The surprising results of virtual yoga therapy

By Judi Bar 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, when I considered offering yoga therapy sessions online rather than face to face, I felt sure something would be missing.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. When COVID-19 hit and we at Cleveland Clinic saw how much support and resources our patients and their caregivers needed, as the lead yoga therapist I jumped right in. We began offering both one-to-one and small-group virtual yoga therapy sessions in April 2020.

How can online sessions work?

Both patients and I were immediately and pleasantly surprised at the many benefits of working together online. I don’t feel anything is missing from the experience from the patient’s point of view, especially because IAYT-certified yoga therapists are all professionals, many with years of experience.

With careful observation and well-placed questions, the convenience for the patient combined with our expertise can make the session valuable. Our online work reminds us, too, that yoga therapy has so many more tools available beyond physical postures (asana). We can often offer yoga poses safely, too, but just as in person, our virtual sessions also involve breathwork, meditation, mudra, chanting, supportive conversation, and more.

There was a learning curve on the logistics and technology, but I found that patients and I were so grateful for being able to connect—it’s all working out great. At first, a member of the patient’s family often helps to get them online and set up to be seen and heard. And in some cases, whether because of cognitive decline or a mobility issue, patients will always need someone in the room with them to offer support during a virtual session.

Unique benefits…

One of the biggest surprises and advantages that live virtual sessions offer is the opportunity to include those who might not ordinarily consider an in-person session or class. We can now reach those who cannot travel because of their disease process (for example, epilepsy, IBD/IBS, or cancer side-effects) or because they lack transportation.

Recently, while debriefing after a yoga therapy class, one patient told me that her home is an isolated farm with no reliable WiFi (she was using her phone’s cellular function for class). She was in a wheelchair, lonely and in need of support for symptoms beyond the scope of yoga therapy to address. This simple conversation gave me an opportunity to offer other resources and to refer her for emotional support. I had so much gratitude for that connection, as well as for knowing we could potentially reach other patients in similar circumstances.

…And a unique time to experiment!

If you have been considering doing a yoga therapy session, perhaps now is the time. I would wholeheartedly recommend it! Yoga therapy sessions help to support physical challenges but also disease processes, stress, and many other situations, new or ongoing, in which you find yourself. Yoga therapy has tools that can address almost any circumstance, it’s personalized, and there is no experience needed and no expectations—the practices meet you right where you are.

I recommend referring to the list of IAYT-certified yoga therapists to find a professional of your choice. Most have years of training and experience. They can answer your questions, learn more about what you are looking for from yoga therapy, and help you to schedule that first session to support you and your ongoing well-being.

Judi Bar, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT, is the yoga program manager for Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine.