When people think about yoga, they typically think about group classes and physical exercise. Yoga therapy is more than this. Yoga therapy is a healing tool that can be used to help people find physical wellness, but its benefits extend to promoting emotional wholeness as well.
Yoga therapy, like other kinds of therapy, starts by creating a safe environment. The therapist learns the student’s unique needs. As part of this process, the therapist and student assess and discuss the student’s medical and emotional history and goals. Although it is possible to learn a great deal on one’s own and there are many great resources on the web, it is important to have a highly skilled and trained teacher or guide who can help you find your path and keep you safe. The relationship between teacher and student is paramount.
The therapist—the teacher—uses active listening to understand and interpret the student’s communications. Together, they work carefully and creatively to advance the student’s goals. The student develops an observing ego (or “witness consciousness”), which is one step toward making the unconscious conscious, deepening internal investigation and understanding in a safe and protected space. A strong internal witness helps people grow.
In word therapies, people generally sit or lie down on a couch or a chair. Because some people find it easier to talk while moving, they may “walk and talk,” in a park or elsewhere. In yoga therapy, people also sit, lie down, and move. Typical yoga classes don’t encourage discussion, which would disrupt the class, but yoga therapy encourages listening, talking, and questioning to explore the inner self and its needs.
Asanas, or yoga positions, elicit powerful reactions. Four iconic yoga positions are child pose, mountain pose, tree pose, and shavasana. These four poses can be seen as symbolic of the life cycle. Child pose has to do with early life. Mountain pose relates to independence, standing on your own two feet. Tree pose symbolizes life’s balancing act. Shavasana, also called corpse pose, denotes the end of life. Let’s look at the feelings each of these poses might elicit:
- Depending on your experiences early in life, child’s pose—facing the floor in the fetal position—may inspire happiness, sorrow, or rage. One person may love child’s pose and find nourishment, protection, and rest. Another person may hate it because he or she was abused as a child.
- Mountain pose reflects self-confidence—or the lack thereof. Picture yourself standing straight and tall, hands at your side, smiling and strong, in front of a group. Some people might cringe at the thought. Others might quietly enjoy the experience. Still others might show off.
- Tree pose shows the adult responding to life’s challenges, swaying, finding and losing equilibrium. Try balancing on one foot and you’ll see it’s not always easy to keep your focus and balance. Can you let go and sway in the breeze? Are you afraid of falling? Are you able to lose your balance and then start again without much trouble?
- Shavasana—lying on your back, eyes closed, arms and legs spread about 45 degrees—represents the end of life. People sometimes cry during shavasana because they are close to the unconscious, reaching toward their essence, and many emotional issues may come up. They may also have “aha!” experiences and find the answers they were seeking.
Asanas are only one element of the practices used in yoga therapy. Others include centering, meditation, breath work, attitude adjustment, gratitude practice, diet, and developing emotional intelligence and compassion.
A yoga therapist working to strengthen a person’s emotional wholeness might use each of these poses and practices (and many more). No matter the tools used, the therapist and student work together to develop suitable yoga sequences and make lifestyle adjustments that may lead the student to an “easeful, peaceful, and useful” existence.
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