Yoga therapy or psychotherapy? The intention matters
By Tracey Sondik
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.
Thank you, Tracey, for bringIng the discussion to yogatherapy.health Many dual credentialed clinicians do not distinguish psychology and yoga therapy as the chart does. Way before the Human Potential Movement there has been much crossover between the fields of yoga and psychology. Eager to hear others’ updates on specifics of inclusion of body and breath awareness; existential focus within contemporary talk therapy. Thanks…
Yoga Therapy mainly should focus on preventing diseases and by preventing the risk factors / root causes for the disease diseases can be prvented. For most of the modern day diseases the causes are stress and wrong lifestyle. Causes are at the Mind level, Energy/ Breathing level, Knowledge level(Inner mind) , Bliss level in addition to the physical level. Yoga Therapy is based on Yoga practices at all 5 levels.
PREVENTION IS BEETER THAN CURE
I am a psychotherapist and dance/movement therapist. While some agencies put focus on assessment and diagnosis, there are many psychotherapists using types of psychotherapy in which the focus is on the whole person not assessment and diagnosis at all—person-centered, experiential, gestalt, family systems, etc. In the same way that dance/movement therapists have worked over the years to clarify the difference between the therapeutic use of dance and dance/movement therapy, yoga therapists will want to distinguish psychotherapists that use mindful body-awareness techniques from yoga therapists so that’s cool but suggesting psychotherapy as a field is not focused on the whole person is inaccurate and to suggest that it is about teaching skills to reduce symptoms goes against all the training psychotherapists get in reflective listening. Psychotherapy is not about giving advice and is about supporting clients’ exploration of their internal process. It is not about thinking of themselves as experts. Thanks so much for exploring this important topic and…could you please have another go at trying to clarify the difference?
I really appreciate this discussion and hearing from different psychotherapists who are using body-based and holistic practices. There are many integrative psychotherapists like Dee who have had extensive training and experience in looking at the whole person and using a variety of integrative practices. This blog represents my personal experience in the field of psychotherapy in both academic and institutional settings over the past 20 years. In traditional enclaves like psychiatric hospitals, mental health and public sector clinics, intensive outpatient programs, and substance use recovery rehab centers, there is still a strong emphasis on teaching skills, providing solution-focused supports, and symptom reduction. In these settings where I have spent most of my career, the mental health paradigm is still expert driven and a top down approach to therapy. This does not mean that good solid clinical skills like reflective listening and supporting clients’ exploration of their internal process are not valued by the psychologist or the client. However, the expectations of these systems for care are around treatment outcomes, reduction of symptoms, and meeting specified goals and objectives that are often derived by the mental health clinician. Reimbursement and regulatory bodies such as Center for Medicare/Medicaid also play a role in why this paradigm remains entrenched in these traditional settings as well. When yoga therapy is introduced in these type of settings, it represents an alternative and complementary holistic option to this more traditional way that mental health providers are often expected to practice. The paradigm that I am reflecting for traditional mental health settings will hopefully continue to shift with more and more psychotherapists using these modalities and influencing even the most conservative institutions.