Qualities of a Yoga Therapist by Joseph Le Page and Lilian Aboim
An appropriate analogy for Yoga therapy is a bird whose two wings must move in synchrony in order for the Yoga healing process to unfold optimally. One wing is a thorough understanding of the tools, techniques and methodologies. The other wing is the vision of Yoga therapy as a lifelong journey of healing, both for the therapist and for the care receiver. This second wing is supported by the cultivation of essential qualities, such as careful listening. It is the integration of these qualities, along with an in-depth knowledge of the techniques that allow the Yoga therapist to practice authentically.
The following is an elaboration of these qualities:
Selfless Service: sevā
The Yoga therapist receives fair compensation for professional services, but also cultivates an attitude of selfless service; a vision of healing larger than their own personal goals, wants and needs. Through this expanded vision, the therapist becomes an embodiment of healing to their clients, the community and ultimately to all humanity.
Grounding: dṛḍha bhūmiḥ
The Yoga therapist cultivates grounding and stability at all levels of being. This begins with the physical body where they develop the strength and stability to assist with poses confidently. Grounding extends to the psycho-emotional level, where our consistent practice of centering and stability allows us to meet challenges presented by care receivers safely and confidently.
The Yoga therapist upholds the inherent capacity of all care receivers to awaken their own inherent potential for self-healing. Confidence in the process of self-healing begins with the therapists themselves as they transform their own health at all dimensions of being through Yoga.
Conscious Presence: upasthiti
Conscious presence is being present in each moment, experiencing each moment as the sole reality. The Yoga therapist is aware of the past in the form of the care receiver’s history as well their own patterns of conditioning. The Yoga therapist also has a vision of the future in terms of the goals for healing for the client. Yoga therapy, however, only takes place in the present moment, with the therapist fully conscious of all that is happening both within themselves and within the receiver at all levels of being. This presence is characterized by an intense curiosity in regard to the receiver’s process of healing along with dep compassion as well as awareness of the constant presence of their own light of healing.
Careful Listening: śravaṇaṃ
In effective Yoga therapy, the therapist seldom offers advice or opinions, but listens carefully and sensitively to what their care receivers are communicating in order to respond appropriately. This listening involves careful attention to what is communicated and repetition of key points for clarity and also to allow the speaker to hear what they are expressing in a way that supports Self-knowledge. There is also a deeper level of intuitive listen which develops along the therapists own spiritual journey, an intuitive understanding of the human being which allows us to “see” the care receiver’s entire life story and the full dimension of their needs for healing both within and beyond what they are communicating.
Skillful Speech: vāca kauśalaṃ
Even as our listening skills deepen, we also learn to respond to what we hear more sensitively and always within the framework of the care receiver’s overall journey and goals for healing. Skillful speech begins with the ability to reflect communication back to the speaker in ways that are easily received and genuinely constructive. Skillful speech continues with the ability to ask questions that lead to increased awareness on the part of the receiver rather than offering advice or suggestions. Skillful speech is also present in developing plans for healing in a way that is co-creative rather than prescriptive.
Skillful Means: upakaraṇā kauśalaṃ
The Yoga therapist has an in-depth understanding a wide of the tools of Yoga therapy including asana, pranayama, mudra, meditation and Yoga nidra as well as the philosophical and historical framework in which they evolved. The therapist also has an in-depth understanding of anatomy, physiology and kinesiology in relation he the effects and benefits of these tools. Furthermore, the Yoga therapist has an understanding of disease processes both from a Western and an ayurvedic perspective. Skillful means is the seamless integration of all of these areas of knowledge within Yoga’s light of intuitive wisdom.
The healing process is unique for each individual. It cannot be rushed and, like the butterfly’s wings, must unfold as part of a process in which all of the stages of healing occur naturally. The therapist must be mindful of allowing this process to unfold, never rushing forward in the name of achieving short-term goals.
The Yoga therapist is familiar with all aspects of Yoga as a healing modality, but also has a natural tendency to gravitate toward a specific area or areas. A Yoga therapist who cultivates their strengths and areas of interest is passionate about their particular area of concentration, whether it be the physical body, the subtle body or the psycho-emotional body. This enthusiasm supports the care receiver in their own healing process.
Committed Personal Practice: sādhanā
A practice designed for the needs of the individual generally provides optimal healing. The most effective way for the therapist to create a personal practice for others is to develop their own consistent individual practice, and to assess carefully how it meets their needs.
Study of Self and Scriptures: svādhyāya
The Yoga therapist facilitates care receivers in widening their perspectives of themselves and life as whole, which is one of the most important dimensions of healing. This process begins when the therapist explores areas of limitation, pain and suffering in their own lives, allowing them to effectively facilitate self-study in others. This process of self-study is grounded in an in-depth understanding of the essential sacred scriptures of Yoga including Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads and the texts of Hatha Yoga.
When we begin to practice Yoga therapy, there may be a tendency to offer many tools and techniques in order to provide “the most healing.” For effective Yoga therapy, however, less is usually more, and offering a few tools and techniques fully and authentically is generally most helpful. This simplicity is a reflection of a growing clarity within our own journey in which we start exploring many techniques and, over time, are able to simply rest in the simplicity of our own essential nature.
The Yoga therapist maintains appropriate boundaries in terms of time and energy to avoid burn-out. The therapist also introduces material at a pace that is easily accessible for the care receiver. At the same time, he or she offers all of their knowledge and understanding of Yoga generously, showing that knowledge of Yoga is universal and belongs to all of humanity. Self-knowledge is the evolutionary future of humanity.
Compassion is seeing clearly that all beings seek happiness and avoid suffering with the limits of their understanding. Most seek it only in the material world through achieving what they like and avoiding what they dislike. As Yoga therapist we honor this starting point compassionately recognizing that we too have sought happiness and through our surroundings, but over time, through the light of Yoga have come to see that we are the very happiness we seek. By honoring both the starting point and the process, we are able to see that everyone, including ourselves is on a journey of healing. For some, the journey is predominantly directed toward physical healing, while for others, it is emotional, while all eventually come to see that ultimate healing in reunion with our true Being as a reflection of the Divine intelligence at the heart of all things. Seeing all of us together on a single healing journey is the essence of compassion.
Witness Consciousness: sākṣitvaṃ
In Yoga therapy, a wide range of feelings, emotions and sensations, both positive and negative, may arise in the care receiver. The Yoga therapist witnesses these feelings in the receiver non-judgmentally, creating a space where they can be expressed and integrated. The Yoga Therapist creates this space for the care receiver at the level of the physical body, the mind and emotions as well as spiritually, employing skill and sensitivity to support the process while allowing the receiver’s process to unfold in own time and way. Any inclination to help the poor butterfly by forcing its wings open can result in an inability to fly fully and autonomously in later stages of the process. Even as the therapist supports witness consciousness in the care receiver, they also deepen this skill in relation to their own thoughts, feelings and core beliefs that arise within the therapy process.
Equanimity is one of the most important results of our deepening ability to witness consciously and consistently. For it is this consistent witnessing that reveals the vasanas, the deep core beliefs that keep us from recognizing our true inner Being whose very nature is equanimity. With growing equanimity, we are able to rest in the calm depths of our inner being regardless of what is happening at the surface level of sensations, thoughts and feelings that arise in Yoga therapy and in daily living.
An essential facet of integrity in Yoga therapy is standing in our authenticity as healers within the vision of Yoga where health is integration of body, mind and Spirit within a growing understanding that our true Being is inherently whole and complete. In this spirit, we offer Yoga therapy as optimal Yoga practices for individual needs as a vehicle for healing at all levels of being, rather than prescribing specific yoga techniques to cure disease. Integrity is also recognizing when we are able to work with a receiver effectively, and when it is appropriate to refer the person to another care provider or Yoga therapist with a particular specialization.
Multidimensional Awareness: pañca kośa darśana
The Yoga therapist holds a vision of the whole person so that even if they’re focusing on the physical body, they are also seeing, sensing and responding to their receiver’s needs at the energetic, psycho-emotional, wisdom and spiritual levels. This multi-dimensional perspective, framed within the model of the five koshas, naturally cultivates greater awareness within the therapist of all the dimensions involved in healing. The five-kosha model also brings awareness to each of these dimensions within the care receiver, naturally opening them to multi-dimensional healing.
The Yoga therapist has a wide range of tools and techniques for assessing the receiver’s needs and a theoretical and technical understanding of these is essential for the practice of Yoga therapy. Beyond this technical understanding, intuition plays an important role in knowing how and when to employ these tools and techniques in the care receiver’s journey. Intuition expresses itself through an inner knowing that arises spontaneously from within the therapist in silent communion with our own inner being.
Yoga therapy is an art and a science, and with each group or individual we meet, we learn and teach something in a completely new way. This openness to Yoga therapy as a field of infinite possibilities allows for tremendous creativity, keeping our teaching fresh, alive and relevant to each receiver’s individual needs. Creativity is especially relevant in relation to those who practice and teach Hatha Yoga in that the spirit of creativity, alongside the maintenance of tradition, was at the heart of the Hatha Yoga renaissance in the 1920’s. Many of the aspects of this renaissance including Yoga instruction to householder including women and various castes, was a completely unique and creative adaptation of Yoga to the needs of modern life.
We will be able to nourish others only to the extent that we are able to nourish ourselves. This self-nourishment is multi-dimensional within the model of the five koshas. We nourish the physical body with optimal diet, lifestyle and daily Yoga practice. We also receive body work and other healing techniques to keep the importance of the therapeutic relationship always in view. At the level of the energy body, the therapist avails themselves of subtle body healing techniques to balance the chakras, ensure the optimal flow of the pranavayus, and balance the nadis, so that sun and moon are harmonized appropriately, allowing us to abide in equanimity more consistently. Energetic nourishment is also supported by regular connection to nature and sources of pure energy.
At the psycho-emotional level, we nourish ourselves through rest and stress management in the form of regular Yoga Nidra and other relaxation practices. We also set time aside for play and exploring life’s mysteries. At the wisdom level, we gradually reduce our identification with negative core beliefs and tendencies that cause tension and disharmony, thereby releasing us from the inner and outer conflict that keep us from nourishing ourselves with positive thoughts, feelings, beliefs and activities. At the bliss level, the release from negativity allows us to nourish ourselves with positive thoughts and energy that reflect our true Being, allowing us to align with the Divine Source Energy, the very essence of nourishment. As we nourish ourselves, we support our own process of inner healing and can model this multi-dimensional healing for our clients through our words and through our energetic presence.
Gratitude is recognizing life, including its challenges, as a precious gift, a rare and unique opportunity for appreciation and learning. This recognition of life’s inherent value supports us in accepting and embracing every experience as it presents itself in each moment, allowing each human being to refine and unfold their unique talents and possibilities. By modeling this quality for our care receivers, we open them to the possibility of unfolding their own unique possibilities, which is an essential facet of healing.
Inner Freedom: kaivalya
Kaivalya literally means aloneness, but in the context of Yoga therapy, it can be translated as absolute autonomy through freedom from all the conditioned beliefs that form the limited personality. It is this autonomy that allows us to clearly recognize our absolute unity with all of creation and from that unity, to interact ongoingly in a spirit of compassion, peace, and harmony. Kaivalya allows us to live and work with a sense of lightness and ease and to see and serve our care receivers with compassion, enthusiasm, and objectivity, optimally supporting their journey of healing.
Surrender is the recognition that there is an all-encompassing intelligence at the heart of creation that guides our life journey. This intelligence has inspired us to embark on our own journey of Yoga healing and to share to with others through Yoga therapy. As we align with this source energy, we are naturally guided to complete our own process of healing and to support others on their journey.
Faith is the absolute knowing that Yoga is a process of transformation that has healed us at all levels of being. We also have faith that Yoga has the power and potential to heal all those we receive through offering optimal techniques for healing to each care receiver we meet.