Each of us will have a unique answer to this question. Here is mine. I call a yoga practice “therapeutic” if it serves you during both times of health and times of sickness. In my experience, yoga that can only be practiced when you are healthy or pain-free has moved away from therapeutic and fits in the categories of fitness, athletics, or entertainment.
In health: going from “functional” to “thriving”
In 2003, before I started yoga, I appeared to be a relatively healthy individual. I was not much of an athlete, but I had been active with walking, hiking, or dancing. I was usually on the border of normal and overweight, and I had no chronic pain or serious diagnoses. You could say I was functional.
Lurking under this healthy appearance, however, were four issues that had plagued me since my teens:
- imbalanced blood sugar,
- compulsive eating and dieting patterns,
- difficulty breathing in cold weather (or anytime I was stressed or anxious), and
- seasonal depression.
Within the first 500 classes (in about 16 months), I was mostly out of the woods with all of these issues. And they have stayed away.
In sickness: accessibility and effectiveness during injury and pain
In my book, yoga that is therapeutic can (and should) be practiced during times of intense pain and injury. In 2004, I fractured two of my lumbar vertebrae, and in 2017 I sustained the only other back injury of my life so far. In both cases, the first place I wanted to go was to yoga. And in both cases, I left each class with significantly less pain than I had going in. In addition, my heart and lungs got to work intensely for 90 minutes, something that is rarely possible during spinal injuries.
Although parts of my spine were immobilized in both cases, I was able to use every other movable joint and muscle in my body. The importance of this cannot be overstated. When we sustain injuries or pain, the rest of the body and mind can so quickly devolve into depression, stiffness, poor digestion, reduced circulation and reduced cardiovascular and pulmonary function.
Therapeutic hatha yoga sequences will allow you to use your entire system without requiring movement or transitions that exacerbate pain. They are built around stillness during every posture and between every posture, so you can explore your range of motion and neuromuscular control with the utmost care, awareness, and precision.
Ann Chrapkiewicz, M.A., studies and writes about yoga, healing, and American culture. Her areas of expertise are therapeutic applications of Bikram Yoga and medical anthropology. Reach her at www.byca.yoga or via email at email@example.com.