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Yoga Therapy: The Next Big Wave In Yoga

by Alison West, Ph.D., ERYT


In his extraordinary memoir, Waking (2007), Matthew Sanford details his recovery from a childhood car accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. After first experiencing the Western physical therapy model that sought only to strengthen his functioning upper body, Sanford discovered Yoga and its therapeutic possibilities. He found that by working with the entire body, both conceptually and energetically, he could relate and integrate the paralyzed parts of his body to the whole and make use of them positively even though he couldn’t move them. He now teaches Iyengar Yoga from his wheelchair, a testament both to the power of Yoga as therapy and his will to live fully.

In the last few years, a remarkable number of books, workshops, and teacher trainings have included the words “Yoga Therapy” in their titles. And yet, all Yoga, from poses to meditation to kindness, may be said to be therapeutic: cleansing, calming, strengthening, and at its most essential, promoting union of body, mind, and spirit. Chronic disease or illness, including depression, anxiety, asthma, and back pain can all be addressed through Yoga. So does Yoga change when it becomes Yoga Therapy? It doesn’t. But Yoga Therapy does refocus the practice to specifically address the issues in question safely and positively. In other words, Yoga Therapy asks the question, how does Yoga specifically think about depression—or scoliosis? or asthma?—as it relates to the whole practice and the whole person?

Diabetes, for example, might entail heart disease and poor circulation in the legs, among other issues, therefore full inversions might be contraindicated for the heart disease but beneficial for the circulation in the legs. A practice modified to encompass all the issues related to that person’s diabetes would have to be worked out, including very mild inversions, poses that both compress the calf and release it, such as Hero’s pose, and abdominal backbending and spinal twisting to cleanse and stimulate the organs. Thus, YT exists on a continuum of Yoga in which lines of intent evolve into a set of therapeutic practices appropriate to the moment, the person, the age, and the situation. Even, pre-natal Yoga is a “therapy:” though it does not address an illness, the practice is specific to a condition.

Since the 1960’s with B.K.S. Iyengar’s pioneering work with alignment and props, T.K.V. Desikachar’s continuation of his father T. Krishnamacharya’s breath-centered approach, and the work of the Bihar School of Yoga, Yoga Therapy has been on the ascendant. In America, Nischala Joy Devi and Dean Ornish have been spreading the word on the value of meditation and Yoga in reducing heart disease and stress for over twenty-five years. For several decades now too, Bobbie Fulz and Elise Miller have served those with spinal asymmetry through their Yoga programs for scoliosis. And for almost twenty years, the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) founded in 1989 by Larry Payne and Richard Miller, has published research and promoted Yoga therapy. But only this year did IAYT hold its first annual conference in January: the Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research, known by its acronym SYTAR, which eight hundred people attended.

With at least eleven million people in America doing some form of Yoga and with more stringent certification programs in place, more people feel confident about turning to Yoga and its therapeutic tools. Perhaps Yoga Therapy’s greatest gift is to serve the whole person and to help the whole person recover not just from the problem, but from the stress of injury or illness, and to recruit the entire body to help in that undertaking through a sound practice adapted to specific needs.

If you are interested in finding Yoga Therapists in your area, the IYAT has a database of Yoga Therapists at www.iayt.org.

Alison West, Ph.D., ERYT, specializes in Yoga Therapy for Backcare and Scoliosis, Anxiety and Depression, and Asthma and Diabetes. She is one of New York City’s most highly regarded teachers, is director of Yoga Union and co-director of the Yoga Union Center for Backcare and Scoliosis, the only such center on the East Coast. Alison conducts Teacher Trainings in NYC and D.C. www.yogaunion.com


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