Yoga is widely accepted nowadays as a very therapeutic practice. It gives you time away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, and space to relax and take some time to focus on yourself and your body. Which is why a lot of people think that yoga and yoga therapy are the same thing. In fact, I sometimes get some pretty odd looks when I say I’m a yoga therapist, with people thinking I’ve gotten my wires crossed. Maybe they think I’m going to try and psychoanalyse them while they’ve got their feet behind their ears! So today I wanted to do a little bit of explaining. You see, there are some key differences between an ordinary yoga class and a yoga therapy session. Knowing what those differences are might just help you find the right yoga solution for you, and help you get the most out of it.
The Yoga Teacher
There are a lot of different styles of yoga teaching out there, and each yoga teacher will have their own focus and way of teaching. For some it’s all about instruction; guiding students through their practices and helping them to practice yoga appropriately (preferably without hurting themselves). Yoga teachers can range from the purely physical (getting a yoga “workout” with lots of postures but not much emotional or mental connection) to the highly spiritual (lots of meditation and visualisation with less physical postures), but ultimately their aim is to simply guide the students in front of them through the practice. Most yoga teachers will look to educate their students about how to practice yoga, sometimes while guiding them, sometimes not. This is very empowering for the student and helps them to embrace the practice as their own. Either way, a yoga teacher works hard to instil good practices for the interest and ability level of the classes they teach. That’s their focus – to teach the practice of yoga and its various methods to people who want to learn.
The best yoga teachers will “teach” – in other words they will instruct and demonstrate in equal measures. I always get a bit worried about yoga teachers who never get off their mat, where the class is more about following along with the practice, rather than discovering their own most optimal ways of moving through teaching. Our bodies are not all the same, and what is good for the teacher can be less good for the student. A good yoga class will have a balance of verbal and physical guidance through the practice, allowing students to modify he poses according to their individual needs, rather than feel compelled to “do the yoga”. This is where injuries take place, so do take care when selecting a yoga class!
The Yoga Therapist
There’s one word we’ve used so far that I really want to draw your attention back to. Students. The main difference between a yoga teacher and a yoga therapist is this word. Because yoga teachers have students, but yoga therapists have clients.
To become a yoga therapist, you need to be qualified as a teacher first. And wherever yoga is involved, the tradition of teacher and trainee will always exist. Traditionally, yoga was taught as an individual practice with a 1-to-1 relationship between student and guru (master). Yoga therapy falls back on this tradition, but with a deeper intention than to simply introduce the student to the practice of yoga. Alongside the normal training as a yoga teacher, practicing as a yoga therapist requires substantial academic and experiential training.
So all yoga therapists are also yoga teachers, but not all yoga teachers can legitimately practice as or use the title of yoga therapist.
Yoga therapy is the application of the 8-limbed yoga philosophy in a therapeutic context, to aid with healing and wellbeing. This could cover a very wide variety of problems. Yoga as medicine is fast becoming highly popular due to its effectiveness in healing ailments of the mind as well as the body. Soon, social prescribing in the NHS will allow GPs to refer patients for yoga as a healing practice. And this is where the yoga therapist’s role and specialisation becomes very important. It’s not a “horses for courses” situation – not all yoga is good for all problems. There are counter-indications and certain movements or practices should be avoided given certain conditions, and others should be emphasised. All yoga therapists will have specialist areas where they have intensified their learning, experience and education.
This means that a yoga therapist will focus on the
clients individual needs. They will aim to understand why their clients have
come to see them, and work out the best way to support them. Yoga therapists
often work with clients who are in pain, looking to manage symptoms, improve
function, and help them with their attitude towards health and recovery. Yoga
therapists are trained to assess client needs through listening, questioning,
observing and appropriately touching. After assessing, a yoga therapist will
establish goals with the client and develop a unique treatment plan that’s
tailored to them. They use yoga as a tool to help each individual client work
through their issues, choosing techniques that will improve their health and help
them make the lasting changes they require to achieve optimal wellbeing.
So, yoga therapists are focussed on their client’s needs, and by applying their informed knowledge of the entirety of yoga disciplines, philosophies and approaches help them to achieve their best possible outcomes.
So Which Do I Need?
There’s no hard and fast answer to that except that it depends. If you’re just looking to get a bit fitter and more flexible, or to make sure you’re getting all the poses right, then a yoga teacher is probably your best bet. Yoga classes are run all the time for all experience levels, and all you have to do is book onto one and go along. Diversity Yoga classes use the fundamentals of yoga therapy to embrace the differences each individual brings to class, and helps to empower and educate students to take control of their own bodies. At Diversity Yoga, we aim to meet students where they are, and help them to get where they want be regardless of their individual physical gifts or challenges.
But if you’re in pain, suffering with injuries, illness or niggling issues, then yoga therapy might be the more appropriate choice for you. Yoga therapy is all about restoring your body and mind to its optimum health, and using the mindful contemplation and breathing techniques of yoga to get your mind there too.
Personally, I believe that teaching and treating from my own personal experience is the best way for my clients to benefit. I don’t teach what I don’t know! My functional expertise focusses on backpain and sciatica / hip and leg pain (especially through sports injury or using one’s body for work) and sleep problems associated with anxiety and depression. I have personally overcome challenges of my own in these areas, using yoga and cognitive behavioural techniques. The tools I use to help my clients are the tools I used to help myself (and still do!)
Over the years I’ve worked with some inspirational people who have come to me with problems ranging from shoulder and neck pain (usually from sitting at a desk all day), through to surgical recovery for some serious injuries and conditions like prolapsed discs and debilitating sciatica. Anyone and everyone can benefit from yoga therapy, and if you’re not sure if it’s for you, I’d love to have a chat. I run a wide range of yoga therapy classes and workshops designed to help you feel better from the inside out. For more info, just get in touch with me today.