yoga therapyYoga describes the joining of the body, mind, and spirit. In the classic 2000-year-old treatise on yogic philosophy, The Yoga Sutras, the Indian sage Patanjali, known as “The Father of Yoga,” defined yoga as “that which restrains the thought process and makes the mind serene.” He emphasized that yoga provides a psychological approach to healing the body and achieving self-realization. By performing postures, known as asanas, and by controlling breathing, known as pranayama, individuals would be able to cleanse their bodies’ organs and systems and achieve a higher state of consciousness. Physicians who acknowledge the role of the mind in healing are practicing a yogic philosophy.

Hatha yoga consists of cleansing and physical exercises in combination with meditation and is one of several branches of yoga that includes Raja, the yoga of meditation, Karma, the yoga of service, Jnana, the yoga of wisdom, Bhakti, the yoga of devotion, and Tantra, the yoga of ritual. Most Westerners practice one of the Hatha yoga styles such as Iyengar, Bikram, Sivandanda, Kripalu, Kundalini, and Astanga (redefined today as Power Yoga). The Hatha yoga generally taught in the West is a system of postures and breathing exercises that is usually seen as a way of preparing the body and mind for meditation.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the classic manual on hatha yoga, proposes that yoga is both a preventative and curative system of the body, mind, and spirit. By broadening yoga’s perceived applications, medical patients could receive the benefits of a non-invasive method to treat their illnesses and disorders.

As a therapy, yoga works to refine human physiology. Performed properly, the asanas are believed to affect every gland and organ in the body. A knowledgeable teacher trained in the Iyengar tradition of yoga can adapt the body to positions to ensure that bones and joints are correctly aligned to achieve physiologic changes. Body weight is distributed evenly on the joints and muscles to prevent injuries. To accomplish desired results and to reduce strain, Iyengar yoga patients use props such as chairs, belts, blankets, and blocks to stabilize positions. Each posture has a specific shape to which the body must be adapted rather than the posture adapted to the body.

Types of Yoga

There are many different types of yoga being taught and practiced today and it can be tough for a beginners to figure out the differences. Although almost all of these styles are based on the same physical postures (called poses), each has a particular emphasis. This quick guide to the most popular types of yoga will help you figure out which class is right for you.


Hatha is a very general term that can encompass many of the physical kinds of yoga. If a class is described as Hatha style, it is probably going to be slow-paced and gentle and provide a good introduction to the basic yoga poses.


Like Hatha, Vinyasa is a general term that is used to describe many different types of classes. Vinyasa, which means breath-synchronized movement, tends to be a more vigorous style based on the performance of a series of poses called Sun Salutations, in which movement is matched to the breath. A Vinyasa class will typically start with a number of Sun Salutations to warm up the body for more intense stretching that’s done at the end of class. Vinyasa is also called Flow, in reference to the continuous movement from one posture the the next.


Ashtanga, which means “eight limbs” in Sanskrit, is a fast-paced, intense style of yoga. A set series of poses is performed, always in the same order. This practice is very physically demanding because of the constant movement from one pose to the next and the emphasis on daily practice. Ashtanga is also the inspiration for what is often called Power Yoga, which is based on the flowing style of Ashtanga with out keeping strictly to the set series.


Based on the teachings of the yogi B.K.S Iyengar, this style of practice is most concerned with bodily alignment. Iyengar practice usually emphasizes holding poses over long periods versus moving quickly from one pose to the next (flow). Also, Iyengar practice encourages the use of props, such as yoga blankets, blocks and straps, in order to bring the body into alignment.


The emphasis in Kundalini is on the breath in conjunction with physical movement, with the purpose of freeing energy in the lower body and allowing it to move upwards. All asana practices make use of controlling the breath, but in Kundalini, the exploration of the effects of the breath (also called prana, meaning energy) on the postures is essential. Kundalini exercises are also called kriyas.


Pioneered by Bikram Choudhury, this style is more generally referred to as Hot Yoga. It is practiced in a 95 to 100 degree room, which allows for a loosening of tight muscles and profuse sweating, which is thought to be cleansing. The Bikram method is a set series of 26 poses, but not all hot classes make use of this series.


Viniyoga is term used by T.K.V. Desikachar to describe the methodology that his father, revered teacher T. Krishnamacharya, developed late in his life. It is based on an individualized approach to each student, creating a practice that suits his or her unique stage of life, health, and needs.


Founded in 1997 by John Friend, Anusara combines a strong emphasis on physical alignment with a positive philosophy expressing the intrinsic goodness of all beings. Classes are usually light-hearted and accessible, often with a focus on heart opening. As of fall, 2012, Friend is no longer teaching Anusara following nearly a year of turmoil within the yoga system he founded over his personal indiscretions. Anusara is now a teacher-led yoga school.


This chain of hot yoga studios was founded in Denver in 2002 and is opening new studios throughout the United States. Expect quality instruction in a gym-like setting. A membership is good at any of their studios nationwide.


This style of yoga emerged from one of New York’s best-known yoga studios. Jivamukti founders David Life and Sharon Gannon were influenced by the rigor of Ashtanga yoga, in combination with chanting, meditation, and spiritual teachings. They have trained many teachers who have brought this style of yoga to studios and gyms, predominantly in the U.S. These classes are physically intense and often include an inspirational theme selected by the teacher.


Headquartered in Santa Monica, California, and gaining popularity around the U.S., Forrest Yoga is the method taught by Ana Forrest. The performance of vigorous asana sequences is intended to strengthen and purify the body and release pent-up emotions and pain to encourage healing of physical and emotional wounds. Expect an intense workout with an emphasis on abdominal strengthening, inversions, and deep breathing.


Kripalu is both a yoga style and a retreat center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Kripalu is a yoga practice with a compassionate approach and emphasis on meditation, physical healing and spiritual transformation that overflows into daily life. It also focuses on looking inward and moving at your own pace, making it a good practice for people with limited mobility due to age, weight, or injury.


Integral is a gentle hatha style of yoga based on the ideas and principals of Sri Swami Sachidananda, who sought to give followers guidelines on how to improve their lives. In an attempt to integrate mind, body and spirit, classes also include pranayama, chanting, and meditation.


Moksha hot yoga was founded in Canada in 2004. In 2013, they changed the name of their affiliated U.S. studios to Modo Yoga. Both styles are based on a series of 40 poses done in a heated room. The studios are expected to adhere to environmentally conscious building and cleaning standards.


Restorative yoga makes use of props to support the body as it relaxes into poses over the course of several minutes. The idea is to stay in each pose long enough to encourage passive stretching. Seated forward bends, gentle supine back-bends, and twists are examples of the type of poses that can be adapted to be restorative with the addition of props like blankets and bolsters.


The first Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center was founded in 1959 by Swami Vishnu-devananda, a disciple of Swami Sivananda. There are now close to 80 locations worldwide, including several ashrams. Sivananda yoga is based upon five principles, including the practices of asana, pranayama, and meditation.


Yin Yoga is a practice developed by teacher Paul Grilley to find a way to stretch the body’s connective tissue, particularly around the joints. In order to do this, specific poses are help over the course of several minutes. Grilley started this method as a way to find comfort during long seated meditations.


Chair yoga is a way to make yoga more accessible to people who have trouble standing for long periods or sitting on the floor. Many postures can be adapted to incorporate the support of a chair, as you can see in this series of ten chair yoga poses. Chair yoga is particularly popular with senior citizens but is a great resource for anyone with compromised mobility.


AcroYoga is based on the collaboration of Jason Nemer and Jenny Sauer-Klein, who began practicing together in 2003. The basic idea is that one person (called the base) acts at the support for a partner (called the flyer), usually by lying on his or her back and holding the flyer up with his or her legs. The flyer then does a series of poses while balanced atop the base. This practice lends itself to performance and group play.


Aerial yoga makes use of a sling of fabric suspended from the ceiling, which is used to support your body as you hang above the floor. This support allows you to avoid stressing or compressing your joints while you are stretching. It’s also a good way to improve core strength. Some poses are also done while standing on the floor using the sling like a ropes wall.

Yoga for Specific health conditions

Yoga is an appropriate complementary medical treatment for patients suffering from anatomical disorders such as bone and joint disorders. For patients suffering from OA of the finger joints, a sequence of asanas is chosen to realign the skeletal structure and loosen stiff joints. Because many musculoskeletal problems are mechanical, yoga offers an option to change alignment and alleviate musculoskeletal problems. The goal of Iyengar yoga is to realign bones, muscles, and joints which reduces stress and may enable patients to re-establish anatomical relationships.

• One NCCAM-funded study of 90 people with chronic low-back pain found that participants who practiced Iyengar yoga had significantly less disability, pain, and depression after 6 months.

• In a 2011 study, also funded by NCCAM, researchers compared yoga with conventional stretching exercises or a self-care book in 228 adults with chronic low-back pain. The results showed that both yoga and stretching were more effective than a self-care book for improving function and reducing symptoms due to chronic low-back pain.

• Conclusions from another 2011 study of 313 adults with chronic or recurring low-back pain suggested that 12 weekly yoga classes resulted in better function than usual medical care.

The numerous approaches to yoga and the wide variation among teachers and practitioners who are willing to offer yoga-based approaches to treatment can confuse both physician and patient. Programs that gradually build from the simplest asanas seem most reasonable. For most patients suffering from arthritis and musculoskeletal disorders, the more conservative gradual yoga approaches are the most sensible approaches for physicians to explore and authorize.

Further reading:

hatha yogaThis text elucidates the entire science of hatha yoga as it was conceived and practised not only for health and fitness but for awakening the vital energies.

Hatha Yoga Pradipika








• Yoga is generally low-impact and safe for healthy people when practiced appropriately under the guidance of a well-trained instructor.

• Overall, those who practice yoga have a low rate of side effects, and the risk of serious injury from yoga is quite low. However, certain types of stroke as well as pain from nerve damage are among the rare possible side effects of practicing yoga.

• Women who are pregnant and people with certain medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, glaucoma (a condition in which fluid pressure within the eye slowly increases and may damage the eye’s optic nerve), and sciatica (pain, weakness, numbing, or tingling that may extend from the lower back to the calf, foot, or even the toes), should modify or avoid some yoga poses.