The yoga therapy journey is a homecoming to a place of inner balance, awareness, and wholeness that, however distant, is always present in the student. Yoga therapy sees each person as an expression and reflection of infinite possibilities and intelligence. The skill and practice of the yoga therapist comes through an in-depth understanding of all the facets of yoga, in order to open the door to the student’s potential for health, healing, and awakening.
The yoga therapist serves as a guide or mentor in a student’s journey of healing and self-discovery. Rather than offering a diagnosis and treatment for a specific condition, the yoga therapist creates a safe learning environment where the student can remember their own innate healing resources.
There are five steps in the process of creating a yoga therapy program for a specific group or individual.
Step One: Describe What Is Happening
The yoga therapist always begins work with a group or individual by gaining a global picture of the situation—looking at the person or group and asking what is going on at each level. What is happening in the physical body, the koshas, and the breath? How is the energy flowing in the body? What is the state of mind and emotion? What is the relationship and connection to Spirit?
From a yoga therapy perspective, a “health condition” is a reflection of where this person is in their lives, both internally and externally. Assessment includes an analysis of posture, breath, energy, movement, and mind. This may include symptoms related to a medical condition but the framework is greatly expanded to include all levels of a person’s being. This description is a critical part of the healing process because clarifying and becoming conscious of what is happening is the first and most fundamental part of the process of change. In fact, from the yoga perspective, this raising of consciousness or heightening of awareness is the ultimate definition of health. The purpose of illness is to point us back toward greater awareness and balance.
Step Two: Explore the Role of Separation
The source material for yoga therapy is the Yoga Sutras. One important tenet of the Sutras is that ignorance of the truth of oneness, called avidya, is the source of all forms of dis-ease. The ignorance referred to here is a lack of understanding that all life is interconnected and that we are each an integral aspect of the web of life. It is the inability to see the larger picture in terms of oneself, relationships, and the world as a whole.
- How separation affects the physical body: In relation to the physical body, separation is seen as a lack of body awareness. Increasing body awareness can be an important part of the healing process. As the individual becomes more aware of the messages from the body, including areas of stress and tension, a foundation is created for activating the relaxation response, allowing the body to return to a state of balance.
- How separation affects the energy body: In relation to the energy body, separation manifests as a lack of awareness of the breath and of the flow of energy in the body. Another form of separation is separation from the natural world.
- How separation affects the mind and emotions: Separation from society and a “me against them” mind-set results in fear and anxiety. Another form of separation is from parts of ourselves, which become repressed or denied. These unconscious beliefs form the basis of daily living patterns that separate us from other people, even those who should be the foundation of our emotional support.
- How separation affects the wisdom body: The wisdom body is the part of ourselves that has the ability to see separation at the various levels and allows us to change. Without this faculty, we are so busy putting out self-created fires that we are unable to access whatever liberating insights might arise from within our own being. The yoga therapy process is one of deprogramming our core beliefs.
- How separation affects the bliss body: Separation from the bliss body amounts to a denial of our true nature and the disconnection from Spirit, the most powerful source of healing.
Step Three: Understanding the Stress Response
The separation described in Step Two leads to competition and attachment on one hand, and fear and anxiety on the other. Anger and fear are hallmarks of the stress response. As short-term defense mechanisms, they are ideally suited to defending the human body and mind. When the mechanism becomes chronic, a whole series of stress-related health issues result, which can evolve into serious conditions if unchecked. Let’s look at how this works in relation to each of the koshas.
- How stress affects the physical body: One aspect of the stress response is to constrict the arteries and increase the heart rate. In an emergency situation, this ensures a rapid supply of energy for survival. When the stress response is engaged continually, the body adapts by maintaining this condition with a steadily elevated blood pressure. The physical body was not, however, designed to be constantly in a state of emergency. The tissues and organs involved are subjected to abnormal pressures and tensions resulting, eventually, in heart disease.
- How stress affects the energy body: The contraction in the physical body is actually a response to and a reflection of what is happening in the energy body. The breath becomes short and stifled, and the flow of energy obstructed. The shortness of the breath and contraction of the whole energetic being are the hallmarks of the stress response. Again, this may be useful in an emergency situation but is detrimental over the long term.
- How stress affects the psycho-emotional body: The contraction in the physical body and energy body actually begin at the level of the mind, as a state of separation that becomes a chronic swing between running after what we want and avoiding that which we fear. Competition, resentment, and hostility arise and color our relationships. In real emergencies, these emotions are a healthy response to threats and create boundaries necessary for survival. When they become chronic and repetitive patterns in the mind, however, they perpetuate the physical stress response.
- How stress affects the wisdom and bliss bodies: This contraction and defense mode at all levels of being keeps us in a state of emergency in which a connection to higher wisdom and true Self are not possible.
Step Four: Approaches to Wellness
Step Four describes our plan of action. Again using the koshas as a framework, we put together a list of principles that would facilitate wellness in relation to this condition. This step includes looking at the science of yoga as a pool of resources that can support and encourage the wellness principles we define. The Eight Limbs of yoga provides a framework to organize these resources.
- Approaches to wellness for the physical body: The first three of the Eight Limbs—yama, niyama, and asana—relate to the health of the physical body, in terms of lifestyle, diet, and physical yoga practice, as well as traditional cleansing techniques.
- Approaches to wellness for the energy body: Yogic techniques would focus on the next limb of the Eight Limbs, pranayama—breathing exercises to enhance the flow of energy in the body. We would also want to reestablish a natural balance in the flow of prana and apana through breath and guided imagery, along with prana vidya exercises to direct healthy energy into the circulatory system. Chakra therapy would also be an aspect of our work at this level.
- Approaches to wellness for the psycho-emotional body: At the level of the mind and emotions, the yogic techniques draw from all the areas utilized up to this point and also focus on the next of the Eight Limbs, pratyahara. This refers to bringing the focus inside and reducing external stimulus. A main resource here is yoga nidra, a 10-step process for exploration and integration of all the koshas.
- Approaches to wellness for the wisdom body: At this level, we want to encourage the development of the witness, the part of ourselves that has the ability to stand back and take a wider view of our situation in life. The yogic techniques focus on the next of the Eight Limbs, dharana, which refers to all the ways we seek to develop consciousness and awareness. An example of this would be Tratak, in which the mind is focused on a particular point, such as the flame of a candle.
- Approaches to wellness for the bliss body: At this level, we want to facilitate the remembering of the joy and peace that is always present. The yogic practices focus on the next of the Eight Limbs, dhyana, or meditation. This experience of bliss, developed and stabilized over time, leads to samadhi, the final stage of the eight limbs. The “bliss body” is a key concept in yoga therapy because it reminds us that we are already whole and healed within ourselves, and our work is to access, discover, and recover that which we already are.
Step Five: Designing a Program for the Individual
The final step of the yoga therapy process is to create a specific program based on all of the understandings and principles gained up to this point. This program will ultimately be a practice for the overall wellness of the individual and not for the treatment of the condition. However, our knowledge of the condition as understood within this model of yoga therapy is an essential foundation for developing an appropriate approach for the individual.
The practice that we develop is, of course, not static and will change along with the changing needs of the individual. Yoga therapy offers a vision of optimal health at each level of the person—physical, energetic, psychological, and spiritual. The process of yoga therapy is a journey of healing and integrating all these aspects of ourselves within a growing awareness of who we are and the spiritual source of our being.