I. Philosophical Foundations of Yoga as a Therapeutic Practice

The Path of Yoga


The wisdom tradition of yoga represents a complex, evolving system intended to help us develop insight into the causes of suffering and its alleviation. The tradition includes both a rich philosophical foundation and specific practices that serve as a methodology for this exploration.

Often, yoga is thought of as a set of practices consisting of some combination of physical exercises (asana), breathing techniques (pranayama), and forms or stages of meditation. However, these practices are situated within a historical and philosophical context that must be understood for optimal application. Performing the practices without knowledge of their context, intention, or goal is akin to trying to find your way to a dinner party without knowing the location, or trying to cook a meal without knowing what dishes you were trying to cook. Recognizing that these practices are part of a comprehensive methodology is essential. Within this context, specific teachings can be placed along the way as markers to help practitioners on the path toward the alleviation of suffering.

Historically, yoga has been described as a state characterized by freedom from suffering and realization of our essential nature, as well as the practices that lead to that goal.1 Yoga scholar, teacher, and creator of iRest yoga nidra meditation Richard Miller describes yoga as both the action of awakening to, and a description of, our underlying undivided essential nature.2 Part I of this book explores yoga as this realization that enables us to mitigate suffering. The later sections of the book describe the methodology and practices that lead to this aim.

The word yoga is sometimes defined as unity. This idea of union often includes some combination of body and mind or body, mind, and essential nature/spirit. Recognizing yoga as more than a set of practices—as an experience of unity to which the practices direct us for the alleviation of suffering—is essential to applying the philosophy and practices for therapeutic purposes. Understanding this overall intention also helps to clarify the many types of yoga being taught. Just as there are many paths up the mountain, many sets of practices can lead practitioners to this aim of yoga. Each individual must find for herself the practices that cultivate unity. The texts on which we draw offer diverse practices—with most including asana, pranayama, meditation, and yama and niyama (ethical principles for conscious living)—all applied to the goal of liberation from pain or suffering.

Yoga teachings offer insight into how practitioners can change their reactions and relationships to body, mind, and environmental phenomena in pursuit of unity. This process empowers us to notice and change habitual reactions that perpetuate suffering. The practices elucidate ways of interacting with body, mind, and life that ease or even resolve suffering. Yogic philosophy is practical and intended to be both contemplated and applied to everyday life.

Teaching Through Story

Oral traditions were the primary method of disseminating ideas before writing became the dominant form of communication. The use of story provides an ideal format for teaching the nuances of yogic wisdom. Both story and metaphor enable sharing of complex ideas through symbolism. Listeners are then able to determine personal meaning and application to their own circumstances. As symbols and story can be interpreted in a multitude of ways, they offer a means of sharing essential teachings across time and cultures.

Yoga therapy has this rich yogic tradition as its foundation, underpinning a distinct and unique perspective. Understanding the intentions behind the stories and texts of yoga allows yoga therapists to translate between ancient wisdom and the modem context of their clients. We can consider the symbolism offered in the stories, listen deeply to the client’s own narrative and needs, and discern how to best apply the philosophical foundation to an individualized practice for balance and well-being.

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