The benefits of combining yoga therapy and art therapy

By Ellen G. Horovitz

When blending yoga therapy and art therapy, you clear the space for artistic expression—making room for expansion, acceptance, creativity, and growth. This state of going within—“transpersonal consciousness”— is an expansion toward others that takes place with the beginning of any creation—whether that means making art or improving health. Combining yoga therapy and art therapy can lead to that felt experience when you know something in your body, even if you cannot verbally articulate it in the speech center of your brain. This is the language of yoga and art. 

I’ve used art therapy and yoga therapy together both as a client and as a therapist. After I contracted Bell’s palsy post my second COVID-19 vaccine shot, I used acupuncture, ayurveda, yoga therapy, and art therapy to reduce my pain and recover. While I use the combined approach of yoga therapy and art therapy to support my own healing work, I also use the two disciplines to support others. Read on for how I use the two to support clients and patients, and how you can use them on your own path as well.

Making mandalas to reduce anxiety

Clients create mandalas at the start of yoga/art therapy workshops

Image—a more universal language than words—returns human beings to the state where they work with essence to promote healing. During this process of realizing the image and embodying it in the creation of art, we revisit who we are as Self, coming up different—more integrated, re-created, healed. 

One way to combine yoga therapy and art therapy is through making mandalas. Research shows that creating physical mandalas reduces rumination and anxiety; coloring symmetrical and repetitive patterns in a circular shape facilitates detachment from negative thoughts and emotions. If you’re uncomfortable using basic art materials, current technological advancements (such as the digital program Paper) allow any individual with a smartphone, tablet, or laptop to create remarkable artwork with the touch of a button. 

When conducting yoga/art therapy workshops, fashioning a mandala is generally part of an opening exercise that can be used to inform the entire day’s practice. I usually begin with short breathwork (pranayama), posture and movement (asana), and/or meditation practice. Students then create a mandala to reflect the expression of their state of being through the art. Next, students give the mandala a title and, if so inclined, talk about their work—it’s a safe space to share anything that arises during both the yoga therapy and art therapy experience.

The combined therapeutic approach: One stroke survivor’s story

Sara used watercolor to paint this angel during one of her sessions

Initially, Sara* was in an art therapy group for stroke survivors. One day I introduced the group to yoga therapy by suggesting rolling tennis balls under both the hemiparesis arm—where the individual experiences weakness caused by the stroke—and the unaffected arm. One part of paresis is flexion contracture—a shortening of muscles and tendons that forces a joint into a flexed position. Performing this action enabled some to unfurl their cramped hands immediately on the affected side. I suggested they take the tennis balls home in between our sessions to experiment with adding yoga therapy to their regimen. The next week, Sara bounded down the hallway to the clinic and, pulling the ball out of her purse, said in halted speech, “I…want…yoga.” This was her first full sentence since having the stroke! 

And so it began. The yoga was priming the speech-center pump. From then on we started Sara’s sessions with yoga therapy and sometimes ended with an art therapy session post savasana (final relaxation pose). After one session like this, Sara created an image of an angel using watercolors. As she painted she said, “I made an angel.” And so she had. Her speech flourished via this combined therapeutic approach.

I also gift journals to my clients so they can record their thoughts and/or create drawings in between sessions. Often, they text me these images and thoughts—allowing for continuity between sessions.

When in the artistic state, one enters a state of tapas which, according to yogic principles, involves self-discipline, austerity, and the attempt to achieve union with the higher Self. According to B.K.S. Iyengar, “Life without tapas is a heart without love.” Combining such artistic unconscious processes with an embodied experience like yoga leads to co-creation and union with a higher Self—a strong step forward on the path of healing.

Ellen G. Horovitz, PhD, LCAT, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT, is the author of Head and Heart: Yoga therapy and art therapy interventions for mental health. She has more than 40 years of experience working with patient populations. 

*The client’s name has been changed to protect privacy.