for customized alignment. Enter: The study of kinesiology and physical therapy to the world of yoga. Western medicine starts to take a widespread interest in “mind/body” practices such as meditation and breathing techniques. “Yoga” is not always the word used in studies, but the practices are yogic techniques.

  • 1980’s: Dr. Dean Ornish, a well-respected medical doctor, proved in his studies that lifestyle changes, breathing and meditation techniques (all from a yogic lifestyle), can reverse heart disease. This creates a new standard for heart health care in the West. For the first time, a program including yoga, a Dean Ornish program for heart health, can be covered by health insurance.  Yogic practices becoming integrated into Western Medicine becomes a possibility. More studies emerge on arthritis, anxiety, chronic pain, and many other conditions.  

  • Founded in 1989 by Larry Payne, Ph.D. and Richard Miller, Ph.D., the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), had a mission: To establish yoga as a recognized and respected therapy.

  • In 2016 IAYT’s long-awaited Professional Yoga Therapist Certification is launched, with the new credentials “C-IAYT.” This includes a Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility, and a Scope of Practice.

  • 2018: Yogatherapy.health is launched, a public-facing website where anyone can find information on yoga therapy: Where to find a Certified Yoga Therapist in your area, information on how yoga can help various conditions, and information for doctors.  

Yoga is a way to freedom. By its constant practice, we can free ourselves from fear, anguish and loneliness.
— Indra Devi, First Female Yoga Teacher & “First Lady of American Yoga”

 
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To get stared practicing yoga therapy we recommend using the chart below to determine which option would be best for you.

To register or view more information about the group options suggested below, visit our class descriptions page. To register or view more information about private 1:1 sessions visit our private yoga therapy sessions page.

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Questions? Email us out to schedule a free 10 minute phone or in person consultation.