What comes to mind when someone says yoga therapy? Are you telling your yoga teacher all your problems while trying to make impossible shapes with your body? Well, no.
While the most familiar analogy may be physical therapy, yoga therapy is an emerging and exciting field unlike any other type of therapy. It’s becoming popular as a form of complementary care because of its potential to address not just a specific condition, but also your entire nervous system.
The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), whose mission is to establish yoga as a recognized and respected therapy, defines the profession loosely as: “The process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga.”
Sounds vague, right? Most yoga therapists, like doctors, have a specialty practice. Some may have areas of expertise in physical rehab and back pain, while others may specialize in cardiac recovery or mood disorders. In a session the yoga therapist draws from the tools of yoga—physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation—to work toward optimal health.
Just to be clear, a yoga therapist is not a doctor. However, because the medical community now understands that yoga can function in partnership with clinical care, your yoga therapist can work in conjunction with your doctor to provide you with a well-rounded approach to your healthcare. To ensure that your yoga therapy is complementary to other kinds of care, make sure you’re working with a certified yoga therapist, as the IAYT has established a set of standards and qualifications to become certified.
So, how is yoga therapy different from physical therapy? To begin, you are using the entire spectrum of yoga to address a specific condition. Yoga therapy offers not just the physical postures, but also breath work, meditation, and sometimes chanting. In this way what sets it apart from physical therapy is the potential to address pain by targeting the nervous system. (Because of this distinction, physical therapy and yoga therapy work well as complementary types of care.)
Instead of a one-time treatment, yoga therapy gives you tools to build a lifelong practice of self-care. It is distinct in the world of yoga not because of the poses or pace, but instead because you’re working one-on-one with a teacher with advanced training to address your unique needs. The tools acquired in your therapeutic practice develop and expand over time, empowering you to better understand your body and ultimately make better decisions for your health and wellbeing.
Because yoga therapy is individualized, you will need a yoga therapist in order to experience it. Until then, try some simple therapeutic techniques to make your day a little better:
Sit well: Instead of trying to remember where to put your head and your shoulders, try directing your attention to the position of your pelvis, which can realign the entire trunk. Think about maintaining the natural curve of your lumbar spine, which just means that you stick your butt out a little when you are sitting. This will naturally move your head and shoulders back and over the pelvis. (Notice when you slouch, your shoulders and head go forward again.) When you want to relax, simply move your butt all the way back in your seat and let the chair catch your upper back so your shoulders and head fall back with the rest of you.*
*Note: the old saying “too much of a good thing is never a good thing” is true for posture as well. When you slouch, you actually stretch and release some of the smaller muscles in the back, which can be very relaxing.
Move your spine: Move your spine in 6 directions: Back, forward, side-to-side, twist right and left. This increases blood flow to the soft tissues in the back, and also re-hydrates the discs. Plus, it feels good to stretch! This is because stretching actually releases endorphins.
Breathe:The neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman says the best way to trigger the calming reflex (the parasympathetic arm of the nervous system) is to double inhale and follow it with a long exhale. This means inhaling part-way, holding, inhaling completely, then exhaling long. Just two or three times is all you need.
Gabriella Barnstone is a certified yoga therapist with the International Association of Yoga Therapists, and has been teaching yoga since 2008. She worked at Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation under the guidance and tutelage of Dr. Loren Fishman from 2015 to 2020, where she specialized in treating patients with back pain using yoga as therapy. She is currently on the faculty of Prema Yoga Institute’s Yoga Therapy Program where she has developed her own course on practical anatomy.