Working in the amazing field of yoga therapy, we come across not only miraculous recovery stories but also witness profound transformation of the human spirit. A gift and a privilege to stand at the threshold of somebody’s healing experience, to feel their joy and gratitude, once again affirming, “Yes, yoga works!”
Krishnamacharya said, “if you can breathe, you can do yoga” and that is the scope of yoga therapy. A field that is emerging and gaining prominence around the world as more and more people begin to see how yoga can impact our health and life in such powerful ways and provide sustainable solutions to the problems of mankind.
This article summarises the basic principles and process of yoga therapy for maintaining a healthy body and mind, preventing illness and imbalance and supporting healing when illness takes over.
The Yogi and healer
The healing science of yoga must be as old as yoga itself. All great yogis were themselves healers. In an ancient prayer to Patanjali (the author of Yoga Sutra, the earliest and most authoritative text on yoga), he is venerated for three important contributions to mankind: yoga for the mind, grammar for speech and vaidya sastra (Ayurveda) for the body.
While yoga is very popular around the world, there is a lot of confusion around the various application modalities of yoga. In ancient times, all these practices were well streamlined with a clear purpose, specific tools and means of application. Children were taught active, dynamic practices (Srsti krama) taking into account their needs and potentials, progressing to young, healthy adulthood where practices were designed to be very intense and challenging (Siksana krama). When the person becomes a householder with less time and more commitments, practices were designed to protect and sustain what they have already achieved earlier (Raksana krama) and slowly one progresses towards higher spiritual pursuits (Adhyatmika krama).
According to Patanjali, vyadhi (illness) is considered an obstacle for spiritual progress and hence one of the main goals of yoga practice is to remove these obstacles that impede spiritual growth. Yoga therapy (Cikitsa krama) is therefore an important application of yoga where specific therapeutic needs are addressed so that one can overcome obstacles to spiritual progress. It is hence a very highly evolved system of healing with a very strong spiritual component that cannot be separated from it.
Personalised Yoga Therapy
Since each individual is special and unique, his/her therapeutic needs are also specific and unique. Yoga therapy addresses these unique and changing needs of each individual at all levels – physical, physiological, mental, emotional and the deeper spiritual. The complex canvas of a person’s life begins to unfold only when we learn to step beyond the conventional scientific paradigm that is disease-centric. Yoga therapy offers a 360-degree perspective of the person, inside-out – figuratively and literally.
Being a complimentary system of health, it works very well in tandem with main-stream medical system or any alternative healing modality. Unlike conventional medicine, it provides the person an opportunity to take responsibility and participate actively in their healing and recovery. The main focus in yoga therapy is to influence the mind – even the smallest shift in the state of mind of an individual opens up immense possibilities for healing and inner growth.
The Therapeutic Process
How does a yoga therapist work with a student ?
- An initial consultation will help the therapist to understand the individual at all levels – physical, physiological, mental, emotional, their personality and life circumstances and also the impact of the illness at all these levels.
- In consultation with the student, set clear goals to be achieved in the process – both short term and long term.
- Select appropriate tools and techniques and suitably adapt them to address the individual’s abilities, requirements and circumstances.
- Design effective practices for the person that can be integrated into their daily routine
- Suggest appropriate lifestyle and dietary changes to support healing
- Check progression, making appropriate changes over time to address higher goals
- Guide the person to a state of better health and well-being
- Empower the individual to take responsibility for their own health
- Instill confidence and strength to deal with road-blocks and obstacles of any nature that might stall or delay the healing process.
When somebody comes with, let us say, back pain:
- the first goal is to relax the person physically and mentally and reduce pain
- next step will be to improve mobility and flexibility,
- then to strengthen the back and associated structures,
- then maintain that strength and flexibility
This might progress from a few weeks to months. Once the person has achieved so much, then regular practice can help him maintain what he has achieved. Ideally, the student becomes less and less dependent on the therapist. With regular practice, they develop better awareness and understanding of their system, their strengths and challenges and are able to use their strengths to overcome potential challenges with a little guidance from the therapist.
The role of the Therapist
The role of the therapist in healing is very important. While a yoga teacher works with individuals or groups teaching suitable practices for health & wellbeing or spiritual progress, a yoga therapist uses yoga as a tool to aid in recovery from ill health. When somebody comes to a therapist, they are not coming to learn yoga; they are coming for relief from pain and suffering. The technique or tool is not important here, the individual is. The therapist should hence be equipped with a sound knowledge base in therapeutic application, be able to assess and understand the individual and also know how to apply the tools of yoga and guide the person through the path of recovery. A strong desire to help some one in pain is of course, the basic prerequisite.
But know that the therapist is not the healer. He/she is only a guide, a catalyst in the healing process, and a very privileged witness to the transformation. His/her strength does not lie in knowledge of postures and techniques alone. That is like giving a layperson a set of surgical tools and asking her to perform a complicated surgery. The skill of the surgeon (here, the therapist), lies in how intelligently he/she uses the tools. Krishnamacharya called Yoga Cikitsa “Asastra sastra cikitsa” meaning “surgery without instruments”. More important than the tools is the ability of the therapist to understand and utilize the unique strengths hidden within each individual for the healing process. The therapist also holds a safe and loving space for the healing to happen. A non-judgmental attitude, patience, humility and an immense faith in the strength of the student to heal herself is the skill-set of the therapist.
Becoming a Yoga Therapist
Training to become a yoga therapist is a very intensive process involving:
- basic training in the fundamentals of yoga philosophy and practice
- study of human anatomy & physiology
- study of principles of Ayurveda, Ayurvedic understanding of the human system, diagnosis and approach for maintenance of good health and therapy
- learn how to observe and understand an individual at physical, physiological, mental, emotional and the deeper spiritual levels,
- study pathology of all common illnesses and how they impact at different levels
- how to modify/adapt the tools and techniques of yoga to address the needs of a specific individual with a particular combination of problems.
- how to design effective practices and teach them
- how to guide the student progressively through the process of recovery.
The process of healing in yoga is therefore not just rewarding in the sense of getting rid of a problem, it is an interesting and most exciting exploration of your life, so that you can slowly peel off those unwholesome, unhealthy layers that have hidden your inner light from yourself.
Just like a skilled surgeon or master craftsman, a yoga therapist can bring alive the most simple tools and techniques with such ingenuity and care that inner healing and transformation happens almost effortlessly.