What defines a yoga therapist versus a skilled yoga teacher?

Many people assume yoga, in general, is therapeutic and therefore all yoga teachers with experience and training can call themselves a yoga therapist. But there is a big difference between teaching what might be an incredibly good yoga class or private lesson and being an authentic yoga therapist. In fact, the difference is so defined that any yoga teacher who is a member of Yoga Alliance must sign an affidavit that they will not call themselves a yoga therapist unless they have formal training in yoga therapy. Of course, that doesn’t stop many yoga teachers from claiming to be yoga therapists despite their agreement not to do so, even though, should they be turned in, the penalty is dismissal from the Yoga Alliance organization. So why do yoga teachers still claim to be yoga therapists even though they have agreed not to use the title? Usually, it is not because they are trying to pass themselves off as something they are not, but more a case where they themselves don’t know the difference between authentic yoga therapy and being a skilled yoga teacher.  Ignorant of the scope of a yoga therapist’s education and roles, they figure they deserve the title, with or without the training. Unfortunately, anyone claiming to be a yoga therapist who is not IAYT certified is most likely not aware of the intricacies of yoga therapy and are unlikely to be following the protocol or delivering authentic yoga therapy services.

A trained yoga therapist not only learns yoga asana, pranayama, meditation, philosophy, Ayurveda, and refined elements of classical yoga as all advanced yoga teachers do, but is trained to understand pathologies, common treatments and medications, psychological impacts, and have sensitivity training in many areas. They have spent hours reviewing case studies to learn how to approach health challenges in the most effective way, teaching them to see past the obvious injuries or disorders to recognize the complex issues that result from being in each particular state of ill health. It is almost as if a yoga therapist is a talk therapist, physical therapist, and occupational therapist rolled into one with the platform of yoga as their healing modality. In most cases, clients are working with one or more of the healing professionals mentioned above and the yoga therapist is not meant to replace any of these health professionals, but to support their work and be a part of a team assisting an individual on their healing journey. Because of this, a yoga therapist must also learn how to keep professional records which are maintained according to legal and ethical standards, ready to be shared with other health professionals at any time while protecting the client-therapist confidentiality.  This is why a certified yoga therapist can work in hospitals, health clinics, or care facilities, and the yoga therapy field is recognized by the medical community and many insurance providers. While many doctors will recommend yoga as a good option, the Mayo Clinic and other esteemed health clinics recommend yoga therapists (and they hire the same) on their site for people dealing with serious mental or physical ailments because, while the average person may not understand the difference between yoga classes and yoga therapy, health professionals recognize that these are indeed separate experiences. Yoga in general can be good for everyone, but yoga therapy is the better choice for someone dealing with serious or compound health issues.

This does not mean a seasoned yoga teacher can’t help people with a wide range of issues even if they are not an actual yoga therapist. A qualified yoga teacher with experience and expansive training may be able to help an individual with many ailments of body, mind, or spirit, such as depression, anxiety, a torn rotator cuff, hip or knee replacement, or cancer. But a yoga therapist is trained not to just understand pathology and pair yoga practices to the issue at hand to relieve pain or discomfort, but to treat the individual one on one with the aim not of “healing” the issue but helping to enhance the quality of life for someone living with debilitating diseases, ailments, or states of suffering.

For example, if a client named Betsy is dealing with cancer and seeking yoga privates to help her on a healing journey, a great yoga teacher can learn something about cancer and prepare a class that will be appropriate. But a yoga therapist will prepare a session not just for someone with cancer, but for Betsy, who happens to have cancer. Before the first session, the yoga therapist will do a full assessment that includes physical analysis, ayurvedic dosha test, and an interview that includes many questions about how Betsy is handling her cancer emotionally, physically, and spiritually. The treatment Betsy is going through, medications taken, how cancer is affecting her family life, work, and self-image will all be noted. The culmination of this diverse information is key to the development of a yoga treatment plan that will be truly effective.  The yoga therapist will know the different side effects and responses Betsy may have to radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, or medication therapy, and how these different treatment paths affect the body on every koshic level. Her sessions will be designed to help Betsy with the physical, mental and emotional issues connected to her particular cancer, including not only postures to address her physical pain or exhaustion, but other issues such as sleep disorders, fear for the future, loss of confidence in one’s body, anger, or a host of other issues that may result from living with cancer or going through treatment.  

While one person with cancer may have a feisty determination to “beat this thing,” and not want to be treated any differently than they were before their diagnosis, another may feel depression and fear. That said, depression manifests differently for different dosha types and as result must be addressed  in unique ways for each individual. Yoga for depression is not as simple as offering heart openers, restorative yoga, or self-love meditations. Yoga for depression is different for a kapha type for whom it manifests as lethargy verses a pitta who becomes angry or hyperactive or may be in denial. And inspiring a client to follow through and be committed to home practice or recommended exercises is a part of yoga therapy too. All of the factors which can be addressed with yoga are taken into consideration by a qualified yoga therapist, who would also be ready and able to discuss the treatment plan with Betsy’s oncologist, therapist, or anyone else involved with her healing journey.

As an accredited yoga training facility, Heartwood has students who often begin training with an eye toward becoming an IAYT certified yoga therapist even before they have a comprehensive understanding of what the field entails. Many students are  enthralled with the idea of becoming a yoga therapist because they assume the credential will separate them from the pack and assure they will be taken seriously. It is true that not all RYT-500 yoga teachers are equal and the title doesn’t guarantee a yoga teacher is qualified or even well educated, while an IAYT certification does guarantee a high standard of education and experience . Also, within the next year, there will be a standardized test worldwide that yoga therapists must take to validate their professional standing, just as chiropractors or massage therapists must pass a test to become licensed, further establishing a yoga therapist as a professional in the field of yoga.   But even with the qualifiers, yoga therapy is not the best path for all yoga teachers.

For many, being an advanced RYT-500 yoga teacher is enough to support their long-term career plans and for them to be an agent of healing and support for many, many people. For others, the path of yoga therapy is a calling. These teachers are likely suited to the professional demands of working with other health care professionals and often feel deeply inspired and committed to helping alleviate suffering at all levels. In many cases, people already in healing fields, such as therapists, nurses and counselors find yoga therapy a perfect complimentary service to add to their careers. There are also students who simply want to dive deeper and learn more about yoga as a healing path, and yoga therapy provides a deeper understanding and commitment to this process.  

At Heartwood, we try to guide students in career planning, reminding them their decisions should not be about having a fancy title or recognized credential, but about how they hope to be of service with their yoga. Whether one is simply a highly qualified yoga teacher with best intentions to help people heal and grow spiritually, or an IAYT yoga therapist who works one on one to enhance lives with yoga as the tool for personal transformation and healing, it is important that each student explore their personal dharma and spiritual calling to know what path they are meant to follow. Just as yoga therapy is highly individualized and based on the concept that there is no one size fits all practice or approach to healing, so does this mindset apply to yoga education. If you dream of being a yoga mentor and healer, the path of yoga education should unfold depending on your dharma, dosha, and dreams, not economics or perceived professional standing .  

It is the work that counts, not the title.  So if you are an ERYT-500 or skilled yoga teacher, be proud of your gifts, but please don’t call yourself a yoga therapist. If you have chosen the path of yoga therapy, do so with humility and a commitment to your purpose.  As yoga teachers, we must embody the concepts of honesty, truth, and lack of ego if we ever hope to mentor others in an authentic way. What we have printed on our business card has nothing at all to do with the job we each strive to accomplish or our service to the world. Evidence of a truly evolved yogi is seeing that they understand and present themselves correctly and with integrity.

Ginny Shaddock is an ERYT-500 and C-IAYT Yoga therapist. She is the director of Heartwood Yoga Institute in Bradenton Florida, which offers RYS-200, RYS-300 and 800 hour yoga therapy certification programs.

Author: Ginny East Shaddock

Ginny is the owner of Heartwood Yoga Institute. She is an ERYT-500 Yoga teacher, C-IAYT Yoga therapist, & Ayurveda Counselor who loves nature, gardening, and creative arts. She has an MFA in creative writing fro Lesley University, and a BA in Business Administration from Eckerd College. She teaches writing and is the creator of the memoir writing program, "Yoga on the Page" combining the teaching of yoga to writing personal stories with integrity, intention, and heart.