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Yoga Therapy

by Dr Robin Monro and Venice Allan(more info)

listed in yoga, originally published in issue 72 - January 2002

The Difference Between Yoga and Yoga Therapy

Yoga therapy is the specialized adaptation of yoga for people with medical conditions. Although general yoga classes can improve general health and resolve mild complaints, they may be ineffective - or even harmful - for more serious conditions. In such cases, yoga therapy can help people by tailoring yoga to their individual needs, taking into account their health problems, constitution and circumstances.

Yoga is a holistic system for creating harmony and a balance of energies on every level of our being - physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. When this balance has been disturbed by illness, yoga can help restore it.

Yoga class

Yoga therapy utilizes practices from India, which date back thousands of years and were part of their traditional health-care system. These practices are among the most effective known methods for managing psychosomatic, stress-related conditions, which are so common today.

Yoga therapy starts with very simple exercises. People can begin to practise and benefit right away, even if they have never done yoga before. Commencing with stretching and breathing exercises, students gradually progress in stages to a range of asanas, pranayama and relaxation practices.

Conditions that Yoga Therapy Treats

Yoga therapy can help a wide range of conditions including anxiety, arthritis, asthma (and other respiratory disorders), cancer, diabetes, depression, headaches, high blood pressure, HIV and AIDS, IBS (and other digestive problems), pain, mental illness, ME, MS and women's health problems. It is also excellent for pregnancy, childbirth, and babies and their mothers.

Guiding Principles of Yoga Therapy

Yoga therapy retains the basic principles and aims of yoga, working holistically at all levels of the mind and body. Indeed, yoga therapy is less effective if a holistic approach is not taken. Although clients may start yoga therapy with the intention of solving specific health problems, most find that they also benefit in many other ways.

Training of Yoga Therapy Practitioners

Yoga therapy practitioners are qualified yoga teachers who have received a further two-year training which gives them a thorough medical grounding, so that they can understand and communicate with doctors. They learn how to assess new patients, taking account of medical reports, and how to apply yoga safely and effectively for people with a wide variety of medical conditions.

Application of Yoga Therapy

As with most other complementary therapies, the first step in having yoga therapy is to have an individual consultation at which the practitioner assesses your condition, including both your medical history and treatment, and your constitution and lifestyle. On the basis of this, the practitioner designs a yoga regimen for you. You then attend a series of yoga classes - either one-to-one, or in small specialized groups of students with similar health problems. You learn postural, breathing and relaxation exercises that you can practise at home, thus empowering you to look after your own health.

For most chronic conditions it is necessary to practise daily for 20-40 minutes to get lasting results. Improvements are often felt after just one or two weeks but the full benefits may take months, or even years, to appear. Unlike most medicines, the benefits of yoga increase with time, rather than wear off, and the side effects are beneficial, rather than adverse.

The skills you learn in your yoga sessions spill over into the rest of your life, enabling you to cope better with stress and to improve your relationships. For instance, most people develop poor breathing habits as they grow up, and these contribute to anxiety, anger, etc. One of the first things you learn in yoga therapy classes is how to improve your breathing patterns.

Case Studies

1. Irritable Bowel Syndrome

"Yoga was recommended to me by my GP. I"d been suffering from IBS for about a year; I needed to take Mebeverine regularly and eventually we"d agreed that I should take several weeks off work (which at that time I was finding pretty stressful) to see if this would help. It got me off the Mebeverine, but my GP wanted to ensure as far as possible that I wasn"t going to slip back into the lifestyle and work habits that had led to the problem. So he suggested that I should ask the Yoga Therapy Centre for advice on how yoga might be able to help me control my digestion better.

"The first stage of my therapy involved exercises that would help with my digestion - and they did. But of course my tutor took a case history at our first session and as we went along other possibilities emerged. For example, when I was about 20, I was in a car accident that must have involved whiplash to my neck, and after a decade without any sign of problems, I began to get quite disabling pains in my neck, right shoulder and back.

"Happily there is a set of neck exercises that I now do every day as part of my routine, and so far this seems to have done the trick. Now we"re working on improving the flexibility of my hip joints (I"m in my mid-fifties, so perhaps beginning to creak isn"t too surprising, but that doesn"t mean it"s welcome) as well as extending the range of stretching and breathing exercises that I try to do each morning.

"When I started going to the Yoga Therapy Centre, I didn"t really know what to expect - not a miracle cure, anyway. But after a bit over a year, I definitely notice the difference. I feel better physically, I don't get stressed at work so easily, and apparently I look much better than I used to.

"However, I know that so far I've only just begun; now I'm looking forward to finding out what I can progress to. And I am pretty clear that yoga has helped me to get back control over myself in a way that I hadn't known was possible."

2. Cancer

Yoga therapy can often help with life-threatening diseases, as well as with less dangerous chronic ailments. For instance, Julie Friedeberger runs a yoga course for people with cancer (especially breast cancer). It was her own experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993 that led her to design this course. Already a practising yoga teacher at the time of her diagnosis, yoga greatly helped her to work through the challenge, and she went on to design this course to help others with similar conditions. Julie says:

"Yoga is more than physical exercise. It's a holistic system that gives us tools with which we can build the inner strength and emotional stability that enable us to cope with a life-changing illness, or indeed with any of the challenges we face in our lives."

The support which this kind of class has given people is undeniable. A member of her class, Inger says:

"I joined the class a few weeks after my second surgery for breast cancer and just before I started chemotherapy. I found the class relaxing, energizing and uplifting.

"When I started I had a frozen shoulder with very restricted movement in my right arm. After a few weeks I noticed a marked improvement. By the end of term I had regained full movement in the arm.

"My physiotherapist was very impressed with my rapid recovery and encouraged me to continue the class. I experienced very few side effects of the chemotherapy and believe yoga helped my body to cope with it."

Further Information

Yoga therapy in the UK is being pioneered by the Yoga Biomedical Trust (YBT). The YBT is a charity dedicated to the development of yoga in the treatment and prevention of medical conditions and the promotion of positive health. The YBT's three main activities are the practice of yoga therapy, the training of yoga therapists and research on yoga and health. The Yoga Therapy Centre was set up in 1994 at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, as a base for the YBT's activities. The YBT believes that yoga and yoga therapy will become an important part of modern health care. The NHS is currently funding a project in which GPs in the Harrow East and Kingsbury area are referring patients with low back pain to the YBT for yoga therapy. This can provide a model for yoga therapy in the NHS throughout the UK. The Yoga Therapy Centre, Great Ormond Street, London WC1N 3HR. Tel: 020-7419 7195; fax: 020-7419 7196; website:


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About Dr Robin Monro and Venice Allan

Robin Monro PhD is founder and director of the Yoga Therapy Centre in London. He suffered from asthma as a child, which turned into chronic bronchitis as an adult. After being introduced to yoga therapy by an Indian doctor in the 1970s, this condition was completely cured, and has still not returned after 25 years. Having left a successful career as a Cambridge research scientist in order to explore the broader dimensions of science, he decided to research and develop the link between yoga and modern health care. In 1983 he set up the Yoga Biomedical Trust (YBT), a charity dedicated to the development of yoga in the treatment and prevention of specific ailments and medical conditions. The three main activities of the YBT are the practice of yoga therapy, the training of yoga therapists and research on yoga and health. The Yoga Therapy Centre was set up in 1994 at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, as a base for the Yoga Biomedical Trust's activities. Venice Allan is a writer, who works at the Yoga Therapy Centre.

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