It is hard to believe that almost two years ago have passed since I joined the Yoga Therapy Institute for my first module on digestive system. I remember how strange it felt being in a room with yoga instructors from such diverse backgrounds (including psychiatrists, nurses, and even engineers). It was the beginning of a new adventure which widened my perspective on yoga by approaching the practice from a therapeutic lens. While I still enjoy the collective energy of a flow class in a studio full of people (especially after COVID restrictions), the Yoga Therapy training offered new insights that I had never expected. With the completion of my last module this month, I found myself reflecting on how far my approach to yoga has changed:
- Yoga empowers: According to The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), “Yoga Therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and wellbeing through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga.” Simple definition, but it changes the whole dynamics of the traditional yoga teacher-student relationship towards one of collaboration and partnership. Using yogic tools acquired in Yoga Therapy, the person can listen to his or her own wisdom (the “guru” within) rather then follow the endless queues.
- Asanas are adaptable: While as a yoga teacher I occasionally used props, as a yoga therapist I cannot live without them. Even in my own self practice, I make use of props, including a to yoga blanket to support my sensitive knees in low lunges or elevate my hips in many seated asanas. My favorite saying from the training:” Adapt asanas to the person not the person to the asana.” Such a long way from my Ashtanga training where I followed the sequence to the letter seeking “the full expression of the pose”.
- Less is more: As I began my Yoga Therapy case studies, I was keen on offering the greatest number of asanas, breathing techniques, and various Yoga Nidras in my toolbox. Prior to an initial session, I would prepare all the possible offerings and follow the script during practice. But it quickly became clear that in Yoga Therapy less is more, and each person is different on a given day (“it depends” another favorite saying acquired during training). Even in my self-practice, I have learned not to overwhelm the body, but take more time to experience and absorb the benefit of movement. Keeping it simple became even more important as I started working with people with more serious health situations.
- Gain with no pain: As a yoga teacher in training, I injured my knee while trying to push into a posture that my hips were not ready for. It was a painful lesson to listen to my body and respect its limitation, but only in Yoga Therapy did I really appreciate the meaning of respecting my body’s limitation and treating it with “ahimsa,” non-violence. Pain is a signal to back off, not push through.
- The interdependence and complexity of the human body: As my Yoga Therapy modules progressed, from digestive to cardio-vascular, muscular-skeletal, nervous, endocrine, and reproductive system (not to mention the other psycho-somatic modules), it became clear to me that the human body is far too complex and interrelated than I was taught in my yoga teacher training. Rather than focus the class on one part of the body (“happy hips” or “strong core”), I shifted towards a holistic approach, using models like the “koshas” that allow a deeper understanding of the different layers of the body. (Personally, the complexity of “manomaya kosha, continues to intrigue me the most — a dimension to healing that as a yoga teacher I had never considered.)
- A deeper understanding of the breath: While I was familiar with basic breathing techniques from my yoga teacher training, understanding the healing power of the breath became more evident as I began to work with non-yogic bodies, including with my mother on her wheelchair. I developed almost an obsession with observing and studying the movement with the breath in my students, learning about the subtle energetic vayus and their effect on the mind and body. From Donna Farhi’s required reading, this remains one of my favorite quotes: “The process of breathing is the most accurate metaphor we have for the way that we personally approach life, how we live our lives, and how we react to the inevitable changes that life brings us.”
These five insights only scratch the surface of my newfound understanding of therapeutic effects of yoga. But one that acts as a thread in all the modules is without a doubt the recognition of the impact of stress in our lives. On so many levels, real or perceived stress wreaks havoc on our bodies and minds in so many ways. No matter how difficult the situation is, approaching life with not only acceptance but also with a sense of lightness and humor may be the most powerful offering yoga therapists can pass on. On a personal level, for all the seriousness, long Zoom calls and hard work during the last two years, what I cherish most is the laughter, playful movements and funny moments experienced through this journey.