Yoga Therapy

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Yoga is an experiential science with the goal of integration (samadhi). Integration means to make the individual consciousness familiar with the experience of a higher, universal consciousness. In order for us to arrive at this experience, yogic teaching has developed a whole range of techniques and tested them over thousands of years, adapting the same to human development. At very early stages, the great sages of yoga science recognized and described the obstacles preventing people from practicing the experience of integration and they developed the methods and techniques that help us to overcome these obstacles. This process of becoming healed in the sense of returning to our actual, original nature, which already contains the goal we are striving for, is Yoga Therapy. Yoga is a therapeutic process in itself. However, in the light of modern science, individual aspects of this “healing science” can certainly be considered in isolation, with regard to therapeutic effectiveness thereof on certain disorders or diseases. Disease is called “vyadhi” in yoga literature, which is the exact opposite of “samadhi” (to bring together into a whole). Thus, an important component of yoga therapy is the efficient elimination and prevention of vyadhi. The approach of yoga therapy is a holistic one, coupled with highest possible efficiency and sustainability, moreover universally applicable.

Yoga prepares the practitioner in the most efficient way for the awakening of the spiritual energy inherent in every human being. This preparation essentially consists of purification or cleansing processes on a holistic level, that is, encompassing body, mind and spirit. In the course of this purification process, all external and internal obstacles are removed. One of the most disturbing obstacles on the way of the complete integration of the personality is illness. So yoga has techniques and methods ready to remove the obstacle “illness” as efficiently as lastingly, respectively to limit the inevitable occurrence of physical signs of failure or decay (e.g. due to age) to the least possible impairment.

The World Health Organization differentiated traditional medicines from alternative/complementary medicines. The latter term refers to a broad variety of customs that are either outside of a nation’s own traditions or are not incorporated into the country’s primary healthcare system. We speak of complementary medicines when the treatment is carried out simultaneously with a biomedical treatment, while they are alternative when the therapeutic treatment is the only one carried out by the patient. In the case of yoga, we find both users who use it to complement a biomedical treatment (resulting in this occasion as “complementary medicine”), as well as users who resort to yoga exclusively to treat health problems (both physical and psychological), in which case it would be an alternative medicine.

Psychotherapy and Yoga

When we speak of psychotherapy, we refer to therapeutic approaches whose medium is the spoken word and whose general objective is to “promote and restore a person’s well-being” (Beck, et al, 1979; Keegan, 2007). This type of approach has proliferated in an astonishing way since 1960. In that year, sixty forms of psychotherapy were found; in 1986, one author spoke of more than four hundred varieties (Bergin and Garfield, 1994). Within the field of psychotherapy, there are different approaches that pose different problems and specific applications (Keegan, 2007). The recent appropriation by psychotherapists, in their different orientations, of other disciplines (oriental medicines, religious cures, among others), has given rise to a complex field of interaction in the context of medical offers, in which rejection, acceptance and different strategies of complementarity can be verified. An example of this is the current trend of clinicians and theorists who have written about the integration of Buddhism and the principles of Western psychology. The focus of these proposals is centered mainly on the incorporation of concepts such as thought control, mindfulness, radical acceptance, among others, in the conception and implementation of psychotherapeutic treatments, as demonstrated by the treatment for recurrent depression developed by Segal, Teasdale and Williams. These authors propose the use of thought control for the treatment of depression.

At the same time, authors from another theoretical line such as psychoanalysis propose that the practice of mindfulness functions as a form of enrichment of the functioning structure of psychoanalytic therapy (Rubin, 1996; Epstein, 1995). Rosenbaum (1999) proposes the integration of Zen Buddhism principles for the enrichment of psychotherapy and therapists’ own lives. In turn, Ash (1993) proposes a Zen Buddhist interpretation for groups of alcoholics anonymous and more precisely with regard to the twelve-step technique. So we observe a field of interaction between cognitive-oriented psychotherapy and Yoga. It is a phenomenon that shows the interaction between two different theoretical fields and that implies the recommendation by these psychotherapists of Yoga as a complementary therapy. The complementarity between other alternative therapies is less in relation to this phenomenon. In fact, it is observed that Reiki, Chromotherapy, Acupuncture or Aromatherapy have less or no recommendation by psychotherapists. The same situation occurs with traditional therapies and religious therapies. Yoga has a positive evaluation from the perspective of psychotherapists, while other medicines also of oriental roots are dismissed.

Where one could think of a battle of interpretations of health and illness on the part of psychotherapists, one finds a complementary view, despite the fact that they have different ideas of what health and illness are.  The recent appropriation of Eastern disciplines or medicines has given rise to a complex field of interaction with the different medical offers, in which rejection, acceptance and different strategies of complementarity can be verified. The case that interests us, presents the peculiarity of the recommendation of a treatment of which psychotherapists, in most cases, have no theoretical knowledge; that is, they do not know the basics of Yoga, as well as its idea of health and disease, notoriously different from that of biomedicine, even having undergone processes of refrigeration and reworking in its appropriation by the West. In most cases, these psychotherapists have practiced Yoga as a gymnastics that produces relaxation and corporal well-being; in other cases, it is by recommendation of another psychotherapist who refers to the proven efficacy in complementary treatments with this oriental discipline.

The concepts surrounding health and illness have been the subject of debate since the beginning of psychotherapy as a practice. These discussions are reflected in the most widely used manual for the classification of mental illness, which is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, better known as the DSMIV5 (1994). Its concepts respond to the spirit of the times regarding health and illness in psychopathology. The category of mental disorder is in line with the biomedical and psychological meanings currently prevailing in Western societies and implies a diagnosis based on the search for signs and symptoms. Health is a state in which there is not only absence of pathology, but general wellbeing, not all perfect, but not significantly disruptive, in the different areas that make up a person, mental health, physical health, work wellbeing, family life, couple life, etc. In this account, we can see the imprint of the theoretical definition of illness, but at the same time, the difficulty in defining illness as a purely abstract fact. In terms of psychotherapists, illness always implies a subjective dimension of suffering.

We can point out that psychotherapists understand Yoga as a fundamentally corporal technique whose practice implies learning relaxation strategies that are propitious to combat the manifestations of stress, and secondly it contemplates spiritual aspects that do not have the same importance and are not used as the first argument of derivation. This reference to spirituality underlines the preference for delicate and non-invasive disciplines (Douglas, 1998), both conditions that support the wide acceptance and diffusion of Yoga. We can observe that the recommendation to complement psychotherapy with yoga is based on the notion that the oriental discipline acts by reducing anxiety levels, while at the same time providing a space for sociability and belonging. At the same time, yoga is an activity that adjusts to the different budgets and time schedules of the practitioners. It can be practiced either at home for free or in a yoga center by paying a relatively insignificant monthly fee. Yoga is a practice that has been found to be beneficial for therapists in multiple ways. One of the main benefits is that it is a physical activity that can help to improve overall health and well-being. However, in addition to this, yoga also has a spiritual aspect that can be valued by users, which can provide an additional layer of benefits. This is unique to yoga compared to other oriental disciplines, which often have a more exclusive focus on the spiritual aspect. This allows for a wider diversity of people to be able to practice yoga, as it caters to both physical and spiritual needs.

It is also interesting to note the perception of psychotherapists regarding the potential acceptance of yoga by patients. Evidently, they visualize it as a practice that does not cause contradictions neither with the foundation of their own specialty nor with the belief system of the patients/clients. On the other hand, from the psychotherapists’ perception, the practice of Yoga is a therapeutic complement that acts without getting involved in the treatment axis or presenting contradictions to the patient and the therapist. The idea of medicine appears strongly associated with western criteria of biomedicine. Yoga, from the perspective of psychotherapists, is simply a gymnastics that develops skills such as relaxation. Fundamentally, then, the recommendation of Yoga appears associated to the good social press that it presents within the community; but in many occasions the therapist would give the same to do some activity in which he/she can interact with peers and has a playful character.

Yoga’s Perspective on the Idea of Health and Illness

As Twmasi (1981) has noted, the notions of health and illness are deeply related to the conceptions of the person, the entities that conform it, the idea of corporeality, the assignment of etiologies, among others, that is, they are strongly marked by the worldview and the cultural framework in which the individual is immersed. In yoga, the idea of illness always implies a profound communion of body, spirit, thought and emotions. What for biomedicine are different areas is for this discipline a single materiality. In other words, for a Yoga specialist, illness and health involve the whole person (physical body, energetic body, spirit, thoughts and emotions) that is to say, he has a holistic view of man. This notion assumes the permanent relationship of the individual with his environment, the possibility of influencing it and being influenced by its changes. Although there are various currents within what has been called the Pan-Indian system (Zimmer, 1973), certain concepts are common to all of them and imply a series of central concepts. Likewise, it is important to emphasize that beyond the differences associated with the different types of yoga specialists, the latter share certain notions that are common to them and that are transformed and structured in the foundations of their practice.

From the perspective of Yoga specialists, this is a medicine that involves the manipulation of energy, which circulates throughout the individual, from the inside to the outside in a constant flow and is responsible for providing vitality (Saizar, 2004). Health states are related to the harmonious flow of energy. If it becomes stagnant, it generates blockages in different parts of the physical body and the energetic body, producing disease. In other words, disease is a product of the blockage of energy clusters resulting from the lack of harmony in the circulatory flow. The therapy is understood as the re-harmonization of the energetic flow, through various body postures asanas and the manipulation of the breath. In the case of stress, yoga users explain its existence from the physical and emotional manifestation of a blockage in the energy of the individual. Different situations such as family problems, complications at work or simply the daily complications implicit in the pace of life associated with large cities, causes the circulation of energy of healthy states is altered and generates an energy blockage.

The body movement involved in the practice of Yoga has as its main objective to mobilize energy, promoting its circulation and unblocking the disease. Yoga is understood as an effective therapy by its users and specialists, as it allows maintaining or recovering health, but this is not devoid of a philosophical theoretical corpus that contains an idea of health and disease totally different from the western biopsychosocial model. For a Yoga specialist, words, thoughts and emotions cannot be thought of as separate from the body; for every word, every thought, every emotion, finds its correlate in the physical body. That is to say, each of our acts, thoughts as well as desires and actions, generates a material imprint that is deposited in the physical body of the individual, remains attached to its materiality and is transferred with it to the next incarnation6. After physical death, the atinan1 carries the unintentional results of each action to his next incarnation, becoming what is called the karmic record. Beyond the intentionality of the individual, if the actions performed do not coincide with the dharma (what one came and should do in the world) the only thing that is done is to generate disease. The idea of disease does not, however, have a negative connotation, since it is understood as the result of the mere accumulation of karmic imprints, products of ignorance and ignorance of one’s own dharma. In other words, illness is just another avatar in life, like the family in which the individual was born or the color of his eyes or the shade of his skin; it is rather a way of self-knowledge and does not have a pejorative meaning.

Karma is the direct result of each one of our actions, which sow potentialities for new actions, and which in turn come from a previous karmic imprint, forming a karmic circle that drives matter to new and successive incarnations, with the consequent impossibility of liberating the divine particle or atman. This fact can only be reversed through the knowledge of one’s own dharma, the duty associated with each incarnation. This knowledge implies a disinterested action, an action that recognizes as its only principle and end the fulfillment of duty. Doing what is predestined in the broad sense of the word, remembering that materiality includes actions of all kinds, be they feelings, desires or behaviors, makes it possible to undo the potentiality of past actions in the becoming of the present, while preventing the generation of new actions as a result of the present ones.

The liberation of the atman involves an immense series of incarnations, which can be compared to the blink of an eye of Brahma, the supreme deity, and which exceed six hundred thousand. In each incarnation, the individual has two possibilities: the first one, to investigate by means of a work of asceticism the quality of his dharma, to be able to act accordingly and release his karmic record; the second one, to act according to his mistaken perception of reality, what his senses perceive, confused by mahya, the state of unreality that comes from confusing the material with the immaterial, and therefore to continue increasing his karmic record and thus binding himself to new incarnations. On the other hand, it is to be expected that an atman incarnates for thousands and thousands of lives before being able to access an ascetic practice that allows him to discover his dharma. In this way, an individual who accesses the knowledge of his dharma has already passed through countless incarnations, has traversed an extensive time line and has reached a state that allows him to begin the path of his samsara, the liberation of the atman and the consequent cessation of the wheel of incarnations, hence, the cessation of suffering and suffering associated with material existence. All these notions expressed with greater or lesser complexity are part of the daily life of Yoga classes. From the perspective of the users and practitioners of Yoga, the latter implies the search for harmony and involves a complex look, which not only concerns the various entities that make up the person, but its relationship with the context, while involving the relationship of man with the sphere of the sacred and a cosmogonic vision of the universe.

From the perspective of cognitive-oriented psychotherapists, yoga is a good complementary strategy. Despite being unfamiliar with the notions of the therapy of oriental roots, as well as the explanations made by yoga specialists on the functioning and effectiveness of its practice, they present a positive view of it. The focus of attention of psychology professionals is framed in the production of relaxation that generates serious improvements in terms of anxiety as a particular symptomatology. It is worth noting that the notions and ideas that make up the corpus of both disciplines present important differences regarding the concepts of health and disease. The notion of health for yoga specialists always involves the notion of energy; illness is the result of an energetic blockage and therapy always involves the manipulation of the powerful and effective, that is, of the sacred. The person is not only a body, a spirit framed in its actuality, but the resultant of multiple materialities of diverse quality as a continent of a divine and imperishable particle, which always implies the existence of previous and subsequent lives that do not necessarily refer to the human (one could have been a vegetable, animal, human or deity) among many other things. Finally, the same notion of illness is valued differently by yoga specialists and psychotherapists. For the former, there is no moral connotation in illness, it is just another fact of human existence, an inevitable consequence of past actions, just as the color of the eyes, the type of skin or the family in which the individual incarnates can be; while for psychotherapists, illness is a state different from health, the product of a biopsychosocial imbalance, which generates suffering, either for the subject who suffers from it or for his environment, and which must be healed. For this second perspective, health is a state to be achieved, a consequence of imbalances in some area of the person’s life.

From the perspective of yoga specialists, the possibility of freeing oneself from incarnations and, therefore, from the suffering associated with the ambivalence of the material, is based on the possibility of disidentification, that is, learning that the experiences of matter, from pleasure to suffering resulting from illness, do not belong to the realm of the immaterial and eternal, do not represent what is essential to the individual and, therefore, should be considered a fact without affective or moral connotations. The therapy, understood as the possibility of undoing energetic blockages, consists of performing certain postures with the physical body and breathing, since this implies mobilizing and manipulating the individual’s energy. The idea of reincarnation is fundamental to understand much of what Yoga is, if there were no reincarnation there would be no atman, no materiality; it functions as a conceptual a priori of the universe. There is an idea of inexorable duty to be in which moving away from it implies suffering, which does not mean doing good or bad things, there is no moral idea behind it.

From the perspective of Yoga specialists, illness is not negative and from the perspective of psychotherapy it is. From the latter, illness is linked to discomfort, which must be remedied to restore the patient’s well-being. The notions of “normality” and “pathology” are standardized, despite the fact that in recent years, the inclusion of the cultural factor has relativized the normal from the pathological, realizing that the manifestations of health and disease are modified in relation to the beliefs and ethnic, social, religious and cultural adherences of each particular patient. However, this position, in Argentina, is not yet taken into account in a radical way, so that it is still possible to identify stereotyped interpretations of the cause of discomfort. Despite these limitations, the technical eclecticism of cognitive therapies, which are booming in our country, shows the openness of psychotherapists to new ways of approaching distress, taking into account not only the patient’s beliefs and adherences, but also the effectiveness and efficiency in puffing an end to the distress.

What is the Difference Between a Yoga Class and a Yoga Therapy Session?

While yoga can be beneficial for overall well-being, it’s important to note that there are distinctions between a yoga instructor and a yoga therapist, as well as between a yoga class and a yoga therapy session. Identifying these differences will be helpful for both the instructor/therapist and the practitioner. Yoga practitioners have different reasons behind joining a yoga class or taking private lessons. When practitioners are researching yoga instructor tor yoga therapist training programs, they need to look at their true intentions in order to make the right decision. Yoga offers different tools in the process of self-knowledge and self-improvement leading to self-realization over time, however, many people see yoga as an exercise system. Practitioners often attend yoga classes to exercise with other like-minded people. Realizing that yoga is much more than exercise, practitioners try to explore different aspects of yoga, such as pranayama (yogic practice of focusing on breath) or meditation. Whatever the intention, everyone benefits from the practice of yoga. When individuals turn to a yoga therapist or therapeutic group, they are typically not seeking to learn yoga but rather to alleviate symptoms or receive assistance with a specific condition. In most cases, the guidance provided is aimed at improving the individual’s well-being and enhancing their ability to function, as opposed to focusing primarily on the specific techniques or principles of yoga practice.

What is the Difference Between a Yoga Therapist and Yoga Instructor?

There are many differences in the way yoga instructors teach yoga. Some yoga instructors focus specifically on guiding the practitioner and helping him or her to practice the asanas (yoga postures) pranayama and meditation correctly. Although the instructions given are different for asana, pranayama and meditation, instructors who adopt this style basically guide the practitioner for executing all three correctly. Other instructors prefer to train the practitioner rather than just guiding for the practices. This style of teaching encourages the practitioner to bring out his or her own experience, whether it is a personal practice or a group class. Either way, good trainers choose practices that are both interesting and appropriate for the practitioner to implement. Whether their approach is more instructional or educational, yoga instructors are expected to impart various yoga methods in a correct and appropriate manner.

A yoga therapist on the other hand is an instructor who specializes in this field however focuses mainly on the needs of the practitioner, rather than focusing on different yoga methods and practices. The yoga therapist’s job is to understand the reason why the practitioner is there and determine how to help him or her. Yoga therapists are trained to assess the practitioner by listening, asking questions and observing. So yoga therapists try to help the practitioner to reduce or cope with symptoms, increase functionality and help them with their attitude towards their health condition. After conducting the assessment, the yoga therapists set a practice with goal setting and teach it to the practitioner. Yoga instructors can offer many different classes for an individual or a group with a specific condition. For example, yoga for pregnant women, heart patients, cancer patients and etc. A good yoga instructor who teaches these classes learns the contraindications specific to these conditions and teaches accordingly. The aim here is to teach yoga to the practitioner, taking into account their health condition. Unlike a yoga class, the goal changes for the individual or group with the specific condition in a yoga therapy session. After assessing the practitioner by listening, asking questions and observing, the yoga therapist focuses on the symptoms and begins to identify ways to relieve them. For example, working with people who suffer from pain, fatigue or insomnia. In addition, the yoga therapist’s job is to encourage the practitioner to take more care of themselves. More than teaching yogic techniques, the task of the yoga therapist is to help the practitioner to cope with the situation and regain functionality. Yoga therapists try to help the practitioner to reduce or cope with symptoms, increase functionality and help them with their attitude towards their own health condition. After conducting an assessment, yoga therapists set a goal, determine a practice and teach it to the practitioner. Yoga therapists decide on appropriate yoga techniques for the practitioner.

Consequently, the role of a yoga therapist requires a distinct emphasis, specialized training, and a different set of abilities. Practitioners often get a lot, even therapeutic benefit, from this class, regardless of the class they attend. This is due to the therapeutic potential of yoga. However, a yoga class and a yoga therapy session should not be confused with each other. Although the difference may seem minimal, the yoga practitioner should clearly define his or her purpose when searching for a yoga instructor or yoga therapist. It is especially important for professionals who have chosen yoga as a profession, whether yoga instructors or yoga therapists, to be clear about the purpose and framework of their work, to be honest about their training and understanding of events, and to be realistic about their own abilities. Both yoga teacher and yoga therapist, while valuable professions, are different and it is crucial to recognize and understand this distinction and do not forget: It’s not possible to be a yoga therapist without being a yoga instructor. Both of them have to be aware of their own limitations, have the resources to refer practitioners to a good psychologist, homeopath, somatic experiencer or allopathic doctor. There are many things that yoga is not, and it is the responsibility of an instructor/therapist (whichever one he/she considers himself/herself to be) to know that when a faith-based practice is not the only remedy, there are many channels to one’s health, and that yoga is only one of them, and that it will accompany another modality just fine. For both the yoga instructors and the yoga therapist, it is very important to be clear about the purpose and framework of their work, to be honest about their training and understanding of events, and to be realistic about their own abilities.

General Effects of Yoga Therapy

Yoga therapy basically means the gradual preparation of the human body-mind system for increased energy absorption through:

– Dissolving and avoiding vertebral blockages

– Reduction of health impairments

– Development of a balanced, regulated and harmonious lifestyle

Yoga therapy is a holistic healing concept that enables a person to develop his or her individual potential in the best possible way. Health disorders are treated and eliminated in the most natural, simple and appropriate way for the individual constitution. Yoga therapy is also understood as a complementary medicine; it does not claim to be an exclusive treatment.

Therapeutic Aspects of Pranayama (Yogic Breathing)

Yoga literature knows two terms for the process of breathing: If it happens in an unconscious way, it is called shvasa-prashvasa (inhale-exhale). This breathing process is influenced by the prevailing irritations of emotional states of excitement or by neural imbalances. Conscious, controlled breathing is called pranayama. Pranayama means to let the breath flow in with specific intensity in a certain time rhythm, to hold it and to exhale again. This breathing process can be accompanied by special postures (mudras), muscle contractions (bandhas) and certain concentration exercises. The main focus in therapeutic pranayama practice is on manipulating intra-pulmonary, intra-thoracic, and intra-abdominal pressures, as well as maintaining these altered pressures for a period of time. While increasing oxygen uptake and carbon dioxide output also plays a significant role in certain disease states, it is not the primary focus of respiratory therapy. Rather, the practice and application of pranayama aims to overcome autonomic respiratory reflexes through conscious control by the cerebral cortex. In this way, the practitioner gains more and more conscious control over mental processes.

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