Yoga for Therapy and Health Care

Yoga Therapist at Work
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You have probably heard the debate over whether contemporary yoga should be considered a form of exercise or a spiritual practice, with each side equally sure of its position. But what about the idea that yoga is a type of medicine?

In India, that idea is not so outlandish. Yoga, alongside its sister discipline Ayurveda, has been traditionally prescribed to treat mental and physical ailments, and not just for things like a bad back or recovery from a muscular injury. In his 1966 classic, Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar offers sequences of poses for the treatment of asthma, high blood pressure, and diabetes, amongst many others. T. Krishnamacharya and his student, Ashtanga guru Pattabhi Jois, also saw asana as curative and worked with patients with a variety of illnesses.

Because this application of yoga has not been given much attention by research science, it has not been widely practiced outside of India until recently. But with the growth of interest in alternative medicine in the United States, yoga therapy is also on the rise.

What Is Yoga Therapy?

The term "yoga therapy" encompasses a broad range of different methods and purposes. Most basically, a therapeutic method focuses on healing by prioritizing the health of the student/patient, which is addressed on an individual basis. In terms of physical health, this can be rehabilitative, curative, preventative, or to manage a chronic condition with the goal of improving quality of life.

Yoga therapy takes a whole-body approach, assessing each person's overall health and working with whatever limitations are present. This approach also considers mental health, sometimes using a combination of talk therapy and movement, under the assumption that mental and physical wellness are integrated. Individual assessments are key since two people with similar conditions could have very different medical histories or complicating factors that would result in a different course of treatment.

Who Can Benefit from Yoga Therapy?

The conditions that may see some benefit with yoga therapy run the gamut: allergies, arthritis, IBS, thyroid conditions, infertility, hemorrhoids, depression, and eating disorders, just to name a few. Anything that might take you to a doctor or alternative medicine practitioner falls under the purview of yoga therapy.

It's important to remember that while yoga might help you cope with certain medical problems, in most cases it will be complementary to, rather than a substitute for, standard medical care. Therefore, you should always continue seeing your doctor and discuss the possibility of incorporating yoga into your regime before starting a new treatment.

The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), a professional organization for yoga therapists, maintains an extensive bibliography of research materials on common ailments and how they may be treated through yoga. The IAYT also hosts regular symposiums for members and publishes the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, which reports on yoga therapy research and offers best practices for therapists.

Finding a Yoga Therapist

Since yoga therapy is dependent on a one-on-one relationship between the therapist and the patient, finding the right practitioner is very important. The IAYT, which has around 2,900 members and 80 member schools, according to Executive Director John Kepner, offers an online database to connect patients with therapists.

As yoga therapy becomes more and more popular there is no shortage of therapists, but this emerging profession has been largely unregulated. In 2013, Maryland University of Integrative Health became the first institution to offer a Master of Science degree in Yoga Therapy. The IAYT has accredited about 25 additional training programs worldwide, though most are in the United States. In 2016, the IAYT plans to bring to fruition a long-term plan to offer certification credentials to qualified members who have completed a yoga therapy training program at an IAYT accredited institution. They will also grandfather in qualified therapists who can demonstrate their training and/or experience from before the accreditation program began. Though some within the yoga community have objected to this attempt at standardization, it can be seen as a starting place in a process that will help ultimately help consumers find a qualified teacher.

Types of Yoga to Check Out

Yoga training that is particularly applicable to therapy work includes Viniyoga, which continues the work of Krishnamacharya through the teachings of his son, T.K.V. Desikachar. Viniyoga emphasizes customizing a practice to fit an individual's health and needs. Iyengar Yoga also stresses rehabilitation, anatomy, and the use of props to tailor poses to each person's physical ability. Word of mouth from fellow yoga students or teachers can also provide invaluable information about the best therapists in your area.

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