What is Yoga Therapy?

Yoga Therapy is a fairly generic sounding name for an important field that is emerging in medicine.  When most people think of yoga, groups of people gathering in a hot room performing different body positions usually comes to mind. While these poses, or asanas, can be beneficial, they are most effective when used as part of an overall yoga health plan that includes diet (Ayurveda), energy movement (Pranayama) and meditation.  Since yoga considers all of the different aspects that make us who we are, it helps to have someone with a deeper understanding of these subjects to help guide us on this journey. That is the essence of what Yoga Therapy is.


It’s really only been in the last decade that traditional medicine has begun to research the benefits of Yoga Therapy, and in just the past couple of years that the results have begun to be analyzed. So far, the results have been overwhelmingly positive, showing positive effects on conditions ranging from heart disease and cancer, to the more modern maladies such as PTSD, MS and a variety of conditions that affect the nervous system.  The reason that yoga therapy has been so effective is that it works with the body’s natural ability to heal itself.


Yoga-Therapy-1_08Everything we have ever done or thought of is stored somewhere in our bodies. This fact makes each of us a unique combination of physical, emotional and energetic influences that can be quite different than anyone else in our environment. Understanding those unique elements in our self is a key component to true healing. If, for whatever reason, my body tended to run hot, and with it came the inevitable issues associated with that condition, I would definitely not want to participate in hot yoga as a form of therapy. On the other hand, that type of class might be ideal for someone whose body was made up differently. The opposite can be true as well. If I tended to run a bit cold or was perhaps lethargic, then activating energy may be more appropriate. The yoga therapy credo seems to be “it all depends,” and what it all depends on is who we truly are.


Understanding the elements that make you you is the first step in developing an effective yoga therapy plan. A skilled yoga therapist can help you with this step, as they have many tools that can help identify different areas of influence in your life. While there are many individuals in the world practicing some form of Yoga Therapy, it wasn’t until 2014 that a formal certification process for Yoga Therapists has begun. The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) recently certified the first group of schools to train certified yoga therapists, and throughout the world there were twelve schools that met the initial qualifications (Ananda School of Yoga & Medicine, located in Nevada City, CA, is included in that group).


Yoga Therapy is not meant to replace traditional medicine, and it’s important that there is a flow of information between the parties to create a cohesive overall plan. For instance, it is important for a client to continue to take their prescribed medicines while working with a Yoga Therapist, even if they start to feel better. If, through the efforts of yoga therapy, the doctor determines that it is no longer necessary for a client to continue taking a particular medication, then that would have to be seen as a step in the right direction. Our goal as Yoga Therapists is to help our clients feel better. It is in that essence that true healing can occur.


Yoga TherapyWhile Yoga Therapy has not yet been integrated into our traditional western medical system, inroads are being made. Organizations such as the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Veterans Administration (VA) and the American Heart Association, to name just a few, have begun to speak out in favor of programs based in Yoga Therapy as a way of combatting many of the conditions that are currently plaguing our society. We are also seeing health insurers beginning to accept Yoga Therapy as not just a valid treatment method for particular conditions, but also as an effective preventative maintenance plan for our overall health. The Dean Ornish Heart Method and iRest Yoga Nidra are examples of Yoga Therapy-based programs that have been accepted by a number of insurers, and there are similar programs being developed for other conditions. Over the next decade, we should see a big push to include Yoga Therapy in our current medical system, not unlike the way we currently use Physical Therapists.


In addition to the health benefits of Yoga Therapy, research is also showing that implementing Yoga Therapy-based programs has great cost-saving benefits to both the insurers and the individual patients. A recent study published in PLOS ONE, showed dramatic cost savings when Yoga Therapy programs were integrated into a traditional healthcare environment. In a study at Massachusetts General Hospital, part of Harvard Medical School, 4,452 patients practiced a home-based Yoga Therapy program for a median of 4.2 years. When focusing on the cost-saving effects of the program, the results were very impressive. Total utilization of health care services decreased by 43%, clinical encounters decreased by 41.9%, imaging by 50.3% and lab encounters by 43.5%. In addition, emergency room visits decreased from 3.6 to 1.7 per person, per year, saving individuals an average of $2360 annually. That’s quite a dramatic change, and it appears the industry is beginning to take notice.


Is America ready for a more preventative-based health care system? Can we shift our focus away from the take a pill mentality we currently suffer from? It will take a dramatic cultural shift, but the seeds are being planted. In the meantime, we need to more deeply understand our own health, as individuals. We need to take responsibility for our own wellbeing and take steps to improve all areas of our mental and physical health. These bodies we inhabit are truly miraculous, and when functioning optimally, they have proven the ability to overcome almost all health challenges.


-By contributing Blogger and Yoga Therapist, Bob Ash, of DevPrayag Yoga Therapy

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