There is quite a lot of published research around these days which shows the benefits of yoga practice for many health conditions, see here and here. But we don't need proof to tell us that after a well-balanced yoga practice we feel stretched and relaxed and generally more well. Anyone who has practised yoga regularly will tell you of its undoubted therapeutic effects.
Yoga is good for ongoing maintenance of our health, but therapy is something we seek when there's something wrong. When I sprained my ankle I had some physiotherapy. I recently had a Thai yoga massage when I was feeling out of sorts. These were one on one and to treat a specific condition.
So what is a therapy?
The Oxford English Dictionaries defines therapy as a 'treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder'. The word comes from the Greek therapeuein meaning to 'minister to or treat medically'. So basically it's the intention to treat a specific condition.
Yoga teachers have a duty of care towards their yoga students. This requires that they have enough knowledge of anatomy and physiology and an understanding of common medical conditions. They also need to have a good embodied understanding of the poses taught and how they impact on the body.
Armed with all this knowledge they can then safely adapt yoga practices to individual needs. This ensures that symptoms won't be made worse, and the general therapeutic effects of yoga can be had - which hopefully will strengthen the body's own healing mechanisms and indirectly ease the symptoms of the condition.
It all comes down to intention. Is the teacher's intention to teach safe and healing yoga? Or is it to treat an ailment? If the intention is to treat an ailment, then that becomes a therapeutic situation.
What is yoga?
Yoga practice is not just about physical exercises. Yoga is underpinned by a philosophy which teaches us to nurture ourselves. Yoga teaches us to be self-reliant and to take responsibility for our own physical and mental health. Yoga philosophy cultivates a healthy and compassionate mental attitude which in itself enhances healing.
Qualified yoga teachers are not equipped to 'treat' medical conditions. That is, unless they have had adequate further training. Yoga classes are a place for sharing. Yoga practice can be empowering, encouraging us to take our health into our own hands, and giving us some tools to help us do that.
Yoga practice is an experience that we have for ourselves, rather than something that someone has prescribed for us. We can share someone else's yoga practice and learn a lot from that, but we will always do it in our own way and take away from it what we need personally.
What about one-to-one yoga lessons?
Is this therapy? I would say not. It's yoga teaching, but more tailored. Most yoga teachers don't have enough knowledge to be able to prescribe specific practices for specific conditions. They can of course make educated suggestions for students to explore, but that's a subtly different thing.
Interestingly, the British Wheel of Yoga's teaching insurance covers the teaching of yoga, including one-to-one teaching, but doesn't include anything claiming to be 'yoga therapy'. For that you need to do additional training and get additional insurance.
Ayurveda is an ancient Indian system of healthcare that has reputedly been around for thousands of years. You can read more about ayurveda here. Ayurvedic practitioners use yogic practices, as well as changes in diet, massage, and taking medicinal herbs and spices, to treat specific ailments.
The training to become an ayurvedic practitioner is extensive. And this is for good reason. Human beings are complicated! There is much to learn before we can confidently take the bold step of prescribing treatments for others.
What is key for us yoga teachers is that we are aware of the limits of our knowledge and to remember that when we are teaching yoga, we are teaching yoga. The nature of the student-teacher relationship is very different from the client-therapist relationship. If we want to work in the role of a therapist then we owe it to our students to ensure we have adequate training for that.
All yoga teachers have their own style and teach in their own individual way. Of course teachers with additional expertise will incorporate this into their yoga teaching. I have been to some great yoga classes where the teacher was also experienced in aikido or was a medical doctor or osteopath. It adds a whole new dimension to explore.
My yoga class on Zoom info here incorporates a lot of Rolfing themes and understanding from my work as a Rolfer. I give guidance to keep people safe as they practice and share some expertise and knowledge to enhance the practice. But mainly I have my yoga teacher hat on and it is a time for individuals to explore and enjoy yoga together in a therapeutic and healing space.
Let's keep enjoying yoga for all its health benefits. And let's make sure, the yoga teachers among us, that we are trained sufficiently to be able to provide a safe yoga space in which we can share what we know to empower others to heal and care for themselves.