In this essay I explore a relationship between ‘yoga’ and ‘therapy’ as each of these two words are commonly understood. I then explore a more intrinsic relationship between the two, that draws on the essence of both yoga and therapy.
What is usually understood by ‘yoga,’ or ‘hatha yoga,’ in the West is found in the kind of class you would expect in any yoga school-and even in the local gym. Typically, a yoga session includes (at least some) postures or asana including standing postures; inverted poses (hand stands, head stands, and shoulder stands); forward bends, twists, and backbends; and at least one restorative pose (such as shavasana) to complete a session. In practicing asana, movements are usually coordinated with the breath. A practice session may also include pranayama and meditation.1 Commonly, one leaves a class feeling relaxed, and restored in both a physical and psychological sense. In this sense, yoga is therapeutic.
‘Therapy’ has a couple of common meanings: “The … treatment of disease; curative medical or psychiatric treatment,” and, “secondly,” “As the the final element in words denoting treatment by means expressed in the first element” which, of course, includes “physiotherapy.”2 As with a yoga session, following a session of therapy, of whatever kind, one is typically relieved-at least to some extent-of the pain or discomfort that prompted a visit to the therapist in the first place.
Clearly there is an overlap between the two in that a session of yoga, or therapy, leaves the practitioner/client in a better state. One way to conceptualize this is that yoga is one form of therapy amongst many-a subset encompassed within the broader class of therapy in general. In this sense yoga is therapeutic. Understanding a relationship between yoga and therapy in this way is not new. In a more explicit sense, yoga can address particular ailments and injuries as a means of therapy. For example, in Iyengar schools, teachers are trained in ‘medicinal yoga.’ Iyengar yoga is described as a system that cultivates “strength, flexibility, stability, and awareness, and can be therapeutic for specific conditions.3 A teacher may treat a physical injury in a student by choosing particular yoga postures, that relate to the injured area in the body, with the aim of engendering alignment, flexibility, and stability. Teachers from other traditions have similarly claimed that yoga is effective “in preventing or managing” a number of conditions including “back pain, arthritis, diabetes, asthma, hypertension, allergies, digestive disorders … depression, anxiety, fear and such other common ailments.” More generally, medicinal yoga is seen as empowering “its practitioners to progress toward good health and well-being by helping to reduce symptoms, restore balance, and increase vitality.” 4
However, I want to take a deeper approach and consider both yoga and therapy in their inherent functions as relief from suffering. Both of them address suffering. What is sometimes overlooked by students of yoga is that yoga is fundamentally about overcoming suffering. An ancient text of yoga-Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras-states (in Sutra 2:2) that the objective of yoga is ‘to induce’ self-luminous joy (samadhi). As Patanjali makes clear in his Yoga Sutras, it is ignorance that blocks our experience of this natural state of joy. This reference to ignorance needs closer attention-and Patanjali goes right to the heart of ignorance. The predominant form of ignorance is described in Sutra 2:3 as “the false sense of self-identity.”5 Our self-identity is a composite: it comprises the things we like or dislike; our memories, anticipations of the future, our desires, fears and anxieties. It helps to see the self as a collection of attributes in this way. We mistakenly assume that the ‘self’ is a single thing that has an independent existence in the world. Yoga however teaches that ‘the self’ derives primarily from an idea that we
comprise our bodies and minds. It is a limited understanding of
ourselves that ignores the very real experience of being which
is far more extensive than ‘my’ body and ‘my’ mind. This limited
idea of ourselves, contained within a body, leads to constant
efforts to sustain and protect ‘ourselves’ so that we can endure
in the world, and against all those other entities and forces that
threaten our existence.
To put it simply, the Yoga Sutras teach that we take the idea of
‘me’ and ‘mine’ way to seriously and get caught up in the drama
of ‘my’ self. From the perspective of ‘my’ self, we fail to see things
as they are. We function from a place of fear and anxiety, driven
by a need to protect ourselves, to seek out the things that give
us pleasure, and to avoid those things that may bring pain. In
other words, we approach the world from a focus-the world seen
through the lens of ‘my’ wants and fears. This inevitably leads to
Buddhism also is fundamentally about recognizing suffering
and becoming free from it. The Dalai Lama was asked recently
‘What can you do when you have negative thoughts and
emotions?” His answer is a beautiful and succinct summation
of yoga and Buddhism! He said that negative thoughts and
emotions are to do with two things: a self-centered attitude
(“I, I, I, my, my, my, like that!”). And secondly, “We accept reality
as it appears.”6 Although, in this brief exchange, he did not
elaborate on his second observation, it is clear from a Buddhist
(and yogic) perspective, that this ‘reality’-the appearance that
we take as real-is distorted. We see reality through a prism of
‘myself.’ Reality, through this prism, is always ‘about me.’ The
beauty of the Dalai Lama’s observations is in their simplicity. We
suffer because we are obsessed with ‘myself’ and this obsession
leads to several afflictions including a distorted view of reality.
Pantanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, spells out these afflictions in
To this extent, yoga and Buddhism are not belief systems.
They are descriptive of human beings as they are-as they
typically function. With some training, we can begin to observe
ourselves and recognize that this is indeed what happens in our
own minds. Both yoga and Buddhism offer empirical and testable
observations. However-like any form of research-we need
some training to be capable of confirming observations within
ourselves about the way human beings typically function.7 This
is a form of empiricism, in which we turn our focus toward our
own thoughts and emotions. The capacity to observe how we
think and feel is developed through training our attention toward
our own subjective experience. It leads to observations of our
own thought processes and to recognitions of the way in which
these limit our experience of life. Once we begin to see these
limitations, we naturally realise that we could live with more
freedom. Recognitions of this kind support a practice aimed at
overcoming obstacles to our own freedom. The power of these
recognitions can be profound! For example, if I observe that I
immediately go on the defense when someone criticizes me,
that recognition gives me a possibility of responding differently.
I don’t need to defend ‘myself.’ I may be open to learning from
the criticism. That is liberating. Alternatively, it may be that
the person criticizing me is herself tormented by a judgmental
tendency, and-if I am open and unencumbered-I can see that and
have some compassion for her.
Recognizing that I am encumbered leads to a desire to
live more freely, less constrained by my fears and anxieties,
and by my constant desires. Witnessing, within myself, how
these ‘afflictions’ constrain me is potentially liberating. Each
recognition can be an ‘Ah hah!’ moment: “So that’s what I
do!” This is liberating, because the need to step out of those
constraints-so that I can live more freely-becomes obvious.
This is therapy. Understood in this deeper sense, all therapy is
ultimately a means to living joyfully. This is to turn my (above)
observation around-that yoga is a subset of therapy-and claim
that therapy is a subset of yoga.
To the extent that I can follow simple practices-like not
getting caught up in the drama of ‘myself’-I can move toward
constancy, and steady happiness, less suffering, less disturbing
drama, and occasional joy. These very real daily affirmations of
yoga as a practice, embolden me to accept the possibility that
life could be lived within a much more expansive experience.
With each step I gain confidence. I also gain more trust in those
teachers of yoga who have gone before me and found freedom
within themselves. I am more and more open to accept (for
example, from Patanjali and from the Dalai Lama) that as ‘Paul’
diminishes in importance-as I give Paul and his silly (sometimes
nasty) prejudices and pressing needs, less importance-something
much more satisfying comes into the space that Paul and his big
ego takes up. Yoga is therapy in a more profound sense than
relief from injuries and pains. It is a path to experiencing selfluminous
joy (samadhi) regardless of the dramas going on in my
My contention is that this deeper understanding of both
yoga and therapy provides a goal within which the conventional
understanding of yoga as therapy makes sense. Not all students
are ready or able to approach yoga as a path to joy. When one
is caught up in a tight and restricted body, experiencing pain
from physical and psychological injuries, it may take some time
to gain confidence that yoga, as therapy, can begin to de-stress
our over-wrought systems. However, as this begins to happenas
we experience an opening within ourselves-we are more
amenable to a deeper realization that is afforded by yoga. My
own drama, and the importance I give to it, is a form of ignorance that eclipses-in the way the moon eclipses the sun-the natural
joy that is inherent in me. The simple joy of being is the same
joy that I see in a child. It is still there in me but eclipsed by the
importance I give to ‘myself.’ This notion of ‘me’ is a form of
ignorance that a wise and experienced yoga therapist can assist
me to become free from.
1Macneill Paul (2011) Yoga and Ethics: The Importance of Practice. In: Stillwaggon Swan L (Ed), Yoga-Philosophy for Everyone, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, UK, pp: 187-199.
2Oxford English Dictionary.
3Yoga Journal, Iyengar Yoga.
4Jogendra Bhagat, Yoga Solutions.
5Tigunait, Pandit Rajmani (2017) The Practice of the Yoga Sutra: Sadhana Pada, Himalayan Institute Press, Pennsylvania, USA, p: 22.
6His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Dealing with Negative Emotions (2018)