Yoga as Therapy?

Yoga as self-therapy: Tune out to check in.

Yoga as therapy has been a source of contention in recent years. In January 2016, the Yoga Alliance requested that any YA-registered teacher or school remove the terms “yoga therapy” and “yoga therapist” from their title. This suggestion was a precautionary measure against misleading the general public to think that yoga teachers are diagnosticians. The point was not that yoga isn’t therapeutic, but rather that yoga is not a strategy for diagnosing or curing specific ailments.

“If I go to yoga, I’ll be healthier.” While this statement is likely true, it’s not because yoga is a panacea or a prescription. Yoga is a therapy to help you negotiate your physical and emotional well-being. The practice is your tool for noticing your ailments, understanding your strengths and having the inner resources to deal with challenges. By getting out of bed and on to your mat every morning, you are taking some time to tune out from the world and check in with your physical and emotional self.

This regulation from the Yoga Alliance does not take away from the fact that yoga has always been and will continue to be, therapeutic in nature. The point is that the practice of yoga does not represent the reductionist style of therapy that we tend to apply to ourselves. We apply reductionist theory to our habits and often wish to improve our health by reducing or eliminating one problem. “If I meditate, then I’ll be calmer.” “If I don’t smoke, then I’ll be able to run faster.” “If I eat less, then I’ll be thinner.” While these statements are likely true, they fail to capture the notion that our health is comprised of a physiological and psychological system. Yoga affords another point of view beyond the reductionist “if/then” approach to improving health.

A healthy lifestyle is something that we all strive for. We want joy and happiness, fewer aches and pains, serenity, and a robust constitution. We know the basics of getting and staying healthy; we know that smoking is bad, eating fruit and vegetables is good, regular exercise is imperative and that it’s critical to keep stress at bay. But we often get mired in wishing to “better” our habits, “get” healthier and “change” something with the expectation of “improvement.” Paradoxically, this desire to improve and to “cure” ailments often creates undue stress. In opposition to this desire to improve, yoga is a strategy to observe what’s happening with your health. By doing a regular practice of poses, breath and meditation, you are able to check in with your own physical and emotional self and well-being and understand your constitution from a point of view of acceptance rather than change.

Yoga provides a comprehensive and holistic view of the human body as a system. The practice itself is simple. Just you and your mat. Certainly there are techniques and strategies for poses and for practicing meditation, but the fundamental beauty of yoga is its simplicity. You can’t cheat your way through it. By stepping on to your mat and checking out of whatever else you were doing with your day, you are observing the subtleties of your mindbody and teaching yourself strategies for managing emotional and physical discomfort.

The therapeutic potential of yoga comes from its consistency. The yoga sutras decree that the formula for success in yoga is to “practice regularly over a long period of time.” The therapeutic practice is not a prescriptive solution to health but rather a strategy for understanding yourself and finding the right path towards health and well-being.

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