How is Yoga Used in Occupational Therapy?
March 28, 2022
Occupational therapists can use yoga poses in their occupational therapy treatment to improve their clients’ body’s core strength, flexibility, movement, balance, and mental health.
Yoga—a form of meditation involving physical poses and breathing techniques that traces its roots back 5,000 years to northern India—may not at first seem a natural fit for a modern healthcare field like occupational therapy (OT). After all, what can contemporary medicine learn from such ancient practices?
However, on closer inspection, one learns that the early yoga practitioners were onto something. They knew how to calm the mind and relieve mental stress. They also discovered effective techniques to improve and maintain the body’s core strength, flexibility, movement, and balance.
Indeed, studies have demonstrated that yoga poses (asanas) and meditation—or a combination of the two—can help people with injuries, chronic pain, disabilities, Parkinson’s disease, and more improve and maintain their strength, flexibility, and functional mobility. It’s one of the many reasons that older adults practice yoga: it enhances their mind-body body awareness and supports their fine motor skills, balance, and gait.
Indeed, it turns out that yoga is a natural fit with occupational therapy. Both take a holistic approach to the individual. Both embrace the principle that combining physical and mental health treatments can have profound and far-reaching positive effects on a person’s overall well-being.
So, how is yoga used in occupational therapy? We explore this topic in this article while also discussing:
- Does an OT need to become a yoga instructor to incorporate yoga in OT practice?
- What is an occupational therapy master's?
- What are the top schools offering an occupational therapy master’s
How is yoga used in occupational therapy?
In many ways, yoga is ideally suited for use in occupational therapy, which employs a variety of exercises and activities to develop and maintain skills necessary to engage capably in activities of daily living (ADLs). Since yoga, like occupational therapy, is a person-centered practice that meets people where they are without judgment, occupational therapists can modify most yoga poses—as appropriate—for use in achieving their clients’ treatment goals.
The physical benefits of yoga in occupational therapy
In occupational therapy, yoga helps people maintain or regain core strength and range of motion, and supports the following:
- Strengthening core muscles and gross motor skills: Yoga poses improve the core and postural muscles needed for most activities, such as walking or sitting upright. Some poses require one to balance on the palms of one’s hands, which strengthens the arm and hand muscles used for fine motor tasks.
- Crossing the midline: This is the ability to reach across one’s body to the opposite side with one’s arms and legs, and is used in tasks like writing and dressing. Yoga offers many poses that support this skill.
- Proprioception: Yoga poses help support body awareness and sensory processing, i.e., the ability to sense the position of one’s body parts in space without relying on one’s vision.
- Vestibular system: This concerns the ability to maintain one’s balance in an upright position while in motion. Some yoga postures require (and thus support) this ability.
- Motor planning and ideation: These relate to how one conceptualizes, plans, and organizes movements to complete new motor tasks. In yoga, certain poses have animal references (for instance, downward-facing dog) to help visualize and plan motor movements.
Yoga also has been shown to improve cognitive functioning, particularly gross memory functioning and executive functions, in older adults.
The mental health benefits of yoga in occupational therapy
All occupational therapy interventions include a mental health component to support clients’ functioning and independence. OTs treat mental illness in children, adolescents, the elderly, and others with severe and persistent mental illness.
Yoga’s focus on meditation—mindfulness, mantras, and breathing exercises—can help people cope with anxiety, stress, self-regulation, poor social skills, and depressive symptoms. Yoga therapy also has been shown to be beneficial in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders and ADHD.
Does an OT need to become a yoga instructor to incorporate yoga in OT practice?
Yoga instruction certification is not currently required by most states. However, certification organizations like the Yoga Alliance offer training programs with diplomas available after 200 and 500 hours of yoga practice.
Of course, occupational therapists are already skilled in many of the same techniques that are used in yoga, and their knowledge of anatomy and physiology, psychology, kinesiology, sensory integration, and biomechanics of the human body helps them identify which poses support their client’s OT needs.
Occupational therapists who want to incorporate yoga into their OT practice might want to look at yoga certification programs approved by American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).
What is an occupational therapy master’s?
The Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) requires a practicing occupational therapist to hold a master's degree. Other OT roles—such as occupational therapy assistants and aides— don't require graduate-level education, but you'll need that master's to obtain state licensure and gain entry-level OT employment.
All 50 states require OTs to hold a license to practice. All OTs must also pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam. To qualify for the NBCOT, candidates must complete all fieldwork and obtain an occupational therapy degree from an accredited institution.
How long does it take to earn an occupational therapy degree?
A master's degree in occupational therapy takes two to three years to complete, depending on the school and program.
Several graduate programs lead to occupational therapy careers. You can earn a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy (MSOT) or Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) (some opt for a Doctor in Occupational Therapy, including those who already have their OT master’s and others who want to pursue a career in academic research). You also need a baccalaureate degree to become an OT.
If your undergraduate degree isn’t in the health sciences (biology, kinesiology, psychology, or sociology), you’ll be required to take prerequisite courses in biology, human anatomy and human physiology, human development, developmental psychology, abnormal psychology, sociology, and statistics before starting your graduate-level OT coursework.
Most occupational therapy programs require applicants to have completed 40 to 50 hours of observation time under the supervision of a qualified occupational therapist before they apply to an OT program.
Although the admissions process for OT programs differs for each school, admissions criteria typically include:
- Official transcripts from your undergraduate program showing a cumulative GPA (grade point average) of 3.0
- Three letters of recommendation, especially from individuals who have taught or overseen clinical activities for the applicant in an academic context
- GRE scores (required by some programs, but not by all).
- A personal statement outlining professional goals, talents, skills, and experiences that will help the applicant succeed in school and the workplace (for example, the University of Pittsburgh requires a brief statement discussing interest in the field of study and reasons for applying).
Please note that the Occupational Therapist Centralized Application Service (OTCAS) allows prospective occupational therapy students to create one OTCAS application which they can submit to multiple programs.
Occupational therapy master's degree programs focus on teaching the skills and training needed for OTs to practice and succeed. Students learn how to assess clients' functional needs and develop and implement treatment plans to help them become more self-sufficient. Below are examples of occupational therapy master’s coursework at the University of Pittsburgh:
- Foundations of Occupation
- Neurorehabilitation Theory & Practice
- Biomechanical Theory & Practice
- Neurobehavioral Science
- Developmental Theory and Practice
- Productive Aging Theory and Practice
- Psychosocial/Cognitive Theory and Practice
OT students must also complete two levels of fieldwork. The first level is a practicum in which students observe licensed OTs working in various settings and only participate in some parts of the therapy process (and then only under direct supervision). All programs at accredited institutions build a minimum of 24 weeks of full-time level II fieldwork, which is hands-on and more like an internship. Students provide occupational therapy services in various clinical settings under the supervision of a licensed occupational therapist.
Occupational therapists typically specialize after earning their master's degree and working in the field. They accomplish this by earning a certificate from the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) or other certificate-granting body. Common OT certificates include:
- Aquatic Therapeutic Exercise Certification (ATRIC)
- Basic DIR Floortime Certification
- Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS)
- Certified Industrial Ergonomic Evaluator (CIEE)
- Certified Stroke Rehabilitation Specialist (CSRS)
- Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist (CDRS)
- Certified Neuro Specialist (CNS)
- Seating and Mobility Specialist (ATP/SMS)
- Assistive Technology Professional (ATP)
- Certified Hippotherapy Clinical Specialist (HPSC)
What are the top schools offering an occupational therapy master’s?
The American Occupational Therapy Association's Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) has approved 220 master's in occupational therapy programs in the United States. Students must have completed an ACOTE-accredited Occupational Therapy program to sit for the NBCOT exam.
According to US News & World Report, well-regarded occupational therapy programs in the US include:
- Boston University
- Colorado State University
- Columbia University
- New York University
- Thomas Jefferson University
- Tufts University
- University of Illinois at Chicago
- University of Pittsburgh
- University of Southern California
- Washington University in St. Louis
Questions or feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org