Yoga is emerging as a force in the mental health world. Here are a few of the primary reasons why:
1. Many people are having an experience of wholeness through yoga that often proves elusive in psychotherapy. If not elusive, it may take years or decades to achieve. By contrast, countless people report touching something like wholeness in a 75-minute yoga class, on a regular basis- and they are doing the math.
2. Yoga contains simple, direct instruction on how to create new patterns in mind, body, and behavior. Yoga is arguably the original, and most holistic, form of Positive Psychology. Increasingly, people want ‘therapy’ to be a way of cultivating new, supportive patterns rather than focusing on ‘the problem’. Note: Cultivation of new patterns is a good working definition of yoga. Where therapy is often organized around studying, reporting on, and theorizing about the origins of what’s wrong, yoga teaches: ‘Here’s how good it can be.’
3. Yoga is physically experiential, which gives it immediacy not found in many forms of talk therapy. In yoga, whatever happens is directly experienced, in the body/mind. The practitioner has the experience, rather than a discussion of an experience. Therapy is inherently one step removed from the subject of the discussion: Thoughts about mother are not mother. Every time we ask a client “Why do you feel that way?” or “what was your mother like?” we guide them to leave the raw data of direct experience and enter the slippery world of theory, memory and narrative. In yoga there is only raw data.
4. Like other eastern contemplative traditions, yoga departs from the psychotherapeutic assumption that inner suffering is best alleviated verbally. “How can speech have access to those places where the mind cannot go?” asked yoga master Swami Kripalu.
All methodologies, including an invaluable one like psychotherapy, contain a weakness. The originators of psychotherapy saw that verbalizing the subjective, private experience (particularly in Victorian culture) could be liberating. But what is revolutionary in one era can be, in certain circumstances, deadening in another. How many people have reinforced a struggle by talking about it, over and again for years, at the behest of well-meaning therapists? I personally see quite a few.
We must inform our clients, because they may not be savvy or confident enough to ask us, that there exists a range of basic orientations in therapy: Talk-based insight work, expriential work, and therapy based in learning skills, tools and practices. Failure to do so may be unethical.
For the good of our profession, I believe we need to own a truth about a key weakness of psychotherapy: The assumption that talking about one’s problems is inherently and unquestionably therapeutic.
I have found that for myself as a clinician, there are times when relinquishing the Search For Causes of a client’s struggle (through verbal/thinking intervention) is part of my own self-care, and part of what makes my ability to be a resilient practitioner, available to my clients, sustainable.
Therapy not primarily talk-based? Yoga as a form of psychotherapy? Farfetched? Let’s look at the primary misconception about yoga: Yoga is exercise.
Clarification: Currently, yoga is widely practiced as posture-based exercise. But the tradition of yoga originally had nothing to do with fitness. To view yoga as just exercise is a great dumbing down of a rich, complex, and far deeper tradition of inner transformation.
At its core the tradition of yoga is a methodology of progressive self-mastery. It contains detailed teaching to orient and empower the practitioner in the body and mind, and specific instruction in regulating thinking, levels of activation, and behavior. On a still-direct but more subtle level, yoga offers instruction in how to cultivate less suffering through shifting one’s stance toward experience. It’s a how-to manual of embodied practices on the physical, metaphysical, energetic, emotional, mental and spiritual levels. And it does not require the practitioner to understand their past or plot their future. In fact, no talking is needed. Shhh!
In the therapy office, yoga can inform the clinician and empower the client. Less and less thinking in terms of DSM and psychopathology, the therapist/yoga teacher may be seeing their client more like a home inspector looking at a building: A structure containing cognitive and somatic systems, noting functionality and imbalances. With informed consent of the range of options, the client can choose to be guided in practices (generally, seated in an office chair) that create new patterns, often on multiple levels. Psychodynamic or other more conventional work may be woven in as complimentary. Most importantly, the client leaves having done it, not simply discussed it. Prescription: Rinse, repeat.
Speaking about some of the subtle but powerful forms of yoga as psychological pattern-making, the Dean of the Kripalu Yoga School, Michael Carroll, has said, “Yoga is not about which postures you can do or how long you hold them, but how much of your self you can witness, how much experience you can open to.”
For this, no words are needed, not even a yoga mat. Our clients need to know.
For more on what yoga-influenced therapy can look like:
-Stay tuned for upcoming posts here
-Check out a book by Stephen Cope titled Can Yoga and Meditation Really Change My Life?