14 August was the first Global Yoga Therapy Day, a day filled with sharing and informative lectures via Facebook. “If you can breathe, you can practice yoga” was the motto of this online event. This means everyone can do yoga, even when unable to walk or kneel or bend in certain ways. More than just making yoga accessible, yoga therapy actively seeks to support an individual’s journey to greater health and wellbeing.
A yoga therapist is a yoga teacher who has been trained to make yoga accessible, beneficial and safe for people with a variety of health challenges. We probably all have health challenges, so when would you choose yoga therapy over yoga? A general yoga class can be beneficial when you are fairly fit, healthy and strong, and when you enjoy the group dynamics and social contact. In some instances, however, yoga therapy is the much better choice. This blog explains why.
1. To prevent injuries in a general yoga class:
Yoga injuries in general yoga classes are not uncommon. In a large class of yoga students, the teacher is simply unable to give all students sufficient attention, let alone correct the misalignments. Private sessions with a yoga therapist can improve your yoga practice, making it safer and more intelligent for your unique body. It is useful if you practise yoga frequently and want to know whether you are doing the poses correctly, or if you are concerned about knee, hip, neck and back safety. You can then take this knowledge with you into group classes, so that you know how the poses can serve you, rather than the other way round.
2. To help you manage a health challenge:
You may want personal guidance to help you deal with an injury or a disease. A yoga therapist is usually specialised in a specific area, such as diabetes, depression, or cancer. There has been extensive research on how yoga therapy has had a positive outcome for depression, back pain and what are called chronic lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancers. As a relatively cheap and safe practice, yoga therapy is an important companion of conventional healthcare, because it takes into account not only the physical symptoms but also addresses stress and happiness, looking at a person’s mind, body and spirit. If you suffer from a disease, it makes sense to learn which yoga practices can help and support you.
3. When you have back pain:
This belongs to the previous point but I treat it separately as this is my area of expertise. Back pain may but most often does not respond well to a general yoga class because:
- The class is too big so the teacher cannot give each student sufficient attention.
- Most general yoga classes contain poses that may deteriorate your back pain.
- Your particular back pain will improve with some yoga practices but feel worse with others, and this will depend on the particular cause of your back pain. A specialised yoga therapist will know which practices to recommend.
- To heal back pain it is important to do some exercises every day, so it is worth receiving a tailored practice to do at home.
- It is helpful to have sufficient time to discuss your particular back pain problem with a yoga therapist and together look at ways of improving any wrong postural and movement habits that may have led to or may perpetuate your condition.
4. When you feel too intimidated to join a group class:
The motto of this year’s Global Yoga Therapy Day is “if you can breathe, you can practice yoga”. However, we are not always able or willing to join a general yoga class, where perhaps most people are young and fit. The Global Yoga Therapy Day’s website goes on to say that apart from in private practice, yoga therapists can be found in hospitals, rehabilitation centres, prisons, schools, and on army bases. Yoga can benefit everyone who has the chance to try, so if you would like to try yoga but are reluctant to join a group, see if you can find a yoga therapist in your neighbourhood. Some of them, like me, are also happy to teach via Skype.
5. Personal care that fits in your schedule:
When time is limited and you want results fast with practices that are targeted to your particular needs and wishes, a yoga therapist can help you with that. You may want the sessions for stress relief, back care, or any other health challenge that you are dealing with.
A case in point: Child’s pose
Child’s pose is a soothing, restful pose that can calm the nerves and emotions, and help lower blood pressure. It stretches the muscles on either side of the spine, thus increasing the space between the discs and promoting their health.
It is prescribed for all-over relaxation, tight lower back and spine, but counter-indicated for people with a herniated disc, extreme kyphosis or posterior spondylolisthesis/retrolisthesis.
Not everyone finds child’s pose easy. It is called after the sleeping position that babies sometimes sleep in, but we definitely lose that ease in this pose. Nevertheless, with adaptations it can still be very beneficial. See which of the following variations suits you best:
Place a rolled towel under your ankles.
Place a rolled towel tightly in the knee fold, to create space in the knee joints. You can also sit on a chair and rest forward on a table, either placing the elbows or the hands on the table to support your head.
Severe kyphosis (hunchback), or severe osteoporosis:
Rest with the body higher up, for example on a chair. Alternatively, sit on the chair and rest the body on a table.
Very tight back:
Place a bolster (or a large cushion) between your knees and rest your body on it, or use a chair.
Avoid this pose. Rest on your abdomen instead.
Bringing your arms back towards the feet may help.
During pregnancy or when you don’t like pressure on the abdomen:
Place the knees wider and the feet together.
To feel more emotionally supported, place the knees on either side of a yoga bolster (or other big pillow), and rest the abdomen, chest and head on it for a supremely restful and soothing position. Look to one side and change to face the other side as well. Stay a few or even 10 minutes.
Can yoga therapy be taught to groups?
Yes, to a certain extent. For instance, the class can focus on people who are recovering from cancer treatment. However, it will not be tailored to them as individuals who also come, for example, with a frozen shoulder and painful knee. Nevertheless, the social aspect of the group format can be valuable.
I am about to start teaching the nationally acclaimed Yoga for Healthy Lower Backs (YHLB) programme in West London, which teaches yoga to people with lower back pain. This 12-week programme is a slow progression of poses that can benefit anyone with lower back pain. YHLB teachers have learned how to adapt the sequences to different kinds of back pain. If you would like more information about the next programme I start in West London, do contact me here: https://beneyoga.co.uk/contact-for-yoga-classes-in-chiswick/.
Alternatively, if you prefer an individual class at your time and for your particular needs, my individual sessions may be for you. Contact me here: https://beneyoga.co.uk/contact-for-yoga-classes-in-chiswick/ to discuss.