Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Is Yoga Therapy?

Since “yoga therapy” shows up in so many publications, it may seem like a moot question, but I am called to consider it for myself…

Last spring I took a LifeForce Yoga weekend workshop and then in the summer I took the Level I intensive training with Amy Weintraub, author of the book Yoga for Depression. There were about fifty of us in the five-day training that took place at Kripalu, half of us were yoga teachers and half were mental health professionals. This made for a fascinating and lively experience. I was there looking for the connection between yoga and mental health. Most of the social workers, psychologists, and the psychiatrist were also yogis. Some were looking at ways to integrate yogic techniques into their therapy sessions. Yoga teachers seemed to be into learning to help themselves and students with mental turmoil and stagnation, perhaps...

LifeForce Yoga promises to “Manage Your Mood” which seems to indicate a focus on the mood. This title is designed to appeal to people believing that their moods cause them to suffer, and that their moods need “management”. I can relate… However, the yoga technique, itself calls for the practitioner to bring their attention back to the body. Emotional releasing happens, but the yoga practice isn’t the time to focus on the story around emotions. The stories are to be processed with the mental health professionals. So everybody has a place in the LifeForce Yoga strategy.

I thought it was really interesting to try out the technique, and do a mostly Kripalu style yoga practice with Amy. I learned some things. And the community aspect was really cool. Everybody was really interesting. I worked with it on my own and have integrated aspects of it into my practice and teaching. Looking at yoga from the mental health perspective was worthwhile.

But I just don’t think you can put yoga in a box. People come to yoga to de-stress, relieve depression, or manage back pain, etc… And yoga does help people mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Yoga itself goes way beyond our suffering. Suffering may lead someone to yoga, but yoga is not a prescription. Yoga is a vastness. Yoga transcends ordinary experience. Yoga is wonder.

To say yoga is “therapy” is to bring yoga into human proportions, when yoga is rapture and awe that is so much larger than the words any individual can use to describe it.

Yoga is not therapy.


Teresa said...

Hello! I was intrigued by the title of your post as I was perusing Ecoyogini's blog today. I am so interested in your interpretation of Amy Weintraub's workshop and training as I have heard a variety of perspectives on her method of mental health and yoga. As a mental health trauma therapist, yoga practitioner, and soon to be yoga student in a teacher training program as well as someone who collaborates professionally and personally with both yoga teachers and mental health personal I really enjoyed hearing your point of view. I completely agree that, strictly speaking, yoga is not therapy in the strictest of senses...talking is not it's purpose and the body as the access point within the practice makes the mind sort of peripheral. That said I think that yoga has great and powerful potential to work in tandem with mental health for healing. The access of the body is often, with trauma, a necessary element to healing or at least dealing with trauma. I love, and constantly quote bks iyengar's quote that states, "Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and to endure what cannot be cured." My work and passion is so focused around this issue that,again, it was great to hear another viewpoint on the matter. I, myself am struggling with how best to integrate the body into my work with the mind and the mind with my potential future work (as a yoga teacher) with the body. I think they are different access points but can come to heal powerfully at the same center, the emotional part of oneself. thanks for your persective! Please feel free to check out my blog for my journey and my perspectives on it all: the whole area of study is my passion and I love that others are talking about it!
I can be found at "My Embodiment:Misadventures and Adventures of a Psychotherapist in Yoga School

YogaforCynics said...

I did a weekend workshop with Amy Weintraub at Kripalu the winter before last and found it eye-opening in a number of ways--though that was also because it was my first yoga retreat experience. As far as yoga-as-therapy goes, I'd say it depends on how "therapy" is defined (and, probably, on how "yoga" is defined, as well). I see my yoga practice as being "therapeutic" in the sense that it helps me to be happier, healthier, and more self-realized. And, by that definition, I've had quite a bit of what's commonly called "therapy"--conventional psychotherapy--that wasn't therapeutic at all--quite the opposite, in fact. (That said, I should mention that I've also had more positive psychotherapy experiences, and have heard of practices that call themselves "yoga" that don't sound all that therapeutic, either...). And, then, might yoga be therapy without being *just* therapy?

Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Brooks...

Bob Weisenberg said...

Very interesting discussion.

I would be very interested in how Stephen Cope would answer this question. Was he involved in the program at Kripalu?

(Cope is the psychotherapist, now Kripalu Yogi, author of "Yoga and the Quest for the True Self", the seminal book in my Yoga path, and "The Wisdom of Yoga", which intertwines pschoanalysis with the Yoga Sutra.)

Bob Weisenberg

Anonymous said...

A quote from the author that I didn't include in my recent Yoga at the Wall post, was this:

"Yoga is more than a tool for stretching hamstrings; it's technology for understanding our minds and hearts".

And this is true, but not true at the same time. It's true, because when you say this, people can nod their heads and relate. It's not true because that's not all yoga is.

I mean, minds and hearts are part of the story, but it certainly doesn't end there. Where do we begin and end, after all?

All that said, yoga has practical applications that extend beyond its original intent. That is what I think is meant by "Yoga Therapy".

It is possible to use yoga to build core strength, assist pregnant women, help with recovery from injury, and of course, to purify your chakras, nadis & granthis. And so on.

Yoga also has some very practical applications for relieving depression and other mental imbalances.

None of this is new to yogis of course, but if you tried to get someone to come to a yoga class without pointing out such an application, they are probably less likely to come. They mostly think of yoga as a physical exercise - and it has those benefits too.

So, I'd say yoga is both therapy and not therapy. In the greater sense of the potential yoga has, it can not be classified like this.

But if it can get someone up off the couch after months of depression, or if it can alleviate flashbacks or free up deep-held grief... then it does work as a kind of therapy.

Linda-Sama said...

I believe all yoga is therapeutic in one way or another -- physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. and as someone who has studied at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram I believe I can speak on this.

The use of the phrases "yoga therapy" and "yoga therapist" has exploded since I first went to the Mandiram in 2005. In fact it was in 2005 that KYM gave us flyers on their new "yoga therapist training program", ahem, that is geared to westerners. My first thought was "interesting", but my next thought was "no one called Krishnamacharya a yoga therapist." He taught what he taught in a pure way, i.e., you teach to the individual....which is why he taught Iyengar and Jois and his own son Desikachar in three different ways.

after I returned from my trip in 2005 is when I saw this explosion of "yoga therapist" trainings. it's not good enough to be a yoga teacher anymore, one must become a "therapist" and I believe that once again, that's an American thing, because we need to label everything and put everything in a box. I decided that I did not have to "certify" to become a yoga therapist because I was already doing that with my private clients, i.e., putting them on the road to physical-mental-emotional- or spiritual healing.

I could go on and on but I think I will blog about it instead! good post!

Flo said...

I have the book by Amy in my library at home. I have yet to read it. I suffer from depression/anxiety. I try to not succomb to medication; as I have done so in the past with not so wonderful side affects.
For me a combination of yoga and meditation does indeed help reduce the symptoms and triggers that create the downward spiral of depression. I am currently reading The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness.
So far it is a very good read. It does include a CD as well. It does mix meditation practices along with Yoga practice. I am not done with the book yet; but so far I find it interesting.

Brooks Hall said...

Thanks, Teresa! I am honored by your comment, and appreciate your perspective. I wish you well on your path of yoga!

Dr. YogaforCynics, what an interesting first yoga retreat to do! Yoga is large enough to be seen in a number of ways, and I think it can be what is needed at a given time, and called the name that is useful.

Hi Bob! Thanks for commenting! Stephen Cope was not present at the training I did, but his work was mentioned. And I have read 'Yoga and the Quest for the True Self'--a good book!

So true, Svasti! Maybe I would express a similar sentiment by saying: Yoga is not therapy, but its effects can be therapeutic for fractured psyches, body pains, recovery...

Well said, Linda-Sama! I'd be interested in reading your post on the subject. I liked hearing your take of the term "yoga therapy" as geared toward westerners. Therapy is a treatment, and treatments are finite things that can be parsed out and sold, so that would make many of us feel more safe with entering into it. It also adds value because "treatment" is "intended to relieve or heal a disorder," according to definition.

Flo! I read the book you mentioned 'The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness' last summer and think that both the book and CD are really good, too. Be well.

Bob Weisenberg said...

I don't know about the specific word "therapy", but if we use the more neutral and less Western sounding word "healing" instead, I would argue that Yoga has been from its very conception about healing.

Healing of the mind predates healing of the body. What is the Yoga Sutra but a detailed prescription for mental and spiritual health, and for healing suffering of the mind?

And from the earliest time that Yoga was thought of as a physical discipline, the texts are full of claims, sometimes quite outlandish, of healing powers for everything under the sun.

Just look at the "Hatha Yoga Pradipika", parts of which read like a faith healer's handbook ("Do this practice and you will cured of this or that"). This text is from the 15th century, but it is a compilation of practices and claims that go back at least a millenium.

Bob Weisenberg

Brooks Hall said...

Bob, I agree that yoga practice can provide the right atmosphere for deep healing.

Editor in Chief, Changing Crow said...

I know yoga has been very therapeutic for me. The Practice has brought me closer to my True Self. I could have called a psychiatrist five years ago and gone on anti-depressants or something else ridiculous, but instead I found my teacher and a dedicated yoga practice. I am now exactly where I want to be. So yes, Yoga is Therapy... All the limbs of it!

Brooks Hall said...

Good for you, Editor in Chief, Changing Crow! It sounds like hard work has paid off. Be well. Keep practicing.

Bob Weisenberg said...

What a great discussion you've generated here, Brooks!

Bob Weisenberg

Brooks Hall said...

Thanks, Bob!

RB said...

My mother is a therapist. She always says you can use principles of meditation and yoga in therapy but they are not the same. They are useful in managing emotions and anxiety, and also bringing feelings to the surface.

Also, being open in your body can help emotions release--but you probably need to talk about them with a therapist.