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Natural Awakenings Central New Jersey

The Role of Yoga Therapy

Dec 05, 2015 12:45PM
People often approach the practice of yoga after an injury or in response to a physical problem. While yoga can be the source of relief in many instances, undertaken without consideration of the individual characteristics of the student’s body, yoga can occasionally exacerbate the very condition it was intended to heal.

As an example, many people join a yoga class because their doctors recommended yoga to ease back pain. But back pain has many different causes, and while yoga can provide relief, no single pose or movement is appropriate for all of them. Moreover, even people with the same problem may need to move in and out of the same yoga pose differently to achieve the desired result.

Many yoga teachers have not been taught to modify standard asana poses to deliver relief from pain or discomfort. The teacher may not know to ask students about their physical or structural limitations. Often the typical yoga class may be move too quickly for students in pain to protect themselves from further injury. Even if the student knows how to perform a pose the safe way, it is hard to maintain the discipline to do so when the rest of the class is moving through vinyasas quickly.

Similarly, while yoga seeks to help students achieve balanced strength and range of motion (left shoulder, right shoulder; left hip flexors, right hip flexors), many people should not practice yoga symmetrically. Although we typically think otherwise, our bodies are rarely symmetrical. To use a rather obvious and dramatic example, someone with scoliosis should perform a spinal twist toward the inside of the curvature differently than when twisting toward the outside of the curvature.

A special discipline within the field of yoga, Structural Yoga Therapy™ (SYT), addresses these issues. SYT is a therapeutic modality that seeks to alleviate injuries or structural problems (such as scoliosis or physical asymmetries) by adapting yoga poses to the individual’s unique needs.

A certified Structural Yoga Therapist is trained to evaluate individuals’ limitations and teach people who wish to develop a therapeutic yoga practice precise modifications of appropriate standard yoga poses that will be beneficial and encourage healing.

The SYT therapist is also trained to monitor the practitioner’s performance of each corrective pose, ensuring that it is done properly. The right pose done too aggressively can cause additional harm. Done too passively, the right pose may not yield intended results. Properly guided, students learn which poses strengthen or stretch various muscle groups and what the results look and feel like.

The best yoga therapists question students and clients a lot. They want to know if the student feels a pose in the right places and whether moving the body slightly one way or another will enhance the desired sensation or deliver pain. If you feel the effect of a pose in the right places, the body will heal itself more readily and you will enjoy it much more. The most successful students are those who want to know more about their bodies.

That’s the goal, of course, that students learn how best to work with their bodies. Achieving this, they can enter yoga classes and feel comfortable skipping poses they know might cause injury or just perform the pose in a personally appropriate manner — even when others in the class move differently.

Short of that, students can seek out targeted yoga classes, such as yoga for back care, yoga for arthritis, chair yoga, and other specialties. At Yoga Loka we offer those classes as well as generic Structural Yoga Therapy classes. These are attended by people with back stuff, neck stuff, shoulder stuff, hamstring injuries, sciatica and more. Other studios hold similar classes. If you have such issues, seek out a Yoga Therapist at a nearby studio and try a class.

If you take a generic yoga class, watch to see whether the teacher offers alternatives and adjustments to make sure each student feels what they should. Each student’s pose may look different from the others, but that’s just because each student’s needs are different from those of the others. After a few classes with a teacher trained in Structural Yoga Therapy, students know where they should be what their bodies should be doing.

Seek out that kind of relationship with your body. After all, you are going to be together for a long time.

Bonnie Pariser opened Yoga Loka in Frenchtown in 2003 and in Somerville in 2015 and has been teaching yoga for 17 years, has practiced yoga for more than 25 years.  She began her studies with Mukunda Stiles, founder of Structural Yoga Therapy,  in 2005  and has been a Structural Yoga Therapist for 10 years. 

Locations: Yoga Loka, 19 North Doughty Street, Somerville; 34 Bridge Street, Frenchtown. 908-268-7430. Yoga-Loka.com.

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