WHAT IS YOGA THERAPY?
Yoga is an ancient spiritual tradition developed in India beginning over 2500 years ago. Though its emphasis is spiritual, many people seeking greater physical and emotional health have used its practices in a nonsectarian manner and found them to be beneficial and effective. The application of the theory and practices of Yoga for the purpose of healing is referred to as Yoga Therapy.
The toolkit of Yoga Therapy is very diverse, the practices used having arisen in different historical time periods. The following is a fairly comprehensive list of techniques used in Yoga therapy. Not all Yoga therapists practicing today make use of all of these tools in their practice:
Mantra, or sacred sound, is probably the oldest therapeutic technique claimed by Yoga, and it originated in Vedic times (possibly as early as 2000 bce). Vedic mantras for healing are used to help restore health and harmony to the person and right relationship to the natural world.
Meditation (dhyana), reflection (vichara), and ethical precepts (yama and niyama), are practices recommended by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras to remove mental and emotional pain, descriptions of which correspond, in part, to modern characterisations of anxiety and depression. In order to meditate, a person should sit with the body in an appropriate meditation posture (asana), regulate the breath by practices called pranayama, withdraw the awareness from its outward flow through the senses (pratyahara), and concentrate the mind on a single principle or point of focus (dharana). Through the practice of samadhi (stages of higher consciousness which are the outcome of dhyana or the uninterrupted flow of the awareness to a single meditation focus), the mind begins to encounter a deep inner peace independent of the events of external reality.
Meditation is the thus the type of Yoga therapy most often selected to address problems which lie in the area of the mind or the emotions. In his study of Yoga therapy and coronary artery disease, Dr. Dean Ornish discovered to the surprise of many that meditation was the single most significant component of his successful Yoga therapy program for reversing this common form of heart disease.
Diet and Nutrition, which constituted an important part of the practice of Ayurvedic medicine, appear for the first time in a Yogic context in the Bhagavadgita . Dietary recommendations for specific diseases are also given in various texts of Hatha Yoga and are widely used in modern Yoga therapy, though less commonly prescribed by Yoga therapists in the US than in India.
Yoga Asana, the famed postures of Yoga, appear textually for the first time in a first century CE text called the Yoga Yajnavalkya, where it is stated that there are “eight asanas, and asanas can be used for healing disease.” The Yoga Yajnavalkya can be regarded as an early Hatha Yoga text, in that it utilises Ayurvedic medical precepts and incorporates Tantric subtle body anatomy and physiology, such as nadis and chakras.
As Hatha Yoga developed over the centuries, asanas became elaborated in number, and the Hatha yogis used them for balancing the doshas (the bio- energies of Ayurveda, vata, pitta, and kapha), opening the channels of the body and improving the flow of prana, maintaining the health of the digestion, enhancing strength and vitality, and removing various diseases.
During the colonial era, the Ayurvedic understanding of Yoga asana and pranayama practices was lost in all but a few Yoga lineages, and asanas came to be practiced with more of a western understanding of their benefits, such as balancing the endocrine system; developing physical body attributes such as strength, balance, flexibility, and coordination; physical body relaxation and pain relief, etc. The majority of “Hatha yoga” lineages today teach within this paradigm, rather than the “classical” (pre-British) Hatha Yoga paradigm which is based on Ayurveda.
In the early seventies, BKS Iyengar’s system of modern yoga asana, based on principles of muscular-skeletal anatomy and alignment, became well known. Along with gentler forms developed by Mukunda Stiles (Structural Yoga) and Judith Lasater (Restorative Yoga), it allowed Yoga asanas for the first time to be used as a treatment for accident and injury to the muscular-skeletal system.
Deep relaxation is believed to have been, in earlier times, quite a simple practice. Called first shitalikarani mudra and later savasana, the yogi lay on his back after the performance of asana, palms upward, and relaxed the body while focusing on the outgoing breath. The contact with the west during the colonial era, which resulted in exposure to both western metaphysics and hypnosis, was probably responsible for stimulating the development of Yogic techniques of guided visualisation performed during savasana in order to enhance relaxation and healing. Many of these techniques currently are taught in many Yoga lineages, possibly the most elaborate and best known is the Yoga Nidra system of Swami Satyananda of Bihar. Using biofeedback equipment, it is easy to demonstrate that the degree of relaxation of body and mind attained during savasana is greater than that of sleep.
Pranayama during the middle Upanishadic era and at the time of Patanjali, referred to specific rajayoga practices of regulating the breath according to “time, space, and number” in order to stop the thought waves in the mind and attain samadhi. To the later Hatha Yogis, however, the use of pranayama was not only for regulating the flow of breath to enhance depth of meditation, but was also practiced according to Ayurvedic precepts for maintaining health. The different pranayama practices taught in the Hatha Yoga system are heating or cooling, affect the doshas in certain predictable ways, and can be used to aid healing disorders of both the physical and subtle bodies, as well as awakening the kundalini energy to enhance spiritual practice. In classical Hatha Yoga therapy, asanas and pranayamas are selected individually for each person based on Ayurvedic precepts--just as in Ayurveda, a unique herbal formulation is given to each patient.
Mudra and Bandha are Hatha Yoga practices which regulate the flow of prana in the subtle and physical bodies, and are used during the practice of pranayama. The three main bandhas, used together, are able to enhance the production of ojas, or vital energy which results from the proper digestion of food. Ojas is an Ayurvedic concept relating to the health of the body’s tissues and to the proper functioning of the immune system and the stress/relaxation response. Bandhas, along with other Hatha Yoga mudras, are also recommended treatments for certain diseases.
Shat Karma (Shat Kriya) practices are the first limb of Hatha Yoga. They were developed by the Hatha yogis from the Ayurvedic pancha karma system. They are a series of cleansing practices which remove excesses of
various doshas and can have profound healing effects for various diseases, especially respiratory diseases such as asthma and allergy, and diabetes II.
Bhakti Yoga Practices include any sort of devotional practices such as are observed in various religious traditions, such as prayer, ritual, singing, chanting, visiting holy places, satsang (the company of others on one’s spiritual path), reading stories and teachings of holy people, studying scripture, etc. These types of interventions may be especially recommended by Yoga therapists to certain people suffering from grief and loss, loneliness, childhood psychological damage resulting from dysfunctional families, etc.
Modern Yoga Therapy Research
In the last fifty years, a great deal of research has been conducted on the efficacy of Yoga practices in the management of disease. Various practices of Yoga have shown to be effective in stress reduction, lowering blood pressure and reversing coronary artery disease, improving flexibility of heart rhythm; lowering insulin requirements in diabetics; reducing depression, anxiety, stress, and symptoms of ptsd; controlling weight gain; preventing osteoporosis; improving quality of life for cancer survivors; reducing stiffness and pain in arthritis, back pain, and other muscular-skeletal disorders; increasing efficiency of breathing at high altitude; relieving symptoms of asthma and allergy, etc. Many students from well-known modern Yoga lineages, such as Sivananda, Bihar School of Yoga, SVYASA, Kaivalyadham, Viniyoga, Himalayan Institute, Yogi Bhajan, Transcendental Meditation, Art of Living Institute, Iyengar Yoga, etc., as well as many other researchers and institutions, have been involved in these research efforts. Those wishing more information on Yoga Therapy research are encouraged to visit the PubMed site of the National Institutes of Health, and iayt.org, the website of the International Association of Yoga Therapists.
Ayurvedic Medicine and Yoga Therapy are holistic in asserting that true healing must occur on all levals of being: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.