A glimpse into yoga therapy in India

By Sowmya Ayyar

In the West, yoga therapy is often an adjunct treatment for chronic conditions. In India, however, there is a different understanding of yoga as therapy.

As an American-born of Indian ethnic background, I grew up in California with a love for all things Indian. The culture and spirituality drew me in. As a child, I took Carnatic music lessons, learning songs about various Hindu deities. In my teenage years, I became a regular attendee at satsang* at a local ashram, embarking on a journey into India’s vast spiritual traditions. In my twenties, I completed a yoga teacher training program and began teaching yoga to communities in which I lived. Through much of my thirties—and now into my forties—I have primarily taught yoga in India. Through the past decade, I have had an opportunity to learn more about the facets of yoga in India, and how they contrast to what is popularly recognized in the West and through online platforms.

Historically, yoga is not simply an asana (posture) or pranayama (breathwork) practice: Yoga is a way of life that befits optimal health and well-being and is practiced in conjunction with ayurvedic and traditional systems. In India, this is an essential part of growing up—regardless of one’s religion or caste. As a result, yoga is widespread and well recognized, accepted at even the national level as part and parcel of the way of life.

People throughout India have been following different lineages for centuries. The lineage is passed from guru (master or teacher) to sishya (student), and various practices are taught to relieve chronic health conditions or general illnesses. These might include consumption of local herbs; praying to local deities; wearing threads, stones, and crystals; or altering one’s diet. Different regions in India have different natural remedies for fever, cold, cough, asthma, and even broken bones. Over time, such local traditions developed responses to chronic conditions, too: heart disease, diabetes, cancer, thyroid issues, and more.

Almost every middle- and upper-class person in India has learned some amount of yogic therapy just by virtue of growing up in the culture and tradition and utilizing yogic tools throughout their childhood. Even local allopathic doctors will often advise the inclusion of herbs or yoga practices when treating patients. Some might even prescribe techniques for strengthening emotional control. 

As of today, yoga practitioners and yoga therapists in India can study in their own ways and market themselves with the skills and techniques they know. The Government of India is currently developing a certification system for yoga therapists and actively working with governing bodies around the world to promote India’s ancient systems of yoga. This will help yoga spread globally in a manner that reflects the rich history of the tradition in India.

*Satsang refers to gathering in a spiritual community in pursuit of the truth, and may involve discussion or Q&A with a spiritual teacher.

Sowmya Ayyar runs Prafull Oorja Charitable Foundation, an NGO based in Bangalore, India. Her research on Yoga, Peace, and Conflict was recently published in the Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict.

Find an IAYT-certified yoga therapist here.

Follow yogatherapy.health on Facebook and Instagram for more on yoga therapy, health, and well-being.