Yoga Therapy in Australian
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Yoga Therapy in Australia
Leigh Blashki, M.H.Sc.

Brief Background on Yoga in Australia  

As is the case for many Western countries, there is uncertainty about an exact date that Yoga commenced in Australia . One could wax philosophical and suggest that some of the psychospiritual practices that formed part of the culture of the Australian indigenous people for thousands of years accord with the goals of Yoga. In terms of what we usually regard today as Hatha-Yoga, however, the most commonly agreed beginnings in Australia were in the 1950s. Michael Volin (my first teacher) established the Sydney Yoga Center in 1950, Margrit Segesman began teaching Yoga part-time from her home in 1953 and then opened the Gita School of Yoga in 1954, and Roma Blair opened Roma Blair’s Yoga Club in the city center in 1956. Each began by teaching small numbers of students who were brave enough to explore this strange activity radiating Indian mysticism and bending bodies in hitherto unfamiliar ways.

By the mid 1960s, the more “hip” members of middle class Australia added Yoga, in both its physical and meditative forms, to their list of activities to explore. They were propelled by images of leotarded, svelte women on television and the explorations into mysticism by popular music and arts personalities. And, yes, I was at the tail end of this “wave” of Yogic enthusiasm. 

By the time this initial wave of popularity had plateaued in the early 1970s, Yoga had become firmly established in a number of relatively small yet dedicated schools, most of which continue today, albeit greatly expanded. In the late 1970s a number of Yoga luminaries traveled to Australia , a precursor to what was to become Yoga’s second major wave of popularity in the early 1980s. These figures included Swami Satchidananda, Swami Satyananda, and Baba Muktananda, to name just a few. It was in the 1980s that I believe Yoga started truly maturing in Australia . Teachers who had come to Yoga in the first wave (such as myself and my contemporaries) had started deepening their understandings through their years of practice and had established some solid foundations for Yoga students, both new and experienced.

By the time the third wave arrived in the mid to late 1990s, the solid foundations that had been established in previous years allowed the Australian Yoga community to take the surge in interest in stride. For the most part, the community was able to resist the flamboyance and gratuitousness of the “flavor of the month” approach that tended to characterize Yoga in most Western countries. Instead, seekers/students were offered a Yoga rich in tradition, yet grounded in practicality in accord with contemporary needs.

Today, as the crest of the third wave has just passed, Yoga has become an indelible part of Australian life, and it sits comfortably and firmly among the other systems of physical, emotional, psychological, social, and spiritual well-being that form part of the day-to-day culture.

Brief Background on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) in Australia

Contrary to popular belief, the practice of CAM in Australia was not the product of the “awareness” boom of the 1960s and 1970s. Like many previously colonial, multicultural societies, Australia developed dedicated pockets of CAM practice from the early days of its settlement by the British, by the Asians at the time of the gold rush in the mid 1800s, and throughout the 20th century by immigrants from Europe, the Middle East , and most other parts of the world.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has been practiced alongside Western allopathic medicine for 150 years, while homoeopathy has been part of the Australian scene for more than a century.

In the late 1990s, a goods and services tax (GST) was announced and was introduced in 2001. Recognized systems of medicine were to be exempt from this tax, and this move provided the momentum for a quantum leap in the professionalism of systems of CAM . At that time the Victorian Department of Human Services conducted a review of various systems of CAM and created a list of modalities that it regarded as bona fide systems. Also created was a supplementary list of modalities that were not regarded as complete CAM systems at the time, but which warranted further consideration at a later date.

Systems such as TCM, Ayurveda, and Western herbal medicine were among those that made the “A” list, while Yoga, Feldenkrais, and a number of other modalities were placed on the “B” list. 

In the year 2000, over 50% of the Australian population used a complementary health practitioner on a regular basis, and it is my belief that this percentage has increased since then.

Overview of the Australian CAM Regulatory Environment

Concurrent with the establishment of the “A” list in preparation for GST exemption, the Australian National Training Authority (ANTA)—the body responsible for establishing standards of practice and training in vocations that do not fall under the umbrella of the University sector—established an Industry Reference Group (IRG) to advise on and develop a set of national competency standards for CAM. It was my honor to serve the Ayurvedic community as their delegate to this group. ANTA governs all nationally recognized/accredited training in Australia and endorses qualifications in accord with the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF). There are 10 AQF levels from Certificate I to Certificate IV, Diploma and Advanced Diploma, Degree, Graduate Diploma, Master’s, and Ph.D.

In May 2001, the National Health Training Package was endorsed, covering the “A” list systems of CAM . It lays out the standards of competency for each of the systems and provides guidelines for the provision of training. In order for a college or institution to deliver nationally recognized/accredited training, it must be a Recognised Training Organisation (RTO), meaning it complies with a number of quality assurance measures. The Health Training Package for CAM includes AQF qualifications from Certificate III to Degree.

TCM and Chiropractic are the two major regulated systems of CAM , meaning that practitioners require registration in the same way allopathic physicians and nurses do.

It can thus be seen that although the CAM sector is generally not regulated in the traditional sense, it does have a structured framework for ensuring quality training delivery and a reasonable level of competence for practitioners.

In the main, initiatives in regard to CAM standards in Australia have not been driven by insurance as they have in some other countries. The main drivers have been GST tax-exempt status and a more general issue of acceptance and status for practitioners and their system.

History of Yoga Therapy in Australia

Because the concept of Yoga therapy in Australia is vague and ill-defined, as is true in many other countries, documenting its history also can only be vague and approximate. It can probably be argued that Yoga therapy, while not known by that name, made its way to Australia with both the Iyengar method and the Satyananda tradition, both of which started to become popular in the late 1970s. Yoga therapy in its own right, however, has enjoyed a small but dedicated following since the mid 1990s, influenced primarily by Swami Gitananda, T. K. V. Desikachar, and A. G. Mohan. The common feature of Yoga therapy from these traditions is the use of personalized, one-on-one consultations, as would apply with any other health care practitioner. A more overt therapeutic approach has been employed by a number of teachers in other traditions, particularly Iyengar and Satyananda, wherein classes are designed to address a common therapeutic need of a group of students.

 Having said this, I can almost hear the cries of objection from a number of our other esteemed Yoga colleagues, who may well regard their work and teaching as fundamentally therapeutic. I certainly acknowledge this, but in this article I am highlighting the major trends.

In 1994 the Australian Institute of Yoga Therapy (AIYT) was established with the aim of offering Yoga therapy directly to the public as well as through collegiate CAM and allopathic practitioners. Another aim of AIYT was to provide some training in Yoga therapy to Yoga teachers. Since then the institute has established an excellent reputation for the provision of Yoga therapy services and has offered a short course in Yoga therapy for teachers

The Satyanada organization provides residential and nonresidential intensives in Yoga therapy, and it is estimated that approximately 15% of Yoga teachers in Australia offer some form of Yoga therapy to their students/clients. Most of these teachers rely primarily on their experience and training as Yoga teachers to assist clients, but in some circumstances they include other modalities of CAM in which they are qualified.

A Snapshot of the Australian Yoga Student/Yoga Therapy Client

In recent years there have been a number of attempts to quantify and qualify Yoga students in Australia . The Australian Bureau of Statistics has indicated that in 2003 over 300,000 people participated in Yoga over the preceding 12-month period. This represented 2.5% of the population between the ages of 20 and 70.

Clearly defining the demographics of students, however, has been a little more difficult. From discussions with fellow teachers in recent months, it appears that our prior image of the typical Yoga student may no longer be accurate. Some years ago, the majority of Yoga students were female, predominantly aged 35 to 55, generally middle class, and usually from an Anglo-European background. Many of my colleagues and I believe that the boundaries have widened considerably.

We estimate that men now account for nearly 25% of students, teenagers and the elderly are well represented, socioeconomic status is less of a factor, and classes appear to have a similar multicultural/multiracial mix to the whole of society.

The Development of Yoga Teacher Training Standards in Australia

In 1999, the Australian Yoga teachers community was rocked by a university study that showed that 61% of teachers surveyed (n=300) believed that an accredited qualification was important to them, and 64% were prepared to undertake further training to achieve such accreditation.

It was somewhat ironic that even though the surveyed teachers admitted to interest in the issue of accreditation, the person who conducted the study (who happened to be me) came under attack from many colleagues for having the temerity to raise the issue of standards and qualifications for teaching!

For some months I attended meetings and fielded defensive questioning. Eventually, explaining that my research had found that the public, the medical profession, and others wanted to be confident that a person calling himself or herself a Yoga teacher did in fact have the requisite skills, experience, and training helped the community to come to terms with this “brave new world” of professionalism for Yoga.

The result of this upheaval was the development of two bold new initiatives that occurred almost simultaneously, yet completely independently. One was a new association of Yoga teachers—an association that was to be nonaligned, the first to represent all teachers irrespective of their training/lineage/style. The Yoga Teachers Association of Australia (YTAA) established a set of minimum standards for teachers who wished to be regarded by the association as “accredited.” A tabular overview is shown in the appendix, and readers will recognize some of the influence the U.S. Yoga Alliance has had on the standards of YTAA. 

A few months prior to the launch of YTAA, Australia ’s first national teacher training course to be endorsed and accredited by the Australian National Training Authority (the body responsible for education in Australia ) commenced. This followed a lengthy development process by myself, a reference group of other experienced teachers and teacher trainers, and a collaboration with one of the country’s best credentialed Recognised Training Organizations (RTOs) in the area of adult education.

While both these initiatives required some careful chaperoning to gain the support of a Yoga community that was still a little sensitive and defensive, it is pleasing to see that five years later both have gained widespread support and respect from within and outside the Yoga community.  

Since my launch of the accredited Advanced Diploma of Yoga Teaching, several other schools of training have become RTOs and gained accreditation for their course. I believe this “raises the bar” and goes a long way in building respect and confidence in Yoga teachers as safe, professional, and highly competent teachers/guides/caregivers.

The Growth in Demand for Yoga as a Therapy

In recent years, there has been an ever increasing demand for Yoga as therapy, both within traditional Yoga schools/studios and within multidisciplinary health centers. Both allopathic and CAM practitioners are adding Yoga to their multidisciplinary teams, and this has led to growth in the number of short courses offered to Yoga teachers to enhance their knowledge and skills. In the contemporary health care environment, for which patient self-responsibility and take-home health practices are hallmarks, practitioners view Yoga as an ideal therapeutic tool to support many of the other medical interventions offered to patients. Yoga is seen as a quasi-therapeutic bridge between practitioner care and self-directed patient care, leading to a completion of the healing process and support for longer term prevention of unwellness. 

Courses that have been offered to Yoga teachers in recent years include:

  • Understanding Arthritis and Fibromyalgia
  • Therapeutic Meditation
  • Introduction to Ayurveda
  • Introduction to Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)
  • Breath Therapies
  • Adrenal System Healing

Should Yoga Therapists Come from a Yoga Background or a Primary Health Care Practitioner Background?

It is commonplace for health care practitioners to undertake short courses in various modalities to add a further string to their bow. There are allopathic practitioners who now offer aromatherapy, Reiki, and other more energy-based practices. Similarly, there are naturopaths who add modalities such as kinesiology, Ayurveda, and ideokinesis. At the same time, there has been no shortage of doctors, naturopaths, physiotherapists, and osteopaths who have sought short courses in Yoga so they can provide Yoga therapy to their patients.

While certainly not wanting to be “precious” about Yoga, I believe that it is inappropriate for any health care practitioner who does not live and work from within a yogic framework to call himself or herself a Yoga therapist. Just as the conventional regulatory environment does not permit referring to oneself as any sort of conventional therapist/practitioner without having first undertaken the full studies required to attain appropriate qualification, the same should hold true for Yoga.

As this topic has been explored at length through the International Association of Yoga Therapists and found its way into discussions among local Australian Yoga teachers, a clear preference has emerged among the Australian Yoga community—one that favors my own beliefs and those of the health industry regulatory bodies.

While we all applaud the interest shown in Yoga by health care practitioners, we believe that it is the years of personal Yoga practice and the deep understanding of the special yogic framework that can best inform the practice of Yoga therapy.

The Role of International Cooperation

While Australia has its own unique health care setting, which differs in a number of ways from that of other countries, there are surely many lessons and experiences in the development of the profession of Yoga therapy that are common. Just as there has been an international sharing of ideas relating to the establishment of standards for Yoga teachers, the sharing of ideas in relation to Yoga therapy can only serve to improve the outcomes for all. The initiatives of the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) in this regard must be applauded and supported by all countries wishing to establish Yoga therapy as a professional modality in their societies. To this end, the Australian Institute of Yoga Therapy offers its full support and is happy to be a conduit of interchange between Australia and other countries through IAYT.

We look forward to the continued unfolding of yoga-chikitsâ throughout the globe.

About the author: Leigh Blashki is the director of the Australian Institute of Yoga Therapy and the Australian Institute of Yoga, and was the developer of Australia ’s government accredited Advanced Diploma of Yoga Teaching. He has post-graduate qualifications in Health Sciences and Counselling ( Victoria University ), undergraduate qualifications in Human Performance, Massage, Nutrition, Yoga, and Ayurveda, and has over 25 years experience as a fitness trainer, Yoga and Ayurveda teacher and therapist, counsellor, and nutritionist.

He lecturers at the CAE and Victoria University Faculty of Health Sciences and is a member and keen supporter of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, the Australasian Ayurvedic Practitioners Association, and the Yoga Teachers Association of Australia and a graduate member of the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors.

Leigh is passionate about the need for quality standards of training in all areas of well-being and has established a licensing arrangement for the Advanced Diploma of Yoga Teaching, which is being offered in NSW, Victoria, and S.E. Qld.

Leigh also conducts a private practice as a Yoga Therapist, counsellor, and Ayurvedic practitioner, assisting individuals with their specific health and lifestyle goals, and with his partner runs a small Yoga retreat and teaching center in the picturesque outskirts of .