What is Yoga Therapy: Complementary and Integrative Health
What is Yoga?
Yoga is essentially a spiritual routine that focuses on harmonizing mind and body, leading to the union of complete consciousness. One who experiences complete unity of mind and body is said to be in a state of yogi, having achieved freedom and liberation from one’s suffering. . When discussing Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), yoga therapy is a common model that is now being incorporated into many health facilities to be a healing mechanism of suffering. Practicing yoga starts by learning to use the physical body through posture, the breath through pranayama, and the mind through meditation. .
Although typical yoga classes are normally sought out to learn the basic postures of yoga, yoga therapy is specifically sought out in efforts to treat health conditions, which has shown to be effective in improving health outcomes and reducing symptoms. . With a holistic approach to care through yoga therapy, resilience and adaptability can become enhanced in turn as the individual moves towards a state of optimal health. For this reason, resiliency and adaptability post-therapy should be utilized to maintain teachings and truly optimize one’s health.
CAM uses the whole-person approach to treat illness through methods that address the entire person (i.e. mind, spirit, and body). . It is by growth and accomplishment of multiple dimensions, that we can achieve awareness and whole-person wellness. Yoga therapy applies the whole-person approach in everyday practice in helping reduce specific health conditions and relief of human suffering. In the practice of yoga, every person has a different level of awareness and achieved dimensions depending on the client or patient. Yoga therapists are able to determine these levels by using annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya, and anandamaya assessments.
After initial evaluations, the data is collected then efficient and integrated whole-person approaches are used to help patients treat disease conditions. The type of treatment may be focused on the physical dimension, and therapists may use annamaya to improve musculoskeletal systems for a reduction in stiffness of joints and induce relaxation of internal organs to improve physiological functioning. This can be accomplished by implementing postures, loosening exercises, or implementing diet changes. .
Also, using pranamaya to train a patient after evaluating their energy, can enhance the patient's overall awareness about breathing such as knowing how to slow down their respiratory rate, which “clears the lungs, corrects breathing patterns, and increases lung capacity.” .
Likewise, the utilization of manomaya during treatment slows down the mind. Another example that’s included in yoga therapy interventions, include vijnanamaya, (i.e. lectures and yogi counseling) to overcome beliefs which help manage stress, understand the process, and reach layers of treatment. Whereas anandamaya (i.e. complete awareness) is used to conquer the spiritual dimension. .
In utilizing yoga therapy as whole-person wellness to conquer health conditions and human suffering, many cases have proven to be a success. Conducting yoga therapy as an integrative approach using complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has proven to reduce central nervous system (CNS) disorders such as epileptic fits, improve depression and anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There are also documented cases of yoga therapy that prove a reduction in blood cortisol levels, reduction in blood cholesterol, and reduction in symptoms of asthma. In addition, there is some evidence that points to yoga therapy aiding in age reversal via the endocrine system by the rejuvenation of the “hypothalamus, pituitary, pineal and other endocrine glands” .
It’s clear that yoga therapy can benefit a multitude of both acute and chronic diseases, while at the same time completely preventing disease for some by utilizing a whole-person approach. The whole-person approach fosters the foundational set-up for a patient’s optimal health to be maximized through resilience and adaptability. Optimal health in CAM is often described as disease prevention as opposed to disease management. . This paradigm shift towards disease prevention greatly enhances the quality of life and therefore optimizes one’s health.
Optimal health encompasses the concepts of resilience and adaptability. Resilience is the ability to physically, mentally, and spiritually bounce back against adversity in order to regain a state of optimal health. Adaptability is similar but focuses more on the physiologic processes that take place in order to maintain homeostasis despite any adversity experienced.
Yoga therapy enhances both resiliency and adaptability in order to truly optimize one’s health. According to Woodyard (2011), “By acknowledging the unity of mind, body and spirit, mind-body fitness programs (i.e. yoga) can assist people in their pursuit of peace, calmness, and greater wholeness and integration in their lives.” . Yoga is much more than a physical practice which really allows it to shine in the realms of mental and spiritual health in addition to the physical benefits. It is implied that optimal health cannot be attained without focusing on all aspects of health by the means of a holistic approach. The word yoga is derived from Sanskrit and literally translates to mean union . . This union of mind, body, and spirit (holism) is the vehicle in which one can journey towards optimal health.
Yoga, whether taken privately as yoga therapy or a packed studio class, puts the physical body into asanas (poses) that are not always comfortable. The point is to become comfortable being uncomfortable by means of the breath (pranayama). Certain breathing techniques are used in yoga as a tool to learn how to better calm the ceaseless fluctuations of the conscious mind. This, in turn, builds resiliency not only on the yoga mat while in uncomfortable positions, but also off the yoga mat while in uncomfortable situations in daily life.
Conscious control of the breath allows the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight stress response) to rest bringing the body into the parasympathetic nervous system (rest & relaxation response) that allows physiologic adaptability to be maximized. . Tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system, “...is calming and restorative; it lowers breathing and heart rate, decreases blood pressure, lowers cortisol levels, and increases blood flow to the intestines and vital organs.” . Conscious breath prepares the body for resilience by maintaining an internal state of centeredness and utilizing the inherent universal knowledge that lies within to begin any healing processes.
The holistic benefits of yoga have been known for years as this ancient practice is rooted in a philosophy that honors the unity of mind, body, and spirit. The current literature shows overwhelmingly positive benefits that yoga therapy can provide for patients and clients alike, including the lessening of symptoms for certain disease processes, which in turn, encourages the healing process to begin. It’s evident that yoga therapy touches on multiple facets of CIH including but not limited to the whole-person approach and optimal health. The intertwinement of physical practice and yogic breathwork allows patients to have an evolutionary and transformational holistic experience that builds resilience and adaptability setting them up for success despite any adversity.
Written By: Jasmine Blake, MS, HHP and Kathryn Bojchuk, RN, BSN, RYT-200
Clinical Nutrition and Integrative Health team at Maryland University of Integrative Health
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