By Sandra G. Malhorta And Ena Burrud, E-RYT500, C-IAYT
Are you familiar with yoga therapy? Until recently, I wasn’t either. That is, until I had the pleasure of meeting Ena Burrud, E-RYT500, C-IAYT, owner of Treetop Yoga Therapy, a full time private practice in Old Town Fort Collins. Over coffee, she described the difference between conventional yoga and yoga therapy and I knew I had to share this information with Regenerate readers. What follows is a detailed description of this modality as conveyed by Ena.
Ena, can you describe the yoga therapy methodology?
Sure. A typical intake includes an assessment of constitution, or dosha, according to Ayurveda, to determine body type and imbalance. Though Ayurveda is its own preventative science, yoga therapy integrates the concepts. Yoga therapy customizes poses (asana), pacing and sequencing (vinyasa krama), breathing exercises (pranayama) and therapeutic forms of meditation. Trauma can cause dissociative symptoms making it difficult to feel emotions and physical sensations, so specific cuing helps to re-pattern neuronal pathways for sensory information. Language like “feel the weight of the body… now feel the lightness of the body”. Traversing between these and other opposites of sensations is partially derived from yoga nidra, a guided meditation protocol that awakens both hemispheres of the brain to fire equally, restoring balance to all systems of the body.
Clinical studies have proven the benefit of movement to soften trauma symptoms. Tissues fill with hormones and chemicals during stress, but a pattern can be set by the intensity of trauma. Then, future stressors may copy that pattern even when danger isn’t present. The inner dialogue sounds like this: “I AM safe. Why don’t I FEEL safe?” Frustration sets in. Trauma specialists like American psychologist Peter A. Levine and Dutch psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk describe anecdotes where somatic practices diminish symptoms of PTSD. Yoga therapy uses these studies with the ancient exercises in texts like the Yoga Sutras and Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
You tend to work on an individual basis. What are the benefits of the individual approach?
Group yoga classes are fantastic. They plumb our inner landscape and help maintain overall health. The connection made with a teacher is psychologically beneficial, as is the community built with other students. However, if a student in a class setting is triggered, the teacher may not have time or training to safely meet the needs of the student in that environment. I worked with a student who had lower back pain who saw her abuser when she closed her eyes, so her needs were best met privately and therapeutically.
Having assessed there was no injury or specific event that precipitated her lower back pain, we palpated the strength of her psoas and using physiology techniques and esoteric knowledge of the chakras, or wheels of energy aligned with nerve plexuses, we implemented practices that process emotions that may have pulled the psoas “off-line”. Using breath holding and micro-movements we did sequencing that calmed the mind and strengthened skeletal muscles to stabilize her sacrum. With the physical moves, the breath and mental focus working in tandem, her psyche brought up those memories in manageable pieces. She experienced a capacity to welcome them and noticed their fleeting nature.
Ena, what educational levels denote the differences between a yoga teacher and a yoga therapist?
A yoga teacher is trained at the 200- or 500-hour level, including adapting poses. He may be skilled to teach private sessions. The governing body recording the training is Yoga Alliance (www.Yogaalliance.org). The designation 200 or 500RYT (registered yoga teacher) is awarded. After 1000 hours have been taught at each level, the designation of ERYT200 or 500 is awarded, (E means experienced). E-RYT500 hour teachers are eligible to teach advanced yoga teacher training programs. As of 2016, however, Yoga Alliance does not recognize any yoga therapy or represent any therapeutic training on their registry. A yoga therapist enters a program with a pre-requisite 200-hour certification. The governing body representing yoga therapy is the International Association of Yoga Therapists (www.iayt.org). Since 1989, this organization has focused on research and presentation of evidence-based therapeutic applications of yoga. It publishes two bi-annual and quarterly periodicals plus posts on PubMed. In 2014, IAYT met their mission of standardizing yoga therapy schools to require at least 2 years and 800 hours of training for accreditation. LMU in LA and MUIH in Maryland offer yoga therapy as a master’s programs.
Does yoga therapy complement conventional treatments well?
Yoga therapy does not diagnose or replace the medicine or guidance of a doctor. Yoga conditions the body through physical and contemplative practices as old as 5000 years. Yoga therapy requires continued regular personal practice to be effective, unlike taking meds alone. Sometimes these practices are better begun while on medicines, like those for bipolar disorder, hypertension and thyroid disorders. In time, many clients report that symptoms soften and with commitment to the practice, may diminish. Yoga folds the changes of our bodies and lives into the practice as we find humor and acceptance with these shifts. Conventional western medicine supports our needs with disease, broken bones, tumors, etc., thankfully. It can save our lives. Yoga therapy has practices that aid our determination to heal and can prevent future suffering even if a condition is chronic.
What types of conditions do you help your clients overcome? How often are appointments?
Many clients start bi-weekly and move into monthly appointments to refine their practices and to chart progress. Those with cancer come in to offset the side effects of chemo and continue to address the trauma of the disease. Yoga therapists often focus on niche practices for issues such as mood disorders, trauma and PTSD, chronic pain, injury or surgery rehab. Some yoga therapists practice ancient techniques like hand gestures (mudras), chanting (japa) and spiritual mentorship. With newer recognition of the power of yoga for therapy because of the tremendous work of IAYT, doctors, physical therapists, psychologists and other western medical providers are referring their patients to yoga therapy. Some insurance companies pay for yoga for therapeutic reasons, but often the research for a certified yoga therapist is the onus of the patient. Check IAYT’s website for one in your community.
Thank you, Ena! I hope that knowledge about this powerful modality becomes more widespread so that yoga therapists, like you, can facilitate more mental and physical healing.