The question I most frequently come across when it comes to explain the difference between yoga and yoga therapy is: Why do we need yoga therapy if yoga in itself is said to be a healing practice?
This is actually an absolutely justified question, as there is even a word you might have heard before: yoga chikitsa (योग चिकित्सा, yoga cikitsā), which is based in the Astanga Yoga tradition, and is the sanksrit (संक्सृत्, saṁksr̥t) name for the primary series. It is often translated as yoga therapy, as this series is supposed to purify and heal the body. This first or primary series forms the basis for all subsequent series, and also for all yoga styles that have employed the concept of vinyasa, the fusing of movement and breath. The name “first” implies that this is where we begin our practice, and surely one would expect that starting at the beginning should keep every practitioner safe and healthy.
My own experience nevertheless shows a different reality. For most people I have worked with, repeatedly practicing just the core elements of a basic sun salutation (surya namaskar) have proven to be far too difficult to learn and perform in a way that they don’t eventually suffer from minor or major injury, ranging from relatively mild muscle damage to torn cartilage, or even severe and sometimes non-reversible neurological disorders!
In an article from the New York Times Magazine, Glenn Black, a yoga teacher from New York mentions a number of factors that may have converged to heighten the risk of practicing yoga, one of the biggest is the demographic shift in those who study and practice it. Whereas Indian practitioners typically squatted and sat cross-legged in daily life, now urbanites raise from their chairs they sat on all day, and walk into a studio once or twice a week to strain to twist themselves into evermore-difficult postures, completely ignoring their own lack of flexibility and other physical problems.
Another factor surely is yoga’s exploding popularity. Many come to yoga as a gentle counter stretch to vigorous sports or as a last cure-all for injuries or illnesses. Yoga’s exploding popularity gradually led to an abundance of studios but with teachers not always properly trained to support students appropriately. Instead, many schools of yoga are still rooted in a belief system of having to “pushing through” resistance or obstacles, in order to move forward in your practice, which is all about inflating the ego, whilst the whole point of yoga is to dissolve it! He provocatively concludes:
“Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.”
Let me try to explain the conflict: It has to do with the gross and the subtle. Whereas a general yoga class mainly focuses on the postures (asanas), thereby addressing the gross elements of our body by strengthening muscles and mobilizing joints, yoga therapy looks primarily at the subtle body as the secret to not only optimal functioning and alignment, but also restoring wellbeing and health.
As an attempt to describe the subtle body, the mystics and yogis of India and Tibet have mapped out elaborate systems to describe the “indescribable”, yet still existing interior pathways and channels (nadis) distributing prana and even suggesting a physio-spiritual force that transcends scientific rationale. This is even more remarkable as this was long before the era of microscopes or MRI, but apparently was visualized during prolonged states of profound meditation.
It is obvious that seen through those eyes our bodies are so much more than just functioning and surviving, but rather a “micro-cosmos” where forces and energies circulate, and reflections of mind and spirit get played out. It then becomes clear that the body is in no way separate from those psycho-spiritual vibrations that animate it. They are fuelled and sustained by a mysterious energy called, prāṇa.
Prāṇa is the immeasurable source of life itself. As much as the anatomical structure in a healthy body is designed to provide optimal distribution of prāṇa through blood vessels, lymph capillaries, and the nervous system, simultaneously prāṇa within the subtle body is very much impacted by the powerful effects of stress, trauma, and emotions, as they finally manifest themselves in the tissues of the body as hardened muscle tissue, locked up joints, restricted movement of the diaphragm, or tightening and tensing of the neck and jaw. There is hardly anyone in our competitive anxiety-ridden society not suffering from some kind of psychosomatic stress disorders affecting the immunity system, digestion, heart rate, and sleep patterns.
Most of that misery that affects our subtle body is caused by an “ignorance in our minds that confuses the symbol with the thing or the map with the territory, while at the same time the mind tries in vain to make the subtle gross, the impermanent permanent, and the deep shallow” (Richard Freeman– Author of The Mirror of Yoga).
Healing can occur when we return to the experience of mindful awareness of breath, sensations and thoughts on a truly subtle level where concepts and labels temporarily fall away and the sacred, astonishing, and infinite body of pure awareness shines through.
This is the beauty of Yoga Therapy, which mainly addresses the subtle: It honours and respects the mystical and inexplicable, and allows us to transmute the labelling and thinking mind into a state of open inquiry and wonderment.