Therapeutic Yoga: It's Not What You Think It Is
By Dar Dowling
New York–based writer and visual artist
Therapeutic yoga? Really? Yup, it's actually some kind of amazing once you give it a chance and get past the name. For a long time I didn't think it was for me, since I'm not old or sick, and it definitely didn't sound like it was going to be fun. I've done lots of yoga, including a bit of naked yoga, but that's a story for another day. But the truth is I really needed to relax, so when a friend strongly suggested I take Cheri Clampett's and Arturo Peal’s workshop, of course I said no, but then I gave up, or in, and went.
So I headed off to a yearly teacher training in therapeutic yoga. Upon arrival I found mats piled high with bolsters, pillows, and blankets topped off with an eye pillow waiting for me -- all standard equipment in a therapeutic yoga class or workshop, where you can spend up to 10 minutes easing into and resting in a single supported pose. I carefully chose a blue mat close to the door just in case I needed to make my escape, almost certain that I would end up slinking out the door at some point.
After the first few minutes of laying in the first pose, which was a bit like a mini vacation for my body, with a tiny pillow covering my eyes, easing my usually chattering mind, I had no desire to go anywhere. For the next 2.5 hours, which passed way too quickly, Cheri and Arturo Peal, her teaching partner, took us through a series of poses accompanied by energy work, meditation and breath work. I left feeling so good -- relaxed, restored, and maybe just a little drunk on yoga.
I really hate it when I'm wrong, but I was -- therapeutic yoga was for me and for anyone who wants to relax, de-stress or just feel good. While my body got a great gentle, yet deep stretch, working out old and new spots of tightness, so did my psyche -- an unexpected and exciting side benefit. I have friends who would never go to a regular yoga class thinking they can't do yoga because they're too tight, too big, or too whatever, but they can do therapeutic yoga. When I looked around the class "everyone" was there, different body types, ages, and skill levels, and Cheri Clampett wouldn't have it any other way.
So now after that class I was just a little bit in love with therapeutic yoga, so I went on a quest to learn more about it, discovering along the way it's a mix of restorative and gentle yoga, combined with some breath work, guided meditation and hands on energy work. Why read about it when you can go to the source, so I scored a chat with Cheri, during which it became very clear to me that therapeutic yoga is very much a reflection of who she is and where she's been.
It's funny how yoga works, coming into your life when it comes. It came into mine during an inventive high school gym class, then again years later when I was unemployed and stressed out about it. While Cheri was exposed to yoga at a Sikh camp in her teens, it wasn't until her 20s, in yoga class in L.A. that "it" stuck. For Cheri, finding yoga was serious business, a lot more serious than mine, saying "if I didn't find yoga I might not be alive" because during that class, she actually had time to listen to her body and realized something was askew, went to the doctor and found out she had cancer.
Traditional therapies followed, as did remission, but as cancer sometimes does, it came back, and Cheri opted for another approach: seeing a holistic doctor and chiropractor, along with daily treks to the ocean to swim, eating a macrobiotic diet, doing breathing exercises and yoga. But she also did some inner work to release some old anger and sadness.
Ultimately her plan worked, and a new path opened up for her: training as an energy worker, massage therapist, and a yoga teacher. But like her road to yoga, her road to developing therapeutic yoga involved lots of twists and turns, and influences. I always like to find the "ah ha" moment in a story, and in this case it happened in L.A., where Cheri was teaching classes for students with HIV/AIDS while at the same time she was training and assisting in restorative and prenatal yoga classes.
Realizing that the supported poses used in both were perfect for her AIDS/HIV students, allowing them to open more easily, and deeply, getting more out of the practice, regardless of their skill set or physicality, she gathered up all the pillows in the center to try the poses out on her students. They loved it, ultimately seeing and feeling changes in their bodies, outlook and health. Throughout this process her "students were her teachers" showing her what they needed. Later on Cheri began teaching classes for cancer patients, while also bringing a class to a local hospice, where the staff started doing therapeutic yoga too, needing to unwind and release some stress. Even back then therapeutic yoga was for everyone.
Chances are you're still thinking that therapeutic yoga, with it's oh so un-sexy name, is not for you, because you're not sick, but take it from me -- it is. While it's a great adjunct for individuals wrestling with health and structural issues, for people like me who are tightly wound and desperately in need to some relaxation it can be a very real yoga vacation -- especially if you work, play and worry too hard.