Tuesday, September 30, 2014

                                                     Yoga Therapy as a profession


Yoga Therapy is the therapeutic application of yoga, known as “citiksa” which allows the yoga therapist to use the various aspects of yoga, asanas or yoga poses for the body, breath work for the mind and meditation for the spirit, to help the client come in contact with his/her own inner healing abilities.

Yoga therapy is not meant to be a substitute for good allopathic healthcare, as any responsible yoga therapist will tell you; but, we work hand in hand with clients and their healthcare professionals whenever requested by the client (or through doctor recommendations), as an adjunct to a patient’s treatment plan.

 For example if someone goes to the doctor for chronic lower back pain the doctor may suggest that they take up yoga.  The client takes up yoga, this may help, based on the experience and expertise of the teacher, however it may not heal or move toward a path of total recovery so, although the client sees that yoga helps and they love their yoga class, they do their practice with much trepidation or may delve right in (thinking that they are healed) and then do further (seemingly) irreparable injury to their back and may never experience the deeper possibilities of the body to heal itself.

The yoga therapist works as a bridge between yoga and healthcare.  The yoga therapist will see the client as a whole person and will work with the client not just by recommending a set of poses set in the context of a group class but will work individually with the client thereby also making further recommendations as may be required.  For instance the yoga therapist will spend time with the client to find out how he or she is sitting, what happens when “his back goes out” and will recommend, for instance, not just poses to help the lower back (as may be prescribed in a standard yoga class) but the yoga therapist may provide a treatment program to help them work through their pain, using the breath, meditation and good posture at all times, for example. Also the yoga therapist (YT) may not stop there; but may, based on the client’s assessment, recommend extended Deep Relaxation Practices to reset the nervous system, advise that the client look at his diet and make some changes, the therapist may also recommend meditation to help the client slow down “mentally” and move more mindfully through life, creating less opportunity for injury. 

A yoga therapist is not just a yoga teacher although all yoga therapists have to have as their base certified yoga teacher training and experience.  The yoga therapist is required to get specific and additional training from those working in the field of yoga combined with medicine or healthcare, those who have created programs based on:  information gathering, knowledge, experience and research combined with yoga teachings and practice.  This is the basis for yoga therapy training today.  For example, well know Cardiologist Dr. Dean Ornish, who practiced yoga at the same organization where I learned my yoga training; back in the 80s and 90s, began doing extensive research on how to reverse heart disease using yoga as therapy.  In the movie Escape Fire, the fight to rescue the healthcare system in America, Dr. Ornish talks about how through the practice of yoga, telemores (the natural end of eukaryotic chromosomes) which shrink when a person becomes ill thus compromising their immune system, will in fact lengthen when one regularly practices yoga. Dr. Ornish in his practice worked directly as a professional Medical doctor (cardiologist) and yoga teacher, and thereby developed a program known as Cardiac Yoga to help patients with CAD.  This program for teachers wishing to work with cardiac patients is still being taught today as a valid yoga therapy program to help cardiac patients on their road to recovery. 

Here is how a yoga therapist might apply his skills and training in Cardiac Yoga therapy whether through the Dean Ornish program or some other yoga therapy training program. Someone has a “heart attack”.  They are taken to the hospital and eventually have stints placed in the arteries around their heart to keep them open, to avoid a restricted flow of blood to the heart and a second attack.  Then the person is sent home and told to change their life, eat right and come back for a six week, then six month etc. check-up.  This is where the yoga therapist might work with that client.  After an assessment the yoga therapist (YT) might begin by leading the client through some gentle yoga stretches to begin movement, improve circulation and inspire deeper fuller breathing and a regular exercise program.  The YT might help the client look at her diet; and/or might help her to understand proper food combining and how to develop a healthy diet so important for those with CAD.  They might teach the client how to shop, for instance for  wholefoods, understanding the difference between organic vs non-organic items;  and, how to change the diet in a purposeful and meaningful way yet in a way that meets the clients total needs. Hence for many it may be helping them find a healthy diet that continues to please the palate, yet not empty the wallet.  The YT may help the client better understand stress and how to work with their stress using yogic breathing and relaxation techniques.  The YT would help the client develop greater peace and presence in their life by learning how to control the mind through mindfulness meditation and by developing deeper connections with those she cares about and loves.

Yoga therapy - through the years from the great work of Dr. Dean Ornish and many many others - has created an intricate and respectable bond between the practice of yoga and healthcare.  Yoga is very popular today and it too has morphed into something that anybody who feels that they are “somebody” wants to say that they practice.  Hence on one end of the spectrum yoga seems to be an exclusive club for the lululemon mothers and the Blue Jasmines of the world.  While it is good to know that they are doing yoga, as surely they too are stressed; yoga is so much more than that!  Yoga is for everybody, anybody – the sick, the healthy, the old, the young, the rich and the poor…and it is through this framework known as yoga therapy, not the western mindset of yoga yuppiedom, that this more expansive use of the healing power of yoga is being met! It is through this prism that yoga therapists feel that they are doing ‘sacred’ work for the world and for the community in which they live.

Yoga therapy is not a one size fits all kind of deal.  Because one studies yoga therapy it does not mean that they can assess and provide recommendations for all conditions and issues that they may be presented with.  There is a basic standard 300 hour yoga therapy training that all yoga therapists must have as a generalist yoga therapist, but over and above that, yoga therapists are now appropriately branching out, in order to provide the best support and expertise to their clients by specializing in specific areas.  This is why you will find today, for example: Cardiac Yoga Therapy; Yoga for Depression; Yoga for Grief; Structural Yoga therapy; Yoga for Cancer; Pain Care Yoga Therapy; Mindfulness Yoga Therapy; and, Aryuveda for diet, health and nutrition etc., just to name a few. Yoga therapists are respectful of one another’s expertise.  They will refer clients when the issue that presents itself is not within their field of expertise.

The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) (http://www.iayt.org/ ) is the hub organization today, which is providing the oversight for the regulation, development, support and integration of yoga therapy today.  The Bermuda Association of Yoga Therapists (BAYT) is a local association of members keen to see that the standards, support and development of yoga therapy in our Bermuda community has a professional reference point, a model and a mentor to guide its development in keeping with international standards so necessary to support this unique work that we do.


Joanne Wohlmuth

Yoga Therapist

Chairperson, Bermuda Yoga Therapist Association (BAYT)







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