What Makes a Yoga Therapist? – Jude Murray

This article was written by Jude Murray for the 4th issue of Amrita Magazine.

In 2010, a friend and fellow Yoga teacher came to me and said “I want to learn to do what you do, can you teach me?”

She was talking about my work with people living with cancer. At that time, I was working for a large cancer charity and developing Yoga for patients in a clinical setting.  Was I using Yoga therapeutically? Most definitely. Was I a Yoga Therapist? Well, that is debatable.  I was then, and am even more so now, a skilled and experienced Yoga teacher, with several additional therapeutic qualifications. And I have considerable experience of working with people living with cancer in clinical and non-clinical settings. But I don’t have a separate Yoga Therapy qualification. 

I responded to her request without much consideration and said “Yes, OK” and it was from that conversation that my course Healing Space was born. Since then, I have trained several Yoga teachers from the UK and internationally, to work specifically with people living with cancer and other life-limiting illness. 

Around about the same time as Healing Space started, I approached the British Council for Yoga Therapy to ask if the course could be recognised.  At that time, they were still developing what are now considered to be the recognised standards for Yoga Therapy.  The answer, then and now, is that training in one specialised aspect of  what could be defined as Yoga Therapy, is not recognised – by the BCYT at leastas Yoga Therapy (For reasons of legacy Yoga for pregnancy is recognised) 

It concerned me for some time that my course – legitimate, in-depth, skilled, evidence-based and ethically rooted in the yamas and niyamas – was not recognised.  That was until I started to understand the deeper issues surrounding the accreditation and recognition of Yoga, and the continuing – and understandably contentious – debate around what constitutes standards in Yoga. 

The BCYT defines Yoga Therapy as follows

“Yoga Therapy is the use of Yoga where there is a specific health need or needs…Yoga Therapy uses the tools that you would find in many Yoga classes; postures, working with the breath, meditation, awareness of the body and/or mind, relaxation, and these are directed to the needs and ability of the person concerned.” 

Which, to me, sounds pretty much like… well…Yoga!  

And this is at the heart of why – despite my considerable experience in the therapeutic application of Yoga – I do not officially describe myself as a Yoga Therapist. And my students and graduates are encouraged to describe themselves as Yoga Teachers working therapeutically. Yoga is in its very essence, therapeutic, if we think of it in terms of a holistic practice, and not just the asana-based practice that defines most modern postural Yoga.  

Another thing that I make a deliberate and very clear statement about is that, whilst Yoga can help people to feel and function better, it is not a cure for cancer (or anything else) This is not just an ethical choice on my part, it is actually a legal disclaimer. Because, legally, anyone who is not medically qualified is not allowed to make any medical claims about what they are offering. I am concerned that Yoga teachers are not always made aware of this. 

“And this is at the heart of why………. I do not officially describe myself as a Yoga Therapist”

I run a mentoring group for Yoga teachers on Facebook and a considerable percentage of the queries we get from newly qualified teachers is about how they can actively help identify and treat injuries, illnesses, and mental health conditions in their students. And it alarms me. What alarms me more is the number of answers (despite the group guidelines) that some relatively inexperienced teachers are willing to offer. As far as I am concerned, the only ethical answer that a Yoga teacher should give to someone experiencing an undiagnosed health condition is “Speak to your doctor” Thereafter, if the person has a diagnosed injury or health condition, then the Yoga teacher’s job is to help that person modify their practice to their individual limitations and circumstances. The Yoga will, if it is appropriately modified, inevitably be helpful.

Now, I could, if I wanted to – there being no legal or professional barriers to me doing so – call myself Yoga anything. As Yoga teacher trainings continue to proliferate, we are seeing more and more applications, adaptations and fantastical hybrids of Yoga being developed and sold.  I am not the only senior teacher to be worried by this. Some respond by calling for more standards and others by vociferously rejecting any idea of externally imposed standards on a centuries old Indian science and discipline. I confess I fall somewhat into the latter category. And in truth, it is likely that the standards I uphold on my training actually far out measure those required of any current accreditation!

My deep belief is that Yoga teaching, as a calling, ideally emerges out of an existing and committed Yoga practice. And rather than being limited by standards, it should be something that is guided and nurtured by senior Yoga teachers, who have some considerable experience in doing the work. Similarly, Yoga offered therapeutically, is more ideally offered by those who already have an established teaching practice, or at the very least a long term and committed personal practice AND some additional experience of the work that they are about to get into, either gained professionally, or through some in-depth further training.  

The role of the Yoga membership organisations, with their networks of teachers with countless combined years of experience of teaching, is absolutely key in guiding this process sympathetically. I am heartened to see some of those organisations, such as YAP, actively consulting with their members on these issues. 

Jude Murray

Jude is a yoga teacher and therapist, complementary therapist, and embodiment facilitator with nearly thirty years’ experience as a teacher, trainer and group-work facilitator in the public and voluntary sectors and in private industry.  She has been course director on Healing Space -Yoga for people living with cancer – since 2011 and has significant experience of offering yoga in acute and palliative care settings. She is a Scot based in Brighton and teaches there, across the UK, and internationally.

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