WHAT IS YOGA THERAPY? (and what does it have to do with cold medicine?)

The International Association of Yoga Therapists describes yoga therapy as the adaptation of yoga practices for people with health challenges. Yoga therapists, they say, prescribe specific regimens of postures, breathing exercises, and relaxation techniques to suit individual needs.

My simple definition of yoga therapy is using the teachings and practices of yoga as a remedy for afflictions of the body and mind.

Research studies have shown that yoga can be beneficial for people with many specific health problems, including cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and chronic pain. Yoga is also known to reduce stress, increase physical strength and flexibility as well as mental fortitude and openness, and improve concentration and mood. But how does this work?

It’s generally accepted that yoga deepens our understanding of the link between our mind and body, that our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes can affect our biological functioning. You’re probably familiar with the mind-body connection:

Have you ever felt butterflies in the pit of your stomach before speaking in public or meeting someone you wanted to impress? Has the sight of something delicious caused your mouth to water? Have you ever been so anxious or stressed out that you can’t sleep well?

In these examples thoughts (worry about impressing someone, anticipation of yummy food, or worry) create distinct physical reactions (reduction of blood flow to abdomen producing a fluttery sensation in the belly, saliva excretion, an activated nervous system).

It works the other way too. You’ve experienced your body influencing the state of your mind if there’s a particular smell that evokes a memory, if laughing has ever lifted a grumpy mood, or receiving a hug and feeling more secure. In these cases, the physical experience releases mood-elevating chemicals in the brain.

Yoga is a practical path to knowing yourself in order to achieve your highest potential, and from the perspective of yoga therapy, your experiences of suffering are messengers that show what is needed to treat your afflictions of the body and mind.

This is a familiar concept, think about when you have a cold. You go to the drugstore to get medicine and in order to choose the right medicine, because there’s an entire aisle of cold medicines, you assess your symptoms. Do you need to treat a fever and congestion, or do you need a remedy for sneezing and a runny nose? You assess your symptoms and choose a treatment accordingly.

Yoga therapy works the same way. If you have chronic, unexplained back pain, you probably need gentle stretching and strengthening to treat it. If you’re struggling with general low energy, energizing breathing techniques can be a remedy. If you’re suffering from anxiety, there are physical postures, breathing exercises, and specific types of meditation and relaxation that can help calm the mind and activate the relaxation response in the body.

What makes yoga therapy so amazing is that yoga is an integrative practice. Because of the mind-body-mind connection, there’s often a mental component to physical ailments and physical issues that arise from mental afflictions, and when we approach our suffering holistically, we can affect big life changes, and even transformation.

Curious about how yoga therapy for stress can affect big life changes, even transformation in your life? Learn how to Make Peace with Stress.