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Yoga Therapy

A Brief History of Yoga Therapy

Yoga therapy is as old as yoga itself, but until recently, it was only viewed as a mysterious form of alternative medicine. Now, it is prescriptible support for serious medical conditions, backed by science.

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You’ve heard it a thousand times: “Yoga is my therapy.” When life is feeling hectic and it seems as though responsibilities are endlessly stacking up, taking a moment to focus on your breath in Child’s Pose can quiet your mind and flood your body with a sense of ease. But over the past four decades, a specific type of yoga has been gaining ground in the Western world as a legitimate form of holistic health care—yoga therapy.

What is yoga therapy?

The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) defines yoga therapy as “the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga.” So what is the difference between yoga and yoga therapy? The central distinctions lie within the credentials of the yogi directing the student, the personal goals of the student, and the breadth of knowledge and resources used by the yoga teacher. All yoga therapists are yoga teachers, but not all yoga teachers are yoga therapists. 

Yoga therapists incorporate asana, meditation, visualization, yoga nidra, chanting, pranayama, Ayurveda, and more into their sessions to provide personalized holistic care to their clients. Yoga therapy is “a truly individualized plan that constantly evolves in cooperation with the client,” says Laurie Hyland Robertson, C-IAYT, editor in chief of Yoga Therapy Today and the managing editor of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. A yoga therapist bases their work on yoga texts and yoga philosophy, says Hyland Robertson, so their approach to healing is thousands of years old. Somebody with a heart condition or psychological trauma, for example, might seek out a yoga therapist to assist with their mind-body healing process. 

A yoga therapist adjusts her student in Reverse Warrior

The origins of yoga therapy

It is difficult to pinpoint when yoga therapy first originated, but its practices are linked with many ancient texts. Nathamuni’s Yoga Rahasya (ninth century BCE) discusses therapeutic applications of yoga, says Hyland Robertson. “One idea is that the yogis of old were seeking freedom so they needed support for the physical and mental body that they could do themselves. [Yoga therapy] was this self-applied therapeutic method… [They] were using these practices to keep themselves healthy to pursue the ultimate goal of liberation,” she says.

The ancient practice of Ayurveda is also closely tied with yoga therapy. “Ayurveda is the system of medicine, yoga practices are the practical applications of that,” says Hyland Robertson. Yoga and Ayurveda are both attributed to Samkhya philosophy (third century CE). “Both systems are aimed at promoting liberation,” she says, so there is a link between the ancient yogis who sought freedom, and yoga therapy as the means of attaining that freedom. Quite simply, yoga therapy is as old as yoga itself. 

A timeline of yoga therapy

  • Second century CE: The Charaka Samhita is written at roughly this time. It originates from Samkhya philosophy and is a foundational text for Ayurveda, a key tenet in yoga therapy.
  • Ninth century CE: Nathamuni’s Yoga Rahasya is created. It discusses the therapeutic applications of yoga. 
  • November 18, 1888: T. Krishnamacharya is born. T. Krishnamacharya is considered to be the originator of modern yoga therapy and taught influential yogis such as B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and T.K.V. Desikachar.
  • September 1893: Swami Vivekananda brings yoga to the Western world at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago.
  • 1972: Sri Swami Satchidananda teaches Dean Ornish about yoga, meditation, becoming a vegetarian, and doing acts of kindness to help him recover from mononucleosis and depression. Sri Swami Satchidananda’s “program” expresses the foundational tenets of yoga therapy. 
  • 1983: The Yoga Biomedical Trust is founded as a charity by Dr. Robin Monro to research and provide yoga therapy as a holistic form of treatment and prevention for those with medical conditions.  
  • 1986: The Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana(S-VYASA) is founded as a registered charitable institution to research and promote yoga therapy as a socially relevant science. 
  • 1986: Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy is founded by Michael Lee to train yoga therapists. 
  • 1989: The International Association of Yoga Therapists is founded as an independent, nonprofit organization to teach and provide yoga therapy services. 
  • 1990: Dr. Dean Ornish publishes the first study to show that healthy lifestyle changes can reverse the effects of coronary heart disease. Mild exercise, a plant-based diet, stress reduction (meditation), and emotional support all contribute to the reversal of coronary heart disease without pharmaceutical intervention. This links yoga therapy with a scientifically proven medical treatment. 
  • 1990: The Ornish Reversal Program™ gets approved for insurance coverage, opening the door for other yoga programs to be covered. 
  • 1993: Joseph Le Page creates Integrative Yoga Therapy
  • 2002: The University Grants Commission in India establishes S-VYASA as a Deemed University, accrediting its degrees in yoga therapy.  
  • 2011: International Journal of Yoga Therapy starts being indexed by MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine, which is run by the National Institutes of Health.
  • 2013: Maryland University of Integrative Health launches the first Master of Science in Yoga Therapy in the United States.  
  • 2016: IAYT launches their 800-hour yoga therapy certification program, codifying modern requirements for being a professional yoga therapist
  • October 1, 2016: Yoga Alliance no longer allows yoga teachers to market themselves as yoga therapists, unless they have the proper certification.

See also The Timeline and History of Yoga in America

Modern yoga therapy

Today, yoga therapy is a closely monitored profession, but it wasn’t always that way. Governing bodies like the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), the British Council for Yoga Therapy, the Australasian Association of Yoga Therapists, and others have the authority to accredit training programs and offer certifications to students. To receive a certificate from the IAYT (C-IAYT), a student must undertake an 800-hour training program over the course of two years at minimum, on top of the 200-hour yoga teacher training. 

Yoga therapy certification is still new. IAYT’s 800-hour certification program wasn’t launched until 2016. Before then, yoga teachers without a certificate in yoga therapy could market themselves as yoga therapists in Yoga Alliance’s directory and offer services that catered to injuries, illnesses, and health conditions. Now, Yoga Alliance requires C-IAYT or other certificates from an accredited training program before a teacher can be labeled as a yoga therapist.

These credentials ensure that all yoga therapists have been properly trained and are equipped to oversee the holistic development of their clients. It also makes them accountable to a set of published standards. However, since accreditation is so new, some yoga teachers believe they are qualified to administer yoga therapy without a certificate.

Tiffany Cruikshank, L.Ac., MAOM, and founder of Yoga Medicine®, an educational program that trains yoga teachers to work therapeutically with their students, agrees that yoga teachers need “an understanding of both east and west, meaning a depth of knowledge not just in yoga, but also in anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and  pathology, so the teacher can both work within a medical setting and meet the student where they’re at by individualizing the practice to suit their needs.” However, Cruikshank, who is not a C-IAYT, doesn’t believe that yoga teachers need an additional certification to gain this experience. 

“As modern yoga teachers we also need to consider that what we need today may be very different than what was needed a hundred years ago for men in India,” Cruikshank says. “In my experience, the best way to do that is to fuse together the traditional practices with modern day science and research.”

Both Cruikshank and Hyland Robertson are capable of expressing the key tenets of yoga therapy to their clients, which has sparked debate in the yoga community: Are specialized certificates the only indicator of a teacher’s knowledge or ability? According to Cruikshank, there are other avenues beyond obtaining a C-IAYT or similar credential that can prepare a teacher to administer yoga therapeutically.

The future of yoga therapy

Thanks to accredited training and certification programs and scientific studies that prove yoga’s benefits, yoga therapy is now solidified as a valid health profession. The Maryland University of Integrative Health even offers a Master of Science in Yoga Therapy, where “clinical interns go into a hospital and provide yoga therapy in the surgical wards and the oncology ward,” says Hyland Robertson.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still challenges in integrating the practice in allopathic medicine. “The tools as described in the philosophy do not fit in the Western model of healthcare… [since] Western science doesn’t have the tools to study the subtle anatomy,” says Hyland Robertson.

Yoga therapy, as an ancient practice, can’t be separated from yoga itself. While scientists have validated the benefits of yoga therapy, it seems as though those studies are telling yoga therapists and patients what they already know—that yoga heals. 

See also An Introduction to Yoga Therapy