How does yoga therapy differ from physical therapy?

By Lori Rubenstein Fazzio

Over the past 50 years, medicine has been shifting from a biomedical approach—one that focuses primarily on treatments to address physical causes of illness and pain—to a biopsychosocial-spiritual model that acknowledges the emotional, psychological, and spiritual factors in disease. This recognition of the importance of looking at the whole person has opened the door for yoga therapy to be a valued healthcare modality for improving well-being.

The tools of yoga therapy sometimes appear to overlap with those of physical therapy or even psychology, but these professions all operate from distinct philosophies.

So what’s the difference between physical therapy and yoga therapy?

As movement experts, physical therapists focus on optimizing the body’s functioning, and their education includes training in evaluating and treating pain and movement disorders. These treatments may include neuromuscular re-education, therapeutic exercises, gait training, education, modalities such as laser and electrical stimulation, and more. In fact, a physical therapist may even recommend yoga therapy. The goal of a physical therapist is to identify the cause of pain or dysfunction and to specifically treat that dysfunction.

Yoga therapists can be considered lifestyle management experts. Their training focuses on the therapeutic applications of yoga and includes philosophy, postures (asana), breathing exercises (pranayama), meditation, mantra chanting, and lifestyle modification according to principles of yoga and ayurveda. The goal of a yoga therapist is not to treat a specific pain or illness, but rather to support improved physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being; although yoga therapists aren’t focused on “fixing,” the tools they offer clients typically facilitate healing and often result in resolution of pain or disease. Yoga therapists assess clients from a holistic perspective—physically, energetically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. They recommend individualized practices to promote well-being, complement other medical interventions, and empower clients.  

Both physical therapists and yoga therapists have a unique role in healthcare, with different scopes of practice and approaches to care. Always let your healthcare providers know if you decide to add yoga therapy to your care. Find a certified yoga therapist here.

Lori Rubenstein Fazzio, DPT, PT, MAppSc, C-IAYT, is faculty in Loyola Marymount University’s Master of Arts in Yoga Studies and is the clinical director of Yoga Therapy Rx. She practices both physical therapy and yoga therapy at Mosaic Physical Therapy in Los Angeles.