Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Therapeutic Yoga

One of the things that sneaks up on you as a yoga teacher is an awareness of other people's bodies. We can't help it! I find myself at parties quietly noticing posture, stance, and hip alignment of the people around me - not to mention energetic 'vibes' as well!

When I first began practising yoga, in my early 20's, I was about as unhealthy as I have ever been in my life. After University I was sleep deprived, hadn't exercised in years, and had done who knows what damage to my lungs and liver from the excesses of student life! And I was certainly not flexible - I couldn't even touch my toes! On top of that, since high school I had developed painful tightness in my right shoulder - a common symptom of my type of scoliosis.

Fast forward to today, when I am stronger, more flexible and healthier than I could ever have imagined! Some days I think that I take for granted how it feels to live in a healthy, pain-free body. So, back to my party and looking around, I realise how many people take for granted just the opposite - that the body is a source of struggle, pain and even shame. And no wonder - many people live with structural or deeply developed muscular imbalances, resulting in limited range of motion in key areas like the hips, shoulders and lower back. And these people are not ill or injured - they are everyday people that work with you in your office, or who you have a drink with in the evening. Some of them are sporty and fit - they run, lift weights or cycle. And yet, for many of us as we approach our 30's, 40's and beyond, the story of our battle to stay fit is like a chronicle of various aches, pains and injuries: "well, I was running a lot, but then I developed shin splints so the doc told me I should take up cycling, but then I hurt my knee, so now I'm swimming..." Sound familiar?

For the fairly fit, a regular beginner's yoga practice is the perfect option. But there are many people for whom even a gentle asana class may not be accessible. And for those people who are suffering from injuries, living with or recovering from illnesses, or losing mobility due to age, and for the people who work with them, there is Therapeutic Yoga.

Therapeutic Yoga is a combination of relaxation, meditation, breath work, body awareness, restorative and yin yoga poses, and self-healing practices. It is a wonderfully holistic system, and its ultimate aim (like most holistic healing systems, and unlike many western systems) is to help people help themselves.

The Kit pictured here was given to me by a friend. The kit was developed by Cheri Clampett and Biff Mithoefer. It is a remarkable resource containing an audio CD, 16 asana 'cards', and a manual explaining the principles of self-care and the benefits of therapeutic yoga, a detailed guide to 16 restorative postures including many prop variations and examples of gentle yoga stretches to accompany the poses, and a guide to other healing techniques like self-massage and guided meditation.

At the time I recieved this gift, I had expressed a vague interest in Yoga Therapy and restorative yoga. Recently, I have been getting more and more interested in restorative yoga practices, deep breath work, and meditation. I have been working with a private client who is recovering from an illness and seen the transformation in her as we work with simple poses and develop the breath. As my own awareness expands around me to notice the multitudes of people dealing with chronic stress and pain, my interest in this type of Yoga grows.

So I share it with you dear bloggers and blog readers. What are your experiences with restorative or Yin yoga, or with body imbalances, injuries and illness?

Oh, and for Babs, a picture of me in a pose from the Kit, "Resting Half Moon Pose", which I used in the previous post's sequence for menstrual pain :)


  1. I see Therapeutic Yoga as fitting well with physiotherapy... and would love it if actual two year masters degree programs would be created so individuals could become more knowledgeable in this area. It would be so perfect to incorporate with the Health professions and really create a holistic health service approach.

    sigh, someday! :)

  2. i love yin and restorative classes if my non-asana life is full of physical activity. if yoga practice is one of my only forms of physical activity, then i usually like to run around on the mat :)

  3. I use yin yoga a lot in one-to-one sessions for those people for whom an asana practice isn't accessible. I also used to work with my chiropractor with his clients sometimes so they could gradually bring yoga into their lives (chiropractic is great, but you need to learn to breath too!)

    I don't think I knew you had scoliosis. I'd be interested to know more (feel free to email me obviously!)

  4. I am very lucky to have been fairly injury-free my whole life. The constant yoga practice from age 22 on, I'm sure, was a big contributor. And I try to stay consistent with both yoga and exercise, to try and keep the tightening that comes with aging at bay.

    Sometimes this situation keeps me from being as sympathetic to struggling students as I should be. I can modify anything to help some one, or redirect the whole class if no one but me can actually hold the pose (Warrior 3, anyone?). But I can forget that a pose that is a little challenging to me, can be impossible for some one else.

    Luckily, I have vocal students who come to me immediately, if I miss something, and I have learned a lot from individuals' personal problems...probably more than from books ...because we can experiment together.

    So I appreciate the reference. I can always use a reminder of how to adjust a pose to serve the student. I'm sure I'll need the same care and attention in the not too distant future.

    And I totally hear you about analyzing a room's health...

  5. @EcoYogini - yes, I totally agree! It seems like courses in Therapeutic Yoga are few and far in between. That said, more and more they are targeting existing health carers like physios and even nurses, so that is pretty cool.

    @Emma - I like your balanced approach. I try to integrate restorative yoga during my cycle and also when I'm sick, stressed or over-worked.

    @Rachel - I have a minor S-shaped scoliosis, with the main part of the curve in the left lumbar. I don't do anything specific to manage it, just maintain a hyper-awareness of it in my practice. But my mother and my sister both have more dramatic curves that cause them more trouble.

    @Brenda - The more I teach, the less I assume. Just when I think I've found something that "everyone" can do, someone completely trumps me! I think it's a great challenge to keep coming up with new ways of teaching yoga to suit everyone's needs. And as you say, nothing can replace a one-on-one for a mutual learning opportunity.