Chances are when you see the word yoga, it conjures up images of highly flexible, quite trim and very strong adults twisted into all sorts of unusual body shapes. Although flexibility, strength and a healthy body are important in the practice of yoga, the depth and breadth of the practice are more far reaching – and inherently therapeutic.
As a certified yoga therapist, and a registered and licensed occupational therapist with a SIPT Certification, I have found the full concepts of yoga and occupational therapy to be a natural blend. Both disciplines seek healing and wellness for the whole person — body, mind and spirit. They honor the current state and needs of each individual, and respect the differences. And science is only a small part of the overall systems of belief. Both acknowledge that true therapy and healing takes the science and applies it as an art, intermingled with an individual’s philosophy of life.
What is yoga, really?
Historically, the primary reason for practicing yoga was to experience spiritual enlightenment. In Sanskrit (the ancient language of India) yoga means yoke or union, describing the integration of mind and body which helps one to arrive at their own peaceful nature. Although the roots of yoga are thousands of years old and developed out of ancient India, it is not a form of Hinduism. There is certainly a spiritual side to yoga, but only as it relates to one’s own belief system. Yoga, as it is meant to be practiced, encourages and supports a person’s individual faith.
Yoga can be approached for fitness, as a sport, as a therapy, as a lifestyle, as a spiritual discipline, or a combination of the above. Each of the above approaches share in common: awareness (being mindful and consciously present), relaxation, and conscious breathing.
Yoga can be a very powerful tool of overall health and well-being as it can simultaneously: reduce stress, increase flexibility, improve balance, promote strength, heighten cardiovascular conditioning, lower blood pressure, reduce weight, strengthen bones, prevent injuries, lift mood, improve immune function, increase oxygen supply to the tissues, improve digestion, facilitate breathing, and promote spiritual well-being, as well as help with a wide variety of medical conditions (with many scientific studies to back the claims).
The “father” of modern-day yoga
Krishnamacharya is truly the “father” of what we know of as yoga today. He taught and influenced the teachers who started Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga, among others, and outlined the principles for a therapeutic type of yoga, often referred to as “viniyoga”. This is the foundation for my teaching style and encompasses the following principles: breath is the focus, allowing the pose to fit the individual, importance of flexibility of the spine (stretching in all directions: forward, backward, side-bending, and twisting), forgiving limbs (allowing for slight bends in the limbs to adapt poses), conservative poses that are easily adapted for varying levels of ability, sequencing of postures based on physical needs of the body, moving in and out of postures first to prepare before holding, and smaller groups which allow for a more therapeutic focus. These also mirror occupational therapy’s principle’s of physical rehabilitation, including providing the “just-right challenge” to illicit a therapeutic response.
Patanjali, author of the yoga sutras
Patanjali is touted as the “codifier” of yoga through his approximately 2,000 year-old written work of 195 yoga sutras (or sutures, threads, aphorisms). They explore many aspects of living (including relationship, lifestyle, body, breath, senses and the mind) to encourage wholeness and peaceful living. According to yoga philosophy (and Occupational Therapy) all are interconnected, and healing in one area creates improvement in another. The asanas (poses) are only one means of aiding in achieving this lifestyle of more sustained joy. In fact Patanjali only dedicated 2 of his sutras to the explanation of asana, or poses.
Breathing in and out through your nose slowly, lengthen your breath, especially increasing the length of your exhale. A 1:2 ratio is a good place to start, such as inhaling for 4 seconds and exhaling for 8 seconds, gradually increasing the numbers. Close your eyes and focus all of your attention on the breath, honoring a pause at the top and at the bottom. Do this for a minimum of 3 rounds and up to a few minutes. This slow exhale sends a message to the nervous system to calm, relieving stress and typically reducing blood pressure as well.