Yoga therapy represents a new approach to mental health that seeks to alleviate emotional pain and restore well-being through a series of meditative practices that involve both the body and mind.
Over the last decades, researchers and mental health professionals have realized what Hindu monks have been teaching for thousands of years – a holistic approach to psychological and physical health is the key to balance and well-being.
Yoga – which is the foundation of yoga therapy – is an extremely complex spiritual tradition that has a history of roughly five thousand years, rich literature, and clear practice guidelines.
Luckily, over the years, practitioners have simplified this approach and made it accessible to anyone who’s interested in self-exploration and self-growth.
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Yoga Therapy: What is it?
Considered both an art and a discipline, yoga is an ancient Indian practice characterized by meditation and physical activity, which can improve the body’s flexibility, reduce stress, and cultivate an overall state of health and well-being.
Yoga therapy represents a collection of principles, techniques, and practices derived from Hindu philosophy and adapted to clinical settings. By using meditation, breathing techniques, and body poses, this approach aims to improve our overall health and promote a state of calm and well-being.
According to a 2013 study , yoga therapy helps people with mental illness by cultivating a state of calm, increasing awareness and focus, promoting acceptance and adaptability, and cultivating a sense of security.
Yoga Therapy Theory
In Sanskrit (a language of ancient India), yoga means union. In other words, yoga therapy promotes an integrative and holistic  approach to mental health.
The union that yoga therapists and practitioners often mention is that between body, mind, and spirit. Yoga teachings stipulate that once we unite these three fundamental aspects of human experience into one element, we can reach a state of balance and health on all levels.
Some practitioners go so far as to believe that spiritual enlightenment and true unity can only be achieved in India, the birthplace of Yoga.
However, this doesn’t mean that yoga – as a series of health-promoting practices – can’t be effective in other parts of the world. In fact, countless practitioners have successfully promoted and implemented this approach all over the globe.
How Does Yoga Therapy Suggest the Mind Works?
In yoga therapy, the relationship between body, mind, and spirit represents a fundamental element that can serve as an explanatory model for the cause of physical and mental illness and also provide a pathway to balance and healing.
We all strive, more or less consciously, to free ourselves from the limited notion of what we are or, more precisely, what we commonly believe we are. In broad lines, we tend to identify with our body, mind, possessions, relationships, social status, bringing all these elements into one comprehensive picture we call ‘life.’
But these mental constructs are merely shadows of the truth that lies within ourselves; a truth that’s often hard to understand because of ignorance, narrow-mindedness, or lack of self-awareness.
By taking a holistic approach to health, yoga therapy seeks to restore balance and well-being through a series of physical, mental, and spiritual practices.
How Does Yoga Therapy Cause Change?
The profound changes that occur during yoga therapy sessions imply a confrontation with the fascinating mysteries of our own nature.
Questions like, Who am I, What is my purpose in this world, or What do I want to achieve, cultivate an introspective attitude that eventually results in valuable answers about ourselves.
As human beings, most of us are aware of our flaws, imperfections, and limits. Yoga therapy induces the power and energy to overcome them and transcend the human condition.
In other words, this approach cultivates inner freedom and understanding. It makes us realize that everything is possible, although not everything is permitted.
Most of those who resort to yoga therapy often discover that this approach can significantly improve the general condition of their body and mind. From increased flexibility and healthy weight loss to reduced stress and fewer worry-filled thoughts, yoga therapy seems to have a profoundly curative effect.
Throughout the years, this approach has proven to be a viable alternative to complement modern medicine. However, experts suggest yoga therapy should only serve a complementary role in the overall process of healing.
What Happens in a Yoga Therapy Session?
First of all, yoga therapy can be performed either in a group or individually, depending on the client’s needs.
Second, each client goes through an evaluation phase which consists of a detailed discussion with the therapist regarding specific problems he or she wants to address.
Based on professional experience and the severity of the client’s condition, the therapist can determine if the client is a viable candidate for yoga therapy.
Throughout each session, you will receive detailed instructions on how to execute different poses and meditative practices. With a combination of body and mind techniques, yoga therapists can help you achieve physical and mental health.
Techniques Used in Yoga Therapy
To help clients achieve health and well-being, yoga therapists focus on various techniques that target both the body and mind.
Here are three of the most popular techniques used in yoga therapy:
- Physical postures represent a fundamental practice in yoga. Through various yoga poses, clients can address problem areas. During the first sessions, this practice takes place under the supervision of a yoga therapist.
- Breathing exercises are an excellent way to relieve stress and ease your anxious mind. Using various breathing techniques, the therapist will guide the client throughout the entire session.
- Meditation helps clients achieve a state of peace and serenity, allowing both the body and the mind to relax.
Once the mind and body are in tune, clients begin to experience the amazing benefits of this approach.
Does Yoga Therapy Work?
Although many researchers were somewhat skeptical about yoga therapy, especially when it first became popular among Western cultures, there plenty of scientific evidence suggesting this approach may work great as a complementary treatment for various conditions.
For example, studies indicate that yoga therapy can alleviate chronic back pain , reduce psychological symptoms associated with menopause , and work as an adjunct treatment for major psychiatric disorders .
Although at first yoga might seem like a series of light exercises, the details of this practice are far more complicated than that. While it implies the individual’s ability to adopt certain poses, the purpose of yoga therapy is to create a perfect balance between body, mind, and spirit.
In time, this balance leads to physical, mental, and emotional health.
What Kinds of Concerns is Yoga Therapy Best For?
As the studies we mentioned above indicate, yoga therapy is an effective complementary treatment for both physical and psychological conditions.
From joint and muscle pain, high blood pressure, and insomnia to depression, anxiety, and stress, yoga therapy is anyone who seeks complementary alternatives to specialized treatments.
Furthermore, yoga therapy is also a great way to achieve personal growth and work on some of the limits that hold you back from reaching your full potential.
However, as with all complementary and alternative treatment, it’s best that you consult a general physician before going to yoga therapy. For example, because yoga poses require some physical flexibility and resistance, this practice may be too risky for patients with arthritis.
Sometimes, even if there’s an improvement in their health condition, patients are not advised to give up specialized medical treatments and rely solely on yoga therapy. Any discontinuation of treatment, unrecommended by the physician, may result in serious consequences.
How Are Yoga Therapy Specialists Trained?
Unlike other therapeutic approaches, yoga therapy doesn’t require a background in medicine, psychology, or any other related field. That’s because yoga therapy is a relatively new approach that has yet to establish a formalized certification process.
However, professional yoga therapists should be well familiar with anatomy, physiology, nutrition, yoga philosophy, yoga techniques, first aid, medical care, and business ethics. 
Another crucial indicator of a good yoga therapist is the institution from which he or she received training and certification. The International Association of Yoga Therapists is an excellent place to start digging for more info.
Concerns/Limitations of Yoga Therapy
Although yoga therapy can be a viable complementary treatment for a wide array of physical and mental conditions, there are certain limitations that we need to consider.
First, yoga therapy is a relatively ‘young’ approach, which means there aren’t any strict guidelines and formalized certification processes. However, the International Association of Yoga Therapists represents a promising attempt to standardize the yoga therapy training and certification process.
Second, as a complementary treatment, yoga therapy lacks the diagnostic methods that would help therapists conduct a thorough and objective assessment. This is one of the reasons why you should consult a general physician before taking yoga classes.
Despite the limitations and concerns related to this newly developed approach, yoga therapy shows promising results in the treatment of various mental and physical conditions.
Important Practitioners in Yoga Therapy
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was a yoga teacher and ayurvedic healer. With extensive knowledge and experience in various forms of yoga, many consider him to be the father of modern yoga.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is probably the most well-known yoga teacher and practitioner. He’s also credited with developing Transcendental Meditation, a healing technique he shared with nearly 40,000 yoga teachers.
How to Find a Therapist
When searching for a professional yoga therapist, the best thing you can rely on is word-to-mouth referrals. Ask around as see which name pops up most often.
Also, make sure the yoga therapist you choose has extensive training and solid experience in the filed.
Since you can rely solely on referrals and other people’s feedback – as some of them might be biased – a good idea would be to get more info from the institution where he/she completed his/her training and received his/her license.
What Should I be Looking for in an LMHP?
Just like in the case of any health specialist, there are several qualities that separate licensed professionals from self-proclaimed experts.
As the phrase ‘licensed professional’ suggests, a good yoga therapist should have proper certification from an accredited school.
Since the market is flooded with self-proclaimed gurus, teachers, and yogis, the best way to verify credentials is by looking over the guidelines provided by the International Association of Yoga Therapists.
Lastly, qualities such as understanding, empathy, and communication are among the tell-tale signs of a professional yoga therapist.
Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist
Before you decide on a yoga therapist, it’s essential to have a brief conversation about his/her background and experience.
Here are some questions that will help you dig up valuable information:
- How did you get your license?
- Where did you receive your training?
- Are you (or the school where you received your training) accredited by the International Association of Yoga Therapists?
- What type of clients typically employ your services?
- What the problems or conditions that yoga therapy is best for?
Final Thoughts on Yoga Therapy
Even though there are many types of yoga, they all have a common purpose – to improve overall health and facilitate the union between body, mind, and spirit.
In the end, yoga is a way of life. A healthy lifestyle that keeps you grounded in the present moment and helps you evolve towards the best possible version of yourself.
- R. Nagendra, “”Integrated Yoga therapy for mental Illness,” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2013.
- McCall, “”An Introduction to Yoga therapy,” Cruz Bay Publishing, 28 August 2007. [Online]. Available: https://www.yogajournal.com/teach/an-introduction-to-yoga-therapy.
- Williams, C. Abildso and L. Cooper, “”Evaluation of the Effectiveness and Efficacy of Iyengar Yoga therapy on Chronic Low Back Pain,” Spine, vol. 34, no. 19, pp. 2066-2076, 2009.
- Cramer, R. Lauche, J. Langhorst and G. Dobos, “Effectiveness of Yoga for Menopausal Symptoms: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012.
- Cabral, H. B. Meyer and D. Ames, “”Effectiveness of Yoga therapy as a Complementary Treatment for Major Psychiatric Disorders: A Meta-Analysis,” The Primary Care Companion to CNS Disorders, 2011.
- n.a., “”Yoga therapy,” GoodTherapy, 6 8 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/yoga-therapy.