There’s a lot of fur flying right now as yoga teachers who advertise their services as ‘yoga therapists’ scramble to get certified (or change their marketing!) Why is Yoga Alliance threatening to de-register teachers who claim to be yoga therapists without formal training? Because Yoga Alliance registers teachers with just 200hrs training, often from courses that last only a few days, and with little prior experience of yoga.
Yoga Therapists, on the other hand, must have a minimum of 1000hrs training and at least 4 years experience. Why so much training? Because yoga therapy is both very broad and very deep in it's scope. Learning to apply the philosophy, psychology and practices of yoga to health issues as diverse as cancer, alzheimers, asthma, musculo-skeletal pain and mental health issues, takes time.
Every solution in yoga therapy is highly personalised and there is no single way to deal with to any given condition. You can’t simply Google ‘yoga for back pain’ and find an asana sequence that will solve everybody’s spinal problems. If it was that easy, every yoga teacher (not to mention osteopath, chiropracter and orthopedic surgeon) would be able to fix anybody’s backpain using a single protocol.
The truth is, the reasons for the onset and development of any given health condition differ in each individual. From genetics through to the cultural beliefs, people respond to different techniques in different ways. Two people with the same condition may need radically different approaches and insisting on treating two people the same way for the same condition runs the risk of causing further injury.
Yoga therapists draw on a vast body of wisdom when they assess students, including extensive knowledge of Ayurveda, classical yoga, anatomy, western medicine and psychology. Many yoga therapists are also qualified in other disciplines such as medicine, psychotherapy and physiotherapy. Others combine experience in massage, naturopathy and other traditional healing techniques into their practice.
There are a number of things that yoga therapists don’t do. One is to diagnose students (unless medically qualified to do so). Another is to simply modify a yoga practice to make it easier for people with health problems to do them. This is one of the big differences between the approach of many Level 1 yoga teachers and an experienced yoga therapist. There’s no need to modify a practice if it is designed for the person in front of you. Practicing Warrior 1 with the hands on the hips instead of in the air might avoid further injuring somebody with a sore shoulder, but will it help them heal?
A yoga therapist would likely conclude that Warrior 1 isn’t a helpful practice for that student (although, in a modified form, it might be safe for them to do it). Instead, they would choose techniques that would have maximum benefit for the student’s shoulder. And those techniques might not look anything like the practice that would best help the student on the other side of the room who also has shoulder pain.
Yoga Alliance recognizes that the content of 200hr yoga teacher trainings does not cover the depth of knowledge required to safely help students manage health conditions. This is why they have decided that teachers who hold Yoga Alliance certification, with no specialist therapeutic training, cannot describe their work as ‘yoga therapy’. It’s a move that will be unpopular with many teachers who have been using the term ‘yoga therapy’ without formal training, but many others welcome a move that will encourage higher professional standards that will protect both the teachers and students.
Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.