Therapeutic yoga’s difference is key to its effectiveness
When you think of yoga, what comes to mind? Most people in Western cultures think of yoga as a kind of exercise practiced at gyms and yoga studios. Yoga therapy, on the other hand, is typically practiced in a one-to-one or small-group setting—and increasingly in hospitals and medical settings including psychotherapy offices.
Michele Hoffman, C-IAYT, is a yoga therapist who practices at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing, Minnesota. In a post on the Mayo Clinic website, Hoffman was quoted saying, “yoga therapy is the specific application of yoga practices and teachings to address people’s physical, mental and emotional needs. It is not a substitute for Western medicine, but it is an effective complementary therapy” for managing many health conditions.
Yoga therapists study for a minimum of 2 years beyond their yoga teacher training, learning not only yoga practices and techniques, anatomy, physiology, and psychology, but also skills to interview, observe, and assess clients; create care plans; document client sessions; and work with a range of healthcare providers. Significantly, yoga therapists are trained to work with the whole person. “In yoga therapy, our goals are to strengthen what’s weak, release what is tight, and bring balance to the body and balance to an individual’s life,” Hoffman says.
A yoga therapy story
The Mayo Clinic Health System website published a story, featuring Hoffman, that described how a yoga therapist works, beginning with the initial consultation. The client, a retired woman with low back pain and anxiety, said, “Michele talked with me for quite a long time to find out who I was and what my issues were, and we then started with really simple poses and breathing practices that she demonstrated by getting right down on the mat with me. She was patient and went slowly.”
Tailoring the therapy to the individual client is a pillar of yoga therapy practice. Yoga therapists are trained not only to work with a person as a whole (as opposed to addressing a single symptom or diagnosis), but also to tailor the practices, techniques, pace, and even words they use to the person in front of them. There are no formulaic approaches to yoga therapy.
“Yoga therapy is the specific application of yoga practices and teachings to address people’s physical, mental and emotional needs. It is not a substitute for Western medicine, but it is an effective complementary therapy”
The client in the Mayo Clinic story found that yoga therapy has been integral to her health: “[P]hysical therapy was necessary in the beginning because it gave me most of my functionality back, but I am convinced that yoga is what helped me get it all the way back to health and maintain it.” Yoga therapist Hoffman noted that “breathing practices, meditation, and other yoga practices work on the autonomic nervous system. These practices can change a person’s relationship to pain and the way they experience it.”
Yoga therapy as part of integrative medicine
Hoffman works in the Integrative Medicine and Health Department of the Mayo Clinic in Red Wing, and indeed yoga therapy is increasingly found in integrative Medicine and health departments in large medical systems. Yoga therapists can also be found through some yoga studios, mental health providers, and in private practice. The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), the largest global organization for yoga professionals, maintains a database and search tool for connecting with a yoga therapist near you.