One of the fastest growing areas in the yoga world is the application of yoga as a therapeutic modality for a myriad of physical and emotional conditions. One of the most highly recognized and renowned leaders worldwide in this area is veteran yoga teacher and therapist Cora Wen. Wen, a senior ERYT-500 Yoga Alliance certified instructor and registered yoga therapist with the International Association of Yoga Therapist, recently submitted a new 1,000 hour course of study with IAYT to meet the new standards for yoga therapists set by that organization. Wen recently shared with YogaBasics her outlook (and contagious enthusiasm) for the field of yoga therapy.
YogaBasics: What exactly is yoga therapy?
Cora Wen: There seems to be some confusion about yoga therapy. We understand that sports therapy is for the athlete and dance therapy is for dancer; physical therapy is for the dancer, the athlete and the general population, but yoga therapy is not just for yoga practitioners. Yoga therapy is the therapeutic application of yoga science and art that can be used in sports, dance, physical and occupational therapy and rehabilitation. Yoga therapy is really more of a complimentary and alternative medicine. It’s for all people.
YB: People unfamiliar with yoga therapy tend to think of it as the simple application of poses as a therapeutic modality. But there is a lot more involved, right? Your program prepares therapists in the areas of physiology, psychology, anatomy, kinesiology, not to mention family and marriage therapy. Why such a breadth of study?
CW: This is preparing yoga teachers or therapists to ultimately be able to work with the medical and wellness community. There’s a lot of that that’s added to learning. It’s not just learning to do a sun salutation; it’s how we can work to use a yoga application within a clinical setting.
YB: There seems to be thousands of studies on yoga and medicine, many with compelling clinical evidence. Is there caution to be practiced, though? Are we rushing into things?
CW: The problem with this right now is that because we don’t have a clarification of what yoga therapy is, one can say, “I’m teaching yoga for PTSD or cancer rehab.” That could be a bit unsafe if we are not understanding the scope of the practice. To be able to teach cancer rehabilitation you need a solid understanding of the pathology as well as how the lymphatic system works. You wouldn’t just need to know they had breast cancer and a mastectomy. We need to study more before we go out there.
YB: What’s your word of advice for anyone seeking a yoga therapist?
CW: Number one is getting a grasp on how much knowledge of anatomy and physiology that person has. If your problem is structural – muscular-skeletal – your therapist need to understand anatomy. If it’s stress related, they still need the anatomy education and some education of the psycho-emotional effect of physiology, then time to develop expertise. How long have they been working with your specific situation? Not just blanket yoga therapy. Someone who just works with backs may not understand the knee. Someone who works with knees may not understand depression. It would be good to find what specialty they have that would address your needs.
YB: How important is therapist-client relationship?
CW: Yoga is so different than other therapeutic applications. It touches on physiology and the mental and emotional and, dare we say, spiritual aspects of the individual. You need a connection with someone who is treating your situation. A lot of times athletes say, “I can’t stand my coach but they really make me work hard.” That would not be true in a yoga therapy situation. It would retard the benefits.
YB: You are counted among the small number of yoga therapists who are emerging as experts in this field. What are the challenges for you?
CW: We are really at the forefront of creating a differentiation in what has become the broad term of yoga. We are sort of bringing it back to the traditional way of yoga, which is healing rather than yoga for sports or prettiness or personality. Right now, it’s very much a yoga of personality over a yoga of essential healing. It’s often personality over connection. That connection, being wowed by personality, is not the same as mentoring, sharing, knowledge, strengthening, pacifying, supporting, evolving, involving. These are all things I see less and less of in that broad term of yoga.
YB: Why yoga therapy?
CW: We’ve always known that yoga affects the mind, body and spirit. You are working with breath, movement, the nervous system, energetics, the mental state, moods, your own psychology and physiology. Yes, some need tools but for many, you just need yourself. And so once you have learned and worked with somebody that is trained in a therapeutic application of yoga, it allows the individual to create their own healing, to support and nourish continually with aid but no longer relying on others for healing. You are able to create self-healing, self-motivation and self-satisfaction.
YB: How do you continue to find inspiration?
CW: I love words, and the word inspiration is to be “in spirit”; from the Latin stem of in- “in” and spirare “to breathe.” Inspiration is to be tuned into what feels truly right in our core. A moment when life is effortless and the mind spacious and clear.
My greatest inspiration is Nature, and the microcosm of humanity in the macrocosm of our world. The vast, amazing, stupefying brilliance of the natural world around us and the vast potential of mind, body and spirit within us. Nature humbles me with beauty, terror and resplendence. Being connected to the natural world reminds me that I am in a big vast wonder of a life, and there is a luminous seed of potential within each of us. We just need to breathe and be “in spirit” with the breath. The more we are aware of breath, the more we are “in spirit” with ourselves. And Peace might be possible!