THE BLOG

What Is Yoga Therapy?

06/20/2013 12:04 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2013

You may be surprised that to learn that yoga therapy -- though not ancient like the practice of yoga itself -- began in India almost a century ago. The first formal institutions were Kaivalyadham Health and Yoga Research Center and The Yoga Institute of Santa Cruz.

According to the late Georg Feuerstein, "Yoga therapy is of modern coinage and represents a first effort to integrate traditional yogic concepts and techniques with Western medical and psychological knowledge."

What the many modern interpretations of yoga therapy have in common is an understanding of the vital integration of mind, body, and spirit to heal the whole person. One way to think of yoga therapy is as a replacement therapy, that is, replacing old bad habits with better new ones. As such, yoga therapy encompasses not only the body and the movements we do on the yoga mat, but how we live and treat others and ourselves off the mat, which is ultimately what matters for a healthy and whole life. Simply and elegantly stated in the words of Judith Hanson Lasater, yoga therapy is "the use of the techniques of yoga to create, stimulate, and maintain an optimum state of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health."

I began to incorporate the principles of yoga therapy into my group classes in the early 1980s, guiding students to let the posture fit them rather than trying to fit their bodies into the posture, and for them to decide when to come out of the posture. In 1984, in partnership with Leroy Perry, DC, of the International Sports Medicine Institute, I began to bring the benefits of yoga to patients who were seeking relief from chronic pain in a most secular of settings, a chiropractic clinic. I was not alone in my conviction that yoga could bring great benefit to people looking to heal in a variety of ways. In 1989, Dr. Richard Miller and I brought together students of TKV Desikachar, the Iyengar Institute, and Yogi Bhajan to found the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT). In 1990, Dean Ornish, M.D. brought aspects of yoga into the mainstream, without calling it yoga, with his groundbreaking book based on clinical research, Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease.

Today, we are witnessing the blossoming of this new profession of yoga therapy. A trained yoga therapist understands the body/mind connection through the lens and with the tools of yoga. The yoga therapist comes in after the acute phase has subsided, often working with the referring clinician, and helps the individual find a recovery that puts him or her in a better position to avoid recurrence. For example, in the case of bodily injury such as back pain, the individual will be given a personalized routine to practice on a daily basis to address his or her specific needs, which may be modified by the yoga therapist as strength and flexibility are built.

Not just for back pain or shoulder pain, yoga therapy, in conjunction with clinical care and psychotherapy depending on the situation, can also ease pain and reduce suffering for individuals suffering from multiple sclerosis, PTSD, and other conditions for which we might not normally think of yoga as an aid. While yoga therapy is not a cure, it can improve the quality of life, and may augment the efficacy of clinical treatment. For instance, in the case of cancer, it may improve the patient's ability to comply with difficult treatments. As you might expect, as an adjunct for treatment for such conditions as PTSD, addiction recovery, and other psychological diagnoses, as well as physical diseases that cause great emotional distress, the prescription would not be "do 12 dynamic cobras and call me in the morning," but rather it may be breath-based, and may draw upon other dimensions of the human experience and spirit.

Yoga therapy is coming to claim its place and gain recognition in the world of complementary medicine. Loyola Marymount University was the first university-based yoga therapy training program. Now there are more than 100 yoga therapy schools with memberships in the IAYT contributing to this growing field. So the next time you want a fresh perspective on something that is ailing you, please consider yoga therapy as an option.

For more on yoga, click here.

For more by Larry Payne, Ph.D., click here.