Yoga and Physiotherapy

Yoga and Physiotherapy – What are the advantages of combining these two modalities? And are physio’s referring more to Yoga rather than Pilates?

Before exploring this topic further it is important to understand what is Yoga and what is Physiotherapy.

Yoga is an age old practice that includes breath control, meditation and specific body postures. People practise Yoga for health and relaxation. There is also a wealth of philosophy to explore related to traditional Yoga teaching.

You may also have heard of Yoga therapy. Yoga therapy is a holistic model. The therapist works to correct muscular imbalances, breathing techniques and meditation. Individuals are given tools and techniques to optimise their own healing potential.

Physiotherapy is a body therapy. A physiotherapist works to to recognise and correct muscular/structural dysfunction. The practitioner will use mostly physical manipulation skills to treat the root of a physical problem. They will see patients with pain symptoms, post operative rehab, recent trauma such as car accidents and sports injuries.

Each modality has an optimal time during the rehab process. For example, following an orthopaedic surgery a patient will require physiotherapy. Post rehab the physiotherapist  will encourage the patient to continue with regular exercise.

Yoga is typically more of a maintenance or preventative practice. It is also hugely fashionable at the moment to practice Yoga.

Yoga therapy is a more specific option. It can be the missing link to a patient who struggles to return to optimal health. Yoga therapist’s are trained to give individualised instruction as to how to move and breathe.

For a long time Pilates was the preferred choice of Physiotherapists. Postural imbalances, sedentary lifestyles leave many people with weak core strength which results in neck and back pain. Many Physiotherapists qualified as Pilates instructors to overlap the benefits of these two modalities.

What is changing?

Recently more and more Physiotherapists are opting for Yoga. Some medical practices even offer on site Yoga classes. Is this purely because of the general “Yoga Boom” or are medical professionals recognising the benefits to Yoga?

More Physiotherapists are themselves practicing Yoga and even qualifying as Yoga teachers if not Yoga therapists.

I recently lectured the second year WITS Physiotherapy students. I give an annual lecture on the comparisons of Yoga and Pilates, why and when you would refer each modality. The intention of my lecture is for the students to recognise that both practices have pro’s and cons. Pilates draws from many Yoga principles. But the fundamental differences are the breathing techniques.

WITS Campus

Forty WITS second year physio students in Savasana

Any health practitioner or medical professional will acknowledge that exercise can improve your mood and general well-being. Does it really matter what type of exercise a person does?

The general benefits of Yoga

  • Yogic practices give direct and tangible benefits to everyone, regardless of their spiritual aims.
  • Yoga enhances the health and youthfulness of the body
  • Clarity of mind
  • It is suitable for all ages and levels of fitness
  • Yoga is non-competitive
  • Strengthens intrinsic muscles and encourages a flexibility training component
  • It is a physical and mental therapy
  • Provides a comprehensive system of movement that stretches, strengthens, tones, helps to correct alignment and improves the health of the entire body

Yoga also has added benefits to the cardiovascular system. The physical postures are isometric which improves the cardiovascular fitness and circulation in the body. Studies show that regular Yoga practice may help normalise blood pressure.

A sluggish digestive system will benefit from the massaging effect of surrounding muscles and stimulated blood circulation.

Since joints are moved through their full range of motion, they are suitably mobilised. The gentle stretching will release muscle and joint tension and stiffness. Flexibly is increased. Holding the physical postures will improve strength and endurance of the musculoskeletal system.

Long-term benefits include reduced stress, anxiety and fatigue. Concentration, energy levels and an overall sense of well-being will improve with practice.

Many of the breath control, prananyama, techniques soothe the parasympathetic nervous system. Activation of the bodies relax response can counter our highly demanding modern day  lifestyles.

When our bodies are constantly bombarded with an over saturation of stimuli and demands, true healing becomes near impossible.

Results when we combine Yoga and Physiotherapy

I often work with Physiotherapists to assist rehab and improve optimal joint integrity, overall mobility, pain symptoms and stress levels.

These photographs were taken of patient between January and August 2019. Symptoms included severe knee pain, ankle instability and postural alignment issues. She began a regular Yoga practice which was one class a week in March 2019.

Physiotherapy and Yoga results

Images courtesy of Physioworx

The student benefited from general weight loss. But more relevant are the general postural corrections. The sway back knees have improved as well as shape change of the kyphotic and lordotic curves of the  spine.

In my experience when working with chronic pain and ‘yellow flags’ Yoga is a far superior movement modality. Yoga is also better for overall mobility due to its strong component of flexibility. There are tangible tools such as meditation and pranayama to enhance change and recovery.

What are Physiotherapists saying about Yoga

As a physiotherapist,I have practiced both Pilates & Yoga. I have referred patients to both, as I believe both encourage good postural awareness, body focus & discipline. I explain that Pilates has a much greater focus on the abdominal canister ‘core’. Whereas yoga has a focus on posture & muscle length where the abdominal canister carries out its role without focus or dedicated awareness. It happens more functionally. Personally I find that the way the breath is used in yoga is more natural, the positions more functional and the mind component refreshing and rejuvenating!

Both have a significant place in rehab-provided the right therapist is found. Two unique disciplines! I am not aware of all the variations of yoga – that I see as a positive, as within the discipline there is so much to choose from and be challenged by!”

Lindsay Harris – Physioworx

Patient A had chronic LBP with fear avoidance behaviours. She was too scared to move! She tried pilates but I actually asked her to stop. During Pilates she clenched all her muscle groups and battled to isolate her core. I advised Yoga as it enabled her to get some flexibility in her back movements in a gentle, controlled environment. She became more confident to move her back, while strengthening her core. Yoga helped calm her mind and reduce general anxiety.

Patient B was originally a Pilates girl until I saw her. She felt that is wasn’t helping anymore. Patient has severe scoliosis and is hypo-mobile. As a result suffers with neck and back pain and very weak. The stretching exercises that yoga incorporated and core work benefited her hugely. She is a very busy lady in terms of work. Feedback was that yoga managed to target her muscle strength, flexibility as well as calm her mind.”

Caroline Hawkins 

You will find several online modules on my website under the Fundamentals of Anatomy

These are ideal learning tools to refresh, revise and update your anatomical knowledge.