Get Set, Stretch: The Practice and Profession of Yoga Therapy

Yoga therapist Chelsea Lee strikes a forest-set pose. - Chelsea Lee on Facebook (Kevin Su Photography)
Yoga therapist Chelsea Lee strikes a forest-set pose.
— image credit: Chelsea Lee on Facebook (Kevin Su Photography)

Chances are, you know everything about yoga… but also nothing at all.

If you’re ignorant and inexperienced like me, your mind combines Lululemon with any holistic lifestyle, and you can’t help yourself from lumping rhythmic stretching in with too-trendy words like chakras, karma, or coconut water. Or you may love yoga. You may go and sweat and contort yourself in ways that help you leave that studio breathing easier and sleeping better.

We’re all different. But yoga is a business, an industry, and – for many – a form of treatment.

Take yoga therapy, which aims to fuse the physical with the mental and the spiritual. The West with the East, if it can.

"It differs from physio or any other kind of movement-based therapies like Pilates or aerobics,” says Chelsea Lee, a 26-year-old yoga therapist based in White Rock and South Surrey. “It works with the individual on many layers."

Lee works at Diane Lee & Associates physiotherapy, teaching private yoga therapy sessions, and also teaches at Vayusha Voga in Surrey.

"Within a yoga therapy session, there are postures and movements, breathing techniques, relaxation, meditation,” she says. “With counselling… using dialogue to create awareness and a connection of what’s happening to your body and what’s happening in your mind."

If it wants to become a mainstream medical option, yoga therapy has its work cut out for it. Institutional medicine has shunned many forms of alternative treatment, often for established reasons.

But yoga therapy, although relatively new for many people, has been around for a long time. And it carries a clientele that exists both in and outside the hospital. A sort of Venn Diagram between the emergency room and a yoga mat.

"Yoga therapy has been around for decades and it’s accepted as a complimentary medicine," Lee says. "It’s not curative… it’s complimentary, it goes well alongside physio and chiropractics.

"Football players do yoga. It’s accepted within society, not seen as this fluffy whatever. There’s validity to it now."

While much of the physical side of her therapy involves the very simple concept of stretching, Lee says her classes try to go a little further, or at least accomplish something else.

"I would say the biggest thing is movement and breath," she says. "Most classes, they’ll tell you to breathe but not how to breathe."

Her clients range. Some are referred from other practices. Some walk in their own. Some eat up everything the world of yoga and its culture has to offer. Others might think a Yogi is just a cartoon bear.

"You meet people where they’re at," Lee says. "You speak to your audience. You speak to who’s in front of you.

"You could have someone who walks in wearing all bamboo, drinking coconut, right from yoga… Or, you could get a guy who walks in off a construction site, with work boots on."

Lee received her Diploma of Yoga Therapy from Victoria, B.C.’s Pacific Rim College last year, making her a Certified Yoga Therapist (CYT).

After graduating from UBC’s Sauder School of Business – with a Master’s dual degree in Business Administration and Arts – Lee worked her way into and then through a job with a Vancouver-based executive search firm.

"I hated it, sitting at a desk all day," she says. "My favourite part of the day was going to yoga at the end of work. One day, I just realized that I needed to be in that industry and in healing."

She finished hundreds of hours of training, travelled through Southeast Asia – as any aspiring yoga therapist would do – and her course on Vancouver Island.

And now, she’s doing what she loves.

Her sessions are normally an hour long. They start with a "general intake" and conversations around her clients’ goals and their reasons for being there. Then, there’s stretching, there’s strengthening, more stretching, some relaxation. It’s called a physical assessment.

Her clients range from young athletes to 70-year-old women who are trying to get out of bed in the morning, to people who work in an office all day or those who have developed chronic pain.

"People with traumas, who have been in car accidents, have mental or emotional trauma," she says, listing them off. "A lot of people that come in have anxiety or PTSD or some sort of trauma.

"Those are sometimes the most rewarding clients. It’s sometimes, you spend the hour just helping someone breathe, connect to their breath, which is challenging to a lot of people."

Her favourite part of the job? That would be the mental aspect, or at least the mental effort. The idea of addressing the root of a problem, even something seemingly self-explanatory like insomnia.

"Maybe insomnia is the symptom, but trying to create techniques to help them get to sleep isn’t going to cause lasting change," she says.

"Is there something that’s happened over the past few years? Is there stress around money? What’s underneath it?

"If you think about how you feel with your body when you’re angry or stressed, this is an emotion that manifests itself physically."

Lee says it’s that part of her practice – the aim to address, caress, and cure a symptom – that has led her toward an Eastern system.

"I think the biggest issue I have with the Western system is treating the symptom," she says. "You go into see your doctor, and you say, 'I’ve got pain in my gut or in my leg.' They’re pretty quick to give you a prescription for pain medication, as opposed to in Eastern, they would analyze what’s causing the pain and find the source, rather than masking it with medication.

"It’s more about creating lasting change. This is really a huge part of yoga therapy. It’s empowering, teaching how to take matters into your own hands."

You could call yoga a saturated product, especially right now. The industry has high-end retailers, a studio next to every suburban Starbucks, and a surplus of teachers and students.

"Anyone, for a while, could really teach yoga," Lee says. "But there’s the yoga industry and then yoga therapy is a niche.

"Everyone knows what a yoga teacher is. Not everyone knows what yoga therapy is."

Perhaps, now you do.

Yoga therapist

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