As a yoga teacher, I’ve been approached a number of times by people looking for an alternative mode of physical therapy. It is no surprise that yoga and healing are this closely related, though the exact nature of this healing can be a challenge to discuss.
There is a lot of information to sort through. Yoga began as a meditation practice as early as 2500 BC, and in the millennia since has collected several other practices all lumped under the same name. It includes ancient texts (the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali), medieval texts (the Hatha Yoga Pradipika), and more modern writings (BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga). There’s also a growing collection of medical studies on its various effects.
The older texts claim supernatural benefits that I personally think are best taken as metaphor, while texts written in the previous century are limited by the medical knowledge available at the time. In his book, The Science of Yoga (published in 2015), William Broad writes that even the International Association of Yoga Therapists has only recently begun to apply more rigorous and scientific findings to the modes of yoga therapy.
Caution is advised when looking to yoga as a form of therapy. Where physical injuries are concerned, we would do well to examine medical claims thoroughly before trying anything. That said, yoga can have profound healing effects when applied with skill and insight.
The Mind-Body Connection
Take a common metaphor: the body is a vehicle, and the mind is the pilot. We hear a saying like “Mind over matter” in the spirit of pushing past discomfort, difficulty, and even pain, especially in a sports context. Many of us enjoy hearing stories of determination and heroism, where the mind pushes the body beyond its limits. Of course, injuries and illness are common in such stories. The vehicle needs repairs, and the mind is trapped, a prisoner in the body.
Yoga shifts the emphasis away from this division and cultivates an awareness of how mind and body are linked. A popular interpretation of the word ‘yoga’ is that it comes from the Sanskrit root word yug, meaning “to yoke, to connect.” In yoga, the breath connects mind and body. When cultivated regularly, awareness of the breath results in a deeper and more expansive awareness of the mind-body connection.
Many yoga therapy sessions are centered on creating and sustaining this awareness. Timothy McCall, a doctor and the medical editor for Yoga Journal, wrote that yoga therapy is less like a typical studio class; in fact, cases of severe injury can be limited to just deep, rhythmic breathing coupled with simple bodily movements.
That said, a lot of yoga therapy needs to be tailored to the patient’s needs and the nature of the injury. In a typical yoga class, a teacher will not have enough time to modify poses for the patient. McCall recommends a one-on-one approach for most cases.
It also helps to distinguish between yoga teachers and yoga therapists. Unlike regular teachers, therapists have taken additional training in yoga therapy. They may even have a medical background: an occupational or physical therapist, sports scientist, nurse, or doctor. This means they would have the medical knowledge needed to design a treatment course appropriate to the patient’s needs.
Whatever the injury, a yoga therapist should be able to design a yoga practice specific to a patient’s needs. A therapist should have the skill to guide the patient through this practice. They can motivate and inspire patients to sustain the practice on their own, making it a habit and a part of their life.
Down-regulation and Healing
Awareness of the mind-body connection helps us activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which governs our rest-and-digest functions. It is also the sub-division that regulates the body’s ability to heal itself.
Therapy and healing will usually bring up the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system governs our fight-or-flight response. When it activates, our blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels all go up. By pumping blood faster through the body, the sympathetic nervous system makes sugar and oxygen readily available for the large muscles in our legs and hips for fight or flight. With heightened levels of adrenalin and cortisol, we become alert and responsive to stimuli.
This is the rush we get from physical activity, which gives sports and physical exercise that exhilarating effect. More importantly, this system has helped the human species survive many physical dangers in the past. However, we also have the same responses to emotional, mental, and social stressors.
What yoga therapy does is help people down-regulate themselves and activate their parasympathetic nervous system. It is common for a gym coach to say that a good exercise regimen includes enough rest and sleep; it helps the muscles repair themselves and brings on those sought-after gains. By the same token, activating parasympathetic mode as therapy helps in recovery from most injuries.
Living with Chronic Pain
It often happens that injury is treated ineffectively, leading to chronic pain. Because yoga began as a meditation practice, it is unsurprising that it contains ways of addressing this particular issue.
A prominent authority on this is Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a yoga teacher, health psychologist, editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and author of Yoga for Pain Relief. McGonigal herself suffers from daily, debilitating headaches, and found a way to address them through yoga and meditation.
For her, the yoga approach does not seek to fix the body, as if it were a machine in need of repair. “It involves every possible tool of yoga, including breathing, relaxation, movement, meditation, philosophy, and self-reflection. It’s recognizing that yoga’s healing power comes from its ability to change the way you breathe and move, yes, but also how you feel, think, and relate to yourself and to pain.”
The results of yoga and meditation for her speak for themselves: “Now, my pain is extremely mild and not daily. I only get a few debilitating headaches a year. The pain isn’t gone, it’s just a completely different experience. It has no hold on me, my emotions, and what I am able to do. I almost never have to take pain medication, whereas I used to take it daily. But it’s actually kind of a miracle.”
Where to Explore Yoga Therapy
For those looking to try the therapeutic aspects of yoga before engaging a yoga therapist, there are these options:
1. Inquire at a local yoga studio. Yoga studios sometimes offer restorative yoga or meditation classes, which are generally safer if you have injuries or illnesses.
2. Try yin yoga. More commonly available in studios than restorative yoga, yin yoga targets the fascia, or the connective tissues in the body. People who have undergone myofascial release may find similarities here. Arrive early and inform the yin teacher of your conditions so they can make the needed adjustments.
3. Look online for guided breath awareness meditation or yoga nidra. YouTube, Spotify, and even iTunes University offers recordings for guided meditations, and yes, even for pain management. Yoga nidra, or yogic sleep, is the safest option: done lying down, it only asks that we pay attention, breathe, and be in the moment. And yes, it’s OK to drift off to sleep.