The Difference Between Yoga and Yoga Therapy


The popularity of yoga has undoubtedly increased throughout western society in recent years. With its various health benefits becoming more widely understood and accepted, there are literally hundreds of well-documented and cited reasons for taking up yoga. However at the core of this attraction is often some form of self-improvement or health benefit. Whether it’s to build strength, improve performance in sport, or to support mental health, there are a variety of motivations why people find the practice of yoga therapeutic.

While all forms of yoga could be considered therapeutic, the term “yoga therapy” has come to the fore in recent years, and as a result there has been a certain amount of confusion between the yoga so many of us see in the gyms and studios around the country, and yoga therapy. But while both contain many similarities, they have quite distinct and different purposes.

Where did yoga therapy come from?

While the therapeutic benefits of yoga have been known for centuries, Yoga Therapy was a term first coined by Swami Kuvalyananda in the 1920s who believed it would be possible to measure the physical and physiological changes that occurred through yoga practice.

His ideas opened up a new way of thinking, and helped to foster a wealth of scientific research on the effect that yoga can have on various medical conditions.

The application of yoga therapy

Perhaps the biggest difference between yoga and yoga therapy is in its application. Yoga, in general, is taught in a group setting, with a series of poses and moments of meditation which have been chosen by the teacher in order to best serve the needs of this group.

Yoga therapy by contrast tends to adopt a more individualized approach, working with people in order to address a particular ailment or medical condition. Yoga therapy courses are therefore designed around each client and the illness they face, and aren’t necessarily about teaching yoga, but instead focus on using yoga-based techniques as a tool to empower people to improve their health.

Someone suffering with PTSD, back pain or depression may be recommended yoga therapy by their doctor, and their experience is going to be quite different from that of a casual yoga student.

Tailored for each individual

Every yoga teacher is different, and no two classes are going to be exactly the same. But generally speaking, in most yoga classes the focus is going to be on the yoga itself, not the people learning it. If someone with chronic back pain attends a yoga class, the yoga they practice will not have been carefully tailored to assist their back pain, and they might even find themselves attempting poses wholly unsuited to their issue.

A yoga therapy session, on the other hand, isn’t about yoga as a practice but how best yoga can help the person pursuing it. Here, the back pain would be the center of the course, and the aim of the yoga therapy course is to alleviate the particular issues the sufferer is experiencing.

Yoga therapy is often recommended for more complex and profoundly felt issues – especially if they have gone beyond something the individual can self-manage – but even if the symptoms are relatively mild the client may still be more suited to the individualized care yoga therapy provides.

How does the training of a yoga therapist differ?

Typically, a yoga therapist will need more training (500 hours or more) than the majority of yoga teachers. Yoga therapy training programs are also supported by medical professionals – such as psychologists, neuroscientists and doctors. Their experience will help students to foster an in-depth knowledge of anatomy, the effects of applied physical therapy, medicine and mental health, and the yoga therapist may even specialize in certain conditions.

It’s this experience that’s understandably important when dealing with a range of conditions, particularly if they’re serious in nature. The ultimate aim isn’t to replace modern medicine, but to work with it, offering a complimentary or alternative solution to help people manage or recover from a particular condition.

Listening to the client

Rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach, the first step in yoga therapy is to listen. Initially, the yoga therapist needs to understand a client’s particular challenges; empathy and compassion play an important role in recovery. Once the yoga therapist has a clear picture of the mental health issues a person is experiencing, or the physical symptoms they live with (perhaps through problems like osteoporosis), they can begin to create a tailored program informed by their extended training and medical knowledge.

Classes will either be one-to-one, or far smaller than a general yoga class. Depending on the client’s needs they may involve more or less mindfulness, meditation and particular yoga poses, and the speed of progression will be designed to suit the pace of the person’s recovery.

Yoga therapy sessions are client-led, client-focused, and compassion-focused, where people are supported in their journey towards health and empowered to practice self-care, which will help them throughout life. No health problem is too big or too small to approach a yoga therapist with, and they will put their client at the center of the program they design.

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Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Heather Mason, a yoga teacher and founder of The Minded Institute, a center of yoga therapy in London exploring how yoga therapy can help with depression, PTSD, chronic pain and a variety of other health issues. Heather became interested in the use of mind-body therapies after her own experience of depression and anxiety, training over many years and across the globe in yoga and yoga therapy. Follow Heather on Twitter and Facebook.

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