Many Find This Ancient Physical Discipline Is Also Therapy For The Soul
It’s not a stretch to say that yoga is good for you. But can yoga heal? Karen Hust of Hartford believes it can.
That’s why Hust schedules a regular one-on-one yoga therapy session with Beverly Kent of the Yoga Center in Collinsville, in addition to taking a group class.
“It’s like turbo-yoga,” jokes Hust, 42, a fiber artist who hopes to become a yoga teacher. She is also an avid outdoorswoman who has done scholarly work on nature writing.
Her rapport with nature was on her mind as she began a recent yoga therapy session. She told Kent that she felt sadly alienated from Mother Earth. She wondered whether this sensation was linked to grief over her mother’s sudden death in March.
In her bright yoga studio with high ceilings, Kent assisted Hust in a series of yoga postures involving her legs, arms and head. With Kent’s help, Hust finished with a yoga position called “the fish,” in which her upper body was propped up on cushions, with her legs and arms open. Throughout, Hust spoke of physical sensations and emotions as they arose. Kent, who has practiced Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy for more than a decade, offered no advice or interpretation. She occasionally asked Hust to elaborate on a feeling or sensation.
Hust moved through laughter, anger and tears and seemed to find the connection she sought.
“The lower back feels like the stem of a plant, and my legs are the roots,” she said toward the end of the session. Yoga has been embraced by the young and the buff as well as the old and inflexible.
Yoga Journal magazine estimates that 15 million Americans practice yoga – twice as many as just a few years ago. The range of styles and forms is still growing, as Americans look to the ancient practice for enlightenment and, short of that, a firm “yoga butt.”
Growing alongside the standard classes are various therapeutic forms of yoga that aim to provide a higher level of physical, psychological and spiritual healing. These range from classes geared to a specific group, like yoga for pregnancy, to one-on-one sessions that are tailored to an individual’s needs, circumstances and physical condition. They typically cost from $45 to $90 for a 90-minute session.
“Yoga therapy really affects a full spectrum of what we call wellness,” says Richard Faulds of Greenville, Va., a lawyer, yoga teacher and past president of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Mass. Faulds is writing a book on yoga practice.
He says the realm of yoga therapy includes improving body alignment and strengthening and stretching muscles, but it transcends the physical. By fostering deep relaxation, it can be helpful in dealing with stress-related illnesses, releasing tension related to previous trauma and fostering mental clarity, creativity and intuition.
Dr. Molly Punzo, director of integrative medicine at Hartford Hospital, says she has referred patients to yoga therapists, especially those suffering from chronic back pain and arthritis. Medical literature is full of articles that suggest a host of other ailments may be helped through yoga, including type 2 diabetes and asthma.
Each form of yoga therapy has its own twist. Phoenix Rising, devised 16 years ago by Michael Lee, an Australian-born organizational psychologist and yoga devotee, is often described as one of the more psychotherapeutic forms of yoga therapy. Lee, whose headquarters is in West Stockbridge, Mass., speaks of bringing clients to “the edge,” which is yoga talk for a posture that is pushed to what Lee calls “tolerable discomfort.” Combining the edge with yoga breathing and focused awareness, he says, allows a client to enter a state of “self-presence,” where there is an opportunity for self-discovery.
“We relax into who we are,” he says.
Some psychotherapists have warned that this kind of therapy could re-traumatize those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but Lee and Kent say that yoga therapists trained in Phoenix Rising don’t do psychotherapy and refer clients to mental health professionals if necessary. The yoga therapist’s function, Lee says, is to be present and help summarize feelings and issues that arise.
“The therapist doesn’t manipulate, doesn’t steer it, but is there to receive,” he says. “Quite often what we need is someone to listen.”
In Integrative Yoga Therapy and American Viniyoga Institute training, the emphasis is on customizing the benefits of yoga to a specific client with unique health problems and limitations. Kathy Senecal, a yoga teacher and therapist in Cromwell, says she tries to cover all of the bases when she does an initial interview with a client, from range of motion to emotional issues that might be manifest in bodily symptoms.
“The whole thing is to bring balance and harmony to body, mind and spirit,” she says.
But finding someone to do the balancing can be a challenge. Unlike massage therapists, yoga therapists are not licensed by the state of Connecticut – or any state. Therefore, almost anyone can hang a “yoga therapist” shingle.
Some schools, like Integrative Yoga Therapy (www.iytyogatherapy.com) and Phoenix Rising (www.pryt.com), have websites where you can search for a local graduate. Another site,www.yogafinder.com, provides names of yoga centers that may offer therapy.
Faulds noted that therapists range from talented, experienced and intuitive practitioners to “glorified yoga teachers.” He recommends that those contemplating yoga therapy take a yoga class first.
Trisha Lamb Feuerstein, director of research at the Yoga Research and Education Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., suggests that consumers make sure teachers are trained to do what they say they can do. And there should be good chemistry between teacher and student.
“As with much in yoga, it depends on what you resonate with,” she says.
Reproduced with permission from The Hartford Courant: June 25, 2002