Beyond Asana: Other Yoga Therapy Tools
Visualization and Imagery
Visualization and imagery are ancient yogic tools that can facilitate healing. One particularly useful therapeutic method (though scientific study of it is just beginning) is the guided imagery technique of Yoga Nidra, literally "yogic sleep." In Yoga Nidra, a teacher (or a recording of one) guides you through a series of visualizations while you lie in Savasana. It's particularly useful for people with anxiety, either as a primary condition or as a feature of another medical condition, such as cancer. Such people may not be able to relax in Savasana or in restorative poses because their minds are so busy. With the teacher's voice is guiding them throughout Yoga Nidra, however, they tend to be less distracted by their internal voices, and they typically can drop into deeper relaxation than is usually available to them.
Chanting can be useful for people with a variety of health conditions. Some people are drawn to the devotional nature of chanting and prayer. Others who suffer from anxiety and depression find that chanting is a useful tool to get them out of their heads. Because chanting typically involves lengthening the exhalation relative to the inhalation, it also tends to relax the nervous system, shifting the balance away from the sympathetic side (the fight-or-flight system) to the more restorative parasympathetic branch—precisely what most people in the modern world, and most people seeking yoga therapy, need.
Other Yogic Tools
There are many other yogic tools with potential therapeutic utility. One of the most valuable is service. Counter to what you might think, when you volunteer to help others or take other selfless actions, you tend to be the biggest beneficiary (not that this goal should be your primary motivation). When you see, for example, what others must cope with, your problems may seem small in comparison. Doing something for others also tends to instill the sense that you are doing something meaningful with your life.
In addition, yoga philosophy is full of insights that can help your students as they work with health problems. One of the most important concepts, articulated in the Bhagavad Gita, is the idea of giving your best effort and letting go of results. You can (more or less) control your actions, but not what happens as a result. Focusing on what you want to have happen, instead of on what you will do to try to establish the necessary conditions to allow it to happen, can be a huge source of suffering—and one that undermines health and healing by keeping your stress-response system constantly turned on.
The more yogic tools at your disposal, the more flexibility you'll have in adapting to the unique circumstances and predilections of each of your students. One of the greatest benefits of using a varied approach, however, is the potential for healing synergy. For example, the hip opening you gain through asana and the sensitivity to the breath you cultivate in pranayama can make your sitting meditation practice deeper and more subtle, and in all likelihood more therapeutic. Regular use of another yogic tool, jala neti&mash;rinsing the nasal passages with salt water, using a neti pot or similar device—can relieve nasal congestion and, in my experience, facilitate even subtler pranayama and meditation.