This certificate was given to me when I was just two years old. An astrologist read my astrological chart and gave me a name and a spirit guide. She also wrote a single paragraph to guide me on my path. “There is such a strong emphasis on health and healing in this chart, as well as a very bright mind. I think she won’t be able to avoid either nursing, medicine or dietics and health work. Her nervous system needs care. Yoga would help her; and training in thought control and meditation.”
Im not sure how much I buy into astrology but certainly she picked up on something there. It took me until my early 30’s to start to really put into practice the advice I was given all those years ago. I wish I’d have been able to find my way onto my path earlier, the reality is I wasn’t ready then, but I am so incredibly grateful to have found my way now.
On Global Yoga Therapy day, I wanted to take the chance to reflect on what yoga therapy is and what it means to me as a therapist. I completed my training early in 2016 and have been working as a yoga therapist both in one to one and group settings ever since.
So what is it?
Yoga therapy is an emerging complimentary therapy and as such there is no governing body and no regulation around qualifications, meaning that it is tricky as therapists to feel the parameters and boundaries of what we do and don’t offer. Some yoga therapist will work with a very body based/bio mechanical approach, others will work more traditionally alongside an Arurvedic system and others, like myself focus more on the mental/emotional health.
I really like this description from yoga philosopher George Feuerstein
“Yoga therapy is a modern coinage and represents a first effort to integrate traditional yogic concepts and techniques with Western medical and psychological knowledge. Whereas traditional yoga is primarily concerned with personal transcendence on the part of a ‘normal’ or healthy individual, yoga therapy aims at the holistic treatment of various kinds of psychological or somatic dysfunctions ranging from back problems to emotional distress. Both approaches, however share an understanding of the human being as an integrated body/mind system, which can function optimally only when there is a state of dynamic balance.”
I trained in at The Minded Institute where the training brings together the traditional learning from the east with the modern science of the west. With a particular focus on mental and emotional wellbeing, the approach is based on the belief that the client has an innate ability to heal and that finding ways to allow the body and mind to move towards this place of healing is the role of the therapist. I am yet to work with a client who didn’t, at the core have some form of stress related symptoms and so finding ways to allow for real, physiological and deep relaxation is always an element to the work, as is nervous system regulation.
I use a combination of body awareness and grounding practices, ‘regulation’ tools (altering the way you feel via the breath, mind or body), with ‘acceptance’ and ‘being with mindfulness. All of which can themselves be tailored to the needs of the individual client, which may change moment to moment throughout a session. I complement these body based techniques with mindful enquiry and a curiosity about how my clients current physical, emotional, mental, psychological state may be a reflection of the conditioning of their experience.
We may focus on lifting mood, grounding, emotional regulation, balancing the autonomic nervous system, improving heart rate variability, creating safety in the mind and body, developing self compassion and self care, reducing rumination, increasing focus and concentration, promoting deep relaxation, cultivating self belief/motivation, emotional expression and even orientation towards pleasure to name just a few! This holistic approach means no two individuals sessions need look alike and this bespoke approach of ‘meeting the person where they are in the moment’ is what I find so fascinating.
In my opinion, the role of the therapist is to hold a safe space and tune in to the client so that the session is able to evolve alongside their process. This moment-to-moment style of working means preparing is always important, but planning can get in the way of a truly therapeutic session and as a therapist I have learned I need to be brave enough to go with what’s being presented on the mat rather than trying to control it. I find as I become more experienced in my work I am developing a deep trust in my own ability to attune to my clients and to be able to offer them the space and the practices they need. Importantly have also learned to surrender to the wisdom of the practices and to get out of the way of the healing – I am just a facilitator; the healing is between the yoga and the client!
Where one client one week may simply need space to be seen, to breath in a restorative pose or be taken through a yoga nidra practice, another may need strong lifting practices to shift a depression or lethargy. Where one clients may need a very body based and gentle joint releasing practice with very little or no focus on the mind, another may need to spend time watching their thoughts and unveiling their unconscious habits. It may all happen in one session, or very little may happen week after week. I am learning to expect nothing and be open to everything and as I’m hoping to model to my clients, I am learning to trust and surrender. It is an endlessly fascinating job, and you will see from these photos I am obsessed with reading around the subject.
As I moved from yoga teacher to yoga therapist I found it hard to make the transition into my new role. As a teacher I was comfortable and familiar in holding space in that context. Becoming a therapist meant moving into another seat, one where I needed to be curious about the person in front of me in a new way and at first I found that extremely difficult. I felt any questions I asked were compromising my client’s privacy and I struggled for some months with feeling I had permission to dive into the details of their lives. As I’ve grown into my role of a therapist though, I’ve learned the importance of this element for the work and I now feel like I’m developing a personal approach that makes sense for me and hopefully for my clients too. Of course yoga therapy is not a taking therapy and I am not a talking therapist, but I do need to be able to know how to ask the right questions to get to the essence of where we need to work.
As well as coming from a neurological and psychological stance when working with people I also reply on the kosha and chakra models as a mode of understanding where someone is and where to meet them. I love being able to see each person through a few different lenses, it allows for what feels like a comprehensive and holistic approach.
I have no doubt that my approach will continue to evolve as I learn and develop my experience. I already have my eye on somatic experiencing training and would also love to know more about TRE. This world of body based healing is endlessly fascinating to me and also infinitely relevant in a world where so many of us struggle with mental health, emotional wellbeing and feelings of disconnect and isolation.