Yoga and yoga therapy

Written by Emily Whitton
Emily Whitton
Therapy Directory Content Team

Last updated 25th June 2024 | Next update due 25th June 2027

Yoga is a body-mind practice incorporating movement, meditation and breathwork to facilitate relaxation and flexibility and promote overall well-being. Yoga therapy is an adaptation of yoga, catering specifically for those with health problems and/or physical injury. Here we'll look at the differences between yoga and yoga therapy, including the benefits of both and the different types of yoga therapy on offer.

What is yoga?

Yoga is an ancient practice that brings movement and breath together to promote physical and mental well-being. The benefits of yoga are varied and include:

  • increased flexibility
  • improved strength
  • reduced stress levels
  • increased energy 

For dedicated yogis, it is more than just an exercise - it is a way of life. The philosophical side of the practice dates back thousands of years, with roots in ancient India.

Yoga is believed to have originated in India around 5,000 years ago. Since then it has evolved and adapted, but the premise remains the same; the word yoga itself means 'to join' or 'unity'. The two components which the discipline joins together are postures (asanas) and breathing (pranayama). This means when doing the poses, you should breathe and move in unity. 

It's this focus on your breathing and the way you move that increases awareness. Being more aware of your body and the present moment is thought to have a calming effect, which is why many experts recommend this practice for stress relief.

While considerations will be made for the ability of the class and any injuries participants may have, your personal health concerns may not be addressed in a session. This is why some people turn to yoga therapy. 


What is yoga therapy?

Using yoga in a therapeutic setting is different from most classes you see advertised. Yoga therapy is a more tailored practice that looks to help those with health/mobility problems or those recovering from injury. It's generally done one-on-one, where you can share more about your concerns with your therapist and ensure the routine is dedicated to your specific needs.

While general yoga is preventative in nature (and may help resolve mild ailments) it may not be suitable for those with specific mobility/health concerns. In contrast, yoga therapy looks to encourage healing with a personalised treatment plan. When you work with a yoga therapist, they may also recommend you continue working on certain poses between sessions. 

Some concerns that can be supported with yoga therapy include:

  • arthritis
  • back pain
  • depression
  • painful joints
  • certain musculoskeletal issues
  • stress
  • headaches

As with all complementary therapies, yoga therapy is designed to be used alongside conventional treatment to help the body heal more effectively. In some cases, the therapy will not be able to 'cure' an ailment, but it may help you to better manage your symptoms and lower any associated stress.

What's the difference between yoga and yoga therapy?

Yoga focuses on bringing the body into harmony using techniques and poses. It is typically taught in a group setting, led by a yoga teacher or instructor.

Yoga therapy, on the other hand, is specifically aimed at improving health and well-being using yoga practices. A yoga therapist is trained to work safely with people who have medical diagnoses and is often provided in a one-to-one setting. Yoga therapists are accredited by the British Council for Yoga Therapy (BCYT)

What are the benefits of yoga therapy?

A key benefit of yoga therapy is greater self-awareness. Helping you become more aware of your mind-body connection, the practice can help you understand how one impacts the other and how this relationship may be affecting your health. 

Yoga therapy is a relaxing and mindful practice, helping to reduce stress and anxiety, both of which can exacerbate health concerns. Physically, yoga therapy encourages gentle and safe movement to improve flexibility, mobility and strength, helping your body feel as good as it can. 


Types of yoga

While the principle of yoga is the same throughout, there are many different types. This is great because you can pick and choose the style that suits your needs best. Here are some examples:

Hatha

Hatha is one of the more common styles available. Typically a more gentle practice, Hatha is often recommended for beginners to learn the basics and benefit from the relaxation element.

Restorative

Restorative yoga is designed to encourage relaxation and healing, so there is typically less movement. Instead, you spend 20 minutes or so in just a handful of poses. Staying in poses for longer ensures you get as much physical benefit as possible. Restorative poses are often incorporated into yoga therapy.

Yin 

Similarly to restorative yoga, Yin involves less movement, but holding poses for longer. While restorative yoga focuses more on the release of mental and physical tension, Yin looks to encourage deeper stretches. Both use props such as blocks and pillows to help you stay in the poses more comfortably. 

Vinyasa

Vinyasa is often referred to as 'flow yoga' as it involves moving through poses in a fluid motion. In between holding poses, you'll go through a 'vinyasa', a series of moves which join the poses together. This style requires focus and is known for helping to quieten the mind. The amount of movement required however may make it difficult for those recovering from illness or injury.

Kundalini

Kundalini yoga looks to strengthen both body and mind by activating your Kundalini energy. It typically involves chanting, breathing and repetitive poses. It often uses movements like shaking to do this, encouraging you into an almost transcendent state where you feel at peace and revitalised. 

Integrative yoga therapy

Combining different yoga approaches, including meditation and yoga poses, integrative yoga therapy caters to your preferences and needs.  

Pregnancy yoga

Pregnancy yoga is an adaptation that uses poses to support women through all stages of pregnancy. Many women continue going to pregnancy yoga after their baby is born to build up their strength again.

If you are considering pregnancy yoga, ensure you seek advice from a professional. There are some poses that are not recommended for pregnant women, so it is important to see a teacher who can talk you through the safe poses. You are advised to speak to your doctor before trying any new exercise, especially when you're pregnant.


What does a yoga therapy session look like?

After getting the go-ahead from your doctor, your first port of call will be to have a consultation with a yoga therapist. During this meeting, the therapist will discuss your medical history to understand your specific concerns. They are also likely to ask about any lifestyle factors which may be affecting your condition.

Find a yoga practitioner

Your yoga therapist will then create a treatment plan tailored to you, putting together a range of suitable poses and exercises. 

In most cases, the therapy will be delivered in a one-to-one setting, however, it can also be delivered to groups of people with the same concerns. During your sessions, your yoga therapist will show you how to do the poses and will ensure you are doing them safely. They will also keep track of your progress, adjusting your treatment as needed.

Some therapists will encourage you to continue your practice at home. They may also offer advice on relaxation and meditation too, to complement your therapy.


Yoga FAQs

Do I need to be flexible?

A common misconception of yoga is that you need to be lean and flexible to do it. This is not the case. The aim of yoga is to stretch your body in the way it needs. For those who are naturally flexible, this may mean they need to stretch quite a lot. For those who are not so flexible, they'll only need to stretch a little to gain the benefits.

Of course, over time your flexibility will naturally improve, but it is important to remember that this is not the aim of yoga.

Do I need to know the philosophy behind it?

For some people, understanding the philosophy behind yoga serves to enhance their practice as it becomes a part of their lifestyle. This being said, it certainly is not a necessity. How much philosophy you're exposed to in your practice will depend on your yoga teacher. If you want to hear more (or less!) about the philosophy, simply ask your practitioner. 

Can I use yoga therapy in conjunction with other treatments?

The gentle nature of yoga therapy makes it an ideal complement to most treatments. Having said this, it is always recommended that you speak to your doctor before adding a new treatment. You should also talk to your yoga therapist about any other treatments you are receiving.

Am I too old to try yoga?

Yoga is an ideal exercise for older people. This is because it is both gentle and adaptable. The way it strengthens the body helps to prevent falls, while increased flexibility helps maintain mobility.

If you are older and are considering yoga, ensure you ask a yoga teacher or therapist to show you how to adapt the poses and practise safely.

Can I get injured doing yoga?

The most common injuries in yoga are repetitive strain injury and over-stretching. This happens when you push yourself too far or move in a way that isn't safe for the body. To avoid injury, follow instructions from your yoga instructor and don't overexert yourself. All stretches in yoga should feel pleasant. If you feel pain, stop.

What experience should a yoga teacher and yoga therapist have?

While there are no laws in place to regulate yoga teachers, it is recommended that they have relevant qualifications, insurance and/or membership with a professional body. There are many professional bodies which self-regulate practices like yoga, such as the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). These usually require members to meet certain training standards and to abide by a code of ethics and complaints procedure.

In order to become a qualified yoga therapist, the British Council for Yoga Therapy (BCYT) recommend a minimum of 200 hours of yoga teacher training and at least two years of experience before beginning therapy training with a course accredited by the BCYT. 

We would always recommend contacting a yoga practitioner directory to determine if they are qualified to teach yoga or provide yoga therapy.

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