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I had been teaching yoga for a few years in studios and gyms in Washington, D.C., when students started to ask about scheduling private sessions. I was thrilled at the thought of working with folks one-on-one to help them tackle challenges.
But it became clear pretty quickly that I was in over my head. A new-ish teacher, I was still learning basic anatomy and philosophy since introductory yoga teacher trainings are usually only 200 hours. These private students asked for help healing hamstring injuries, guidance on how to work through back pain, and advice on relationships that were causing them stress. They would reveal the depths of how anxious, depressed, or confused they were feeling, hoping that yoga would help.
Yoga can be a healing practice—both physically and mentally—but I wasn’t a physical therapist, doctor, or psychologist. I was able to hold space for teaching and share what I know about hamstring muscles and the nervous system, but the expectations students had that I could help them resolve serious issues made me edgy. I was worried I would end up hurting someone.
The limitations of yoga teachers
When you practice yoga, you may feel an emotional release as you move through the physical postures or let the philosophy sink into your being. It’s why we go to yoga—to feel better! But it’s the practice of yoga, not the teacher, that is largely responsible.
It not that uncommon to start to cry during class or want to stay afterwards to talk through a recent breakup or conflict. Yet it’s a mistake to place the expectation of being someone with all the answers on a yoga teacher. There isn’t the requisite therapeutic relationship, contract, or consistency in a class to help you unpack your feelings, move deeper into their root causes, or fully process stored emotions and memories, even if the teacher is a licensed psychologist.
My private-client phase in D.C. didn’t last long. I knew I wasn’t ready to identify, set, and articulate the boundary between what people were looking for and what I could actually provide.
Nearly 15 years later, I’ve pursued additional studies and I am a therapist. I often integrate mindfulness and somatics into my sessions with clients because the mind-body awareness that’s the bedrock of yoga can help them feel grounded, embodied, clear, empowered, and even help process trauma. But in a therapy session, I am focused solely on my client and their mental and emotional state. I also have the training I need to understand the complex nature of emotions, harm reduction, and how to discern a crisis situation.
How to know when yoga isn’t enough
You can find support from yoga without treating your teacher like a psychotherapist. Following are some awarenesses that can help you know how to use yoga as a contributing healing modality, how to identify when you need support beyond the scope of yoga, and how to know when your yoga teacher may be venturing into therapist territory without counseling credentials.
Yoga is not trauma therapy
If yoga is part of your self-care strategy as you work through difficult emotions or memories, Gail Parker, PhD, a psychologist, certified yoga therapist, meditation coach, and yoga teacher, suggests seeking out a yoga therapist or teacher who is trained and skilled in working with trauma recovery, anxiety, depression, and other emotional and psychological issues.
When you’re looking for someone, Parker says to make sure you find someone who has trauma or yoga therapy training, but is also kind, welcoming, respectful, curious, genuine, culturally responsive, fully present, and helps you feel seen and heard. She recommends searching for trauma-informed yoga therapists on the websites for the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance, the International Association of Yoga Therapists, and Yoga Alliance.
“While yoga can complement therapy, a yoga class should never be a substitute for psychotherapeutic treatment—the purview of licensed professionals,” says Parker. Consider any emotional release you experiencing during your practice as a catalyst for pursuing more complete and complex therapy with someone who is trained and licensed.
Listen to your body
Yoga is designed to help us feel more whole, complete, and connected, so it can be a powerful way to learn how to self-regulate or maintain a nervous system response that doesn’t overwhelm you. But if you’re in the wrong class or doing the wrong poses for your situation, warns Coral Brown, a licensed therapist and yoga teacher, you may become more agitated.
To keep your nervous system calm, pick a class that matches your personality. “If you love power yoga, a restorative class will be challenging physically and mentally,” says Brown. “Go to a class that resonates with your nervous system.”
Beware of promises
Any yoga teacher who tries to act like a therapist is akin to someone advertising themself as a bike mechanic when all they really can do is change a flat tire. Without the training or experience to replace a chain or fix a derailleur, that person could very likely make things worse, or at the very least, be ineffective while giving the impression that damages are repaired.
“A teacher’s role is to teach, not treat, even if they’re a mental health professional outside of the context of yoga,“ says Brown. “If a teacher tries to evaluate or treat a psychological problem that’s a red flag,” adds Parker. “If a teacher says or does something that doesn’t feel right to you, you’ll feel it in your body. Trust your experience and find another teacher.”