Isn’t All Yoga Therapeutic?
Ask any yoga therapist and I bet they’ll tell you they’ve been asked that question more times than they can count. My answer is yes. All yoga is therapeutic. But if that’s true, then what is yoga therapy for chronic pain and how is it different from my hot yoga class at the gym?
The answer is complex.
It wasn’t too long ago when it seems like all you needed to be a yoga therapist was a business card and a website. But in 2015, the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), in an effort to regulate the industry, announced a rigorous certification process. I know the process is rigorous because I survived it, and since 2016, have the honor of having the C-IAYT credential behind my name.
But that still doesn’t answer our question.
What Is Yoga Therapy for Chronic Pain?
Again, it’s complex. It depends on who you ask.
I know yoga therapists who are licensed marriage and family therapists who use yoga therapy to support the work they do with patients in-session. I know yoga therapists who excel at sports. They’ve created a clinical protocol and work with individuals with sport-related injuries. And I know yoga therapists who focus on individuals with cancer and yoga therapists who focus on depression.
In other words, a yoga therapist plays to her strengths. Yoga therapy can support recovery from illness and injury. It can support improvement of balance and stability. It can be part of a treatment plan that relieves anxiety and depression. When rising stress levels take over, yoga therapy can support embodiment and a return to presence.
And for people in chronic pain, yoga therapy can improve strength and mobility while at the same time help the client to accept the circumstance of being in chronic pain while continuing to live according to their values.
How Does it Work?
The application of yoga therapy for chronic pain can take place in a small group setting. More often, however, a client will work one-to-one with their yoga therapist. The appointment might take place in a yoga studio, a medical setting, an office, your home or – most likely during these extraordinary times – through video conferencing.
A typical appointment might look like this: an intake interview will summarize your health history data but then the conversation will turn toward your wellbeing and happiness. What are you hoping to achieve through yoga therapy? What is realistic? Can you commit to a regular home practice? How can I, as your yoga therapist, help set and achieve these intentions?
By the end of our first session you might have a yoga therapy prescription for movement, breath work and meditation. Sometimes, however, the intention of our first session is a simple one – to determine if we are a good fit. It’s important for you to find a yoga therapist who understands what you expect from yoga therapy and who has experience with your situation. If I know I’m not the right therapist for you, I’ll refer you to another professional who is more aligned with your health and wellness journey.
Yoga therapists certified through IAYT take their training from an IAYT-certified school, of which there are few (although numbers are increasing). The education provided by these schools follow strict curriculum guidelines set forth by IAYT. While there are exceptional yoga therapists who are not IAYT certified, you know that one who has ‘C-IAYT’ behind their name has had an in-depth yoga education.
At the end of the day, a yoga therapist must trust the knowledge they’ve gained through education and experience to develop the correct protocol whether they work with individuals or with groups, whether they are clinicians or work on a transpersonal level. They must trust their instincts to know their boundaries, their limits and their skill set. They must know what they don’t know remain humble enough to continue their education.
So, What is Yoga Therapy Again?
It’s not yoga. And it’s not physical therapy plus yoga. Yoga therapists have a specialized knowledge base and skill set that differentiates them from a yoga teacher. Our yoga therapy training teaches us the skills that allow us to understand a client’s limitations. It supports our ability to build a practice with the client that takes into account their needs and their goals. I know that I am on the right path with a client when they feel inspired to practice on their own. This empowers them to be pro-active about their own well-being and mindfulness. It supports their ability to connect to a deeper meaning and purpose in life.
The Case for Clear Knowing
It’s true that as a yoga therapist I want to acknowledge what I don’t know. But I also want to be open to knowing what I do know. Yoga therapists need to trust their intuition – to be open to instinct.
My goal as a yoga therapist, after all, is not to find a cure. It is to support your healing. To do that, a yoga therapist must listen deeply with their eyes, ears and heart. They must hold space for and reflect back the stories their clients’ tell. In that way we can support the creation of a new chapter.
One More Time. What is Yoga Therapy?
- Yoga therapy is not yoga.
- Yoga therapy is not physical therapy plus yoga.
- Yoga therapy can be used in group settings. Veterans Affairs Hospitals, pain clinics, private clients, wellness centers, Dean Ornish programs, cardiac care units…even the Department of Defense – have used for yoga therapists.
- Yoga therapy is also used in one-to-one situations between a yoga therapist and client.
- The governing body for yoga therapy is the International Association of Yoga Therapists. Their certification is helping to regulate the industry through the creation of an in-depth curriculum in schools must adhere to in order to be certified an IAYT school.
- A yoga therapist employs evidence-based practices plus their intuition to create with their client a program to support the clients health and wellness. They acknowledge what they don’t know and strive to continue their education.
- A yoga therapist plays to her strengths. Some focus on clinical work, sports injuries and illnesses. Others focus on mental health. Some are qualified to do both.
Finally, yoga therapy for chronic pain works as part of a comprehensive program to address chronic conditions on a physical and psychological level. It can be a significant part of your wellness plan.