Have you ever had a yoga practice that in some way has felt transformative? Where there’s been an inner shift? Something has released and let go, opened up and awakened, or a moment of light that has connected something more deeply? The hip opener that shed the tears; the twist that incited the fire, releasing anger and igniting will and drive; the forward fold that encouraged introspection. Well this is where the real power of yoga lies. Not in the shapes that we make, nor in our social media presence. The magic occurs on the inside. The changes that aren’t visible to others, yet can be observed and experienced over time through our sense of being, how we behave and interact, a sharing of our yogic values.
What I am talking about is catharsis. Transformation and healing. Yoga promotes the idea of coming back to ourselves. With mental health difficulties there can be a sense of imbalance and disconnect. When our thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviours are out of sync with our true nature. When our nervous system is either in over or under drive, our feelings our emotionally dysregulated, our thought patterns are stuck, repetitive and largely critical, our higher level cognitive processes and intellect are not reaching their capacity and we are far away from any sense of joy. Yoga Therapy is a powerful healing practice which offers healing across all of these aspects of difficulties.
What is Yoga Therapy?
Yoga Therapy was first defined in the 1920s by Kuvalyananda who advocated that medical conditions may be treated at both the physical and physiological level with the therapeutic effects of yoga.
The British Council of Yoga Therapists (BCYT) highlights that ‘Yoga Therapy is Yoga where there is a specific need or needs. Yoga Therapy views the person as a whole; an integrated system of mind, body, emotional and spiritual aspects. Yoga Therapy can address different aspects as appropriate, to promote healing and improve health.’ The BCYT describes how Yoga Therapy can ‘encourage a quietening of the mind to help deal with stress or anxiety or to find space inside where we can begin to feel more comfortable and peaceful’.
Unlike talking therapies, Yoga Therapy does not need to know the story and explore the background, it simply works with the person as they are and the symptoms as they present. This enables the therapeutic work to connect with the individual as their whole self, and not be defined by their past experiences or diagnostic label. The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) suggest that through the applications of the teachings and practices of yoga, the process of Yoga Therapy may ‘empower individuals to progress toward health and well-being’.
What does Yoga Therapy look like?
As with most therapeutic interventions, Yoga Therapy may be offered as a 1:1 session or in a group-based short course format. Yoga Therapy devises an individualised treatment plan, monitors progress according to the presenting issues and needs, and may be offered as a stand alone intervention os as a compliment alongside other psychological therapies or medical treatments.
In Yoga Therapy, the kosha model is the guiding framework in working the individual holistically. In an ancient yogic text, the Upanishads, a human being is described as having 5 ‘sheaths’ (koshas), from the outer to the inner layer; each layer integrating and impacting one another. It is suggested that existing in balance in each of these sheaths is the essence of our wellbeing; inevitably if one or more sheaths is out of sync, it impacts the others.
The kosha model enables us to view the whole individual through the three bodies (shariras). The kosha model can be described as:
STUHLA (gross body)
- the outermost layer; physical sheath; ‘food’layer meaning the nutrients we take from the earth, how we fuel our body, our shell and the home we live in.
- Yoga Therapy: nutrition; exercise; lifestyle habits; relationship with physical body
SUKSHMA (subtle body)
- Vital energy, life force;
- Yoga Therapy: pranamaya breathing practices; physiological processes (heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, sleep)
- the mental sheath; cognitive and emotional processing
- Yoga Therapy: mindfulness of thought; re-framing and re-shaping cognitions, building positive emotions
- Intellect; wisdom; discernment
- Yoga Therapy: connecting with our inner sense of knowing; reading yoga philosophy and text
KARANA (casual body)
- Bliss ; an ecstasy of love; linked to the Atman (‘true self’)
- Yoga Therapy: noticing and increasing moments of joy; considering things bigger than yourself in the context of the world; spending time in nature
For example, through Yoga Therapy someone experiencing anxiety may benefit from calming breathing techniques to soothe the nervous system (pranayama kosha), mindful awareness of thought to notice the worry loop and not attach to unhelpful thinking styles (manomaya kosha) and physical postures which support them to feel grounded and rooted into the earth (annamaya kosha). Further lifestyle advice on nutrition and sleep hygiene may also be useful as well as encouragement of reading uplifting material and increasing the positive moments they experience.
Although it is beyond the scope to name all the variations in our human experience, Yoga Therapy is a suitable treatment for a variety of mental health difficulties as well as physical health complaints,. Furthermore, it would be an oversight to separate the interplay between physical ailments and their impact on emotional wellbeing and mental health.
Who is Yoga Therapy for?
Yoga Therapy is for anyone and everyone. It is an inclusive therapy that looks beyond diversity and seeks to connect with the individual as they are, regardless of age, gender, shape, size, ability, ethnicity, race and culture, and more. In the simplest form, if you have a body and a breath, then you can access Yoga Therapy on some level.
Yoga/Yoga Therapy is a recommended treatment intervention on the NICE Guidelines (National Institute of Clinical Excellence) for lower back pain; and with a growing research base there is a wealth of evidence which validates its effectiveness in the treatment of mental health difficulties.
Want to learn more about Yoga Therapy?
Listen to Yoga Evolved (@yogaevolved) podcast with myself, Dr Stephanie Minchin (@theyogapsychologist), talking about what yoga therapy is, what it looks like, who may benefit as well as reflections on her own personal journey through psychology and yoga as well as insights for deconstructing stigma attached to mental health.
Where can I find a Yoga Therapist?
You can search for a Yoga Therapist local to you on:
- Directories including the BCYT and IAYT
- Directories for 1:1 work and short group-based programmes on Yoga Therapy training institutes
- MoreYoga offer an 8 week course in Yoga Therapy for Stress, Anxiety & Depression (https://www.moreyoga.co.uk/moremind/yoga-therapy-for-the-mind-8-week-course-yoga-therapy-for-stress-anxiety-depression/) – and this is looking at being scheduled for October this year.
How can I train in Yoga Therapy?
As a requirement for most courses, it is recommended that you have completed at least 200 hours of Yoga Teacher training, with 2 years of experience of teaching; some courses also recommended a healthcare or therapeutic background.
In considering the choice, go to a Taster Day, examine the course content, speak to graduates and the course director of each training programme and consider practicalities of time and money as it is a big commitment to study as an adult learner. Most importantly, ask yourself the question of ‘why’? Why do I want to be a Yoga Therapist? And therein lies your answer.
Look at the British Council for Yoga Therapy http://www.bcyt.co.uk/training-courses.php
There are several training institutes internationally; two main training programmes in London are
- The Minded Institute https://themindedinstitute.com/training-courses/500-hour-professional-certificate-in-yoga-therapy/
- YogaCampus https://www.yogacampus.com/therapy-diploma
Contact Steph with inquiries for:
- MoreYoga Late Night Lock In workshops and MoreMind project firstname.lastname@example.org
- Psychological therapy, 1:1 Yoga & Yoga Therapy email@example.com
Dr Stephanie Minchin (@theyogapsychologist) is a Clinical Psychologist, Yoga Teacher, and soon to qualify as a Yoga Therapist; Steph co-leads the MoreMind project with Liz Joy Oakley and co-facilitates Late Night Lock In workshops integrating yoga, psychology and sound healing.
About Stephanie Minchin
Steph first fell in love with yoga when she moved to London in 2010, and then deepened her practice and spiritual connection in an ashram in Kerala, India. After completing YTT (200 hrs) in 2014, yoga became an integral part of Steph’s life, finding grounding and growth in personal practice with life lessons beyond the yoga mat.
Through her training in Yoga Therapy, Steph now unites her professions and passions of yoga teaching and clinical psychology into her yoga classes. This opens an invitation for yoga to be more than making shapes on a mat, yet a deeper journey of understanding how we can improve our physical health and positively relate to both our mental and emotional wellbeing.
Steph integrates yogic philosophy into her teaching to encourage reflective self-study and self-inquiry through yoga practice, exploring the psychological and energetic landscapes of the self through yoga practice.
In her own experience of yoga, Steph has learnt how to be more present, with self-awareness, self-compassion and bodily acceptance. Steph advocates for the healing powers of yoga and believes that yoga is for everybody and every body, with a little piece of magic in yoga for all, inclusive of shape, size, ability or any other aspect of our individual uniqueness.
Steph teaches Flow, Vinyasa, Mandala, Yin, Restorative, and Meditation and co-leads the MoreMind project with Liz Joy Oakley.