The Four Principles for Yoga Therapy

The Four Principles for Yoga Therapy

At times we feel like we know exactly what to do with a client.  Everything just clicks. At other times, we feel clouded. In order to bring ourselves back to equilibrium as yoga therapists, we teach four principles of yoga therapy that are always there for us as guideposts for the therapeutic relationship.

  1. Show Up and Be Real

Arrive early. Provide stability and consistency for your student/client.  Give yourself enough time to set-up the space and create a safe container.  Enact any rituals that help the space feel ready and welcoming. Perhaps consider a ritual that takes place with the client.  Of course, always keep this practice to something that feels genuine to you, as well as comfortable for the client.

Clients crave authenticity.  They want real knowledge from a place of experience.  You can offer so many things that you are genuinely knowledgeable about.  When you come from a place of authenticity your client(s) can tell, and so can you.  You will both feel good about the experience.

Have a solid, consistent daily sadhana for yourself. Always follow your true path, and teach from a place that feels real and right to you. In order to enhance your ability to “set the tone” for a yoga therapy session, maintain your own daily practice.  This will help you feel more confident in your abilities and help you remain in a more sattvic state for your client’s benefit.

Be okay with saying “I don’t know.”  You don’t have to have all of the answers.  You and your client are in a partnership together, discovering what works and what doesn’t in an informed and inquisitive way.  When you don’t know – say so! Offer to do some research with your network. Also, feel empowered to ask the client to tell you more about their experience.  After all, this is their body and their experience. Their body is their first teacher, and you are their second teacher. Help the client tap into her own awareness and inner teacher for a sustained practice in health and wellness.  Empower the client to teach you more about what they are noticing and experiencing.


2. Meet the Client Where They Are


Take time to build rapport with your client. Learn more about your client and where it is most appropriate and helpful to begin. Meet the client where they are. During the intake process, the yoga therapist can take time to build rapport, listen to their client, learn more about them, and understand where it is most appropriate to start. You know what they also say about assuming…

Don’t deny the darkness: welcome it in and balance it. Many of our clients have experienced hardship, pain, trauma, grief, loss and more.  Listen, validate, and hold space for that hardship. Welcome it as a reality. Work in partnership with the client to bring balance.

Understand the gunas as an underpinning of the koshas. Meet the client in their rajasic (energized, stimulated, movement) or tamasic (heavy, lethargic) state. Start there.  Build from rajas or tamas to help support the client in entering a sattvic state. Sattva is clear, light, and balanced, but it takes time to get there.

Remember there are many access points. There is no one single way to begin with a client. Start where it is most appropriate for them. Perhaps you look at your client’s needs from a kosha point of view: anamaya, pranamaya, etc.  Or you realize that a book recommendation and journaling for self-study seems appropriate. Or you decide to start with meditation. The options are limitless.

Give a little. Give the client a little bit of what they want, and a little bit of what they are ready for.  Once you’ve built rapport, and empowered your client, you can give them a little more of what they need. As the saying goes: “Don’t put the cart before the horse”.  This concept is also very beneficial in yoga therapy.


3. Create a Safe Container

Arrive early.  Allow time to settle and clear your mind.  Bring a calm sense of energy to your space.  Set the tone and be flexible. Prepare for the unexpected.

Set a mutually agreed upon space. Where does the client feel most comfortable?  What space allows you to meet the client’s needs?  You may find that traveling to a client’s home is the most comfortable and workable setting.  There’s also the option to have the client visit your space and/or locate a different mutually agreed upon space: community center, yoga studio, outside…etc.  The options are endless depending on the need. For example, perhaps you’re recommending nature therapy and walking meditation? Why not meet at a mutually agreed upon place to practice!

Take photos to visually show the client what to expect.  Providing photos of the space, or simple example of postures or props can help ease a client’s mind.  Not knowing what to expect can cause a lot of anxiety. To lesson the unknown, and increase comfort, put together a simple brochure, website, or flyer to email/send/show the client what to expect before your first appointment.

Maintain confidentiality.  Creating and maintaining a safe container starts and ends with confidentiality.  In order to set your client’s mind at ease, and build rapport, keeping information and sessions private and respecting the client’s information is of utmost importance.  Inform your client from the get-go of your confidentiality practices. If you would like to share the client’s information for any reason, ask their permission or even have them sign a release of information before sharing.  If you cannot ask/sign permission, maintain a client’s confidentiality by keeping information generic and unidentifiable: no names or specific details.


4. Empower, Don’t Fix

Assess for positives.  Empower the client by first addressing what the client can do and what they enjoy doing.  What is going right and well for the client?  Maybe they find it difficult to roll out a yoga mat in the morning, but they enjoy journaling two times a week.  Build on the client’s strengths and use them as a starting point. Lift the client up and encourage what is working.

Client-centered approach.  Listen to the client’s goals, needs, and wants.  Start where they are at and build from there. Yoga therapy cannot be a cookie cutter approach.  Each plan must be specifically tailored and formulated to meet the client’s unique starting point, strengths, and goals.

Start small. Decide on mini-stages and mini-goals, or objectives, with your client.  Perhaps one short term goal with 2-3 objectives and one long-term goal with 2-3 objectives.  A marathon runner has the long-term goal of finishing the race. However, they also have several objectives to complete (training runs, shorter races) before reaching the ultimate goal of completing a marathon.    

Sessions with a friend/partner.  If a client feels more comfortable with a friend/partner/spouse in the session with them, absolutely encourage that support.  Sometimes a client can feel nervous when the focus is solely on them. Ease the tension and create a welcoming atmosphere. Accountability partners are also helpful for sticking to the work ahead.

Empower, don’t fix.  When we realize that our clients are not broken, we also remember it is not your role to “fix” them.  You cannot provide them with a quick, magical solution that will solve all of their problems. You can, empower the client to work toward attainable goals with small, manageable objectives along the way.  Yoga therapy, and healing, is a long-term process toward long-term and sustainable solutions. It’s a lifelong journey.

Four Principles as Guideposts in Yoga Therapy

Yoga Therapy is an approach to healing that requires effort, commitment, and empowerment; on the part of both the client and the yoga therapist.  Whether a client meets with a yoga therapist for a brief, or extended period, a successful road map can be established. True healing and change is a lifelong journey with small, manageable steps, successes, and even setbacks along the way. For the yoga therapist, keeping the four guideposts in mind for a beneficial therapeutic relationship with clients is key.

Article contributed by Bryana Cook, an RYT-200, RYT-500 in training, and an 800 hour C-IAYT in training through Inner Peace Yoga Therapy. She is currently an MSW, LGSW, and LICSW in training; a practicing mental health provider in a small rural Minnesota counseling office. Bryana teaches group classes through her nomad business Northern Namaste Yoga and co-leads retreats in beautiful places with her partners in Boreal Bliss Yoga Retreats. She lives in Longville, MN with her husband, where they do their best to live an intentional life of simplicity in nature.