There is much talk of Yoga Therapy amongst the Yoga community, with increasing numbers of studies reporting favourable results in the efficacy of Yoga Therapy and Ayurvedic practices as an aid to overcoming a diverse range of diseases. So, what is Yoga Therapy?
Yoga Therapy is a combination of Ayurveda and Yoga formulated specifically for each individual to create a foundation for physical, mental and spiritual health. We achieve health and vitality through sincere, consistent and dedicated lifestyle practices. Food is medicine, movement is medicine, and breathing and any positive sensory input can also be healing in nature.
The ancient Indian Ayurvedic text Charaka Samhita written in approx. 4000 C.E., outlines the practice of maintaining health and treating diseases holistically. One of the basic principles is that optimal health requires harmony and equilibrium within our individual bodies and in all aspects of our lives – all of our interactions – and in our relationship with nature.
Every experience has an effect on both the biological and psychological aspects of ourselves, seen as the Pancha Maya Koshas, (five subtle bodies of the self). When we contemplate the koshas we work from the gross inwards to the most subtle. The sheaths (layers) are separate, yet each one feeds into the other and the free flow of energy
The first body is the Anamaya Kosha (the body sheath).
This is our physical form, the gross body nourished and sustained by the food that we eat. Fresh, local and in-season foods with the use of all six tastes create a happy and healthy body. Additional healing tools for this kosha include appropriate movement – various forms of Yoga asana, walking, running, swimming, martial arts and other sporting activities which can be integrated into daily life.
The second body is the Pranamaya Kosha (the breath/energy sheath).
Here we move to the subtle body which is sustained by Prana (universal energy). Five forms of Prana move through the body via the nadis (energy channels) – Prana, Udana, Samana, Apana and Vyana. These five Pranas, when flowing freely, maintain vitality, relieve stress and aid in optimal functioning of the organs. Pranamaya Kosha can be nourished with Integral Hatha Yoga and pranayama.
The third body is the Manomaya Kosha (the mind sheath).
Sustained by thought, Manomaya Kosha is also maintained by both Anamaya and Pranamaya Koshas. The mind, when peaceful, generates positivity and good health. The use of sound, particularly sacred sounds or chants, and engaging the mind through study will increase creativity, cognition and perception.
The fourth body is the Vijnanamaya Kosha (the intellect or wisdom sheath).
Nourished by positive relationships, seva, meditation
and self-reflection, the wisdom body is awareness that is untouched by any changes in the physical body.
Anandamaya Kosha (the bliss sheath).
This, the most subtle of the five bodies, is also the deepest and most profound. Anandamaya Kosha is the essence of bliss or pure joy said to be the home of the Self, a tiny seed seated in the spiritual heart. Here we are in our natural state of unconditional joy, everything that feeds the first four sheaths will feed and nourish this body.
Everyday Yoga Therapy
Throughout my years of learning and sharing, Yoga Therapy has been an incredible tool. Being slightly Vata-deranged at times, I am inconsistent with my regimes and often forget to take my herbal mixtures. And that’s okay. I decided that the best thing for me is to do what I can, when I can, with what I have. Of course, with serious diseases the motivation to heal is much stronger and consistency is essential if you are to halt, reverse or eradicate the disease. Sometimes a cure is not in our Dharma; my teacher and dear soul Anthea Parkinson is a Yoga Therapist who has worked with many terminally ill beings, easing the pain and guiding them through the fear to a place of ease and contentment in their final moments.
Whether the origin of the disease is physical, psychological or spiritual, our first challenge in improving health is to detoxify and purify our entire being. The various bodily systems can be cleansed at home using abhyanga (daily oil massage), oil pulling, basti (enemas), vaman (vomiting therapy – please consult a trained Ayurvedic healthcare professional for the correct procedure), a three- to five-day Ayurvedic light eating plan with appropriate herbs/spices to reduce ama (toxic build up) and balance agni (digestive fire).
When embarking on a dosha pacifying way of eating, the sudden elimination of a host of your favourite foods can create a reluctance and add stress to an already stressful condition, so my approach is ‘baby steps’. When we struggle with change or feel overwhelmed, we can identify the most problematic elements and work on changing or reducing those; in this way we can slowly adapt without feeling resistant or pressured. Feeling healthier, happier and more vibrant as you eliminate the dosha- disrupting elements encourages you to continue even when it feels daunting; even if the herbs are so bitter that you can barely swallow them, stay positive, it will end!
Integral Hatha Yoga adds movement with mindful breathing to help release toxins from the body. Pranayama and meditation/visualisation are used to purify the nadis and energy fields.
If a deeper cleanse is needed, Pancha Karma (the five actions) can be done by trained professionals who are skilled in the Ayurvedic art of snehana (various forms of oil massage), including abhyanga – full body massage with one litre of warm sesame oil, shirodhara – oil flowing onto the eyebrow centre, and nasya – steam inhalation and insufflation of unctuous fluids into the nasal cavities.
In the times when I was plagued by sinusitis I practised jala-neti. The salt water mixed with a little turmeric flushed the nasal passages and sinuses, (salt to break down the excess kapha phlegm and turmeric as an antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and auto immune balancer). Because there was no redness or infection my pitta was fine and a few gentle, dynamic backbends helped to warm and dry-up the cold, wet kapha. To prevent sinusitis I still use Bhramari pranayama (humming on the exhalation), lightly tapping around my whole face whenever my sinuses start to feel congested. A little mustard oil, massaged into the nostrils at night, warms and lubricates the nasal tissues reducing excess kapha.
Many years ago I suffered from bouts of extreme tiredness along with a few other minor symptoms. Thinking that I was just working too hard, I practised backbends and inversions to raise my pitta energy whenever I needed a boost and used nadi sodhana and Yoga nidra to recharge and settle my vata. Eventually I went to a GP, had blood tests and was diagnosed with anaemia (haemoglobin level of just over seven). Once I knew what the problem was, a simple adjustment to my B12-deficient vegetarian diet was all that was needed. Although not the solution in the end, Yoga Therapy kept me going for two years, in this case my stubborn belief in the power of my body to heal itself and my lack of faith in the allopathic doctors kept me from doing what was best for my health. I am a little wiser now.
Caring and compassionate healthcare, with allopathic and holistic methods complementing each other, is a possibility. I have seen successful results in fertility treatments where Yoga Therapy has been used alone and in conjunction with acupuncture, homeopathy and allopathic regimes.
My teacher is free from rheumatoid arthritis – after following a strict Ayurvedic Yoga Therapy regime; the autoimmune response which results in RA has been tamed. A friend and student is also free from her arthritis after spending a month at an Ayurvedic Clinic in India; the regime was strict at times, however the results speak for themselves.
Change is possible, whatever route you prefer to take, the tools are here to support you in your path home to your true nature, the perfection of your vibrant, joyful, true Self.
Jennifer Stephens was born in England and moved to Cape Town in 1990. Her Yoga journey began in 1995 at Ananda Kutir Ashrama where, under the guidance of Sri Yogeshwari and Swami Parvathiananda, she began her study of Integral Hatha Yoga, completed the Yoga Teacher Training Course in 1999, and then continued her studies, gaining a Diploma in Yoga Therapy and Ayurveda in 2003. She has since been certified by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) and is an approved member of the American Association of Biocharacteristics Clinicians (AABC). She has taught at the Ashram, trained Yoga teachers on the Integral Yoga TTC, taught general Yoga classes, workshops and retreats, along with aiding the recovery and wellbeing of adults and children through Yoga Therapy.
Jennifer created her Ayurvedic products company, Shambhavi, as a way to fund her outreach with rural women and children, educators and residents of Nyanga, Cape Town. Her Seva is serving as an outreach
Coordinator for two NPOs. She is also co-founder and lecturer at the Academy of Yoga and Ayurvedaennifer@shambhavi.co.za
References and further reading:
Lad, Vasant. Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing. Lotus Press, 2009. Frawley, David, and Vasant Lad. The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine. Motilal Banarsidass, 2016.
Lad, V. At home panchakarma cleanse. Ayurvedic Press, 2018.
Yadav PV, Medical Perspective on Ama as per Ayurveda and Modern Consideration: A Review, Journal of Drug Delivery and Therapeutics. 2020; 10(1-s):205-207
Stiles, M. Ayurvedic yoga therapy. Twin Lakes, Wis.: Lotus Press, 2010