Webster’s Dictionary defines therapy as: “the treatment of physical or mental illnesses.” Related words touch upon similar meanings:

ther•a•peutic (thr-pytk) also ther•a•peu•ti•cal (-t-kl)
1. Having or exhibiting healing powers: a therapeutic agent; therapeutic exercises.
2. Of or relating to the medical treatment of a disease or condition.

adj. Also, ther`a•peu′ti•cal.
1. of or pertaining to the treating or curing of disease or disorders; curative; rehabilitative.
2. serving to maintain or restore health:
3. having a beneficial effect on one’s mental state, esp. in serving to relax or calm.

Huh: All yoga is therapeutic when going by these definitions, wouldn’t you say (pretty much every dedicated practitioner I know stuck with yoga ‘cuz it healed them in some way)? Treating disorders and restoring health isn’t the sole terrain of Yoga Therapy. Nor is practicing safely and gently, in a 1-on-1 or small group environment and with mindfulness toward bodily limitations. If done correctly, consciously and intelligently all forms of yoga practices can be considered…yoga therapy. Shocking news! Absolutely scandalous!

Yoga Therapy is wonderful in idea and action. Yet I find the drive to wedge a distinction between yoga therapy and plain old yoga misleading. The exclusivity and branding around Yoga Therapy could use some unpacking.

sihlouette of meditator

Yoga of any style can bring healing and calm.

To help explain what I’m getting at, I turn to the wisdom of Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga and a teacher who didn’t categorize yoga as being anything other than what it is: a practice of healing and transformation, which begins from deep inside, regardless of outward physical ability. Following Jois’ passing in 2009, some of his longterm students reflected on his teachings for Yoga Journal. Bhavani Maki wrote of his insights on physical limitations, quoting him as saying, “Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus.” Note how he referred to yoga generally, even generically.

I once heard a story about Jois, who during a tour of yoga studios here in the States, literally walked out of one studio in shock because a teacher didn’t offer student assists for someone in a wheelchair. At the 2012 Ashtanga Yoga Confluence, senior teacher Nancy Gildgoff shared how Jois would move her body into poses because she had been too weak to get into them. He was known to say that anyone could do yoga, and Gildgoff’s anecdote illustrated his teaching approach: pay attention to your students and assist when necessary and in the manner most appropriate for each particular person. This sound teaching principle applies to any style of yoga.

Do yoga teachers need the title of Yoga Therapist to act as therapeutic agents? Must we register with an association to establish credibility as rehabilitators and bringers of calm?

Holy hell, no! In 1991, I worked at Northridge Hospital in Los Angeles as a physical therapy intern, quite a few years before I started teaching yoga. I worked in the acute gym, where patients regained mobility through motor skill movements and exercises. The progress these patients made amazed me. Over time they’d move out of pain and frustration and into strength and greater calm. I carried what I learned from these patients into my yoga teaching, where I’m careful to observe and offer guidance on physical limitations.

I am a proponent of inclusiveness and steer away from creating more separation, especially in the yoga community, but I wonder: Is there a more appropriately descriptive term for Yoga Therapy? “Yoga Therapy” seems to discount that each of the eight limbs is therapeutic in itself.

I don’t have a definitive answer on the above question, and it’s not my aim to ignite unnecessary turf wars between styles of yoga. So for now let me just say: Thanks to all you consciously educated and mindful yoga teachers working from all lineages for supporting people’s lives in a therapeutic way.