Yoga is an ancient practice that brings movement and breath together to promote physical and mental well-being. The benefits are varied and include increased flexibility, improved strength and reduced stress levels. For dedicated yogis, it is more than just an exercise - it is a way of life. The philosophical side of the practice dates back thousands of years, with roots in ancient India.
Yoga therapy is an adaptation of the practice, catering specifically for those with health problems and/or physical injury. The aim of yoga therapy is to support natural healing while offering other benefits. On this page we'll look at yoga therapy, the different types available (including pregnancy yoga) and answer some frequently asked questions.
What is yoga?
Yoga is believed to have originated in India around 5,000 years ago. Since then it has evolved and adapted, but the premise remains the same; the word yoga itself means 'to join' or 'unity'. The two components which the discipline joins together are postures (asanas) and breathing (pranayama). This means, when doing the poses you should breathe and move in unity.
It's this focus on your breathing and the way you move that increases awareness. Being more aware of your body and the present moment is thought to have a calming effect and is why many experts recommend this practice for stress relief.
Modern yoga, as we know it now, is believed to have originated in Chicago, 1893. A young Indian man named Swami Vivekanada started touring America, giving lectures on the discipline and he quickly gained a following.
By the 50s and 60s, yoga had entered the mainstream with celebrities and athletes alike promoting its benefits. Today the practice is widely available in many different formats and styles. For dedicated yogis, it is more than just an exercise - it is a way of life.
While the principle of yoga is the same throughout, there are many different styles. This is great because you can pick and choose the style that suits your needs best. Take a look below for some examples:
Ashtanga comprises of six pose sequences. These increase in difficulty and can be quite strenuous. This makes Ashtanga a good style for those wanting to inject some cardio into their routine, but may not be suitable for those with limited mobility or health concerns.
Bikram has 26 basic poses, which are performed in a heated room. It is thought that the increased heat can help 'warm-up' the muscles for increased flexibility. If you are considering the Bikram style, speak to your doctor first. This style can be quite strenuous and may not be advisable to those with pre-existing medical conditions.
Hatha is one of the more common styles available. Typically a more gentle practice, Hatha is often recommended for beginners to learn the basics and benefit from the relaxation element.
Restorative yoga is designed to encourage relaxation and healing. There is typically less movement, instead you spend 20 minutes or so in just a handful of poses. Staying in poses for longer ensures you get as much physical benefit as possible. Restorative poses are often incorporated in yoga therapy.
Vinyasa is often referred to as 'flow yoga' as it involves moving through poses in a fluid motion. In-between holding poses you'll go through a 'vinyasa', a series of moves which join together the poses. This style requires focus and is known for helping to quieten the mind. The amount of movement required however may make it difficult for those recovering from illness or injury.
Using this discipline in a therapeutic setting is different than most of the classes you see advertised. Yoga therapy is a more tailored practice that looks to help those with health/mobility problems or those recovering from injury.
While general yoga is preventative in nature (and may help resolve mild ailments) it may not be suitable for those with specific mobility/health concerns. In contrast, yoga therapy looks to encourage healing of such ailments with a personalised treatment plan.
Some concerns that can be addressed include:
certain musculoskeletal issues
As with all complementary therapies, yoga therapy is designed to be used alongside conventional treatment to help the body heal more effectively. In some cases, the therapy will not be able to 'cure' an ailment, but it may help you to better manage your symptoms and lower any associated stress.
After getting the go-ahead from your doctor, your first port of call will be to have a consultation with a yoga therapist. During this meeting the therapist will discuss your medical history to ascertain your specific concerns. They are also likely to ask about any lifestyle factors which may be affecting your condition.
Your yoga therapist will then devise a treatment plan. They will put together a range of suitable poses and exercises. The poses they recommend will depend on the concern that brought you to yoga therapy.
In most cases the therapy will be delivered in a one-to-one setting, however it can also be delivered to groups of people with the same ailment. During your sessions your yoga therapist will show you how to do the poses and will ensure you are doing them safely. They will also keep track of your progress, adjusting your treatment as needed.
Some therapists will encourage you to continue your practice at home. They may also offer advice on relaxation and meditation too, to complement your therapy.
There are many different types of poses that can benefit both body and mind. Below are some of the common poses and how they can help.
Note: If you have any injuries or medical conditions, speak to your GP to see if this therapy is suitable for you. To avoid injury, you are advised to seek advice from a yoga therapist before attempting poses.
Twisting poses rotate the spine and stretch out the muscles of the back. Doing this helps to retain range of motion in the spine, keeping it healthy. As well as keeping the spine mobile, twists are believed to aid digestion. Twists create movement in the internal organs and some experts believe this helps our food get moved along.
Twists are also viewed as detoxifying. This could be because the movement stimulates our organs (including those that eliminate waste). Stimulating our organs in this way could help to aid eliminations of waste and support the body's natural detoxification process.
As twisting poses involve the spine it is important to ensure you are doing them correctly to avoid injury. Be sure to seek advice from a yoga teacher before trying a pose at home.
Forward bends typically involve you folding forward in some way. You could be standing and bending over to hug your legs (standing forward bend) or you could be sat on the floor, folded over your legs (seated forward bend).
These types of poses are thought to 'massage' our internal organs and boost circulation. These poses bend the back in the same way it was bent in the womb, known as the primary curve. This creates space between the vertebrae, which has a positive effect on the body.
Many yogis believe forward bends have a calming effect on the mind too, so they are ideal for those feeling anxious.
Gently bending the back helps to strengthen the spine and maintain mobility. They can also feel energising and invigorating. Most backbends open up the chest and shoulders - areas that typically hold a lot of tension. These bends can also help to alleviate some back and neck pains, but ensure you get advice from your yoga therapist if you experience pain.
Our body's natural response to danger is to curl inwards and protect our major organs. Back bends do the opposite. They open up the heart space and expose you to the world. For this reason, many people find backbends help them develop confidence and inner strength.
Inversion poses require you to be upside-down in one way or another. Such poses include headstands and shoulder stands. These poses require a great deal of strength (especially core strength) so they aren't always recommended for beginners. Being upside-down like this is thought to calm the nervous system and boost circulation.
Balancing in a pose is a great way to focus the mind. This is because it takes a great deal of concentration to balance, leaving your mind little room to wander. This helps to increase awareness and feel less stressed.
Physically, balancing poses help to strengthen. It boosts core stability, which can help you avoid falls. This trait makes balancing poses ideal for elderly people in particular.
Yoga for pregnancy
There are many poses that can be beneficial to expectant mothers. Pregnancy yoga is an adaptation that uses poses to support women through all stages of pregnancy. Many women continue going to pregnancy yoga after their baby is born to build up their strength again.
Pregnancy yoga is a safe form of exercise that can help to ward off typical pregnancy aches and pains. It helps to build core strength too, which is important when you're carrying the extra weight of a baby. Some of the poses can also help to reduce swelling and improve posture.
Yoga for pregnancy can also be emotionally supportive. Yogic breathing for example aids relaxation and encourages the mind and body to be calm.
If you are considering pregnancy yoga, ensure you seek advice from a professional. There are some poses that are not recommended for pregnant women, so it is important to see a teacher who can talk you through the safe poses. You are advised to speak to your doctor before trying any new exercise, especially when you're pregnant.
Yoga therapy FAQs
Do I need to be flexible?
A common misconception of yoga is that you need to be lean and flexible to do it. This is not the case. The aim of yoga is to stretch your body in the way it needs. For those who are naturally flexible, this may mean they need to stretch quite a lot. For those who are not so flexible, they'll only need to stretch a little to gain the benefits.
Of course, over time your flexibility will naturally improve, but it is important to remember that this is not the aim of yoga.
Do I need to know the philosophy behind it?
For some people, understanding the philosophy behind yoga serves to enhance their practice as it becomes a part of their lifestyle. This being said, it certainly is not a necessity. How much philosophy you're exposed to in your practice will depend on your yoga therapist. If you want to hear more (or less!) about the philosophy, simply ask your therapist.
Can I use it in conjunction with other treatments?
The gentle nature of yoga therapy makes in an ideal complement to most treatments. Having said this, it is always recommended that you speak to your doctor before adding a new treatment. You should also talk to your yoga therapist about any other treatments you are receiving.
Am I too old to try it?
Yoga is an ideal exercise for older people. This is because it is both gentle and adaptable. The way it strengthens the body helps to prevent against falls, while the increased flexibility helps maintain mobility.
If you are older and are considering yoga, ensure you ask a yoga therapist or teacher to show you how to adapt the poses and practise safely.
Can I get injured doing it?
The most common injuries in yoga are repetitive strain injury and over stretching. This happens when you push yourself too far or move in a way that isn't safe for the body. To avoid injury, follow instructions from your yoga therapist and don't overexert yourself. All stretches in yoga should feel pleasant. If you feel pain, stop.
What qualifications and experience should a yoga therapist have?
While there are no laws in place to regulate yoga teachers, it is recommended that they have a relevant qualification, insurance and/or membership with a professional body. There are many professional bodies which self-regulate therapies like yoga. These usually require members to meet certain training standards and to abide by a code of ethics and complaints procedure.