YOGA | YOGA THERAPY --A Yoga International Blog Post
by Beth Spindler
As we were moving slowly and consciously through a series of poses in a yoga therapy session last week, a 69-year-old client of mine who had practiced asana off and on for 40 years noted the difference between yoga therapy and the typical group classes she'd been to in the past, exclaiming, “No wonder I don't attend classes anymore! It doesn’t make sense for me to do what they are doing. And I thought all yoga was therapeutic!”
What we came to understand in her session was that many of the poses, instructions, and approaches to fitness that she was encountering in her local yoga classes were aggravating her conditions rather than alleviating them. Was this just because she was no longer 25? Not at all—I've seen the same kind of overuse and repetitive strain in people in their twenties, and even in teenagers. But for some reason, it's a common belief that yoga is exempt from the rules of cross-training and diversity of movement.
Injury has now become so much a part of yoga practice that it is widely accepted as inevitable. I recently came across a Facebook post written by a self-described “yoga teacher/mentor” this week that illustrates this prevalence perfectly. Her words (directed to her students) were, to this effect: “We’ve been through so much together, so many changes. I’ve seen some of you become mothers, others retire, we’ve ripped hamstrings and blown shoulders…” My mouth fell open. Since when are torn hamstrings and injured shoulders a normal, accepted part of the yoga experience? Memorable, yes, but something to look back on with nostalgia?? Somehow I don’t think that sages of yoga would agree, since yogis ascribe to the same rule of ahimsa as do medical doctors—first, do no harm.
Injury has now become so much a part of yoga practice that it is widely accepted as inevitable.
More and more, doctors are offering referrals to yoga classes, and teachers and students alike must be aware of what that means. Within the medical community, there is a growing sense of trust in yoga and in yoga teachers. My classes at a hospital, and my private lessons and therapy sessions, were full of doctors, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, and their families. Many of these medical professionals even chose to go through yoga teacher training programs so that they would have new options to offer their patients.
The issue is that to most people, a “yoga class” means a “follow the leader,” and includes the same 20 or so poses in every class. Some of them might feel good, like the reclining bent-knee-over-straight-leg twist that makes your back pop every time. This type of twist is actually destabilizing for your lumbar joints and can lead to later arthritis or sciatic nerve issues. Is it really worth it then? And while it may be momentarily empowering to kick up into headstand so you can say “I got that pose,” what about the nagging neck pain the next morning? Or maybe you love the achievement of full lotus but are noticing knee pain. Thankfully, there are other poses out there—poses that may make you stronger and more flexible. But discovering those poses takes time and demands attention to the specific needs of your body.
If you are unsure about how to practice therapeutically, it may be good to visit a well-recommended yoga therapist or experienced teacher who can map out some areas where you need strength practices, and others where you need to focus on flexibility. Consulting with the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) for trained therapists in your area may be helpful. Most importantly, a trained professional can observe how you breathe during yoga and help you to modify the speed and intensity of your practice accordingly. This type of help will give the prospective or long-term yogi more confidence in how to practice in general. Remember, the poses and breathing techniques we choose to practice may lower pain levels and help with range of motion, but it's how we practice them that can change our lives.
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Beth Spinder C-IAYT, ERYT500 is a yoga therapist, teacher, and published writer on yoga related subjects. A frequent contributor to YogaInternational.com