Therapeutic Yoga – An Introduction

There are many types of yoga and all can bring benefits to one’s overall health. However, therapeutic yoga practices aim at improving or alleviating pre-existing health problems or conditions. It can also help to ease naturally occurring processes; pregnancy and menopause being two good examples. Tools commonly used in therapeutic yoga include asana (postures), pranayama (yogic breathing), meditation and guided visualization. Additionally, many yogis are now considering plant-based diets as an integral part of yoga, especially therapeutic yoga.

Being an inherently holistic approach, therapeutic yoga functions by simultaneously working on the body, mind, and spirit. Skillfully applying a variety of yoga practice techniques systematically strengthens different systems in the body; among them are the heart and cardiovascular system, the lungs, muscles, and the nervous system. These therapeutic yoga practices also improve the function of the digestive system, promote psychological well-being, and increase oxygen delivery to cells and tissues. They can also assist the body by more efficiently eliminating waste products, carcinogens, and a host of other toxins.

Here in America it seems everyone lives a stressful life, and therapeutic yoga (and yoga in general) is quite possibly the best overall stress reduction system ever introduced in the West. Stress has been associated with a vast variety of medical problems and it seems to worsen or increase the risk of conditions like obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems (IBS), asthma and even migraine headaches. Persistently high levels of stress hormones (cortisol in particular) are found to undermine the function of the immune system, and yoga has been shown to reduce levels of cortisol and other disruptive stress hormones.

Therapeutic yoga alone can alleviate an assortment of health problems and it is especially effective when practiced as a complement to other forms of health care (both alternative and conventional). One good example suggested by scientific studies suggests that therapeutic yoga lessens the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments for people with cancer; it also has been shown to facilitate a speedier recovery following bypass surgery. Clinical trials have demonstrated that many patients with asthma, type II diabetes (aka, adult-onset diabetes), or high blood pressure were able to either lower their drug dosage, or eliminate some medications entirely after beginning regular yoga practice. Reducing medication coincides with fewer side effects and most often that means substantial monetary savings.

Although this is exciting news, be patient, take your time and don’t make the mistake of expecting immediate results. Yes, yoga is powerful medicine, but keep in mind, it is not fast medicine. Therapeutic yoga is most successful when used in a step-by-step approach; this tends to be both safer and more effective in the long run than more aggressive strategies. The best (and most effective) way to begin a regime of therapeutic yoga is to start off slowly and increase the intensity and duration of practice sessions as circumstances and conditions permit. For students that suffer from serious medical problems, therapeutic yoga might best begin with a simple posture or two, or just one breathing exercise, until the student feels they’re ready for more. *Note for teachers: When doing private sessions, it is recommended that you only teach a student as much as they are going to be able to regularly practice at home. It is more effective to teach a few techniques well than to have them try to do more with less accuracy and efficiency. As the student becomes more experienced they will probably be able to progressively handle more.

No two students are alike; each has unique strengths and weaknesses, different levels of overall health and fitness, and each will practice at a different stage of experience with yoga. One of the most common misconceptions regarding therapeutic yoga is it that there is one particular pose or sequences of practices that is works for a specific condition. People often question what pose they should do for a certain ailment. The answer is always the same; it depends.

Each disease or condition may differ (however slightly) between individuals, both in severity and the stage of treatment. Plus the amount of time each student can devote to their yoga practice will vary. Another consideration is that most people have more than one condition, and practices that might be recommended for one problem may well be contraindicated for another. Each one of these factors will have a major impact on the recommended choice of practices.

In Summary: Therapeutic yoga, was developed from the Yoga tradition of Patanjali and the Ayurvedic system of health care. Its purpose is the adaptation and application of yoga techniques and practices to help individuals facing health challenges at any level to improve or manage their condition, eliminate or reduce symptoms, restore balance, increase vitality, and improve attitude.