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Physiotherapy? Yoga Therapy? What is the Difference?

Physiotherapy, yoga therapy - what is the difference?

by Julie Seibt, Therapeutic Yoga instructor

When I am asked the difference between yoga therapy and physiotherapy, I am reminded of a one-liner from the comedic reality show, Duck Dynasty.

Phil Robertson, an irreverent, living Louisiana legend who gained fame and wealth from his family’s creation and marketing of a duck calling device, attempts to explain pet photography to his brother;

“Pet photography. That’s the degree you get when you’re rejected from a degree in aromatherapy.”

The myriad of healing treatments available to us these days can feel as confusing as Phil’s attempt to understand modern ideas.

Physical Therapy and physiotherapy are interchangeable terms. Physical Therapy is an American term, while physiotherapy or physio is commonly used in Canada, Great Britain and Australia. The shortened form of PT is often referred to in the spirit of humor as Pain and Torture. In reality, physiotherapists are healthcare professionals dedicated to promoting optimal physical activity including managing acute and chronic conditions and rehabilitating injury.

Yoga Therapy, or therapeutic yoga shares the same dedication. Both practices vary greatly with the individual therapists and their preferred techniques. Unlike physiotherapy, yoga therapy does not have a governing board to set standards. Although there are certification programs for yoga therapy, ranging from 80 - 800 hours, anyone can claim to be a yoga therapist. When choosing a practitioner in either discipline, it is important to feel safe, comfortable and to feel positive effects in your body in a short time. Get references or speak to other clients who have enjoyed success with the practitioner you are considering working with.

Often a physiotherapist only has time to treat the condition, for example, a torn rotator cuff. The yoga therapist looks at the whole person, and what movement patterns may have led to the weakness in the rotator cuff in the first place.

In physio, the client will usually be given specific exercises for an injury or condition, often with an instruction sheet to work from at home. The yoga therapist considers breath, mental, spiritual or emotional states, and compensatory movement patterns while guiding the client in the exercise. With this understanding, the client performs the exercises at home without compensation, from a parasympathetic nervous system response (“rest and digest”) in their pain-free range of motion. Results happen quickly when movement is pure and fosters ease, rather than tension.

From my experience as a yoga therapist, clients feel noticeably less pain in one to three sessions. I work under the premise that moving in pain begets pain, moving in ease creates more ease and optimal movement. Clients benefit from collaboration between myself and their physiotherapist as I bring the holistic, mind-body approach of therapeutic yoga and pure movement to the refined knowledge of a skilled physiotherapist and their array of treatments like ultrasound, electrical stimulation, heat and cold and more. This collaboration is especially effective as clients recover from surgeries like joint replacements, or with recurring injuries.

As a yoga therapist I have the privilege to focus on one person at a time for an hour, seeing their challenges in movement as their body’s unique way of finding balance - not as a thing to be fixed. The session can include breath awareness, movement, meditation, and stillness in restorative positions - depending on how the client is moving and feeling that day. I provide the stimulus for clients to access the support their body needs to do what they want to do without pain - whether it is playing on the floor with grandkids or shaving down their running time in a marathon. The body quickly responds to this new support by letting go of old patterns and pain, welcoming optimal mobility and a renewed sense of strength with ease.

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