What’s the difference between Yoga Therapy and what I experience in a group yoga class?
Did you know that yoga was originally created as a therapeutic tool for balancing the disparate aspects of our individual selves? It has only been a little more than a hundred years or so that yoga has been practiced in a group setting. That’s because the tools of yoga (which include poses, breath work, chanting and meditation as well as the constitution balancing techniques of Ayurveda that include diet and lifestyle choices) are best directed at the individual.
There are many pieces to the yoga tool box. The poses we practice in a class are only one piece of yoga, though they have become known as the whole of yoga to many people. Back a couple thousand years ago, Pantanjali, the great sage of Classical Yoga, codified yoga. He outlined an eight step pathway, designed to lead toward the ultimate experience of Self Realization, or a connection with the Divine. This pathway includes “right behavior” directed toward ourself and others as the first two steps, followed by asana (the poses of Hatha Yoga) and pranayama (practices designed to enhance our breathing and the generation of life force energy). Once perfected, a yogi then began to practice withdrawing the senses from external stimulation. This is known as Pratyahara and comprises the initial experience in a Yoga Nidra practice or the first step toward meditation. With practice, one develops the ability to more easily focus the mind, and is ultimately able to take awareness to a place beyond the physical body.
The idea behind yoga practices is that our day-to-day activities as householders, the term given in India to those who are carrying on life as part of a family as well as being a contributing member of society, can pull us away from our realization that we are more than what we take in through our five senses. Often, as people age, they begin to wonder if there is more, if their life has had meaning, and what they will leave behind when they die. The practices of Yoga are designed to help us recognize the wholeness of our being, regardless of our place, position, or accomplishments in life and part more easily with that when the time comes. Certainly there may be glimpses of this offered in yoga class. However, working one-on-one, the Yoga Therapist serves as a guide – offering support to the individual along this journey to reconnecting with, recognizing and/or acknowledging the nature of our true Self.
What are the tools in a Yoga Therapist’s Tool Box, you might ask? As mentioned above, the tools include and are not limited to body alignment and position, awareness of breath, chanting and meditation as well as diet and lifestyle practices that include relaxation and maintenance of a daily schedule appropriate for the individual. One might be exposed to many of these tools in a group yoga class. The poses are valuable for stretching and releasing tension throughout the body as well as strengthening, and are offered in a systematic way so as to be most beneficial to everyone in the class. In a private session, however, you may move through fewer poses while exploring just how your body responds and can benefit from them. The same approach is true for breathing and other lifestyle practices. A Yoga Therapist’s goal is consistent with the goal of Yoga, which is to create balance in the individual using various means.
Speaking of balance, did you know that there are ways to breathe if you want to cool the body and there are ways to breathe if you want to warm the body? There are ways to breathe if you want to energize the body. There are ways to breathe if you want to calm the body. There are ways to breathe if you just want to balance things, or gain more benefit from each breath. These variations can be tailored most effectively to meet the needs of the individual in a one-on-one setting.
In addition to moving the body through poses, and learning to breathe appropriately, which we do in yoga class too, a Yoga Therapist might give you a mantra to help focus the mind or support you in cultivating a few words to mentally repeat throughout your day as a reminder of how you want to be. She could offer a guided meditation to calm and center or inspire and enliven, or a mudra or tapping practice to open certain energy channels. Or she may just listen… letting you share anything you need to as you explore the journey to reclaiming your whole self. The tools of yoga allow the practitioner to develop individual protocol based on the unique needs and qualities of the client. That’s what I love about Yoga Therapy, and that’s what I try to weave into my group classes as well.
It’s the unique pieces of ourselves, informed by our individual history and experiences, that make us different from anyone else. It’s those pieces that are woven together during a Yoga Therapy session. Maybe one part of your body is weak, sore, or overused. Let’s find the patterns that have contributed to that. One can initiate this exploration in a yoga class. In a Yoga Therapy session, we can probe deeper into the reason why an imbalance exists and identify ways to bring you back into balance while working at a pace suitable to you.
Not only does a Yoga Therapist consider the physical aspect of each individual she works with. Yogis believe each of us is comprised of many layers and that we weave those layers together to create the whole. Like a tapestry – if one link is weak, that whole fabric may not function as it should. These layers are called Koshas in the ancient texts and include the physical, energetic, mental/emotional, wisdom, and divine aspects of ourselves. It may be that what you’re experiencing in the body has its origin in the mind, or stems from a blocked emotion. A Yoga Therapist is trained to support the individual in identifying the weak link, and helping him or her weave it back into the whole. A group class yoga teacher may not be.
Have you seen the movie “Inside Out?” While many might think this animated film is directed at children, I thought the movie provided a glimpse into the workings of our mind that was quite mature. Yogis recognize that we are not just the physical body. You know that we are strongly influenced by our emotions as well as the quality of our thoughts… The take away from the movie for me is that, as humans, we have a spectrum of emotions. While we might want the good feelings we get from JOY to our predominant experience, it’s natural and even healthy to give time to each emotion as we experience it. When we don’t do this (and many of us were taught as children that it was not o.k. to express anger, or sadness or disgust), and we internalize one or more of them, it becomes lodged in the body/mind complex, leading to deeper issues later in life. This may take time… as it might to relieve it.
Observing how a certain pose or the quality of a yoga class affects us can be the starting point to noticing how thoughts and emotions affect us. We may not like holding a pose for as long as the instructor asks us to. Perhaps we’d rather stay on the floor the whole time instead of practicing standing poses… Do we get grumpy about it? Or do we “suck it up” and do whatever is asked because that’s what we learned to do a long time ago, even if we don’t like it? Or perhaps we truly want to be led through a class, not having to think about what to do next, and are open to exploring whatever the teacher offers, with the intent of seeing how it feels that day. All of that is ok. Noticing what comes up for us allows us to modify our choices in order to more effectively honor our individual needs in each and every moment, which isn’t always easy. In a Yoga Therapy session you’re given the freedom to explore this. Private time with a compassionate and skillful practitioner provides a safe environment in which to explore all aspects of your life – past, present, and future as well as the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Where are you strong? Where are you stuck? The pieces can be woven into a functional whole with support. In this way, Yoga Therapy supports the individual in living from “the inside out.”
For many, we lived active and dynamic lives in our younger years. Slowly, as the years flowed by, we gave some of this up due to time constraints, or physical limitations, or for other reasons. One day, we wake up and wonder why… And we ask ourselves if we’re really happy with the way things are progressing. If you know, deep inside, that things could be better I invite you to come explore that yearning with me. My job is to create a safe container in which you can ruminate and explore all the parts of your life, all the parts of who you are, and determine if there’s something that could be improved. Or… Maybe you’re happy with the way everything is, and would just like support to keep it that way. I can do that, too.
Attending yoga class regularly is a great way to move, stretch, grow and share in a community of like-minded individuals. The routine of a weekly class helps. But sometimes you’d like to go deeper, or you might have an issue specific to you that is better addressed one-on-one. That’s when you want to schedule a Yoga Therapy appointment. Email me to schedule yours today: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Namaste (which, translated, means… the beauty, whole and divine being in me honors exactly that in you! When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, the whole world benefits.).
Sharon Harvey Alexander, Advanced Yoga Teacher (ERYT-500) and Yoga Therapist