What is SomaYoga (and why do we love it)?

Yoga therapy (taken from the International Association of Yoga Therapist’s, IAYT’s, scope of practice) is "the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and wellbeing through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga." The yoga tradition views each human being as a multidimensional system that includes numerous aspects-including body, breath, and mind (intellect and emotions) - and their mutual interaction.


Yoga therapy is founded on the basic principle that intelligent practice can positively influence the direction of change within these human dimensions, which are distinct from an individual's unchanging nature or spirit. The goals of yoga therapy include eliminating, reducing, and/or managing symptoms that cause suffering; improving function; helping to prevent the occurrence or re-occurrence of underlying causes of illness; and moving toward improved health and well-being.


You notice I highlighted a phrase – empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and wellbeing. Empower. By definition, empower means to help someone find the power, the strength, the knowledge, the confidence and the control that is their right. So a Yoga Therapist works WITH the person to show them the tools THEY can use to have improved health and wellbeing. Yoga Therapy isn’t something that’s done TO you.

There certainly are tools that yoga therapists use to facilitate change, but the goal is always to teach the other person the tools needed to reach better health, and to maintain it. Improved health and wellbeing. Notice that the focus in on being healthy, being well, NOT on fighting dis-ease. All the practices in yoga therapy are meant to be a part of your daily routine so that you can be as balanced and healthy as possible.


History of Yoga Therapy and Yoga North

IAYT was founded in 1989 BY Larry Payne, PhD, and Richard Miller, PhD. IAYT went through many changes in its early years, and in 2008, the first official meeting of schools was held to discuss the rapid growth of yoga therapy and to begin to develop standards for training, internationally. In the year 2014, the first 12 yoga therapy schools were officially accredited. Yoga North International SomaYoga Institute in Duluth was one of those original 12 schools. The mission of the International Association of Yoga Therapists was, and is, to establish yoga as a recognized and respected therapy, and to bridge the gap between traditional medicine and yoga.


Yoga North’s program was born in 1995, with founders Joie Acheson and Pat Nolan in the same space that Yoga North occupies today. Today, Yoga North is co-owned by Ann Maxwell, MA ed, C-IAYT, ERYT500, Somatic Educator, and Molly McManus, C-IAYT, ERYT500, Somatic Educator, Ayurvedic Health Counselor and Chef.


The first 200 hour teacher training was held in 2004, and the first 500 hour training in 2008. In 2014, the first Yoga Therapy Certification program was completed and Yoga North also began teaching the 200 hour yoga therapy program in St. Paul, MN at Tula Yoga and Wellness.

In April of 2018, Yoga North’s Ann Maxwell made the trip to Des Moines for the first time, for a 3 day SomaYoga Intensive. In January of 2020, Ann returned to do the same Intensive at Sacred Health, which will now be the home of future Intensives as well as the 500 hour training starting in the spring of 2021.


What is Therapeutic SomaYoga, and why do I love it?

SomaYoga is unique to Yoga North, and draws on techniques based on the Yamas & Niyamas and a progressive approach, bridging classic yoga, the neuromuscular retraining of somatics, and the principles of therapeutic yoga. For most of you, as they were for me, many of these words are foreign to you.


What most of us know as yoga are the asanas, or postures/poses, and the routine or flow that is associated with them. This, however, is only one small part of yoga! There are actually 8 pieces, of Limbs, as they are called, to yoga. As one of my teachers, Indu, said during a training, “if you are only doing the poses, you are only exercising, not doing yoga.” And exercise certainly isn’t bad, it’s just not yoga!


So back to the Yamas and Niyamas, which are 2 Limbs of Yoga – the Yamas focusing on right living with others and the Niyamas focusing on right living with ourselves. Both are the foundation of yoga, and the ethical and moral guidelines to try to live your life by. Deborah Adele, who was also part of Yoga North, wrote a book with the help of Ann Maxwell, that is used worldwide, as a study guide for the Yamas and Niyamas.


Somatics is a system of neuromuscular retraining which works at the source of many musculoskeletal problems by reorganizing the way your nervous system controls and senses muscles and movement. In Somatics, we first look at the patterns, or postures, that a person has developed in their body that are imbalanced (yes, we ALL have them!). Then, we teach the person how to release chronically tight/contracted muscles, mostly through the core (all the muscles from the neck to the pelvis), and even find some muscles that our brain hasn’t been connecting to, to find better balance.


Once the person has that balance through the core, we help guide the person in larger movements, the classic poses, using the principles of therapeutic yoga, to help the person move into the poses in a safe, efficient, and balanced way. The goal of the classic poses is to move in a more pain free, functional way whether you have had chronic pain or want to increase athletic performance. The goal of yoga is to live your best life, not to do the poses better.

So why is this method so effective….. why did I decide to learn, and now teach SomaYoga to others? Because of that word EMPOWER. I’ve been an Occupational Therapist for nearly 30 years. I’ve had further education in Neurodevelopmental Training for people who have suffered strokes or brain injuries, Myofascial Release to soften and release the fascia that surrounds all of our soft tissue, Cranialsacral Therapy that works with the brain and spinal column and the cranialsacral rhythm, Manual Lymph Drainage that works to restore balance to the lymph system, and all of these techniques are wonderful, AND they are something a practitioner does TO YOU. SomaYoga is something that you learn to do yourself.


You might be asking why is the Somatics piece so important? Because we ALL develop patterns in our body, from daily stress, from doing the same things over and over in our work or sports/hobbies, even from birth! And over time, these imbalances become our new “normal” and we actually forget (called Sensory Motor Amnesia, or SMA, in Somatics) how to get back to neutral. This causes stress to our joints, our spine, etc. And if we continue to go through our daily movements, including the classic yoga poses, with these patterns that aren’t in balance, we go further into pain.


Yoga is really a process of balancing yourself from the inside out, both from the middle of our body to the extremities, and from the mind and breath to the physical body. Yoga is a practice that focuses on you as a whole, not just the physical body, not just the mind, not just a shoulder. It’s a focus on your Soma, which is all the parts of you, that only you can fully experience. It’s all those parts including what you sense and feel, so that YOU can make changes in all those parts of you and live your best life through every age. And Yoga North also encorporates Ayurveda, which is using ancient daily self care practices which are based on seasonal changes, each person’s unique body, or dosha type, etc. Yoga, itself, is a highly individualized practice, which is why it feels like it doesn’t “fit” sometimes, if you’re just doing the postures and trying to look and be like someone else.


Therapeutic SomaYoga truly looks at you, as an individual, and works with you to come up with practices that work for you, and the Somatics piece makes it so that anyone can do some movement, even if it’s very small and you can’t get out of bed. I’ll be sharing some stories from some of the people I’ve worked with in the past few years, from their perspective, so that you can see what SomaYoga has impacted their lives. Look for these posts in upcoming blog posts.

Meet Pam Steinick, RYT500, ERYT200, C-IAYT candidate – September, 2020, OTR/L. Pam is currently finishing her 1000 hour training in therapeutic SomaYoga and has been practicing SomaYoga since 2017. She has been an Occupational Therapist for nearly 30 years as well and weaves this knowledge and experience into her practice. Pam has a studio space and is available for private SomaYoga sessions, small groups, and leads several regular classes at Sacred Health. Pam’s focus in private sessions is on finding the “just right” practices for you and your body and empowering you to use these practices to find better health, have less pain, and life your best life. She also loves doing small groups, whether it be a group of people that have similar issues (like chronic pain, MS, cancer, etc.), a business group to help reduce stress and be as healthy and therefore as productive as possible, or a group of athletes that want to both keep themselves from injury and pain and perform at their highest level. She is also part of the Yoga North faculty that will be offering a 500 hour level training and other Intensive trainings at Sacred Health. Pam chose Atha for her business name which means “the time is now” in Sanskrit, as the time is ALWAYS now to take control of your own life and find your way to better health and wellness, and to do yoga!


You can find Pam at www.sacredhealthdsm.com, www.athasomayoga.com, or reach out personally at Pam@athasomayoga.com or 515-428-2842 (ATHA). You can also find current events on the Sacred Health or Atha facebook pages.

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