I’ve been teaching yoga therapy workshops for a few years now. A recurrent question that people ask me is: what’s the difference between yoga and yoga therapy? The answer to this question is not quintessential. This is because yoga therapy is a growing field in our health care system, and therefore not clearly defined yet. However, I can describe some of the core elements in yoga therapy that I have learned about so far. Essentially, I would say that yoga therapy is a long-term process of self-development. It is about becoming aware of your own patterns and changing them over time, taking care of yourself, of your own health and wellbeing.
In this blog, you’ll find three important ideas on yoga therapy, as well as a short guide to long-term self-development.
Three core ideas on yoga therapy
1.Yoga therapy encompasses all domains of body and mind.
Yoga therapy is an integrated approach, using experiences in the body-mind spectrum to support each other. Yoga, traditionally, aims at cultivating a calm and clear state of mind. The ultimate purpose of yoga is ‘self-realization’, which fundamentally means that you are free from suffering. Originally, yoga was not primarily focused on health and wellbeing. However, a healthy body and a stable mind have always been prerequisites to achieve this state of freedom and balance.
This state can be experienced at all levels of the body and mind:
- The body is light, strong, energetic, stable, rested and free.
- The mind is calm, clear and open.
- There is clarity in thinking, focus in situations where it is needed.
- Emotions are mostly positive and there is quick recovery from negative emotions.
- Relationships are stable and supportive.
- And maybe most importantly, the sense of self and identity are stable and secure.
Overall, yoga therapy aims at experiencing general health and wellbeing through the application of yogic techniques. Importantly, improving functioning at one level will also affect the others. For example, improving your body posture is beneficial for the functioning of the vital functions in your body (such as the respiratory and cardiovascular system). A healthier body and posture will also affect the state of your mind, with more equanimity in emotions and thought patterns. And all of this may also improve your quality of life. Using this integrated system intelligently, applying this to your personal needs, is what yoga therapy is about.
2. Yoga therapy is a long-term process of self-development.
Maybe one of the most crucial aspects of yoga therapy is the focus on long-term development. Your life is constantly changing, but certain patterns keep returning. These patterns are automatic responses that have developed over a long period of time, as an effect of predispositions that were present at birth and past experiences. Patterns arising from the interplay between predispositions (nature) and learning experiences (nurture) cannot easily be changes. They are deeply ingrained in your whole system, determining physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioural responses.
However, different techniques of yoga can help you to become aware of your own automatic responses and start to change them in a positive direction. It is a gradual process, in which you learn to make changes step by step. Over time, this helps you to cultivate a healthy lifestyle and more balance in your body and mind. It is an ongoing process in which you learn skills to watch yourself while you work on self-development. You will keep learning and changing throughout your life.
3. Yoga therapy is about combining self-awareness and self-care.
If you have ever tried changing recurrent patterns or habits in your life, you probably know it is not easy to change. Or as my yoga therapy teacher Ganesh Mohan from the Svastha Yoga Therapy Training nicely put it: it is not going to happen by accident. We have to make conscious decisions and constantly practice with awareness. The art is to work in two directions: top-down (watching ourselves with awareness) and bottom up (while practicing self-care).
Top-down means that we cultivate self-awareness. Being aware of our self is a unique human capacity, which can have its flip sides, but we can also use it as a strength. Becoming aware of our experience is the foundation of change. Once we become aware of automatic responses, it is easier to make the decision to change. We can set intentions and choose to direct our attention to the experiences that serve us.
However, purely being self-aware is not sufficient for change. In order to cultivate balance, we need to take conscious action. This is where the bottom-up approach comes into play. We can choose how to nourish the body and mind, choosing the experiences that will lead to a positive direction of change. We can apply our intentions to the way we practice on the yoga mat, but also to our lifestyle. And of course it is not about making a huge shift at once. On the contrary, it is about regular practice, thereby learning new, positive, healthy habits. This is what you could call self-care.
This provides a framework for personal growth and freedom of suffering. Practice and awareness go hand in hand. That’s the core of yoga therapy.
A short guide to yoga therapy for self-development
Would you like to start practicing yoga therapy? I can highly recommend doing a private session with an experienced yoga therapist before you start. Depending on what you would like to change in your life, you can seek a yoga therapist with expertise in a specific field, such as physical therapy, nutrition or psychology. A yoga therapist can help you to assess your body, breath and mind and to provide you with some tools that help you to practice yoga safely. But in the end, yoga therapy is about self-exploration and self-care. You will learn skills that you can keep practicing throughout your life. Keep the following steps in mind, they will guide you through the process:
- Start practicing awareness on a daily basis. Take a moment when you start your day, maybe for meditation, maybe writing a diary, or anything that helps you to tune in to your own needs. Set an intention for the day. Over time, more common patterns and themes will come up that you can practice with.
- Use your intentions to make a personal yoga practice, choosing the experiences that are helpful for you. This is a wonderful tool for self-care.
- Think of small changes you can make in your daily life as well, complementing your practice on the mat. You will start integrating what you have learned about yourself in your lifestyle.
- Watch yourself throughout the day. Regularly ask yourself: how am I feeling right now? How is my body, my breath, my mind? This will help you to monitor and manage your own wellbeing.
- For sustainable change, also add in some self-compassion. Change is never easy, so you don’t have to do everything perfectly right away. If you skip a day, or forget your practice for a while, just start again. There will be hard times and times in which you find it easy to practice, that is normal. Be kind to yourself and keep in mind it is a practice!
Are you curious about yoga therapy and would you like to learn more? You can reach out to me for a private yoga therapy session or attend one of the Yoga Therapy & Psychology workshops that I’m teaching regularly. The next workshop takes place on May 16 at YogaZenter in Amsterdam. You can also keep an eye on my Facebook page or Instagram for future workshops, more inspiration and sometimes reminders for self-care.