Yoga Therapy as a Profession

As editor of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy (published by the International Association of Yoga Therapists or IAYT), Kelly McGonigal is on the cutting edge of the Yoga therapy field. Here, she shares, from her unique vantage point, her views on the field of Yoga therapy and professional development for Yoga therapists.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): What is your role as editor of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy?

Kelly McGonigal (KM): I see myself as someone who is facilitating a conversation. As editor, I deliberately invite points of view that have not been well represented and put articles that take very different approaches side by side and let people sit with that. The field is open to this. There is a real desire to come together. When I came on board, I had a chance to talk to some of the leaders in the field of Yoga therapy. I learned there was a time when it was difficult to have everyone in the same room because there was so much disagreement about what was the “real” Yoga.  People in the field seem to be beyond this now.

IYM: How does the IAYT annual conference contribute to the development of Yoga as a profession?

KM: The initial idea was modeled on a professional or academic conference. For 2008, participants asked for more interactive learning opportunities, so we offered the option of choosing a track. For example, there was a “Psychological Issues and Emotions” track. Participants were able to build on what they learned in the main sessions by doing practices with leaders in the area of integrating Yoga and psychology. Our conferences provide a broad tent in which many different approaches are included. Simultaneously, we recognize and honor that there is specialization within the field of Yoga therapy. The 2009 conference will focus on small common-interest communities that can network and learn together within the broader conference.

IYM: For what kind of training should potential Yoga therapists look?

KM: First, I think they should get a generalist training that includes a deep understanding of Yoga’s philosophy and history. It is also important to be firmly grounded in your own Yoga practice. Then, think about the population you are most drawn to teaching. I just heard Seane Corne speak at a conference, and she said that whatever drew you to Yoga is the place you can be of the most service. I think this is a really good model for thinking about what population you can serve. Once you settle on a population, you can find a program that offers a process and specific knowledge that will help you serve this population.

IYM: And collaborate with other health professionals serving that population?

KM: Yoga therapists absolutely should plan to develop a support structure in other fields. For example, if you are interested in working with people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), look around your community and get to know the psychologists who are doing this and the Veterans Association. You are not going to be doing what the psychologists do, but you need to know how they work and how they think about the experience of PTSD.

IYM: You also teach psychology at Stanford University. Do you see universities beginning to offer more academic classes on Yoga and Yoga therapy?

KM: This doesn’t seem to be happening. The integration of Yoga into mainstream medical education seems to be occurring at a far more rapid pace. It’s rare to see a stand-alone course on Yoga therapy or philosophy. Universities have a number of health or recreational classes in Yoga and stress reduction. I think this kind of practical education is more important than creating an academic pathway to becoming a Yoga therapist.    

IYM: As a psychologist do you think Yoga therapists need to be dually trained in psychology and Yoga to teach people with mental illness?

KM: What is more important is to have a personal practice of Yoga. Your authenticity is part of what makes a relationship healing and empowering. Yoga therapy is not for people who are having a deep psychological crisis that requires medication and hospitalization; nor is it for people who are an immediate danger to themselves and others. But if someone is having the usual experience of suffering, there is nothing better than Yoga practice, meditation and mindfulness-based practices. So many people are suffering; 50 percent of all people will experience a psychological illness in their lifetime. Yoga therapists have the skills to work with ordinary human suffering. Amy Weintraub talks about the importance of having a mentor to speak with when you feel like you are being ineffective with a client—this is invaluable. Yoga teachers could really benefit from understanding the psychological concept of projection and learning how to deal with students who bring up your shadow aspect; it is important that we not let this derail the teacher-student relationship.

IYM: How do you deal with difficult emotions that arise within yourself or your students during a Yoga class?

KM: The practice I’ve been taught is to cultivate a sense of yourself as a caregiver for your emotions, to witness the emotion without feeling like you need to fix it or make it go away, to feel a tremendous sense of compassion for the emotion and for the “you” that feels it (including yourself as a child, if the emotion relates to early experiences or family conflict). When the emotion arises, hold the experience in your heart and body and say to it, “Welcome. You are safe.” Feel the emotion the way you might feel a Yoga pose—as an experience of the body and breath. Maintain a witness consciousness that can observe the experience. Recognize that the emotion is not a permanent state and it is not all of you, or all that you are. Then, practice self-care. Do whatever you need to do in the moment—rest, choose to do something different than the rest of the class, cry and breathe. See if you can hold the spaciousness that allowed the emotion to show up. If you keep the spaciousness, the emotion will soften and run its course.

Teachers need to have that same attitude toward their students, and their students’ experiences. If you are comfortable with your own emotions, you will be able to hold the space for your students.

The second thing has to do with finding connection within the community of a Yoga class. One thing I do, as a teacher, is to look at each student lying in savasana and think, “Thank you for being here. May you be happy, may you know peace.” I focus on each student—really seeing that person, and feeling my gratitude to them for simply showing up to help hold the space for everyone in the class. As a student, you can cultivate the same sense of gratitude for the people who share the space and practice with you. One of my teachers says that the ideal spiritual community is one that shows up and practices with you—you don’t hang out at each other’s houses, but you just hold the practice space for each other—without having to explain or justify or wear the identity of who you are outside of the practice space. You don’t need to know the people who practice with you, or even ever talk to them, to feel connected and supported by them. Practice playing that role for other students, offer spacious acceptance.

IYM: What should Yoga therapists and teachers know if they want to submit articles to the Journal?

KM: We went to peer review a few years ago. It’s a great process. The idea of peer review is that leaders and experts in your area take a look at the article you have written and help decide whether it makes a contribution to the field. The reviewers make specific suggestions to the author about how they might revise the article. I really want every article that goes through peer review to be given as much of a chance as possible to be published.

I have been encouraging people to not submit articles that reiterate important ideas in a really general way—for example, that the yamas and niyamas matter. They do matter, but what matters to our readers is what you, as a Yoga therapist, are doing with them. Create a record of your process and share it. The journal is a place to connect the general view of the yamas and niyamas with the specifics of what they look like when you are working with someone who is in incredible pain and can’t get out of bed. We are not necessarily interested in a prescriptive approach, but in reflections on what therapeutic relation-ships are like with specific conditions.

IYM: What do you see as essential to the future of Yoga therapy as a discipline?

KM: The first thing we need to do is to make everyone a generalist before they become a specialist. It would be helpful for the field to have some ethical standards and philosophy, which everyone can pretty much agree on. We have to understand what it is that makes Yoga unique. Yoga is not necessarily a cure for specific diseases. Yogic philosophy grounds us in a way of understanding the world and interacting with other human beings. You don’t necessarily need to know how to fix a rotator cuff problem. You can share the Yogic understanding of the world, and this will change how someone experiences their body and mind.

About Kelly McGonigal, PhD

Kelly McGonigal is also the editor of Yoga Therapy in Practice, a tri-annual publication of the IAYT. She is a health psychologist at Stanford University, where she teaches Yoga, meditation and psychology. To find out more about Kelly McGonigal and her work go to her website, For more information on the IAYT click here.

Reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, Fall 2008

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