Yoga is an ancient practice of harmonizing the body with the mind and breath using physical poses, breathing exercises and meditation. At its most practical level, yoga is a process of learning about oneself. Ultimately it can lead to self-discovery, self-mastery and self-realization. Sounds therapeutic, right? Yoga therapy is a process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well being through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga. That certainly sounds like yoga.
So, isn’t then all yoga therapeutic?
If not, is there a difference between what we all know as yoga and yoga therapy? There are distinctions and two organizations — the Yoga Alliance and the International Association of Yoga Therapists — are trying to define them for us.
The Yoga Alliance (YA) and the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) are two separate nonprofit membership trade and professional organizations for yoga teachers and yoga therapists, respectively. Their voluntary registries recognize teachers and schools who’ve received a certain standard of yoga and yoga therapy teacher training.
Twenty years ago, the YA created standards for yoga teachers that required each Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) to have a minimum of 200 hours of Teacher Training. Recently, after years of developing their own training standards for yoga therapists, the IAYT has begun certifying yoga therapists with a requirement for a minimum of 1000 hours of training to become a certified. So there’s a big difference in the amount of training each organization requires for certification.
Skill Sets or Where the Mat Meets the Floor
One area where the difference between yoga and yoga therapy can be appreciated is in the actual class setting. Most yoga teachers thoughtfully prepare multiple sequences for an entire class. Each student coming to class does the same poses and breathing practices all together, like one big happy yoga family. Because each class has some variety in the level and experience of the students, yoga teachers offer as many modifications as possible while keeping within the pace of the class. Often yoga teachers manage the music and lighting for the room and help direct bodies and props like a good traffic cop. It’s a real feat of coordination to create a seamless experience for the students.
The yoga therapist, however, gears the practice to the individual and guides them within the framework of what each student wants and needs. So rather than the yoga student fitting themselves into the same poses and sequences as everyone else in the same class, a yoga therapy student does a practice that is customized for them.
What Makes Something Therapeutic?
Yoga and yoga therapy do seem and sound similar. All yoga is therapeutic to some degree. But not every teacher, class, or practice would be considered yoga therapy. The main difference between the two is that a yoga therapist applies the techniques of yoga with knowledge about a specific problem, experience, and intuition to help alleviate that problem (whether it’s physical, mental, and/or spiritual). Among the many challenges and situations that yoga therapists often face are working with people who are managing conditions like cancer (as well as the side effects of cancer treatment,) rheumatoid arthritis, depression, PTSD, diabetes, osteoporosis, recovery from injury or surgery, and chronic pain.
The physical tools used by yoga therapists can be different than the traditional props used in most yoga classes. In addition to standard yoga props like blankets, blocks, and belts, a yoga therapist might pull out other things not often used in a typical yoga setting, like chairs, sand bags, dowels, and even rubber balls as props.
Not Every Pose Is For Every Body
Yoga has become so popular because it really is a great thing (which is why everyone should do it.) Yoga therapy is a part of the broad, deep path of yoga and especially suitable for anyone with aches and ailments. My own path has been an eclectic one, now going on nearly 40 years, where I have been a professional dancer and dance teacher, a practitioner and teacher of yoga, a student of pilates and the Alexander Technique, a personal trainer and a yoga therapist. It’s all good!
As we reach a certain age, it’s smart to be concerned and aware about our life condition. But if you’re thinking that yoga is not for you because you might hurt your back, or knees or shoulders, think again. It may just mean that yoga therapy is in your future.
Certified Yoga Therapists in Brooklyn: www.iayt.org
Studios offering Yoga Therapy classes: Samamkaya Yoga Unio Iyengar Yoga Institute of Brooklyn Laura Staton Urban Zen
University Level, Masters in Yoga Therapy: http://www.muih.edu/academics/masters-degrees/master-yoga-therapy
List of Accredited Yoga Therapy programs: http://www.iayt.org/?page=AccrdPrgms
Accessible Yoga Conference 2017 http://accessibleyoga.org/conference.html