Yoga therapy or psychotherapy? The intention matters

By Tracey Sondik

Photo by Greg Jeanneau

More and more mental health professionals are incorporating mindfulness and body-based modalities, including meditation and yoga, into their practices. The research supports the benefits of these tools in the treatment of depression, anxiety, PTSD, stress, and several other mental health conditions.

Even when these techniques are incorporated regularly into psychotherapy, though, it’s important for consumers to understand that this is not yoga therapy, but rather a hybrid of traditional Western psychology infused with mindfulness-based principles and practices. The underlying principles of psychotherapy include assessment, diagnostic formulation, and treatment for specific psychological conditions. Yoga and other modalities can be utilized as part of the treatment, but yogic methods typically wouldn’t be part of the assessment or diagnosis.

In contrast, yoga therapy has been defined by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) as “the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga.”

Here are a few distinctions between the two fields:

As a psychologist and yoga therapist, I have my foot in both worlds. I find that it’s important to make a clear distinction between those I see for psychotherapy and those I work with as a yoga therapist. People come to me most often for psychotherapy to treat a specific problem or condition (anxiety, depression, stress related to life changes). My goal is usually to help them reduce the intensity of symptoms that are problematic for them, increase their insight and understanding into the roots of their difficulties, and enhance their sense of self-worth and self-efficacy.

Although this isn’t always the path, when people come to me for yoga therapy they have often tried a variety of traditional talk therapies and felt that something was missing or incomplete, perhaps a lack of spiritual practice or ways to connect with the body. When working as a yoga therapist, I am using specific yogic tools to empower the client. We might work with meditation—including techniques like body scans and yoga nidra—yoga postures, and specific types of inquiry intended to facilitate body awareness and integration of the somatic (physical) experience into life.

I believe that psychotherapy and yoga therapy can complement each other and will often suggest to people to consider trying both modalities as part of their healing path—each discipline brings its own unique focus, and both can create a sense of well-being.

Tracey Sondik, PsyD, C-IAYT, is a licensed clinical psychologist, yoga therapist, and yoga teacher. She is a certified MBSR and iRest teacher. Tracey loves teaching the applications of yoga for mental health to professionals and students.