The Difference Between a Yoga Teacher and a Yoga Therapist

Both yoga therapists and yoga teachers offer practices that are designed to enhance health and well-being. So what distinguishes the two? 

“It’s all yoga—the difference is in the application,” says Mary Northey, Dean of the Kripalu School of Integrative Yoga Therapy (KSIYT). “The yoga therapist serves as a guide or mentor on a client’s journey of self-discovery, offering them tools to use as they’re ready. We become a witness to their healing process and their unfolding as a human being.”

Here are six things that differentiate the practice of yoga therapy from that of yoga teaching (although some yoga teachers may have similar training or do similar work). 

Yoga therapists need more training—lots more. 

To be certified as a yoga teacher, instructors need a 200-hour certification, although many yoga schools—including the Kripalu School of Yoga—offer advanced teacher trainings. Yoga therapists, however, are not certified until they have 1,000 hours of training: a 200-hour yoga teacher certification plus 800 hours of additional study. Because KSIYT's 800-Hour Professional Yoga Therapist Program is accredited by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), graduates are eligible to apply for certification with IAYT.

The KSIYT curriculum includes the Five-Kosha Model of assessment, how to adapt yoga for specific conditions and populations, the integration of Ayurvedic principles, and 150 hours of clinical experience with clients. KSIYT’s Professional Yoga Therapist Program also provides advanced study of anatomy and physiology and a basic knowledge of disease and mental health disorders, as viewed through a Western lens. “We’re not doctors, we’re not prescribing, but we need to understand these conditions,” Mary says.  

Yoga therapy starts with specific goals—even though the outcomes are much bigger. 

Whether a yoga therapist is offering a group class or working with an individual client, they typically have an understood or directly communicated goal as a launching point. For example, a class might be focused on yoga for Parkinson’s or yoga for the heart, with specific approaches designed for relevant outcomes; or a client might come in wanting to address knee pain or insomnia. But yoga therapists don’t diagnose or provide “treatment”; rather, they help clients create an individualized program for overall well-being.

“A client’s goal might be stress reduction, so we’ll offer practices to help them relax and slow down—meditation, guided relaxation, mudra, and asana,” Mary says. “If they have knee issues, we might work with postures focusing on strengthening the quadriceps or the muscles around the knee, to help them feel stronger in asana and in the activities of daily life.” 

But that’s just the beginning of the journey, she explains: “A yoga therapist doesn’t just hone in on one symptom, they look at the entire individual holistically, through the lens of the koshas—physically, energetically, psycho-emotionally, spiritually. We’re not treating symptoms, we’re supporting overall well-being. Even though they might have specific goals, we’re addressing the whole.”

Yoga therapists give homework.

After a class or individual session, yoga therapists offer clients and students practices to try at home—just two or three at first. “We don’t want to overwhelm them,” Mary notes. “Less is more—we want to adapt the practices to their routine and set them up to succeed. For someone who works a long day in an office, it might be something they can do while they’re at their desk, or maybe it’s just doing Legs Up the Wall each night before bed.”

Yoga therapists measure the results.

“On a first visit, a client completes an intake form, and the yoga therapist asks questions and does an assessment,” Mary explains. “We might test balance or range of motion, depending on what brought them there.” Throughout the series of sessions or classes, and at their conclusion, these tests are repeated, yielding concrete evidence of improvements. 

“It’s so important in the Western medical model to be able to measure the impact you’re making,” Mary says. “In order to move the field forward, we need to gather data to show that yoga therapy works.”

Yoga therapists need to be able to speak the language of Western mind and body medicine.

Yoga therapy is gradually being integrated into mainstream medical settings, from clinics to Veteran’s Administration hospitals to chiropractors’ offices. So therapists need to have the vocabulary and understanding that allow them to partner with healthcare providers and mental health professionals, as part of an integrative team serving clients’ optimal wellness.

“You wouldn’t want to go into a medical center and talk about your client’s heart chakra being blocked,” Mary says. “We need to be able to refer to the systems of the body, even though we’re working with the subtle energy rather than the physical elements of the heart itself.” 

Yoga therapists develop Jedi senses. 

That means looking—and feeling—beyond the intake form and even beyond what the client tells you at first. “Their intake form could say that they want to sleep better, but during the session, you might notice something about their expression and the way they’re holding their body, and when you ask about it, they’ll tell you that their partner died six months ago and they’re still grieving,” Mary explains. That could lead the process in an entirely different direction. 

In a class setting, yoga therapists are often called on to do a group assessment on the spot, gauging the collective energy so they can offer something that works for most everyone—even if they’ve never met their students before and don’t know anything about their history.

“That’s where the Jedi comes in,” Mary says. “As yoga therapists, we don’t just use our eyes and our ears, we also listen with our hearts.”

Find out about the Kripalu School of Integrative Yoga Therapy.