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The Origins of Yoga Therapy

Historically yoga has been used to treat and manage health disorders. Many ancient yogis served as healers, or sages for guidance. There were yoga groups that developed yoga treatments for specific health conditions (Butera, 2023). Because of the decentralized nature of yoga many people take credit for the term yoga therapy, although little evidence exists to support this. 

However, the formal recognition and organization of Yoga Therapy as a distinct field with standardized practices and principles led to the formation of organizations to provide structure and accreditation. The International Association of Yoga Therapy (IAYT) was founded in 1989 and hosted meetings, presentations, and research studies, aimed to establish standards, ethics, and educational guidelines for yoga therapists, fostering a sense of accountability and credibility within the field. In 1999 IAYT dissolved the same year Yoga Alliance was formed. Then in 2004 IAYT re-emerged to form a platform for the advancement, recognition, and integration of yoga therapy as a legitimate and effective form of healing and wellness. IAYT, founded by Payne and Miller within the Viniyoga tradition, initially had a strong influence from this perspective in shaping its accreditation standards (IAYT, 2022). The organization's primary aim is to establish Yoga therapy as a respected healing profession. However, it has deliberately steered away from seeking governmental licensing or control over the practice. This decision is rooted in the recognition that Yoga is a deeply spiritual practice for many, and subjecting it to a medical system could risk reducing Yoga therapy to a set of clinical interventions, potentially stripping it of its holistic and spiritually enriching value.

IAYT Yoga Therapy Accreditation Standards for Schools

By 2011, Yoga Therapy Schools had begun to receive certification from the International Association of Yoga Therapy (IAYT). This marked a milestone in the field of Yoga therapy, signifying a growing recognition of the practice's efficacy in promoting holistic well-being. This collective effort contributed to the establishment of a more structured and reputable landscape for Yoga therapy education and practice, ultimately benefiting individuals seeking its therapeutic benefits.

The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) has established rigorous accreditation standards for yoga therapy training programs, comprising five distinct categories, totaling 800 hours of instruction (IAYT, 2022). This comprehensive framework is designed to ensure that aspiring Yoga therapists receive a well-rounded education in the field.

1. Yoga Foundations: This section delves into the fundamental principles of yoga, including its philosophy and teachings. It provides the groundwork for understanding Yoga and the Mind, focusing on the mental aspects of yoga, this category explores the mind-body connection, the philosophy of yoga sutras, and the psychological dimensions of the practice. Here, students also learn about health and disease from a yogic perspective, gaining insights into how yoga can be applied to promote well-being and address various health conditions.

2. Biomedical and Psychological: Including Anatomy and Physiology, Psychology and Mental HealthBody and Mind Integration.

3. Yoga Therapy Tools: This category equips students with practical tools and techniques for delivering effective yoga therapy. It covers therapeutic relationships, client interaction, working with groups, and the professional, ethical, legal, and business aspects of yoga therapy practice. The last two categories are 4. Yoga Therapy Application and 5. Business and Ethics, providing trainees the opportuinity to become equipped with the ability to run their own business, especially since the field of Yoga Therapy is expanding rapidly without a clear role or definition in many organizations. 

The IAYT's accreditation standards emphasize the importance of a holistic approach to yoga therapy. Beyond simply teaching the mechanics of yoga, these guidelines encourage therapists to delve into subtle energy systems, bodily functions, and the interconnectedness of mind, body, and breath (IAYT, 2022). Yoga philosophy and the yoga sutras are also integral components of the curriculum.

Although not necessarily a core curriculum to the IAYT standards, a well-rounded yoga therapy education goes beyond the physical and mental aspects. It encompasses nutrition, identification of attachments, examination of thinking patterns, recognition of limiting beliefs, and lifestyle adjustments. This holistic approach enables yoga therapists to address the root causes of physical and mental discomfort.

Yoga therapy involves attentive listening to clients to uncover their physical and mental pain points. Through thoughtful questioning and exploration, therapists can identify underlying sources of discomfort. For instance, observing a client's daily physical habits may reveal the cause of their back pain, while delving into their mental landscape might uncover stress triggers rooted in childhood memories and limiting beliefs.

IAYT's accreditation standards are designed to provide aspiring Yoga therapists with a comprehensive and adaptable curriculum that covers the full spectrum of yoga therapy, from its philosophical foundations to practical techniques and holistic approaches to healing. This thorough training equips therapists to address the complex interplay of physical, mental, and emotional well-being in their clients. IAYT's accreditation standards for Yoga therapy training encompass five distinct categories, totaling 800 hours of instruction. Within this framework, 200 hours are dedicated to case studies and mentoring, while an additional 200 hours are designated as elective hours. This unique structure not only allows schools to differentiate their approaches to Yoga therapy within the prescribed 400 hours but also permits a further 200 hours for potentially diverse and specialized training, offering a comprehensive and adaptable curriculum for aspiring Yoga therapists (IAYT, 2022). On the other hand, lack of cohesion and standards could potentially lead to trainings that stray away from the foundations of yoga therapy, or are more related to other schools of practice.

IAYT's accreditation standards represent a significant leap forward in the training of Yoga therapists compared to the traditional 200-hour yoga teacher training programs. They offer a holistic and adaptable curriculum that spans the entire spectrum of yoga therapy, providing aspiring therapists with a profound understanding of yoga's philosophy and therapeutic tools. This comprehensive training equips them to address the complex interplay of physical, mental, and emotional well-being in their clients, making them not only knowledgeable but also compassionate and effective agents of healing in both mind and body. These standards, with their emphasis on case studies, mentoring, and elective hours, go beyond the basics and serve as a testament to the commitment to uphold the integrity and effectiveness of yoga therapy as a superior holistic healing modality.


Styles of Yoga Therapy (In Chronological Order of Founding)

Classical Yoga Yoga Therapy

The Classical Yoga Style of Yoga Therapy is deeply rooted in the traditional teachings of yoga philosophy and practices. This approach often finds its home in ashrams, retreat centers, and organizations that prioritize the authentic transmission of yoga's ancient wisdom. In the 1920’s Yoga Institute of Mumbai and Kayvalyadam did research on health conditions (The Yoga Institute, 2022). This classical model for yoga therapy emphasizes lifestyle education and incorporating practices on a case-by-case basis tailored to each client. 

While each group operates independently, they share a common commitment to the spiritual and philosophical aspects of yoga. Yoga therapy programs within these organizations aim to integrate yoga's holistic approach to well-being, addressing not only physical health but also mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. Participants often immerse themselves in ashram environments, which provide a sacred and immersive setting for deepening their practice and understanding of yoga. The Classical Yoga Style of Yoga Therapy remains firmly connected to the roots of yoga, emphasizing the transformative potential of these ancient practices in the modern world.

As with all forms of therapy, potential drawbacks from this approach are that some groups hold their lineage and guru in high regard, often considering them as enlightened guides who have received direct knowledge from the yoga tradition. These gurus to some are seen as the torchbearers of yoga's timeless wisdom, and their teachings serve as the foundation for the yoga therapy programs offered within their respective organizations. A healthier approach is demonstrated by the groups that place emphasis on preserving the purity and authenticity of yoga teachings, ensuring that they are passed down without distortion.


Kundalini Yoga Therapy

Kundalini Yoga focuses on awakening the Kundalini energy coiled at the base of the spine. This practice incorporates postures, breathwork, mantra chanting, and meditation to harmonize the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of practitioners. The lineage of Kundalini Yoga can be traced back to Yogi Bhajan, who introduced it to the West in the late 1960s through organizations like 3HO and Sikh Dharma International. His teachings emphasize the transformative power of Kundalini energy and its integration into daily life, making Kundalini Yoga popular among those seeking holistic well-being.

In recent years, Kundalini Yoga has ventured into the realm of Yoga Therapy. While its traditional focus is on spiritual awakening and self-realization, Kundalini Yoga Therapy combines these spiritual principles with therapeutic techniques to address specific physical, emotional, or psychological challenges. This integration offers a unique and comprehensive approach to healing and personal transformation, featuring customized kriyas, meditation practices, and mantra chanting to target specific issues. The lineage of Kundalini Yoga Therapy continues to evolve, adapting and refining teachings to meet diverse needs, ultimately providing a holistic pathway to well-being that encompasses the physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions of human existence (Mander, 2022). Even though Kundalini Yoga Therapy addresses the spiritual side of healing and can be a powerful tool for personal growth and self-realization, it may also have the potential to promote spiritual bypassing and may lack certain elements when addressing trauma.

Kundalini Yoga often emphasizes positivity and elevation of consciousness. While this is valuable for personal growth, it can sometimes lead individuals to avoid or suppress difficult emotions or traumas rather than addressing them. Additionally, Kundalini Yoga is known for its potential to bring about rapid spiritual and personal transformation. In some cases, individuals may use this as a means to bypass deeper psychological work, believing that they can transcend their issues without fully addressing them.

Kundalini Yoga therapy may not place as much emphasis on the detailed processing of trauma as some other therapeutic approaches. Trauma often requires careful, gradual processing to avoid retraumatization. Furthermore, Kundalini Yoga therapy tends to involve dynamic physical movements and energy practices. While these can be helpful for releasing physical tension, they may not provide the depth of emotional and psychological processing needed to address trauma effectively. Additionally, Kundalini Yoga therapy often provides a structured approach to healing. However, trauma is highly individualized, and what works for one person may not work for another. A more tailored and personalized approach may be needed for trauma survivors. 

While Kundalini Yoga therapy offers numerous benefits and can be a transformative practice, it is important for individuals and therapists to be aware of the potential for spiritual bypassing and its limitations in addressing trauma. It may be most effective when integrated with other therapeutic modalities that specifically focus on trauma processing and emotional healing.

Ayurveda-Influenced

Within the field of Yoga Therapy, teaching and philosophy can very greatly one branch draws inspiration from Ayurveda, and includes AyurYoga, Viniyoga, Sivananda Yoga Therapy, and Dosha Balancing Yoga Therapy, among others. Viniyoga, in particular, stands out for its emphasis on the principles of repetition and adaptation. Rooted in the ancient Sanskrit term ‘Vi-ni,' meaning differentiation, adaptation, and appropriate application, this style highlights the tailoring of yoga practices to individual needs (Marcotte, 2023). ViniYoga Yoga Therapy, founded by T.K.V. Desikachar the son of T. Krishnamacharya, places a strong focus on micromovements, enhancing its physical-based therapeutic approach. This distinctive approach is deeply influenced by Ayurvedic principles and aims to adapt yoga practices to individuals' specific needs and conditions.

Medical Yoga Therapy

Several specific schools and teachings within the field of yoga therapy emphasize a medical or physical therapy approach, prioritizing clinical applications. For instance, Iyengar Yoga Therapy, inspired by B.K.S. Iyengar, places a strong emphasis on precision and therapeutic applications, often collaborating closely with healthcare professionals (Kowalski, 2023). The Krishnamacharya Healing and Yoga Foundation (KHYF) follows a holistic approach to yoga therapy, tailoring individualized practices to address specific health concerns in conjunction with medical guidance (Marcotte, 2023). Additionally, Yoga for the Special Child, developed by Sonia Sumar, focuses on therapeutic techniques for children with special needs (Sumar, 2007). However, these approaches are clinical centered and may lack authentic spiritual teachings.

There are several schools and approaches that blend Western therapies with yoga therapy. Yoga for Trauma and Resilience (Y4TR) was developed by the Trauma Center in Boston, Y4TR combines yoga practices with principles of Trauma-Sensitive Yoga and Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga to support individuals who have experienced trauma (TCTSY, 2022). This approach is highly specialized and focuses on creating a safe and healing environment for trauma survivors.

Somatic Experiencing (SE) and Yoga is where practitioners blend the principles of Somatic Experiencing, a body-oriented therapy for trauma resolution, with yoga to create trauma-informed yoga therapy (Benoit-Leach, 2020). This approach aims to release stored trauma in the body through mindful movement and breath.

Yoga for Cancer Care (Y4C) was developed by Tari Prinster, Y4C blends yoga practices with principles from oncology and the science of cancer care. It is designed to support individuals going through cancer treatment and recovery by addressing physical and emotional challenges associated with cancer (Prinster, 2014).

The University of Maryland's Master's degree program in Yoga Therapy offers a contemporary and evidence-based approach to yoga's integration into the field of healthcare and wellness. While it doesn't have a direct lineage to traditional yogic schools, it draws from the rich history and philosophy of yoga (MUIH, 2023). The program combines Western medical knowledge with yoga's holistic principles to train students in using yoga as a therapeutic modality. 

These schools and approaches showcase the integration of Western therapeutic modalities with yoga therapy, offering specialized and evidence-based programs to address various physical, mental, and emotional health concerns in a holistic manner. While these schools may address many areas, or layers of the humans existence (koshas) they are still often lacking the spiritual aspects of Yoga Therapy.

Psychotherapy Yoga Therapy

Yoga psychology represents a dynamic and transformative field that unites the timeless wisdom of yoga with contemporary understandings from Western psychology. At its core, this discipline recognizes the intricate interplay between the mind, body, and spirit, offering a comprehensive approach to mental, emotional, and physical well-being. 

Integral Yoga Institute was founded by Sri Swami Satchidananda in 1966. This institute offers programs that blend traditional yogic practices with modern psychological insights, emphasizing holistic well-being and self-realization (Hammond, 2007). Their teachings encompass a wide range of practices, from meditation and breath control to physical postures, all aimed at fostering inner harmony. 

For those seeking relief from conditions like depression and anxiety, the LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute provides a specialized approach. Developed by Amy Weintraub, this form of yoga psychology focuses on managing mood and alleviating symptoms by combining yoga with the psychology of emotion regulation (Weintraub, 2003).

Mindful Yoga Therapy (MYT)  was founded by veterans for veterans, MYT integrates yoga practices with mindfulness techniques and principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help veterans and individuals dealing with trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety. It offers specific training for yoga teachers and mental health professionals (Manafort & Gilmartin, 2013).

Yoga and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) are programs that combine yoga with MBSR, a structured mindfulness program developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. This combination enhances stress reduction and mindfulness practices, often offered in clinical and healthcare settings (Pascoe, et al, 2017)

Yoga psychology serves as a bridge between ancient wisdom and contemporary understanding, recognizing that emotional and mental states significantly impact physical health, and vice versa. Through practices such as meditation, breath control, mindfulness, asanas (postures), and mantra chanting, individuals can explore their inner worlds, enhance emotional resilience, manage stress, and gain understanding of their multidimensional existence. 

Teacher-Focused Yoga Therapy

Finally there are instances where Yoga Therapy programs are composed of a cluster of well-known instructors, each contributing their unique expertise and approach, without a cohesive program structure. In such cases, the focus tends to be on the diversity of teachings and perspectives rather than a standardized curriculum. These programs often feature a roster of renowned yoga therapists, each specializing in various aspects of yoga therapy, such as pain management, trauma healing, or mental health. While they offer valuable insights and techniques, they may lack the continuity and structured progression found in more formalized programs. Nevertheless, these gatherings of esteemed instructors provide an enriching platform for practitioners to explore a wide spectrum of yoga therapy modalities, allowing them to tailor their learning experience to their specific interests and needs.

Global Recognition of Yoga Therapy

Within the realm of Yoga therapy and its global recognition, several organizations and associations closely align with the mission and principles of the International Association of Yoga Therapy (IAYT). These entities share a commitment to promoting Yoga as a holistic therapeutic practice that enhances overall well-being. They operate in various regions, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and on an international scale. 

One such organization is the British Council for Yoga Therapy (BCYT), which serves as the authoritative body for Yoga therapy in the UK. BCYT is dedicated to upholding the highest standards within the field and actively extends accreditation to Yoga therapy training programs, ensuring a robust framework for education and practice (BCYT, 2023).

Similarly, the Australasian Association of Yoga Therapists (AAYT) plays a pivotal role as Australia's primary governing body for Yoga therapy. It offers crucial support and accreditation to both Yoga therapy practitioners and training programs, fortifying the foundations of this therapeutic discipline in the country (AAYT, 2023).

While the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) primarily focuses on Ayurveda, its holistic health approach often converges with Yoga Therapy. Particularly in North America, NAMA promotes Ayurveda, fostering a natural intersection with Yoga Therapy in the pursuit of holistic health and well-being (NAMA, 2023).

These organizations collectively contribute to the growth and recognition of Yoga Therapy as a valuable therapeutic modality. They share common goals of setting industry standards, offering accreditation, and nurturing a sense of community among Yoga therapy practitioners and educators across the globe. In doing so, they enrich the landscape of Yoga therapy and fortify its place in the realm of holistic health and wellness.


This is an excerpt from Stefanie J. Hahn's Paper on the Origins of Yoga Therapy. For references and access to the full article please email lvyogatherapy@gmail.com 




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