Yoga therapy seems to be growing in people’s awareness. What is it providing that is additional to people’s usual view of yoga?
Yes, yoga and yoga therapy are both expanding to reach people at an incredible rate. I’ve been keeping up with the yoga therapy community since 2004 and I have watched a sizable surge in the number of yoga therapy training programs, the development of international training accreditation standards, and a growing stream of teachers seeking additional training as yoga therapists. Our Yoga Therapy Clinic in Islington has capacity to see a maximum of 4 clients a week, and in the 4 years we have been operating we have seen well over 350 new people. Some of them are yoga practitioners and teachers, and others are people with no previous yoga experience. Therapy Clinic
Surveys conducted in the US and UK indicate that the number of people practicing yoga is growing at an exponential rate. Yoga is also much more widely practiced in its home country of India now, too. I have not seen survey data for the number of people entering yoga teacher training courses, but it is also surging. The same sources are driving the growth of yoga practice, training programs, and yoga therapy: 1) people want to feel better, and when they do, they want to keep feeling better, and 2) yoga accelerates the inherent growth process so people feel empowered to develop their capacities. That may sound simplistic, but it is really simple. Yoga has consistently been around for thousands of years because it works to make us feel better in our bodies, minds, and spirits.
Yoga philosophy and practice have always had as their aims optimization of capacity in terms of growth, self-transformation, and self-realisation. Within the context of a person’s life circumstances and condition, yoga practice is designed to enhance his/her ability to live a healthy, happy, productive life; to see onesself and others more clearly and compassionately; and to realise that there is more to life and us than these bodies, minds, and conditions. Ideally yoga practice is matched to your capacity and interests at any given time and it evolves as you grow, change, age, and have experiences. Some of those experiences are an awakening desire to learn more. Some of them are injuries and illnesses. Others are a need to cope with change, pain, loss, and a search for meaning and purpose.
Group yoga classes are what I call “good for most.” The teacher tries to lead a class that will benefit all and harm none. However, depending upon the condition of the student, the pace of the class, the number of people in class, the skill of the teacher, and the goodness of fit between those and other variables, the class may be “just what you needed,” fine, off-putting, or harmful. Many of our students in the Yoga Therapy Diploma course are teachers who realise there are students in their classes who need them to know more than they currently do in order to really help them. They are motivated by their student’s needs to learn. Our students are also those yoga teachers who are motivated by circumstances in their own lives to grow and deepen their applied knowledge of yoga. Each of these motivations serve to enhance the teacher’s capacity to be a better teacher for a wider variety of people, and to be guided more closely by their own inner teacher. Yoga therapy training is currently the next organised educational step for teachers who want to feel better and more capable of using yoga to improve the quality of theirs and their students’ lives.
Individuals who seek out yoga therapy come for similar reasons. Experienced yoga practitioners who want to deepen their personal practice may seek the guidance of a yoga therapist. Practitioners at any level of experience who have felt the healing and growth promoting benefits of yoga may turn to yoga therapy as their healing modality of choice when injured, ill, struggling, or suffering. They may also turn to yoga therapy when they realise they are hurting themselves in class and they want to know how to return to class with more knowledge and the ability to adapt their practice. Yoga therapy can be utilised as an adjunct or complement in addition to traditional healthcare approaches. Many people come to yoga therapy to make their physiotherapy practices more interesting and beneficial for their whole self instead of just an isolated body part exercise. The fourth group of people who come to yoga therapy have very little or no previous yoga experience. These are the people who want the touted benefits of yoga, but do not think they can get their needs met in a group class. They usually have specific concerns and they want to try yoga as a self-care way to address them. Some of them have been curious about yoga and wanted to have a go, but others would never have considered it until they felt they needed help, and they want a way to help themselves with guidance. Working one-to-one with a yoga therapist who has been trained to work with medical, mental health, and existential concerns, and who can draw on a broad range of yoga techniques that are adapted to the individual person in the moment is what they need to reap maximum benefit.
As you said, awareness of yoga is growing. Yoga is gaining wider societal acceptance, and yoga practitioners, teachers, and therapists are growing and evolving too.
Could you say more about mental health conditions? How does yoga therapy see the division made in the West between the body and the mind?
It’s a visible fact that the mind and body are connected. Yoga philosophy and practice are predicated on understanding that the mind and body are interwoven and mutually influence each other. That’s the key to how yoga practice is effective at creating change in the body and mind simultaneously. However, in both eastern and western systems there have been hierarchical conceptualisations that assert the mind is more powerful and essential (as in being the core essence of personhood) than the body. Rene Descartes’ statement “I think, therefore I am” is often cited as the source of the split, but yogis long before him saw the mind as more subtle than the body, which they also equated with being more powerful and essential. In fact in the Yoga Sutras the 1st chapter 2nd verse defines “Stilling the mind is yoga (Yogaschitta vritti nirodhah).” Hatha yoga was developed not to change the aim of yoga but to make it more achievable. The yogis learned that it was easier to voluntarily move the body and breath than it is to change and regulate the mind, so the body was consciously used to affect the mind. As anyone who has practiced yoga knows, it works. As good as it feels to move, stretch and strengthen the body, it is changes in overall well-being and the mind that most people comment favourably on after class.
Yoga therapy is holistic. It is the most holistic therapeutic modality I have encountered. The yogic model of the koshas, the 5 interconnected sheaths that layer up like Russian nesting dolls to form a whole person, posit that the mind and body are 2 of the 5 layers. The body is the most visible or “gross” (meaning tangible) layer and it forms the outer sheath. Within it is the energy body, which includes all the physiological functions, e.g., digestion, elimination, reproduction, the immune and endocrine systems, cardiorespiratory functions, etc. and the subtle energy or pranic systems. The breath is the most voluntarily influenceable part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which regulates the physiological and pranic systems, and it is operates as a bridging force that can directly link and influence the mind and body. The third sheath is the province of the mind, emotions, beliefs, attitudes, judgments, memories, expectations, dreams, and so on. How we feel physically influences how we feel energetically, and how we feel emotionally. You can change any 1 of the 3 and it will influence the other two. Yoga therapists attempt to craft practices that produce change at all 3 levels so they are working more harmoniously together rather than at odds. Often what exhausts us or makes us feel physically ill or mentally agitated is inner conflict. When the parts of our self want or feel prepared for different activities. Earlier this week I tried to write this answer but I was tired from a long weekend of festival camping. I believe this kind of feeling is the source of the saying “the mind was willing but the flesh was weak.” In any event, after rest my mind and body both feel much more prepared and united in their efforts to respond to this question. It definitely feels better to feel more in harmony within myself.
Sometimes we think the first three layers are it. Most therapies concern themselves with one or the other of the layers or at most all three. But the yogis posited two more, and yoga therapists work with all five. The fourth layer is variously called intuition, wise mind, inner teacher, inner guru, or gut feeling. The mind feels doubt, confusion, fear, and avoidance, but the fourth layer of a person knows with clarity and confidence what is right for you. We can have inner conflict with our inner knowing, too. We may believe something would be better for us, but we don’t want to do it, or give up what we would have to let go of to do it. Our inner voice may put us at odds with family desires or expectations, of societal standards, so this may also lead to inner conflict. Sometimes we ignore and drown out the voice so much that is becomes too soft to hear clearly, but it never fully goes away. One of the major reasons we get still and quiet in yoga practice is so this soft voice can be heard again to tell us the way. The direction and confidence it imparts are the GPS for your life path. Yoga therapists encourage listening, hearing, and acting in accord with this personal truth (Rtam), your inner teacher.
The fourth layer is also seen as a bridge. It is the intersecting point between our ever-changing, impermanent human condition (the body-breath-mind) and the fifth sheath, which is our unchanging, eternal true Self that is interconnected with all. So the fifth sheath is also a bridge. Yoga is in its essence relational. The word means “to yoke [together]” and the goal of the practices is to yoke all the layers of our Self together so that they act harmoniously, which enables us to live more contentedly, fully, and to effectively attain our dearest aims.
What we call the mental health conditions have symptoms in the 4 lower sheaths, and a distorted relationship to the fifth. I’ll take depression as an example. When a person is seriously depressed (not just sad about something or having a down day), there are usually what are called “vegetative signs” of depression. “Vegetative functions are those bodily processes most directly concerned with maintenance of life. This category encompasses nutritional, metabolic, and endocrine functions including eating, sleeping, menstruation, bowel function, bladder activity, and sexual performance. These functions can be altered by a wide variety of psychologic states” (Griffin, 1990). When a person is depressed many of these functions are disrupted or compromised. Energetically the person feels tired, actions feel they take a disproportionate amount of effort, the body feels heavy, the person wants to sleep more, or can’t sleep, digestion is often sluggish, and immunity is reduced. It is not just the mind that feels out of sorts. Physical exercise and yoga practice have repeatedly been shown to improve these negative symptoms of depression. Along with shifting the body and energy body, feel good physical activity shifts the mind to a more functional and brighter state.
Yoga therapy makes use of physical yoga practice to move the body, and breathing techniques to shift the quality of energy in the mind and body. Then we add the yoga practices that directly influence the contents of the mind: visualisation, mantra, meditation, chanting, guided relaxation, yoga nidra, affirmation, intention, sankalpa, etc. in order to shift thoughts, feelings, and attitudes into a more positive, desired direction. The therapist will also endeavor to facilitate reconnection to inner teacher and simultaneously build capacity to act in line with this guidance, because when there is too big of a discrepancy between knowing what you need to do and being able to do it, that in itself is painful and depressing. In fact, many people who have suicidal ideation are most at risk when they have a bit more energy to act, but they feel the gap is too large between what they need to do and feel they can do to improve their situation. It is very important to increase clarity, confidence, and capacity at a similar rate when moving out of depression. Re-alignment with the fifth sheath is also vital because some of the first things lost to depression are feelings of joy and connection. Life feels more like living when a person experiences joy even in the small acts of everyday living, a feeling of meaning and purpose, and a reason to strive, thrive, and BE.
Why do you think the ancient techniques still work in modern times where symptoms are different from when they were developed?
I don’t think symptoms are different. In fact, what we learn from reading any ancient text is that people are the same then as now, that’s why the yoga practices still work for us. The latest research shows Neanderthals had pretty much the same brain capacity we do, and scientists have found evidence of cancer in ancient bones. X-rays show evidence of arthritis, tooth decay, scoliosis, etc. and DNA testing reveals evidence of the same physiological conditions we cope with today. Books and paintings show humans have always felt love and loss, hunger and desire, jealousy, anger, frustration, and generosity. There has always been a need to cope with the stress of war, illness, hunger, having work that can support a person and his/her family, living with other people, and being alone. Humans have always wanted to live well and have recognized that death comes for us all. The intervals between shifts were longer, but there has always been the challenge to adapt to new technology whether it was stone, bronze, farming, sheep, iron, renaissance, industrial, global or cellular. The virus or bacteria causing the illness differs, but we are still living with the fear and reality of epidemics. In the midst of being more like us than not, the ancient yogis asked and answered the existential questions we still ask, such as: what is the purpose/point of life, what happens when I die, how do I cope with suffering and pain, and how can I live the best life possible? Yoga philosophy is their answers to these questions, and the practices are the techniques they developed to enable to us to achieve optimal outcomes: freedom from suffering, joy, and the ability to live a meaningful life expressing our individual gifts, talents, and purpose. The practices still work because they were developed following extensive self-reflection and refinement. They take into account there are individual differences between us and they recognise that goodness of fit between the person and path is efficient and effective for achieving the ultimate aims.