What is Yoga Therapy?

"Although the world is full of suffering,
it is also full of the overcoming of it.”
Helen Keller


When Yoga is used to heal it is known as "Yoga chikitsa," or Yogic therapy. The use of Yoga to heal is distinct from its practice for liberation or enlightenment, which is known as "Yoga sadhana." Yoga Psychology is best thought of as a collection of lifestyle practices that helps to calm the mind and body.  Yoga can work in conjunction with traditional mental health care, to create the back-drop of self-care that assists the individual in returning to their natural state of equanimity.

The use of a yogic lifestyle can positively enhance the long-term benefits of mental health care, Western Psychiatry, Pycho-Analysis, DBT and CBT as it provides the essential back-drop of health and wellness that is often necessary for the cognitive work of Western psychology. For those with chronic mental illness,it is best to work in teams, where your yoga therapist can colloborate with your psychologist to ensure the best support for nourishing your mental health.  

A Yoga Terapist may draw on one or more of the tools of yoga (see section on yoga), and adapt these tools to meet your specific interests and needs. For example, there are many benefits to simple practice of asanas (see below), but a yoga theapist adapts this tool to directly work with symptoms of hyper arousal, known as rajas: stress, anxiety, fidgeting, feelings of being overwhelmed. The yoga therapist may also work with hypo arousal, known as tamas: feelings of numbing, dissociation, lack of sensation, difficulty articulating feeling states. Ideally, your private sessions leave you feeling refreshed, energized and able to think through problems in new and innovative ways.


"Why does suffering become a permanent state, rather than a transient phenomenon?What causes us to be stuck in suffering tahter than acknowledge , "Wow, there is suffering, isn't that interesting?" When we are aware of our suffering we have a relationship to it but it is no longer one's whole identity. Suffering is a call to wake up. Suffering demands that we deal with it. Let's not ignore it or run away from it, but see what it is, how it arises.What does suffering mean? What are the sensations of being stuck? When the organism feels safe, it melts, it is open and curious. When we feel safe, we seek growth, integration and development. When an organism doesn't feel safe, it stops; it closes in, shuts down and goes on defensive mode." Arthur Kilmurray   


Benefits of Asanas

One can talk endlessly, piling words upon words,
coming to various conclusions, but out of all the verbal confusion,
if there is one clear action, that action is worth ten thousand words.” J. Krishnamurti

A well balanced yoga therapy session has you, the client, at the center of the practice. The yoga therapist observes, listens, guides and responds to your inner intelligence - crafting a practice that suits your individual needs.

Developing a positive relationship with one’s physical body is imperative to the process of healing. The somatic practices of Yoga are designed to cultivate increased awareness of the functioning of our physical body, and how it functions in relationship to our mental and emotional habits. As we engage in the exploratory practices of Yoga, we find out how our body reacts to stress, and uncover ways that we can work with the body to remove long-term patterns of embodying stress.

 • Releases Tension: Releasing tension in the physical body allows for better circulation and flow of energy in the body. Tension causes us our blood to flow in a more restricted way leading to, decreased memory, mental fatigue and an overall feeling of stress that can lead to anxiety.   

Physical Alignment: Asanas release habitual tension and brings attention to unnecessary movements. Improved alignment allows our bodies to conserve energy as the body does not have to work as hard to maintain stability. This gives us greater vitality and an improved state of well being.

Balances the Nervous System: The correct practice of asanas balances the nervous output, helps us to be alert without being tense. They enables us to feel equally at home with activity and resting states. The practice of asanas teaches the individual how to engage in activities while retaining a relaxed and peaceful state of mind. Many of the asanas put pressure on the vagus nerve, leading to greater health and vitality.  

Change from Chest to Abdominal Breathing: As we switch from chest to abdominal breathing our exhalations are more complete which allows us to take in up to 7 times more oxygen. The increase in oxygen gives us a greater sense of vitality. More oxygen in the system means more oxygen in the brain resulting in improved concentration and mental clarity in addition to a longer life span.

• Counters the Effects of Aging: Pooling of blood and lymph impairs proper nutrient supply to the skin and organs interfering with anti-aging maintenance and repair.

Improves Endocrine System: Places pressure on the glands and helps to regulate he metabolism of the body.

• Increased circulation of Lymph: The lymphatic system does not have its own circulation method and relies on the movements of the body to keep it flowing. Postures and breathing help to prevent pooling of lymph and increased lymph circulation leading to improved immunity.

Physical Massage: Placing the body in asanas massages the muscles and glands as well as organs. This benefit is increased with deep breathing during the asanas. 


Douglass, L. (2013). Thinking Through the Body: The Conceptualization of Yoga as Therapy for Individuals with Eating Disorders. In L. DeSole (Ed.), Eating Disorders and Mindfulness: Exploring Alternative Approaches to Treatment (pp. 83-96). New York: Routledge. Douglass, L. (2009).

Yoga as an intervention for eating disorders: Does it help? Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention. 17 (2): 126-139.


  Raja Yoga and Yoga Therapy

"From the Yogic perspective, spiritual practices can be thought of as those actions that are believed to lead an individual to experience equanimity. This calm and expanded state of consciousness is beyond the analyzing mind, as well as beyond sensory experiences and related mental content. By widening the field of consciousness, spiritual practices help the individual overcome his or her narrow, self centered view of the world. From a Yogic perspective, it is this narrow view of self that is believed to be the root cause of illness - both physical and mental. Whenever the mind is constricted, it continually revolves around incessant attempts to grasp and manipulate external situations and objects for one's own benefit. This struggle feeds our self-absorbed nature, and leads to constant attempts to manipulate other people, and situations, resulting in the loss of one's vital energy or prana. This vital energy is necessary for maintaining one's balance and health. A constricted mind that seeks to grasp pleasant sensory experiences and resist unpleasant ones is so consumed with fulfilling its own desires that little energy is left to make the changes that are often necessary for healing to occur."

Laura Douglass and Subhas Tiwari


Asthangha Yoga (ethical precepts, postures, breathing practices, sense withdrawl,concentration, meditation and spirituality) are the foundation of much of Yoga Psychology; they provide a structure upon which self-inquiry is guided.Creating stability is the foundation work of Yoga therapy. Without a basic level of stability the individual will not be capable of handling the continual disruptions caused by environmental, societal or genetic stresses – much less the disruptions caused by the deeper therapeutic work of psychotherapy or the cognitive work of meditation, and self-study.In yogic theory creating stability and self-care around the physical self is the foundation of the deeper work related to clarifying and calming the mind. This work is best guided in a balance between private sessions and group work.

Dealing with Fear by Swami Sivananda. A great, free e-book on dealing with the difficulties of fear. Fear is a result of us not knowing what will happen, and a desire to control the outcome of events. This little book is a great introduction to working with fear! 

Available on Kindle: "To Know Yourself" by Swami Satchidananda. This fantastic introduction to yoga will help establish you in a regular practice of yoga. 

Douglass, L. (2011). Sadhana: What I learned from doing it the wrong way. Integral Yoga Magazine. Fall edition, 14-15.

 Asthangha Yoga and Mental Wellness

 Limb of Yoga               Reason for limb      Contributes to


 Yamas, Restraints:They consist of non-violence, truthfulness, control of sexual energy, non-stealing, and non-possessiveness.


 Rules of social conduct.


They create the psychological atmosphere, contributing to a stable  external environment.



Niyamas, Observances:They consist of contentment, purity, study of spiritual principles, self-discipline, and surrender to God.



Rules of personal conduct. They create the psychological atmosphere, contributing to an inner environment of stability.

Asana, Embodiment



Asana can be considered the individual's right orientation to the physical body.


Somatic practice generates physical and health and well being.



Pranayama, Breath 



Pranayama is the right use of our vital energy. Use and direction of energy.

Somatic practice that determines where our energy is directed (toward conflict, peace, health, illness).


Pratyahara, Sense Withdrawl


The ability to reject environmental stimulus; develops discrimination.
Psychological practice, that helps us determine what to respond to.  

Dharna, Concentration



Dharna control of attention develops discrimination and ability to focus.

Psycholgical practice that helps us sustain attention in a desired direction.

Dhyana, Meditation



Dhyana meditation, right reflection Cultivates compassion

Spiritual practice, with cognitive and somatic benefits.

Samadhi, Absorption



Samadhi right union Cultivates compassion


Spiritual practice, with cognitive and somatic benefits.  

All of the lilmbs of yoga are rich avenues of exploration. Let's take a look at the first limb, the yamas to see how a careful exploration can assist in mental wellness.  The yamas consist of non-violence, truthfulness, control of sexual energy, non-stealing, and non-possessiveness. They are essentially rules of social conduct (Frawley, 1997) that bestow on the practitioner stability in relationships. Understanding our relationship to others is considered to be the first and foremost step of healing. As long as one’s relationship with others is unstable he or she will expend the energy needed for healing in endless arguments, legal battles, and relationship difficulties.


 Practice of Yamas, Creates Stability: Potential Ways to Practice

Because the mind and body are one in yoga, mental attitudes and beliefs have a physiological correlate.  That is, if you believe that you are not good enough, not worthy of love (a form of self-harm), the physical body may develop slumped shoulders that cover the heart and the head may be downcast. Yoga therapy often works on the physiological or embodied self as the starting point to understanding our cognitions.

FREE E-Book: Swami Sivananda, Mind: It's Mysteries and Control

FREE FILM: Addictions and Recovery


Addiction, Recovery and Yoga from Lindsey Clennell on Vimeo.