What is Yoga Therapy by Sarah Swidlehurst
I often get asked, what is ‘Yoga Therapy’? We all know what yoga is and the wonderful rewards it has to offer, from a healthy, flexible, strong physique to a sustained peace of mind and inner calmness, but how is it used as a therapy?
Quite simply put, Yoga Therapy is a method of bringing harmony into the whole being; physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It’s about bringing equilibrium into all that we are.
Our whole individual existence relies on this balance, and when one part of us is out of balance then it affects all the other parts. For instance, if your pelvis is misaligned then this will affect your hips, legs, spine, etc, and all of the muscles and tissues around them. If you have past emotional issues that are unresolved then these can often manifest physically and show itself as a ‘symptom’ such as arthritis, or as a mental illness such as depression.
Yoga therapy uses many of the techniques of yoga (not just the postures!) to restore a person’s health and wellbeing back into the harmonious state that is their birthright.
Although on the bigger scale, we are all one, on the smaller scale, we are all also wonderfully individually unique with bodies (and not just the physical body as we deal with the auras/sheaths in yoga therapy too) that are different to another. So, when a person comes to yoga therapy, I assess and evaluate WITH the client the areas that we need to address, and in what order. The client plays the most important role in their healing, as they are the only ones that can truly heal themselves (if they want it!); I simply provide them with the insight and the tools for the healing to take place.
A typical session may include putting together a yoga plan for the client to do daily at home (a prescription), with postures, pranayama, mantras, affirmations, meditations, and, very vital in the healing, the relaxations. These plans are tailored specifically to the individual and to their needs/symptom. No yoga plan is the same for another (which is why it works for the client).
Follow up sessions of course are very important as these provide space for the client to discuss their progress and also for myself (the yoga therapist) to make the necessary changes to their yoga ‘prescription’. Sometimes a person may just need a few of these sessions, or for the more acute cases, follow up sessions can be over several months or even years.
All areas of an individual are covered, the physical health, emotional health, mental, health and spiritual health, all so that they are restored to their optimum.
The majority of illness or disease starts in the energetic fields of the body (affected by thoughts, environments, emotions etc), and if left unresolved, can manifest as a physical ‘symptom’. This physical symptom (and this includes mental illness) is generally your prompt that something needs to be looked at. Yoga Therapy is a very natural healing resource and when a person is ready, great results can also manifest.
For details of Sarah’s work please see essenceyoga.co.uk
On Yoga Therapy by Matthew Head
The aim of Yoga Therapy is to promote good health for the person as a whole – the emphasis of this work may be towards the body, the mind, the emotions or a combination of these. – British Council for Yoga Therapy
A yogi using his or her skills to ‘promote good health for the person as a whole’ can be seen as an aspect of the potentially transformative encounter that we call Yoga teaching. If that powerful encounter were to be accepted as a mainstream therapeutic practice, it is very easy to see why yogis might be excited by Yoga Therapy.
Just as an example, imagine patients being given the opportunity to undertake Yoga with an expert practitioner as part of the standard offer from their local hospital. Imagine if those practitioners were able to devise a tailored plan for an individual’s specific needs, limitations and tendencies.
Yoga allows people to take charge of their own health and flourishing, in every sense. Surely, if the power of Yoga were to move further into the mainstream and the best of medical science, complementary medicine and all that yogic practices have to offer were to combine, this could only be a good thing for health, for Yoga and for humanity.
Nevertheless, concerns do exist. There are those who see inherent dangers in the idea of Yoga Therapy. One argument is that, by its nature, Yoga is markedly different to the strictly medical or therapeutic model. Yoga is about personal transformation, which is enabled but not administered by the ‘teacher’ or ‘therapist’. In Yoga, the individual practitioner is encouraged to become an expert on him or herself rather than relying on the expertise of others for his own flourishing.
Another argument is that, for Yoga to be truly effective in the world, it must be free from regulatory and corporate interests. Medical science is a very highly regulated area of activity. Dispensing drugs, surgery or any other activity in which one person performs a procedure on another on the understanding that there will be a specific health benefit is understandably covered by a complex system of protocols and laws. Increasingly (and often controversially) complementary medicine is becoming subject to this system. It is also undoubtedly true that the world of medical science is intimately intertwined with the interests of big business.
This second argument is the very reason that the Independent Yoga Network came into existence. Some years ago, there were moves afoot (as there still are) to regulate Yoga teaching. A group of concerned Yoga practitioners got together to counter these moves. There is now a genuine concern that, if Yoga were to continue to align itself with therapy and thereby move further into a highly regulated area of life, there might be increased calls to regulate Yoga itself. This regulation would necessarily be in the hands of bureaucrats who are not themselves yogis. If there is any weight at all to this concern then it is certainly something with which the IYN should engage.
The IYN is a coalition of people from various traditions and schools as well as some who do not affiliate themselves with any conventions. We all have our different approaches, opinions and temperaments. But the IYN is a group of dedicated Yoga practitioners united by the principles of Satya, Ahimsa and Svadhyaya and by a desire to keep Yoga free.
Yoga is a very small word whose meaning is almost inconceivably vast. Much like other small words like love and art, its meaning cannot be pinned down to a simple formulation. It is by definition a matter of inner experience and so is unique to every consciousness that encounters it. If we consider too the vast historical, geographical and cultural expanse of those spiritual traditions and practices, which perceive inner experience as a vehicle for liberation, we might begin to get a glimpse of the true size of this apparently innocuous four-
It is our intention to encourage and enable ongoing debate in this area. It is important to remember that this debate is only possible at the moment because the culture at large allows it to be so. This special edition is intended as the beginning of a conversation about the relationship between Yoga and Yoga Therapy, a conversation that needs to continue so that the lines of communication remain open and that Yoga remains diverse, alive and free.
By yogis for Yoga.
Matthew Head 2014
YOGA CHIKITSA: the traditional model of Yoga Therapy by Sujatha Menon
With the rise of biomedicine from the mid C19th onwards and the subsequent decline and marginalisation of medical pluralism, a powerful hegemony began to emerge which greatly polarised our understanding of health and illness into the categories of orthodox and unorthodox medicine.
What then counts as medical knowledge? Epistemological warfare rages between dualistic, biomedical forms of knowing the patient where mind and body are generally seen as two separate, distinct entities, and holistic forms of understanding the person as is largely developed in CAM practices. This war is not without its casualties on all sides and reflects a greater discourse that involves notions of legitimisation, professionalisation and what is believed to be ‘scientific’. Thus this wider battle between human knowledge and human understanding becomes the grounds upon which we can begin to understand the force, might and potency of the various systems of healthcare presented to us in the C21st.
One such system of healthcare is Ayurveda. Ayurveda being India’s traditional system of medicine which includes the therapeutics of Yoga has survived for millennia despite many attempts to destroy its course. During British occupation of India, ayurvedic medical schools and institutions were deemed primitive and closed down in favour of Western biomedical establishments which were seen as modern and progressive. Yoga thus travelled to the West without Ayurveda and until relatively recently, the deep connection between these two deeply intertwined sciences remained largely unknown. This separation of Yoga and Ayurveda served to weaken their combined potency in the face of biomedicine and has only recently begun to re-
Yoga Therapy is now an emerging discipline in the West and within its scope is the re-
As we know, Yoga has become synonymous with mainly Yoga postures but it is actually a much wider system of practices. Classical Yoga in particular, provides systematic guidelines for healthy and harmonious living. It also provides instruction on how to work with the breath and the mind in order to take control of our lives on a more psychological level. Ayurveda being India’s traditional system of medicine is concerned primarily with physical health and incorporates diet, herbs, lifestyle practices, exercise, Yoga and a sophisticated array of natural treatments.
Both Yoga and Ayurveda stem from the same ancient schools of philosophy and are considered sister sciences. Both share the same language, concepts and metaphysics and are viewed as two sides of the same coin. When combined on a therapeutic level we have a full and comprehensive system to help heal both the body and mind.
Although contemporary Yoga Therapy has much to offer and has been proven to be very effective in supporting a number of health conditions, without an ayurvedic understanding of its application, we only scratch the surface of its great potential. Much of modern Yoga therapy works mechanistically on the level of the anamaya kosha. An example would be a therapist trying to fix a ‘frozen shoulder’ with asana without looking at the underlying root cause. An Ayurvedic Yoga Therapist would be trained to try and identify and deal with this root cause which may for example lie at an emotional level (frozen emotions) as well as trying to rebalance the body-
If one takes Ayurveda completely out of the picture it can be argued that Yoga Therapy (modern) and that work which is offered by experienced Yoga teachers can often be the same or very similar. It is a very grey area to say the least. Many seasoned Yoga teachers naturally find themselves working therapeutically, often through an intuitive sense which has been developed through their own sadhana or self practice, backed by years of experience and study. In the Indian tradition however there has always been a very concrete role for Yoga Therapy. It must be remembered that the primary purpose of Yoga was never intended for therapeutic purposes. These came about as a side-
Within Ayurveda, working with Yoga therapeutically was called Yoga Chikitsa. Chikitsa on a superficial level means ‘therapy’ in Sanskrit but it has a much deeper and significant meaning. The eutomology of the word is such that Chikit comes from Chitta (the mind field or consciousness) and sa meaning ‘with’. This can be translated as ‘to act with consciousness’. This makes good sense when we understand that Ayurveda’s definition of disease is largely ‘a failure of our intelligence’ in terms of for example adopting the right lifestyle practices to prevent disease in the first place.
With only a very basic knowledge of Ayurveda, Yoga teachers can begin work extremely effectively with Yoga on a therapeutic level. In fact it is at its foundational and not clinical level that Ayurveda has most to offer in terms of creative solutions to disease prevention and healthcare. Interestingly much of the re-
As mentioned earlier I am currently undertaking PhD research in Ayurvedic Yoga Therapy (Yoga Chikitsa) with view to understanding its effectiveness in the promotion of self-
By Sujatha Menon
Yogavedic Practitioner & Teacher
For details of Sujatha’s work please check yogavedauk.com
Yoga & Ayurveda, Self-
Ayurvedic Yoga Therapy-
Ayurveda, the Science of Self-
An excellent article by Dr David Frawley HERE
Yoga Therapy in Question by Pete Yates
[What follows is an investigation into prevailing discourses rather than a detailed exposition of my personal take on Yoga.]
The terms “Yoga Therapy” and “Yoga Therapist” get bandied about a lot these days.
Given that many illustrious Yoga practitioners and teachers happily utilise these terms and endorse the enterprise they are thought to denote, one might be tempted not to question what is going on here.
However, let’s indulge our curiosity for a minute. What is Yoga Therapy? According to the British Council for Yoga Therapy’s web site, “Yoga Therapy is Yoga where there is specific need or needs”. (http://www.bcyt.co.uk)
Though beguilingly simple, this formulation has some curious ramifications. Notably, the statement implies that Yoga and Yoga Therapy are one and the same. How so? Because everyone who comes to Yoga of whatever emphasis or type is attempting to address ‘a specific need or needs’ or they wouldn’t walk through the door of the ashram or yoga studio or Google for Yoga in their neighbourhood in the first place. That need might be to indulge a simple curiosity or it might, at the other end of the spectrum, be for a palliative for a catastrophic existential distress. It might be a need to gain some physical flexibility as a means of lessening chronic back pain. And so on. (The obvious counter here is that I am conflating needs and wants. However, these are not so easily distinguishable, especially not in relation to Yoga therapy which is never absolutely necessary for anyone and so never strictly a need.)
Elsewhere on the web site, a fuller characterisation is given. Now, “Yoga Therapy is the use of Yoga where there is a specific health need or needs.” This second formulation might seem to narrow down the field of application of Yoga Therapy so that it no longer equates with Yoga per se. But does it?
It depends on what is meant by that extra word “health”. Arguably, the Yoga world view as found in a fair number of respected texts is that every human being is sick (i.e. unhealthy) if they are not enlightened. Patanjali’s (200 BCE – 200 CE), for instance, can cogently be seen as showing us how to replace dukkha, the base state of misery of the vast majority of human beings, with sukkha, which is some sort of ease based on knowledge of the true nature of the human situation. The Buddha (5th Century BCE) likewise addresses “the problem of suffering” and indeed is known as “The Great Physician”. The vastly different style of yogi who wrote the Shiva Samita (circa 1500 CE) also agrees: “Everything in life is suffering” (Chapter 1). A modern example of the same Weltanshauung is seen in Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga (1995) in which he notes that “Illness is an obstacle on the path to spiritual enlightenment: that is why you have to do something about it” (xvii).
So, on this take all Yoga is therapy if therapy is understood as any sort of quest for health, whether that health is “spiritual”, “mental” or “physical”. [Taxonomise to your taste here.] So, what function does the word “therapy” perform in the locution “Yoga Therapy”? Surely, it is redundant.
Perhaps drawing a line to distinguish between types of dukkha that are properly addressed by “Yoga Therapy” and the types that are best left to the individual practitioner or the standard “Yoga Teacher” would render the term “therapy” useful and cogent. But precisely where would such a line be drawn and on what basis? Where does health end and illness begin given that we are all hurtling towards death? Perhaps the empirical evidence base for the effectiveness of this “Yoga Therapy”, such as it is, should be the arbiter for drawing our line. But again, there are problems. What exactly constitutes evidence in this context? This is by no means an easy question. (A Wikipedia article on Evidence Based Medicine notes that certain crucial issues remain unresolved after two centuries of debate.) The term “therapy” is not easy to rescue from redundancy here without addressing a number of tricky prior questions which as far as I can see nobody wants to do.
There is another problem with this term “Yoga Therapy”, and possibly a graver one. The word “therapy” after all derives from the Greek verb therapeuein which has the sense of “ministering to”. This meaning is seen in terms like chemotherapy, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, psychotherapy and so on. In all of these cases, something is prescribed for “the patient” by an outside agent, “the therapist”, which entails incorporation of medicines into the body or having something done to the patient like acupuncture, surgery, or having her dreams interpreted. In all cases, one’s well-
Now, Yoga per se runs in the opposite direction, towards self-
The term “Yoga Therapy”, then, contains a redundancy in the employment of the word “therapy” when therapy is understood as any type of pursuit of health however broadly or narrowly “health” is understood, (and “Yoga” is glossed in a rather mainstream, textually justifiable way). If the word “therapy” is understood in line with its etymology and most current usage, then it forms an oxymoron when prefixed to the term “Yoga”.
The political use to which this notion of “Yoga Therapy” is being put to currently, based as it is on an irredeemably confused conceptual base, will be a disaster for the realm of freedom which is Yoga if its impetus plays out. I’m alluding here to  the possible subsuming of all Yoga into the category “therapy” and its subsequent envelopment in bureaucracy. The short-
None of this means that I think that Yoga practitioners shouldn’t use their skills, whatever they might be, to help others. On the contrary, I believe that the experienced practitioner realises that she is obliged to care for others within the scope of an honest sense of limits and capabilities and due apprehension of the uniqueness of the other partner in the interaction we know, perhaps erroneously, as “Yoga Teaching”. It does however mean that Yoga can’t coherently or usefully be wrapped up in a contemporary therapeutic discourse. It is not a sub-
Desikachar, T.V.K. (1995) The Heart of Yoga, Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions
Mallison, James (Translator) (2007) The Shiva Samhita, Woodstock NY: YogaVidya.com
Zambito, S., (1992) The Unadorned Thread of Yoga – The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali in
English, Poulsbo, Washington: The Yoga-
© P. Yates 2014
On Regulating Yoga for Therapeutic Uses by Lea Horvatic
In recent times, the trend of some people’s need to regulate Yoga as therapy, has been causing me some great concern.
Firstly, I must explain that I am not exactly in concordance with the whole idea of Yoga Therapy although I do understand that there is a lot of great work being done in that area. Yoga Therapy did not even exist as a term in the wider consciousness until late 1980s when a commendable effort was put in by Dr Dean Ornish, who commissioned research into the effects of Yoga in cases of heart disease. This paper was instrumental in the decision made by US insurance companies to add what has been promoted as Yoga Therapy to a list of treatments they covered.
Further research was conducted on Yoga for depression, Yoga for insomnia, Yoga for respiratory conditions, Yoga for carpal tunnel syndrome, and many more. Today there are volumes of research showing that Yoga asanas (postures) and Yoga pranayama (breathing exercises), when used ‘appropriately’ in a therapeutic context, can help manage symptoms of disease and in some cases even make sick or injured people better.
Often it is quoted that it was in fact Swami Vivekananda who first introduced Yoga as a therapy in his speech at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in September in 1893. Such claims seem to be unfounded. Swami Vivekananda’s speech can be both listened to on you tube or read in a transcript. Neither material shows that he even used the word ‘Yoga’ in his speech, let alone concocted a term he is apparently hailed for –
So, as happy as I may be to hear of confirmation of the positive effects of Yoga on the human body, mind and spirit, it simply points to me to the eternal need of humans to enquire into ‘proof’ of whatever they may be experiencing. When a human being is confronted by the inability to demonstrate ‘evidence’ to support their experience, he or she retreats into a fearful conclusion that what is experienced is not actually real. It is a funny thing, the mind of Modern Man. It sees not a limitation of itself, but tends to attach the blame to the world it experiences but does not understand. Yet strictly speaking, from the yogic perspective, is there a need to even pigeonhole Yoga into such a small term as Yoga Therapy in the first place?
And what troubles me deeply is that Yoga Therapy proponents seem to be hell-
I’ve been teaching Yoga since my teacher training in 2010, including teaching elderly affected with Alzheimer’s and Cervical Spondylosis to a great and observable benefit to individuals. I have practiced Yoga for a very long time before then, and have also qualified in several holistic disciplines, namely Homeopathy, Nutrition, Ayurvedic Massage as well as venturing into the study of traditional medical models of Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine in the process and Western Herbalism. I have studied these for the best part of twenty-
All of my research points to the idea expressed in the quote most recently linked to Carl Sagan –
Our present dominant medical model (allopathy) tends to view humans as a system comprised of many seemingly unrelated parts and functions, furthermore it treats the mind, body and spirit as unrelated if not non-
On the other hand, ancient medical practitioners tend to view the Human system in much broader and more interlinked manner. So, just for example, in Chinese Medicine (at least four-
Fire – heart and small intestine with 2 functions of circulation-
Earth – stomach & spleen;
Metal – lungs and colon;
Water – kidneys and bladder;
Wood – liver and gall-
Similar but different ideas are expressed in the Vedic Map (at least five-
The difference between these approaches and that of Western Medicine lies not only in the difference of language used, but also in the methodology and the habitual mental operations that guide the practitioner’s clinical insight and critical judgement. The holistic practitioner looks to more complete presentation on physical and psychological level, including the symptoms of ‘disease’, until a pattern of ‘disharmony’ is clearly observed. This pattern is then attended to, in order to shift it into a balance yet again.
The conventional medicine of today, Western Medicine, is primarily concerned with a disease in isolation, or the agents of that disease, which in their perspective can be categorised, and to which it prescribes itself after isolating it, with the intent to destroy, control or change it. The idea is one ‘cure’ for each ‘disease’ (or as we know experientially, many pills/treatments – some addressing actual symptoms – often just masking or suppressing them – and others to counteract the detrimental effects of the pills initially given).
And so, in short, all of the ancient systems recognised and worked with principles based on the interconnectedness of it all – both on the microcosm as well as macrocosm plane. All things were observed as being interlinked, and so our body systems were observed being intimately linked to each other, our totality was inclusive on mental, physical and spiritual sphere and thus recognised as interlinked and causal to each other. Our involvement with the external eco system and its participants also acknowledged.
So where does all this lead me? It leads me to disclosing my deepest distrust in the present reductionist medical model, and disdain at the possibility of ‘authorities’ such as NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence), CNHC (Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council) and even BCYT (British Council for Yoga Therapy) playing an active part in ‘recognising’ Yoga as an effective ‘tool’ in lives and ‘treatment’ of individuals that may benefit from it. Our mind, body and soul are indivisible. Present regulatory bodies rooted in a conventional, ‘modern’ medical model do not recognise this.
There are those who insist that a Yoga teacher requires further training in medical diagnostic terminology and the ‘conditions’ it describes. As a homeopath, as well as a Yoga teacher, who sees every individual as a whole, and not the sum of their ‘dis-
Did you know that the chapter on syndromes grows by a third with every succeeding edition of a medical dictionary? Do you think that we as humans are able to create (or ‘succumb to’ if you wish) that many diseases?
Or can you see that allopathy and its proponents cannot see the tree for the woods and with little help from iatrogenic toxicity and long term effects, rather than going back to the source of any and all discomfort and pathology, they are just inventing new names when they spot the slight permutation in something they’ve ‘diagnosed’ as a disease previously. Inventing ID cards doesn’t really help the blind man see.
I would not like to see them being in charge of telling you or anyone else what is best for a particular individual, even less so for the group, for there are no groups, but rather a number of individuals. And, as some of my colleagues illustrate sensibly and sensitively through their experience in their well-
Being Human is more than being a sum of the parts or ‘conditions’ and Yoga teachers are aware of this. Does that make the Yoga teachers experts – certainly not. Yet there is a certainty that it does not need a prescription by those less well informed for Yoga to be taught in the settings which may benefit from it.
For details of Lea’s work please see: yoginilea.wordpress.com