This is a great question to ask, both for people who are considering yoga therapy and physical therapy as treatment options as well as those who are considering them as potential career paths. While my expertise is in yoga therapy, I have immense respect for both fields and believe that they each have a lot to offer.
Keep reading to get an understanding of yoga therapy vs. physical therapy, how yoga therapists and physical therapists are trained, and when to seek out a physical therapist, a yoga therapist, or both.
Yoga therapy and physical therapy share a common goal: helping to heal physical conditions. One of the major differences between them to keep in mind is that physical therapists focus only on the body, while yoga therapists take a more holistic approach.
In many cases, a patient will go to a physical therapist first and if those techniques are not enough to resolve the issue, then they’ll enlist the help of a yoga therapist. In certain situations where the benefit of a yoga therapist is clear from the start, however, it can be a good idea to work with physical therapy and yoga therapy simultaneously.
With this overview in mind, I’ll dive deeper into the similarities and differences of yoga therapy and physical therapy below, taking into account the use cases and training required for each.
Let’s get this out of the way first. I don’t think that yoga therapy is always better than physical therapy, or that physical therapy is always better than yoga therapy. Rather than asking if yoga is better than physical therapy, a better question to ask is if yoga therapy or physical therapy is a better option for you.
If you’re a client, the answer will depend on what you’re trying to heal, how your body has responded so far, and if there are other factors at play, such as a history of trauma or a mental health condition. If you’re a job seeker, the answer will depend on your goals, interests, work style, and educational attainment.
Yoga therapy is actually similar to physical therapy in several ways:
Goals: Both yoga therapy and physical therapy aim to heal people from physical problems and pains.
Training: Although their training differs in many ways, both yoga therapists and physical therapists learn about human anatomy and muscular issues.
Process: In most cases, yoga therapists and physical therapists alike will perform an intake assessment, come up with a treatment plan, and walk clients through different stretches and exercises to perform.
Although they have their similarities, there are many more ways in which yoga therapy is different from physical therapy.
Physical therapists complete a significant amount of training, including their doctorate degree. They learn how to help patients with all areas of human muscular or structural dysfunction. Physical therapists also have much more extensive training in pathology, giving them more knowledge about health conditions and diagnoses.
Yoga therapists do not need a graduate degree to practice. Instead, they should become IAYT certified, the highest level of yoga therapy certification. The requirements include at least 800 hours of yoga therapy training in an accredited program as well as passing a certification exam.
Yoga therapists learn how to apply yoga techniques to physical and mental health conditions. These techniques include asanas (yoga poses), pranayamas (breathing techniques), meditation, and even chanting. Yoga therapists study anatomy, yogic philosophy, therapeutic application of techniques, and much more to prepare them for working with a wide variety of clients and health conditions.
Physical therapists only work with the body. Common issues that physical therapists treat include hip pain, shoulder dysfunction, and back pain. PTs are especially valuable in helping patients recover from injuries or rehab from surgeries. It makes the most sense to see a physical therapist if you’re facing an acute issue.
By contrast, yoga therapists work on a more holistic whole-person model that includes both body and mind. They can treat physical issues as well as mental conditions. When considering yoga therapy vs. physical therapy, it makes more sense to see a yoga therapist if an acute injury has become chronic or if physical therapy isn’t producing the desired results.
Yoga therapy can also be more beneficial if there are other factors involved. For example, a yoga therapist can use techniques to reduce someone’s anxiety level before starting certain treatments or work with survivors in a trauma-informed approach.
With their training in pathology, physical therapists can perform diagnostic tests to determine the root cause of a physical problem, while yoga therapists are not trained to make diagnoses. Many physical therapists also have physical manipulation skills, which allow them to perform techniques to help muscles relax. Physical therapists often have a significant amount of tools at their disposal, such as hot and cold therapy devices and stim machines.
However, physical therapists are often limited by insurance considerations in terms of how they work and the time they can spend with patients. In many cases, patients will actually see a physical therapy assistant because PTAs require less education and training. The physical therapist oversees their work.
Unlike physical therapists, yoga therapists also have training to assess breathing patterns and how they might affect a client’s pain and healing outcomes. Breath can be a guide for pain, affecting the client’s body and potentially even allowing them to shift their perception of pain. Yoga therapists not only work with movement and breath patterns, but also different mental states, specific breathing techniques, and meditation. Breathing and meditation can be used by yoga therapists to better prepare clients for certain types of treatments, giving them a better chance at a positive outcome.
Yoga therapy is not often covered by insurance, which can actually give yoga therapists more flexibility in how they work. Yoga therapists are able to work directly with clients, learn more about their experiences, and spend more time assessing their exercises over time and making any necessary adjustments to help promote healing.
If someone’s issue is purely muscular, then it may not make sense to combine yoga and physical therapy from the start. A physical therapist would be the first stop in their healing process to see if they can resolve the problem. If not, a yoga therapist can provide more individualized instruction that incorporates additional techniques, such as how to move and breathe to reduce suffering. A yoga therapist can often be helpful in finding the best way to integrate movement therapy into a client’s life and bring them to the end of their healing journey.
However, there are many other times when it works best to use physical therapy and yoga therapy in tandem. If someone has a history of trauma or a mental health condition and they are also facing a physical issue, then combining yoga and physical therapy from the beginning could work best.
The benefits of engaging both yoga and physical therapy include:
Gaining multiple perspectives on a case
Addressing both physical and mental conditions
Creating a holistic approach that incorporates many techniques
Accessing more resources to healing
Preparing better before treatments that may be triggering
For instance, you may need a physical therapist to help you recover from whiplash after a car accident. But 22% of road traffic accident survivors develop PTSD. While a physical therapist can help work on your muscles, a yoga therapist can help you to move safely and in ways that aren’t triggering.
If you’re considering a career in yoga vs. physical therapy, you may be wondering if there are opportunities to do both lines of work. I’ve seen plenty of PTs and PTAs who also become yoga therapists and vice versa.
For those who are interested in both, I think it’s highly beneficial to seek yoga therapy certification as a physical therapist or PTA. Yoga therapy is a great complement to physical therapy, and using the two together can make you a highly competitive job candidate.
If you’re interested in being able to investigate different ways to get results for your clients, having a background in both physical therapy and yoga therapy gives you significantly more options. This combination is also attractive to those seeking a more holistic model of healing others.
For more examples of how a yoga therapist might work with a client who has already been to physical therapy, watch my video below.
Thinking about becoming a yoga therapist? I’m proud to be able to offer my students training at any stage of their education.
At Breathing Deeply Yoga Therapy, we’re committed to providing practical, flexible training programs that help make ethical yoga therapy more accessible to others. Unlike other yoga schools, our 200-hour yoga teacher training program takes a yoga therapist approach to better align with a career in yoga therapy. It can be easily combined with our Foundations Program and Advanced Program as needed, culminating in C-IAYT certification in as little as two years.
Often, the multidimensional nature of yoga therapy is the missing link that moves clients from “sort of better” to completely healed. Contact us today to learn more about getting started in this exciting field and helping others.
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