Yoga therapy as a healing tool
Concept, origins and development
Yoga is a systematic technology to improve the body, understand the mind, and free the spirit. Yoga is not a religion. Although yoga came out of ancient India it is not a form of Hinduism. In fact yoga is widely practiced by Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, atheist and agnostics alike.
The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root ruj meaning to bind, join, attach and yoke, to direct and one’s attention on, to use and apply. It also means union and communion. Yoga means the disciplining of the intellect, the mind, the emotions, the will, which that Yoga presupposes; it means a poise of the soul which enables one to look at life in all its aspects evenly. The word yoga has been translated by many as union of the body mind and spirit, however it also means separation. It can be the answer to the existential dilemma about enlightenment or union of the yogi and the yogic practice. Yoga can mean the union between the individual soul and the Supreme Soul – God.
Yoga may date back to the seventh millennium BCE, though no one knows for sure how old it is. Yoga first went to the USA when Swami Vivekananda, a hindu monk arrived in Chicago.
It is hard to track back the history of yoga in ancient times, as there was not found any written work from the Indus Valley civilization (c3000-1700 BCE). On the contrary, the Vedic culture (c1700-800 BCE) provided us literature but no archaeology. It has been proven that the Vedic tradition may have come from outside Asia, but yoga does not originate from the Vedas. The exact historical origin of yoga is not proven therefore.
For first time Yoga was mentioned in the Katha Upanishad. At that time Yoga meant rituals and living in harmony with nature. Liberation, enlightenment or karma has not been mentioned at all.
The rise of Buddhism and Jainism approximately after the 5th century BCE had brought the shift. Sramana, consisting of Buddhism and Jainism, were concerned about karma and saw the world as a bad place. In the time 4th century BCE to 4th century CE, the Bhagavad Gita brought a significant change by evolving yoga into 3 forms of practices: jnana, karma and bhakti yoga. Krishna said: “Perform action with awareness”. It took another 500 years until we started to see women in bhakti yoga. Bhakti yoga sees the love to the divine as an ongoing meditation.
In the 2nd century CE, Patanjali introduced the idea of the world being a place of suffering and he suggested meditation as solution.
Adi Shankara in the 8th century consolidated the Vedanta teachings and almost at the same time the Tantrism arose in the 6th century, dominating onwards. Tantrism gave rise to Hatha, Mantra, Nada, Kundalini and Laya yogas. Tantra started to deal with the expansion of the consciousness and it was not afraid to connect its practices to the body.
Yoga as a system consists of breathing exercises, yoga poses and meditation. Traditional yoga as is however incorporates much more than just these three aspects. Yoga teaches us about letting go of the desires, controlling the senses, living without harming of any living organisms and how to train our mind in order to be able to concentrate for example on the flame of a candle.
Yoga therapy is one of the most powerful systems of overall health and well-being I have ever seen. This single comprehensive system can reduce stress, increase flexibility, improve balance, promote strength, heighten cardiovascular conditioning, lower blood pressure, reduce overweight, strengthen bones, prevent injuries, lift mood, improve immune function, increase the oxygen supply to the tissues, heighten sexual functioning and fulfilment, foster psychological equanimity and promote spiritual well-being. Yoga therapy optimizes the function of every system in your body from the muscles to digestion, circulation and immunity. Yoga teaches that only when these elements are aligned can you maximize your chance for health and healing. In yoga, doing your spiritual work affects the body. You stretch and strengthen your muscles and that affects the circulation, digestion and breathing. You calm and strengthen the nervous system and it affects the mind. Yoga says that if you look clearly you will see that everything is connected to everything else. From a therapeutic standpoint, this provides the insight that you improve the functioning of any one organ or system by trying to improve all. There is now scientific evidence that yoga therapy appears to be effective in the treatment of a wide variety of health conditions.
Yoga therapy’s health benefits can in part be explained by the fact that the various stretching, breathing, movement, balance, meditative and strength practices – the elements of what’s known as hatha yoga. There is a continuum of effects from yoga therapy. First, it can relax you. It can also; sometimes it can lead to the relief of some symptoms of illness. With sustained practice, particularly with asanas and the breathing techniques known as pranayama, the body and the breath become stronger. Posture and lung capacity improve, as does bowel function and lymphatic drainage.
Yoga therapy is a series of practices that allow you to steadily gain discipline, strength, and self-control while cultivating relaxation, awareness and equanimity. Yoga therapy can be used as a therapeutic tool to help clients to deal with physical and emotional issues.
General yoga classes can improve general health and resolve mild complaints, but may be ineffective – or even harmful – for serious conditions. In such cases yoga therapy can help by designing yoga for individual needs. It helps promoting all-round positive health, as well as assisting particular medical conditions. Yoga therapy is preventive in nature, as is Yoga itself, but it is also restorative in many instances, palliative in others, and curative in many others.
Recently the number of organisations offering yoga therapy teacher trainings has grown enormously. However, not all teacher trainings cover the various aspects of yoga, and not all of them train their teachers to teach yoga that is safe. British Wheel of Yoga is the main governing body of yoga in the UK. Any yoga teacher wanting to be insured by the BWY, will need to have completed a BWY approved teacher training which as usual last 200 hours spread out throughout 2 years. The BWY ensures that the yoga teachers certified by them receive sufficient ongoing professional training.
The British Wheel of Yoga was founded in 1965. The British Wheel of Yoga was awarded National Governing Body status by the then Sports Council in 1995 as one of several applying organisations. In its role of Governing Body, the BWY accredits other yoga teacher training organisations.
The BWY is a professional organisation offering first class training in all the practical and ethical aspects of being a safe, skilled, competent, qualified yoga teacher. Their course includes yoga philosophy, anatomy & physiology, yoga asanas, pranayama, mudra & bandha, concentration & meditation and relaxation. Significant time is devoted to ‘how to teach’, the professional practises required to become a safe and effective tutor so that they can stand with confidence in front of their students.
Key aspects of good clinical practice
Yoga has been successfully used lately as a form of holistic therapy. Referral is possible through the local GP’s to the yoga therapist. When yoga therapy is used for a certain condition, customized treatment program should be developed. Yoga teachers are also legally liable for the health of their students in the class and they are responsible to give modifications to students who struggle with health conditions. Various yogic practices have different contraindications where certain poses and practices should be avoided. Effective communication prior each yoga session with each client is essential in order to offer a safe yoga practice or treatment. Formal questionnaire is suggested to be used prior to any yoga session and registration of a new client (See attached questionnaire – Appendix 1.) British wheel of Yoga ensures that yoga is offered only by individuals who follow the guidelines of safe practices.
It is to be noted that yoga therapy is not the same as taking a yoga class. If someone has a serious medical problem, only yoga therapy should be considered.
The Yoga Biomedical Trust facilitates the development of yoga as a holistic therapy in the treatment and prevention of medical conditions, and for positive health. Its practitioners can tailor their treatments to specific health problems as well as teaching general wellbeing through yoga.
The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) is the UK regulator for complementary healthcare practitioners that was set up with government funding and support. CNHC has agreed that The British Wheel of Yoga may verify yoga teachers’ applications for CNHC registration to gain the CNHC quality mark.
Many scientific studies have been conducted to prove the benefits of yoga. We can expect more evidence in the years to come from studies currently under way evaluating yoga’s effects on everything from breast cancer to back pain.
Timothy McCall, Yoga as Medicine
B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga
Victoria Woodhall with Jonathan Sattin, Everyone try yoga
www.bwy.org.uk Website of British Wheel of Yoga
www.yogatherapy.org Website of the Yoga Biomedical Trust.