When I first started exploring the idea behind yoga therapy, I discovered that there is not much out there in the world for a concrete definition. It appears that yoga therapy can be conducted in a lot of different ways, most commonly for common pains with our physical body parts. Most websites that I have found marketing for an individual’s yoga therapy practice state that they use yoga therapy to treat back pain, difficulty sleeping, asthma, chronic pain, and other physical ailments, with depression and anxiety usually tacked on at the end of the list. Now please note that I am not saying those physical difficulties aren’t important; in fact, I usually discuss physical symptoms with my clients to help better understand what is going on to improve my treatment plan for them. These things are important. I could go back and quote Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but I won’t.
That being said, my focus in my sessions are treating the whole person, not one specific symptom. I want my clients to end therapy feeling complete. They often come to me feeling in pieces; it’s my job to help them put the puzzle back together.
So, from what I first found while researching seemed a lot to me like a combination of physical therapy with a little bit of counseling aspects thrown in. This sounds great! I am all for adding yoga in to all sorts of forms of helping professions. I would love for my doctor to discuss with me the benefits of yoga. Unfortunately, I don’t conduct physical therapy. I am a counselor. I was a little confused about how these definitions were fitting in to my definitions of yoga and counseling.
I decided I would create my own definition. I’m going to break down how I define counseling, how I define yoga, then combine these two viewpoints in to a very informal definition of yoga therapy.
First up: counseling.
Counseling is a very difficult thing to define, because there are so many different forms. There’s Freudian (which, let me add: BLEGH), choice theory, gestalt, solution focused, cognitive behavioral, and on and on and on. We have to take a whole class in graduate school on counseling theories and still only touch on a small number of all the theories out there. That being said, I think (and again, this is just an opinion) most counseling has three common traits: empathy, unconditional positive regard, and genuineness. These form the basis of Carl Roger’s client centered counseling approach, along with self concept (McLeod, 2008).
For me, these are the most important. They build a solid foundation between counselor and client that allow the client to feel safe, comfortable, and most importantly, understood. So often I work with families where my client just wants to be listened to; they need validation, a “hey, you worked hard and I see that you worked hard and I hope that helps you feel good about yourself.” We all want our self concepts, our view of self, to be uplifted and positive. It sounds so simple when typing it out, but that’s really all most people want. The best way to put this in to words is a quote from a textbook from graduate school. Pearson (2012) states: “Rogers believed that through empathy, clients feel understood and are empowered to solve their own problems” (p. 20). That statement hits what I believe counseling to be so perfectly. My goal as a therapist is to help my client see that they have the capability within themselves to solve their own problems; I’m merely a guide. A guide. A guide. Need me to say it again? Because I want you all to understand – my job is not to tell people what to do, or offer advice, or lead them in a certain direction. I’m there to listen, understand, support, reflect, and guide you to the solution that is right for you.
Let me take a moment. I’m going to let that one sink in.
I get to understand who you are as a person, I listen to you (I mean, really listen!), support your journey (even if in my head I’m screaming no!), reflect back what I observe and hear, then let you pick what is best for YOU. I keep me own ideas and my own bias out of it. I may not always agree with the decisions my clients make, but at the end of the day, my clients are the ones who have to live with those decisions. Not me. Who am I to say what’s best for you? I’m not you. Only you know what’s best for yourself. And I truly, truly believe that. And I truly, truly believe what Carl Rogers, Insoo Kim Berg, and so many other great therapists out there believed – that every single individual has the capability to solve their own problems deep inside themselves; sometimes they just need someone else to help them see it.
How awesome is that? It’s the most awesome.
Next up: yoga.
Obviously, I have spent a lot more time studying counseling as opposed to yoga. I am definitely still a newbie at yoga. I have only been practicing yoga consistently for about a year. I do not consider myself an expert at yoga (nor at counseling!), but I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what yoga is. I definitely do not know what all those beautiful, ancient sanskrit words mean, but I understand how yoga makes me feel and that alone has me hooked.
Yoga. Oh, yoga. I have read a lot of articles and interviews with people on what yoga is to them. I follow a lot of beautiful yogis on instagram and twitter. It seems to me that a lot of famous yogis believe the focus has shifted in the past several years from the overall practice of yoga to simply the physical poses, or the asanas. While, yes, yoga is partly about the asanas, that is not all it is about.
Upon researching what yoga is, I discovered that there are eight limbs of yoga. The first limb, yama, focuses on our behavior and ethical standards. There are five yamas: nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, continence, and noncovetouness. The next limb is niyama, which is the spiritual practices, such as meditation or church, and self-discipline. The third limb is the one most commonly associated with yoga, the asanas. The asanas were designed to help us remember our body is sacred, and develop deeper discipline and concentration to further our niyama. Pranayama, or the fourth limb, is our breath. This limb concentrates on extending life and reach a higher sense of consciousness. Pratyahara, or the fifth limb, is a further journey in to ourselves. This stage is viewed as tuning out external distractions or worries and focusing internally. Each limb is seen as a stage, so after pratyahara, the sixth limb, dharana, focuses on quieting the mind. Following dharana, the seventh stage, dhyana, aims to have no thoughts at all; its focus is absolute stillness. Finally, the eighth limb is samadhi. In this limb, the final and ultimate stage, an individual experiences an ecstasy-like connection with all living things. (Carrico, 2007).
So, what does this mean for us in layman’s terms? I found a quote that really spoke to me in the lovely book, Yoga and Body Image. The book is a compilation of short essays written by numerous people who practice yoga. In it, Teo Drake says:
“If it serves to open my heart and my mind and my spirit and allows me to be compassionate with myself and with the world around me, that’s yoga. I don’t know if I’m ever truly going to not be at war with myself on some level. But I do know that yoga never fails to help me negotiate a gentle truce” (p. 96).
Seriously, so good. And so true. I read that and had one of those glorious (and rare) moments where you set the book down, close your eyes, and lean back and just sigh cause you just know. You just read something that really resonates, all the way down in to your core, and it feels so, so good.
For me, yoga is all about becoming more aware of what my body and mind can accomplish together. Can we do that headstand? Probably not, but I can make small progress towards that headstand, and may be some day down the road I’ll do it flawlessly. Or not. It doesn’t really matter. Yoga helps me be more comfortable in my skin. Yoga helps me be more patient in stressful situations. Yoga helps me become aware of what I need to work harder on. Yoga helps me improve myself. I definitely do not have the most perfect down dog, and I can’t necessarily sit in meditation for 30 minutes every day, but if I’m working towards something, if I’m finding stillness, I’m practicing yoga. I see it in so many forms during my day; it’s all around.
Lastly: yoga therapy.
Like I said, I had a hard time finding a concrete definition for yoga therapy. According to the International Association of Yoga Therapists, “yoga therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the philosophy and practice of yoga” (2007). I really like that definition, and I think it fits well in to my worldview of counseling and yoga. For me, both counseling and yoga are a process; it’s never the same thing. In counseling I am constantly pushing my clients to be the best version of themselves while also having them accept who they are in that moment; this is also what yoga means to me.
According to Richard Miller, yoga therapy has three purposes. Yoga therapy should be used to help gain a sense of control or power, heal specific difficulties, and to go beyond what is perceived as limits of self (n.d.). I think the same thing can be said for just yoga or just counseling. It makes a lot of sense to me to combine these two mediums to create a holistic approach to wellness.
I want to know what you think. Did I leave something out? Do you disagree with me? Like how I phrased something? Leave me a comment. Like I said, I do not claim to be an expert in any of this stuff, I just want to learn more.
So, how does that make you OM?
*All blog posts will be using APA style for my sources. This is the style I have always used for school and the one I am most comfortable using.*
Carrico, M. (2008). Get to know the eight limbs of yoga. Retrieved from http://www.yogajournal.com/article/beginners/the-eight-limbs/
Drake, T. (2014). Yoga from the margins. In M. Klein & A. Guest-Jelley (Eds.), Yoga and body image (pp. 91-98). Woodbury, MN: Llewllyn Publications.
McLeod, S. (2008). Person centered therapy. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/client-centred-therapy.html
Miller, R. (n.d.) Yoga therapy: Definition, perspective, and principles. Retrieved from http://www.iayt.org/?page=YogaTherapyDefinitio
Pearson. (2012). Counseling. Boston, MA: Pearson Learning Solutions.
Taylor, M. J. (2007). What is yoga therapy? An IAYT definition. Retrieved from http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.iayt.org/resource/resmgr/PDFs/IAYT_Yoga_therapy_definition.pdf