Yoga therapy is a form of yoga that can help people of all levels, abilities, and ages.
It is rooted in the ancient practice of yoga, which began thousands of years ago in India. It made its way to the United States in the late 1800s and became a formal practice in the 1980s (Schmalzl & Sullivan, 2022).
Not to be confused with the practice of yoga, yoga therapy provides a holistic path to health and healing for countless individuals.
In this article, we will explore what makes yoga therapy different, what conditions it can help with, and training and certification requirements for those interested in becoming yoga therapists.
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Yoga therapy is the application of yogic tools and principles to address emotional, mental, and physical needs (Taylor, 2007). This type of therapy involves yoga postures (asanas), breath work, meditation, guided imagery or visualization, and relaxation exercises (Taylor, 2007).
Like traditional therapy, yoga therapy includes a treatment plan and techniques based on the specific age, ability, goals, and diagnosis of the client. A yoga therapist explains the purpose of each yoga pose, technique, or skill implemented and how it can help reach client goals (Taylor, 2007).
For example, an individual experiencing anxiety might be taught relaxation, deep breathing techniques, and an asana practice that includes postures like child’s pose, tree pose, and legs up the wall, which relieve anxiety.
Yoga therapy might also include things like prayer, study of the yoga sutras, imagery, chanting, and spiritual counseling. Providing homework assignments is an important component of therapeutic yoga so that a client can build practices and use techniques in daily life.
While yoga focuses on personal improvement for a “normal” and healthy individual, yoga therapy is a holistic treatment to address somatic or psychological dysfunction (Taylor, 2007).
Yoga therapy is also different from traditional yoga because it is usually conducted on a one-on-one basis. The individual session is designed with individual goals and objectives in mind to address the specific needs of the client.
With an integrated mind–body focus, clients can develop mental and physical awareness that aids in a multitude of problematic issues.
Benefits of Yoga Therapy
Yoga therapy has many physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits for a wide range of issues.
Benefits of yoga therapy for physical health
Yoga therapy has shown effective relief for musculoskeletal pain, back pain, fibromyalgia, migraines, immune function, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis (Pearson et al., 2020).
The physical postures of yoga combined with the mindfulness, empowering spiritual principles, mental connection with the body, and holistic approach of yoga therapy may make it more effective at treating certain physical ailments and pain than traditional medicine and physical exercises alone.
A variety of randomized controlled trials have shown that yoga therapy can reduce pain and disability for both back and neck pain (Crow et al., 2015).
In these studies, yoga therapy was a safe, effective way to improve mobility and function and reduce pain without side effects.
Fibromyalgia is a condition with no definitive cure. Treatment generally focuses on managing symptoms and improving quality of life rather than “curing” the disease.
One particular study showed that fibromyalgia symptoms, ability to cope with pain, and functional deficits significantly improved after a yoga therapy treatment program (Carson et al., 2016).
Yoga therapy is an integral part of lifestyle modification and other complementary approaches.
There is some evidence that yoga therapy practices decrease the number and severity of migraines in those who suffer from them. Most of this research supports the benefit of yoga therapy on levels of pain and pain management (Sutar et al., 2016).
Individuals who engaged in a regular, routine yoga therapy practice could reduce inflammatory markers, downregulate proinflammatory markers, and favorably alter cytokine levels, which are related to numerous diseases and health concerns (Vijayaraghava et al., 2015).
These physiological changes affect various aspects of immune function and can help individuals ward off illness and recover more quickly from injury.
For individuals with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, yoga therapy improved outcomes of muscular strength, flexibility, and mobility compared to a control group with no intervention (Deepshwar et al., 2018).
Rheumatic issues can be painful, debilitating, and frustrating for those who experience them. Therapeutic yoga may offer many people hope for a better quality of life.
Benefits of yoga therapy for mental wellness
Numerous mental health benefits can be gained from a yoga therapy practice. It has been shown to improve mood associated with mental illness, improve self-regulation, reduce stress, and increase resilience (Bussing et al., 2012).
There are further benefits for those at risk of social isolation, including improving behavioral function and self-esteem, and changes in anxious and negative thought patterns (Bussing et al., 2012).
Specific research and conventional wisdom has shown that yoga-based therapy can improve body image, reduce levels of stress, and improve quality of sleep (Bussing et al., 2012). Yoga is often included in addiction and recovery treatment centers because of its therapeutic benefits for mental health.
Laughter yoga is a form of yoga that can be helpful for improving mood, increasing social connection, and generating a sense of overall wellbeing.
Besides the myriad benefits of yoga, yoga therapy is particularly beneficial because it can be accessible in a wide range of formats (online, individually, in classes, and inpatient and outpatient treatment programs) and to a diverse population regardless of disability, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.
According to Statista, yoga’s popularity grew by 63.8% between 2010 and 2021. With this growth in popularity, the number of research studies and ability to explore the effects of yoga and yoga therapy have also increased.
While the complex multidimensional intervention of yoga therapy makes it difficult to standardize interventions and make general statements about the effectiveness of yoga, research continues to investigate components of yoga therapy. Testing specific outcomes and key components has helped validate and deepen the understanding of this approach to health and healing.
Recent research studies on its effectiveness
Randomized controlled trials are considered the gold standard of scientific inquiry. Using controlled groups matched with yoga therapy treatment groups, these studies have shown positive results for many of the ailments described above. Additionally, systematic reviews look at mechanisms underlying these positive results and provide further support for the benefits of yoga therapy.
One meta-analysis found that yoga postures, mindfulness, and breathwork (character traits of the holistic yoga therapy practice) helped to regulate the sympathetic nervous system and adrenal system in a variety of populations. This research also showed a reduction in physiological markers of stress and changes in positive affect and self-compassion and a decrease in chronic inflammatory related disorders (Pascoe et al., 2017).
The validity of yoga therapy as a form of treatment
Extensive scientific evidence consistently shows that yoga therapy is a safe, effective form of treatment for mental and physical conditions. A review of the literature suggests that yoga therapy is an increasingly socially acceptable approach to pain care and social and behavioral treatment plans (Pearson et al., 2020).
The authors of this review further argue that yoga therapy addresses the complexity and psychosocial comorbidities associated with pain and suffering due to mental or physical health issues (Pearson et al., 2020).
In addition to treating specific health ailments, yoga therapy can enhance self-efficacy, self-regulation and self-confidence and empower clients to take control of their mental and physical health (Pearson et al., 2020). A yoga therapy practice offers an alternative to other treatment options and provides clients freedom and autonomy.
An explanation of evidence-based yoga therapy
Evidence-based practice is a term rooted in the medical field describing an interdisciplinary approach to patient care. In evidence-based yoga therapy, the yoga therapist reviews research that has demonstrated effectiveness in the context of specific issues to determine which yoga-based tools will best meet the unique needs of the client.
Many certified yoga therapists embrace evidence-based treatment. Warrier (2018) interviewed 367 members of the International Association of Yoga Therapists in the United States and Canada on their views of evidence-based practices. The study used the EBASE survey to evaluate practitioners’ attitudes, skills, education, training, and use of evidence-based practice.
Results showed that 88.3% of participants felt positive about evidence-based yoga therapy and that research and data was useful in their daily treatment. Additionally, 77.7% believed that evidence-based practice was necessary for yoga therapy and had an interest in improving their own abilities to incorporate it into treatment (Warrier, 2018).
Yoga Therapy for Specific Conditions
As mentioned, yoga therapy has demonstrated positive effects for several mental, emotional, and physical conditions. We will highlight a few of the more common conditions here.
Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder are widespread conditions that can have a severe impact on individuals, families, and communities. One in 6 adults have experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences, and at least five of the top 10 leading causes of death can be associated with these, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Trauma-informed yoga therapy allows clients to address the dysregulation of the nervous system, feelings of dissociation, and the disconnection that often occurs for traumatized individuals. By promoting a feeling of safety, clients can increase body awareness and learn ways to “release” trauma that is held in the mind and body (Bussing et al., 2012).
According to the National Association of Mental Illness, 1 in 5 individuals struggle with mental illness. Mental health issues make it challenging to live everyday life and impact family, community, and the world at large.
Yoga therapy provides a bottom-up and top-down approach that is particularly helpful in treating mental health conditions. It facilitates self-regulation, which influences processes through the physiological, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral domains (Bussing et al., 2012).
Yoga therapy may alter these processes to create more functional, healthy, and positive patterns, leading to improvement in wellbeing and mental health.
Research has demonstrated that yoga therapy targeted for depressive disorders may be comparable to the benefits of medication and that a combination of medication and yoga therapy is superior to medication alone (Bussing et al., 2012).
Since depression causes a significant burden to both individuals and society at large, an accessible treatment option to this mental health issue could be extremely worthwhile.
Yoga postures and breathing techniques used in yoga therapy have been associated with increased thalamic gamma-amino butyric acid levels, which are key components of mood, energy levels, and mental health (Streeter et al., 2010).
Yoga therapy provides an appealing option for individuals struggling with anxiety. It offers a nonpharmaceutical intervention and a lifestyle adjunct to conventional treatment. It can be changed for people with specific concerns, such as those who are pregnant or who experience negative side effects of medication.
A six-week yoga intervention was conducted on a sample of 101 people with symptoms of anxiety and depression. The randomized control trial compared yoga with a control group who received traditional treatment for anxiety and depression. The yoga group had decreased measures of anxiety and psychological distress and results were maintained at a six-week follow-up (Manincor et al., 2016).
This research suggests that yoga and yoga therapy can provide effective treatment options for individuals with both anxiety and depression. Yoga therapy focuses on breath, body, mind, and spirit, helping to bring individuals with anxiety into the present moment rather than focusing on catastrophic, ruminating, or negative thoughts of the future.
The physical aspects of yoga therapy can include specific postures and breathing techniques that enable clients to move from fight or flight to rest and digest.
Back pain and chronic pain treatment
Chronic low back pain (CLBP) is associated with pain, disability, psychological problems, and a decreased quality of life (Crow et al., 2015). Yoga therapy is an effective treatment for chronic low back pain and chronic pain on a variety of measures. This further explains the benefits of yoga for CLBP and chronic pain.
Several research studies have demonstrated that yoga therapy is effective at improving mobility, function, quality of life, and levels of pain among those with CLBP (Crow et al., 2015). Functional improvements were measured in terms of balance and gait.
The physical postures of yoga therapy are potentially the reason for increases in function, mobility, balance, and gait. Other mechanisms, such as decreased levels of pain may be attributed to the changes that occur in the brain and hormones released in response to therapeutic yoga.
The focus on mind–body relaxation, breathwork, radical acceptance, and mindful nonjudgment encouraged in yoga therapy teaches clients how to experience pain without reacting.
Research has found that the gray and white matter in the brain changes among regular yoga practitioners (Villemure et al., 2015). A regular yoga practice is associated with increases in brain matter in areas involved in bodily representation, attention, self-relevant processing, autonomic integration, and stress hormones (Villemure et al., 2015). This ultimately leads to improved emotional regulation and improved pain tolerance.
What is yoga therapy? - Kimberly Searl
Mindfulness-Based Yoga Therapy
While yoga includes aspects of mindfulness, mindfulness-based yoga takes traditional Buddhist mindfulness techniques and applies them to the physical aspects of a yoga practice.
Yoga is a comprehensive practice and even a way of life, and mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment without judgment (Schussler et al., 2020).
Mindfulness-based yoga incorporates the practice of yoga with mindfulness to enhance somatic awareness, accept distressing emotions, and cope with chronic mental and physical ailments (Schussler et al., 2020).
Integrative Yoga Therapy
Integrative yoga therapy combines Western medical practices with the ancient art of yoga.
It is a holistic approach to healing that addresses specific mental or physical ailments, including improving cardiovascular health; reducing mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, or insomnia; and providing palliative care for people with cancer, diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease (Pearson et al., 2020).
It uses the same techniques as traditional yoga therapy but also uses a collaborative approach to include medical doctors, health practitioners, and other providers of alternative medicine, similar to integrative therapy.
Yoga Therapy and Ayurveda
Ayurveda has gained popularity in Western cultures with the aim of optimizing health through lifestyle, dietary, and nutritional advice (Warrier, 2018).
Most ayurveda practices are focused around the belief that health is physical wellbeing, mental equilibrium, positive energy, joy, vitality, and self-knowledge. Its defining feature is that it is a mind–body medicine (Warrier, 2018).
For this reason, ayurveda is often incorporated into yoga and yoga therapy to create holistic healing. Ayurvedic treatments of altering diet, lifestyle, and the use of herbal remedies complement yoga therapy techniques that use breath, body, and spiritual practices.
Yoga Therapy Training and Certification
The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) has created an extensive international accreditation process to ensure that yoga therapy practitioners have a solid foundation of knowledge, skills, and abilities that allow them to help clients safely and effectively.
It is based on a widely held consensus to include all aspects of the definition of yoga therapy (Stewart, 2013).
The standards of any accredited yoga training or certification include the philosophical foundations of yoga therapy, the biomedical and psychological foundations of yoga therapy, teaching of therapeutic skills, tools for their application, and ethical issues surrounding professional practice (Stewart, 2013).
While yoga teaching certifications range from 200 to 500 hours, a yoga therapist certification includes a deeper foundation of mental and physical education and practical experience.
Yoga therapy providers are encouraged to be clear about the difference between yoga therapy and yoga as a form of exercise or pastime. Along with traditional foundations of yoga, high-quality accredited training and certification programs teach providers about pain, pain management, mental and physical health ailments, and how to integrate appropriate techniques and skills to address these ailments (Pearson et al., 2020).
While yoga is a popular exercise and form of movement, yoga therapy offers much more.
Yoga therapy encourages clients to connect with their authentic self and provides a foundation for emotional, mental, physical, and behavioral change. A regular yoga therapy practice can change individuals on a physiological level and change one’s relationship with their thoughts, feelings, and body. This opens the door to healing and increases the ability to cope with pain, disease, and dysfunction.
Yoga therapy is a person-centered approach to health that is widely accessible to numerous populations. It emphasizes every domain of health to create a safe and holistic option for treatment. It is the process of empowering individuals toward improved wellbeing by teaching and applying the practices of yoga.
Yoga therapy is practiced all over the world, with well-documented research that provides evidence of its benefits to alleviate symptoms of clinical conditions and improve quality of life and wellbeing (Schmalzl & Sullivan, 2022).
How is yoga therapy different from yoga?
Yoga therapy differs from yoga as it has a clearly defined scope of practice, accredited training and certification programs, and the specific purpose of treating a particular ailment. While it uses aspects of yoga (e.g., asana, breathwork, and meditation), it is individualized with the goal of healing and is used as therapy versus a pastime.
What issues can be treated by yoga therapy?
A wide variety of issues can be treated with yoga therapy. These include addiction, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, stress, and other chronic conditions (Bussing et al., 2012).
How long is yoga therapy training?
Accredited yoga therapy trainings can range from 625 hours to 875-hour programs (Stewart, 2013). They can be completed in person or with a combination of online and in-person trainings. For more information on yoga training and certification, visit IYAT.
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About the author
Dr. Melissa Madeson, Ph.D., believes in a holistic approach to mental health and wellness and uses a person-centered approach when working with clients.
Currently in full-time private practice, she uses her experience with performance psychology, teaching, and designing collegiate wellness courses and yoga therapy to address a range of specific client needs.