The shortest answer
Yoga therapy addresses specific concerns or issues using the traditional practices of yoga.
The official answer
The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) uses the following short, succinct definition of yoga therapy:
“Yoga therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of Yoga.”
IAYT has compiled quotes from many masters of yoga that further define yoga therapy as compared to the general practice of yoga. These yoga experts use phrases that explain the distinction between yoga therapy and simply taking yoga classes. Consider these:
- Specific regimens … to suit individual need
- Particular person … particular goal
- Holistic healing art
- Applies yoga therapy … according to age, strength, activities
The yoga teachers’ answer
To answer the question, “What is Yoga Therapy?” we can turn to yogins and yoginis who are both yoga teachers and yoga therapists. The answer to the question is in context: it’s a difference in planning for a yoga class versus a yoga therapy session.
First, a little about the view of yoga in our culture today. There may be a general belief that yoga is what bendy, flexy women, clad in athletic wear do everyday. Many people understand that yoga involves poses and breathing practices. And by now that understanding includes knowing there are different types of yoga (super-intense to gentle and relaxing). Yoga has gained in popularity, and with that a huge variation in teachers, class styles, mission and philosophy, and the elements of a yoga class.
In general, yoga teachers will tell you they take this approach to teaching group classes: choose a theme for the class, name it, select a sequence of poses, write a short description, and maybe select a reading and put together a play list that goes along with the class theme. Private yoga classes may follow a similar process, with consideration for the client’s individual requests. The most common requests are for learning the basics, working on a particular pose, or just to have the privacy of being the only person “in class.”
By contrast, the yoga therapist starts planning a group session by unpacking the myriad elements of a particular issue. The concern might be of a physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual nature. Issues include hypertension or developing a healthy heart, improving mobility or reducing back pain, making a deeper spiritual connection, working on a specific physical injury, and so on. And most issues that keep people from health and well-being involve some level of stress, anxiety, and/or depression. To plan, the yoga therapist may have to study the condition, read up on research and to determine the best yogic approach (i.e, subtle clues for underlying factors). It’s not always clear, direct or obvious. Now, that’s one tall “theme” for a yoga therapy class plan!
The best answer
Yoga therapy sessions and yoga classes draw from the same yoga “toolbox.” Yoga therapy uses these tools to address a specific issue or concern. The yoga therapy practice is a work in progress, and a step-by-step progression to bring about balance.
Likewise, a very skilled yoga teacher may approach a class series in a similar vein. In fact, there are many in the yoga community that feel that ALL yoga is yoga therapy. And in the hands of a skilled yoga teacher or a yoga therapist, a carefully crafted session or class may be a true therapeutic yoga experience.