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You love yoga. You’ve read the sutra and taken them to heart, and you regularly rely on your restorative practice to decompress. But now you’re wondering how else yoga can help improve your mental and physical health. Or, you have a new condition or challenge—you’re dealing with prolonged anxiety, or just had knee surgery—and are looking for complementary healing treatments. Enter yoga therapy.
This ancient tradition combines asana, meditation, mantra, and yoga philosophy to address specific physical and mental concerns. Yoga therapy is, in essence, working one-on-one with a yoga expert on a specialized, customized, therapeutic practice that can help you with everything from easing symptoms of depression and anxiety to recovering from chemotherapy or managing diabetes.
We talked with three pioneering women in the field to get their take on the practice, and their advice for starting your own yoga therapy journey.
See also: A Brief History of Yoga Therapy
3 reasons to seek out a yoga therapist
Yoga classes address your overall health and help you to feel more flexible, balanced, and resilient, mentally and physically. A yoga therapist, on the other hand, works with a person suffering from certain maladies—rheumatoid arthritis, hypertension, Parkinson’s disease, to name a few—and uses yoga to help alleviate symptoms, explains Ingrid Yang, MD, a practicing physician, certified yoga therapist, and 500-hour trained yoga teacher based in San Diego.
Yang was recently featured in Yoga Therapy Today—the magazine for members of the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT)—for her work helping COVID-19 patients ease lingering pulmonary, cardiac, and neurological symptoms. She also specializes in cancer recovery and working with patients with disabilities.
You value more collaborative, personalized health care
According to Yang, you should seek out a yoga therapist when you want to be more active in your own health care. “Yoga therapy is patient-centered care,” Yang says. “Yoga therapy interventions are a co-creation between the therapist and the patient, so the patient has ownership of the plan, instead of just being told to take this pill, or do that pose.”
Evan Soroka, a certified yoga therapist, 500-hour trained yoga teacher, and the creator of Soroka Yoga Therapy, based in Aspen, Colorado, agrees. “The difference between yoga and yoga therapy is the element of autonomy, or self-empowerment,” she adds.
“Yoga therapy is about understanding yourself, understanding your needs, and understanding what’s out of balance and how to bring it back into balance,” explains Soroka, also the author of Yoga Therapy for Diabetes. “Yoga therapy takes the tools, practices, and philosophy of yoga, and tailors them specifically to a person or condition.”
As a yoga therapist, Soroka helps people manage physical pain from injury or disease, develop customized practices for healthy aging, address neurological issues, and much more. But her specialty is working with people who have diabetes. With their input, she creates yoga-based practices to help diabetic clients manage blood sugar levels and feel more in control of their lives. She connects the biology, physiology, and psychology of diabetes to yoga, using spinal movement, breathing techniques, and meditations to help clients feel empowered to take charge of their own self-care.
“Yoga therapy is turning into a niche approach to healthcare,” says Soroka.
You want to get to the root of the problem
Yoga therapy may be for you, too, if you’re interested in getting to the root of your physical and mental health issues, instead of just treating the symptoms. “The people I work with are drawn to the whole-person perspective,” says Marsha Banks-Harold, a certified yoga therapist and 500-hour trained yoga teacher, plus a trauma sensitive yoga facilitator.
Banks-Harold, also the owner of PIES Fitness Yoga Studio and Holistic Yoga Therapy School in Alexandria, Virginia, practices and teaches yoga therapy using a kosha-based model. The koshas are the energetic layers, or sheaths, that make up a whole person, including the physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and pranic elements of existence.
For example, Banks-Harold works with cancer survivors at a local hospital who are suffering on multiple levels. Some may be recovering from surgery or chemotherapy, while also working with a stage four diagnosis and not knowing how much longer they have to live. They are preparing for transition and don’t always know how to communicate how they feel to loved ones. Their yoga therapy plan may include relief from physical symptoms of pain and exhaustion, but also the psychological work of dealing with grief and loss.
Or maybe you deal with regular migraines and want to understand why. “Yoga therapy will help relax the tension in your neck fascia and help you breathe better and improve vasodilation to decrease migraine symptoms,” says Yang. “But it will also also get to the root cause, asking where in your journey you experienced wounding that could exacerbate or originate these symptoms. For example, is your stress from your mother-in-law’s constant criticism?”
The physical body and “fixing” it used to be the focus of yoga therapy, says Banks-Harold, but she is now seeing a shift toward understanding trauma, social justice, and overall well-being.
The first, and only, Black woman to run an accredited yoga therapy training, and a member of the IAYT steering committee on diversity, equity, and inclusion, Banks-Harold also has clients who are dealing with race- and gender-based trauma, particularly in the workplace. “I hold space for clients as they share details and unpack stress,” she says. “Self-esteem is often an underlying issue when you are constantly impacted by microaggressions. If you’re consistently not accepted, valued, or seen, you lose agency and the confidence to speak or even be heard.” Banks-Harold then customizes practices and readings to help clients with what they are facing.
You believe integrative health care works
Yoga therapists integrate addressing biomedical pathologies with psychological support to bring balance to the body and mind. And modern Western science is now backing this time-tested tradition.
Every day there is more peer-reviewed science supporting the ways yoga can help with everything from decreasing blood pressure and inflammatory markers to easing stress, anxiety, and depression. Yang cautions that yoga isn’t meant or shown to cure physical and mental health issues, but it can effectively treat symptoms.
The proof is in the way you feel after yoga therapy, she adds. “If you have less arthritis pain despite Xrays that show nothing has changed physically, it’s working.”
While yoga therapy is not yet an insurance provider-approved treatment, it is moving in that direction for some cases, says Yang. At the hospital where she works, patient treatment plans often include add-ons for integrative therapies, including music therapy, aromatherapy, reiki, and now yoga therapy. “It’s becoming more viable, thanks to the growing volume of modern science that now backs its benefits,” she says.”In our lifetimes, I think we’ll see yoga therapy integrated into medicine in a much more foundational way, in hospitals and elsewhere.”
How to find a yoga therapist
To find a yoga therapist, go to the IAYT member directory and search for therapists in your location, or ask your local yoga teachers or peer support groups for recommendations for teachers who work either in-person or online.
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