When you mention yoga today, people often think of its physical postures, or asanas.
While these poses are the focus of most modern yoga, this age-old practice can provide more than just physical benefits.
Just as massage is far more than a sequence of strokes, yoga goes beyond simply contorting one’s body. It encompasses a broad system of principles and practices designed to merge body, mind and spirit to reveal the true nature of one’s self.
While this may seem to be beyond what one would consider a practical self-care method, there are numerous massage practitioners and even massage schools that tout yoga not only for self-care, but as an integral part of practicing successful massage therapy.
An Ancient Art
Yoga is one of today’s hottest fitness trends. the 2016 Yoga in America Study found that more than 36 million people practice yoga in the U.S. alone.
Although yoga has experienced a recent boom in popularity, it began in India as a set of oral teachings on spirituality more than 5,000 years ago.
These stories, poems and chants were first organized as a written work, known as the Yoga Sutra, around the second century. The ancient text contains 196 concise verses, or sutras, espousing yoga as a meditative practice designed to achieve spiritual enlightenment.
The Yoga Sutra outlined an eight-step system, or ashtanga, for practicing yoga. The steps lay out a wide-ranging set of practices that prepare one for experiencing an ideal meditative state.
The steps prescribe specific ways of thinking and acting, designed to quiet the mind, balance all systems of the body and ultimately develop pure awareness, or enlightenment.
Ironically, though it forms the foundation for all modern yoga, the Yoga Sutra devotes minimal attention to the asanas, which make up the third step and are mentioned mainly to help one sit more comfortably while meditating.
Yoga based on physical poses, known as hatha, was developed a few centuries later, and initially it was also used primarily for enhancing meditation. It remained this way until the last 100 years or so, when yoga evolved into the extensive system of physical postures we identify the practice with today.
“The modern emphases on precision of alignment, physical fitness and therapeutic effects are purely 20th-century innovations,” wrote Mara Carrico in the Yoga Journal article “The Roots of Yoga.”
Body of Benefits
As a self-care regimen for massage therapists, yoga offers a wealth of physical benefits: increased flexibility, strength and endurance, along with a more developed core. The deep breathing techniques accompanying the postures also provide an energy boost, prevent pain and promote relaxation.
All of these effects can help lead to a longer, safer career for bodyworkers.
The former dean of Kripalu School of Yoga (from 2004 to 2014) and co-founder of The Pranotthan Yoga School, Devarshi Steven Hartman, has been practicing bodywork for 40 years and yoga for 33 years.
He believes yoga is absolutely essential for effective massage training and said it’s one of the main reasons he and others trained through Kripalu have had such long and successful careers.
“The average bodyworker has a life span of about five years before they burn out,” said Hartman. “But most of the bodyworkers at Kripalu have lengthy careers like I do, and we are very clear the reason for this is because we teach bodywork combined with yoga.”
According to Hartman, the Kripalu style of yoga—Kripalu Yoga—is multidimensional, covering all systems of the body, both physical and mental. Its primary aim is to promote health and balance within these systems, which for Hartman provides a healing experience for his mind, body and spirit—and a high-quality massage for his clients.
“I’ve been doing this (massage) for more than 20 years, and I love it,” said Hartman. “I look forward to doing massage every day because when I’m working, I feel like I’m entering into a state of healing for myself, while also providing the most optimal experience for clients.”
Massage therapist and yoga teacher Will Coons holds a similar opinion. The Provincetown, Massachusetts, therapist began practicing massage 12 years ago, and after his first year in business, he trained in Kripalu Yoga to help support and complement his massage skills.
He credits yoga with keeping his career injury-free and his bodywork at a top level.
“I’m 100-percent more effective because of yoga, which offers me increased flexibility, greater strength and more endurance,” said Coons.
“My yoga on the mat translates into a better massage experience for my clients on the table, because it keeps me and my work, fresh, creative, strong, safe and energized,” he said.
Coons explained that yoga works especially well as a self-care practice because many of the asanas specifically target parts of the body used heavily in bodywork.
For him, two important physical aspects of his massage abilities—posture and alignment—are greatly enhanced through yoga, which “helps lengthen my spine, keep my center in my abdominal core, keep my knees soft and draw my shoulders down and back.”
Susan Perko, who practices massage and teaches yoga in Gainesville, Florida, learned a variety of yoga styles over the years, including Iyengar, Ashtanga and Anusara.
While these forms encompass many different methodologies, one of the biggest benefits Perko has experienced is something common to all three styles—a more intimate knowledge of how her body functions.
She said this knowledge allows her to make adjustments to her body positioning, technique and alignment if she encounters any pain or tension during massage. Moreover, it provides her with a clearer understanding of how to explain body dynamics to her clients.
“If I understand how my body works, then I can better show clients where their own imbalances are,” said Perko.
While modern hatha yoga may be centered on postures, the practice still retains its mental and spiritual foundation from ages ago. While it’s easy to see how the asanas might affect the physical body, they can more subtly temper the mind, bringing thoughts and emotions under control, so a state of increased awareness can develop.
Whether practiced for meditation or physical health, one of the key components of most yoga is proper breathing, or pranayama, the fourth of the Yoga Sutra‘s eight steps.
Using deep breaths generated through the abdomen, yoga practitioners coordinate the postures with their breathing, which helps relax and focus the mind.
Using much the same method, massage therapists can coordinate their breathing with their massage strokes to remain focused while working with clients.
Hartman stresses such breathing is fundamental to massage, helping bodyworkers connect with their clients and strokes through a heightened state of awareness resembling the meditative states sought by ancient yogis.
“When you’re present in your breath and using it with your strokes and movement, you’re really experiencing massage as present-moment awareness,” explained Hartman. “As you connect that with the client, it becomes a dance-like meditation in motion. When you’re totally present, true healing happens.”
While yoga allows you to connect more deeply with some clients, other clients might have you thinking about just the opposite. Jaime Chandra Kozlowski owns a massage practice and teaches yoga in Pittsboro, North Carolina, and she said her yoga style, Anusara, teaches that all people have an intrinsically good nature, which helps her deal with clients who sometimes get on her nerves.
“We all have frustrating clients,” said Kozlowski. “When I know one is coming, I often get a little scattered. So before they arrive, I use yoga to get grounded and centered, where I’m not as easily flustered and able to honor the good that’s inside them.”
Open the Mind
Kozlowski said yoga makes her mind just as flexible and strong as her body. This has opened her up to new ways of thinking, which allows her to deal more effectively with many of the challenges she faces in both her work and personal life.
“It (yoga) allows me to be more flexible both physically and mentally,” said Kozlowski. “Whereas in the past I’ve been more rigid about certain things, this helps me stay open to the possibility of other perspectives.”
Coons also praises the benefits yoga has on his mental capabilities. For him, yoga first builds up the body, but ultimately it affects the mind as well.
“For me, yoga is about using the body to release the mind,” said Coons. “Usually the mind is what inhibits us, but through moving my body in a certain way, you become free from the mind and are able to liberate yourself from certain mental blocks that can hold you back.”
Touch the Soul
Understanding yoga’s spiritual effects, along with how this could benefit massage, can initially seem hard to grasp. However, when people talk about having spiritual experiences through yoga, much of what they talk about deals with coming to know themselves better.
After practicing yoga intensely for years and becoming able to do things with your body you never dreamed possible, a powerful sense of inner strength can develop—which for some is akin to spiritual faith.
“Yoga allows you to connect with the Divine that dwells within all of us,” said Perko. “This is incredibly reaffirming in my massage business and the rest of my life. We’re often taught to strive for the ideal career, the ideal body and ideal success, but yoga allows me to feel perfectly okay with who I am and where I’m at, giving me a greater sense of self-confidence in everything I do.”
Because yoga has evolved over centuries, it has branched out into a huge array of different styles and methodologies. Whether you’re looking for a self-care routine to get in better physical shape, deal with stress, become more grounded and self-confident, become a yoga teacher, or a combination of all these goals, there’s undoubtedly a yoga class that will help you get there. (beYogi, a sister company to MASSAGE Magazine, offers all-inclusive insurance for yoga teachers.)
Enduring for thousands of years, yoga is one practice you can trust to offer truly valuable benefits.
About The Author
Chris Towery wrote this when he was MASSAGE Magazine‘s associate editor. In addition to MASSAGE, Chris has worked as an editor for Eastern Surf Magazine and Hometown News, and he co-wrote the book Wavescape: Portraits of the Planet’s Best Surf Spots.