Category: Yoga Therapy

Yoga Therapist vs. Yoga Instructor. What’s the Difference?

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Dr. Suzie Carmack PhD, MFA, MEd, NBC-HWC, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT, who serves as the Department Chair of Yoga and Ayurveda, and Assistant Professor at Maryland University of Integrative Health, is an award-winning yoga therapist and #1 best-selling author who conducts presentations all over the world.  

In a recent interview, Dr. Carmack unpacks the differences between a Yoga Therapist and a Yoga Instructor: 

What is the difference between the training required for Yoga Therapists versus Yoga Instructors  

As their names imply, there are fundamental differences between Yoga Therapy and Yoga Teacher (Instructor) training programs.   

Yoga Teachers are trained to be educators — to lead groups in studio, gym, school, and community settings in the teachings and practices of yoga, much like a guide leads you through a museum. The timeline of a Yoga Teacher training can vary, ranging from a one-weekend workshop to a 200-hour or a 500-hour program.  

Different programs are available because there is no nationally accredited certification for yoga instruction; however, there is a registry that is run by the Yoga Alliance in which teachers can register as an RYT 200 or RYT 500. These designations imply that the registered yoga teacher has completed a Yoga Alliance-approved program of either 200 hours (RYT 200 Teacher) or 500 hours (RYT 500 Advanced Teacher). Although Yoga Alliance has curriculum standards that their approved programs must meet, each program has some flexibility in how they deliver their training program based on those standards. Each program can also choose to focus on a unique style or practice of yoga – for example, one program may focus on bringing yoga to schools while another program may focus on yoga for athletes, or supporting mental health.  

Most RYT’s (Registered Yoga Teachers) have been trained to become an expert in a particular style of yoga and may or may not have been trained to modify and adapt that style’s choreography and communication for the unique health, medical, and well-being needs of each individual student.  

By contrast, Yoga Therapists are trained in 800-hour programs to be patient- and client-centered in their delivery of yoga therapy in one-on-one and smallgroup settings. Yoga therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of Yoga” (IAYT Website) All Yoga Therapy programs are approved by our nationally accrediting body, the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), and yoga therapists who complete these programs and take a national board-style exam earn the Certified Yoga Therapist (C-IAYT) credential. Although there is also some variety in the ways that IAYT-approved programs deliver their training, in terms of format and style or focus, all programs are required by IAYT to train Yoga Therapists to develop a program of care that is tailored to their clients’ unique health, medical, and well-being needs 

Is there an overlap between these two career paths? 

All Yoga Therapists are also Yoga Teachers, but not all Yoga Teachers are Yoga Therapists. Allow me to explain: 

All IAYT-approved Yoga Therapy programs require trainees to begin with at least 200 hours of Yoga Teacher (Instructor) training and 100 hours of experience teaching yoga. So, one can’t become a Yoga Therapist without first becoming a Yoga Teacher. On the other hand, not all Yoga Teachers continue their training after their RYT 200 or RYT 500-hour credentials to become Yoga Therapists.  

Although some Yoga Therapists move out of Yoga Teaching once they earn their C-IAYT credential, others choose to overlap their Yoga Therapist and Yoga Teacher roles. In the latter scenario, a Yoga Therapist may dedicate several days per week to their private practice of Yoga Therapy in a community or healthcare clinic setting and dedicate additional hours weekly to teaching yoga (as a Yoga Instructor) in studios, gyms, and schools.  

How much time does a client typically need to practice with a Yoga Therapist and Yoga Instructor to note a difference in their health? 

It may sound toogoodtobetrue, but it has been my experience as a Yoga Therapist and as a Yoga Teacher that clients immediately notice a difference in how they breathe, move, and engage with the day. Although people tend to think of yoga as a practice that requires a yoga mat, there are many ways to practice yoga in our lives and this means that it is a practice of transformation that creates change within the practitioner in how they feel and how they live. 

That said, beginners (first-time yoga practitioners) are advised to start with a well-trained Yoga Instructor or certified Yoga Therapist and not try to go it alone and on their own. I have friends who play golf who say you should only start playing golf with a trained golf professional so you can avoid common mistakes and make the practice your own. The same holds true for Yoga! 

What are some common health needs where a Yoga Therapist is recommended? 

We know that 70 – 80% of the public has at least one chronic health condition, and yoga therapy can be helpful for all of them! That said, most Yoga Therapists focus their private practice on working with clients and patients with a particular medical condition, such as heart disease, anxiety, or chronic pain 

Is it often the case that a person who benefits from Yoga Therapy can also improve their health by  participating in Yoga classes? 

This depends on the client/student. In some cases, Yoga Therapy can help the client modify their practice of yoga so that they feel more empowered to adapt their practice to their own needs when taking a yoga class. In other cases, yoga classes may be contra-indicated for the client. For example, a prenatal client should not be attending a hot yoga class, because she is practicing for two, and her unborn baby does not yet have the same ability to thermoregulate (deal with extreme differences in temperature) as Mom does. In a similar way, a client with anxiety and depression may need a trauma-informed practice adapted to their unique mental health needs, and not all classes are trauma-informed. In addition, yoga teachers guide a group, so they do not always have time to give individual attention to participants. And, because of health privacy concerns, many students in yoga classes may not feel comfortable sharing their unique health needs in the ‘open forum’ of a class setting. 

What personal aspects contribute to the success of a yoga therapist or instructor? 

We are living in an exciting time for yoga. In the last five years, the number of yoga practitioners has grown to 20% of the U.S. population alone, and in the last three years, the number of research articles focusing on yoga has grown exponentially too. With all this demand comes the need for yoga instructors and yoga therapists with a wide variety of skill sets and demeanors, who can meet the clients they are meant to serve in their own unique way. As I say in my book Genius Breaks, every person has a genius within them, including Yoga Therapists and their clients as well as  Yoga Instructors and their students. Both fields focus on integrity, inclusivity, and the willingness to meet clients where they are. For example, I am a “type A” person, and I love working with senior and servant leaders who struggle with perfectionism. Yoga and its gift of self-compassion help me with my perfectionism daily, and I love paying this forward for my clients. In this way, every yoga teacher and yoga therapist can bring their full selves forward, and their students and clients will benefit! 

How would you compare the costs between a Yoga Therapy session and a Yoga class?  

I am glad we can bring this difficult but important topic up and out into the open here. 

Because yoga is a practice that helps people to “let go of stress,” it may be surprising for anyone reading this to hear me say that pricing is an issue that causes significant stress for both Yoga Teachers and Yoga Therapists. Some Yoga Teachers and Yoga Therapists choose to offer free or discounted classes or sessions as part of their service (philanthropy) to the world. Meanwhile, other Yoga Teachers and Yoga Therapists choose this field as their career and charge anywhere from $10 per class or more (teaching) to $150 per session or more (yoga therapists). Some yoga teachers and yoga therapists fall somewhere in between – charging for most of their sessions and classes and donating or discounting a portion of them. (This is like most small businesses – who must earn revenue to stay afloat but also believe in giving back). 

It is my belief that we should be charging more for both services, and that is why I do. About 20 years ago, I attended a talk with author and speaker Carolyn Myss, where she gave an example, “If you wanted to hire a lawyer that had 20 or more years of experience and specialized training in your unique problem, you would think nothing of paying $500 or $1000/hour — if you had the means to do so, right? So why do we healers not ask for what we are worth?” Before hearing this, I had burned myself out giving yoga away for free to clients and in community settings. Although I enjoyed helping, I realized I was undervaluing my worth and the worth of this yoga practice. I took this as a personal challenge and started asking for more of an investment from my yoga class students and yoga therapy clients. Years later, I learned that this was good not only for me but for them; the science of consumer behavior teaches us that as people invest more financially in a problem, they are more committed to solving it.  By asking for more from my paying clients, I also have more ability to ‘give back’ through my service work and philanthropic efforts. 

MUIH’s Master of Science in Yoga Therapy Program

MUIH offers the first and only master’s degree in yoga therapy in the U.S. Graduates are prepared with the comprehensive foundation in the theoretical, scientific, and experiential training of yogic teachings and practices needed to provide a therapeutic relationship in conventional health care and medical settings. Graduates apply and integrate the teachings and practices of yoga with contemporary science and evidence-informed practice to evaluate the needs of clients and to design balanced and effective programs tailored to address their individual health challenges. This program is accredited by the Accreditation Committee of the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT).