I've just completed an introductory psychology class at Antioch University as a personal added interest alongside my MA.
For a few years I've been meeting psychotherapists and psychiatrists who are starting to recognise somatic practices – particularly yoga and meditation – as powerful tools in their therapeutic toolbox. Many of them are training to become yoga teachers so that they can offer their clients something beyond talking therapy, medication or any of the other healing modalities found in the clinical setting.
I'm trying to do things the other way round, and to bring what I know about the healing properties of somatic practices into my understanding of psychotherapy.
Part of our research in the psychology course is in learning about the work and advancements of the western world's most prominent psychoanalysts and therapists. Each week we've surveyed the contributions of maybe 20 key (white, male) theorists and their personality theories, the acceptance of which have been largely responsible for our private, clinical-based treatment of the self in western culture.
What struck me, as I was reading up on Albert Ellis – an American psychoanalyst of the 1940s who developed Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy as a way to engage his client's sense of responsibility for their thoughts, deeds and actions – is that his theories on positive psychology and thinking, of reframing negative thoughts and cultivating deep self awareness, all stem from early Indian yoga philosophies, chiefly those of the late Hatha and early Buddhist period.
In fact, not only did Ellis seemingly appropriate early spiritual psychology's understanding of the observer and the observed but he also understood just what yoga philosophy at a later date developed: namely that our world, our reality, is shaped by our thoughts and that the world 'out there' is a pure reflection of the world within. He understood too what neurosis and mental affliction are often caused by: an inability to separate one's self from one's thought processes; an over-reliance on the idea that we are separate and independent from others rather than part of an interconnected whole; and attachments to the pains of the past as correlative proof of a doomed future. Drawing directly, it seems, from the lessons of the Bhagavad Gita, Ellis asserts that the key to happiness is to act, to be involved and driven in one's life and to relinquish the idea of having absolute control over everything.
Ellis' Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT) has an ABC of procedures that are viewed in successive order when working with a client:
'A is for activating experiences, such as family troubles, unsatisfying work, early childhood traumas, and all the many things we point to as the sources of our unhappiness. B stands for beliefs, especially the irrational, self-defeating beliefs that are the actual sources of our unhappiness. And C is for consequences, the neurotic symptoms and negative emotions such as depression, panic, and rage that come from our beliefs.
Although the activating experiences may be quite real and have caused real pain, it is our irrational beliefs that create long-term, disabling problems! Ellis adds D and E to ABC: The therapist must dispute (D) the irrational beliefs, in order for the client to ultimately enjoy the positive psychological effects (E) of rational beliefs.
For example, "a depressed person feels sad and lonely because he erroneously thinks he is inadequate and deserted." Actually, depressed people perform just as well as non-depressed people. So, a therapist should show the depressed person his or her successes, and attack the belief that they are inadequate, rather than attacking the mood itself!' (C. George Boeree: Personality Theories, 2000)
I was stunned to read this short description of Ellis' clinical approach to the therapeutic process. What, in effect, he teaches, is what we teach ourselves when we find ourselves taken by a yoga practice.
The saṃskāras or mental patterns that groove and re-groove themselves into our mind (and all of us have them in various ways) through habitual, day-to-day thinking and rumination on past events or fears of the future, are actually re-oriented as a result of dedicated physical yoga practice. Not only do we start to sense that we are thinking differently – light, positive, compassionate thinking – but recent neuroscientific research has now 'proven' what yoga practitioners for the past two thousand years have known all along: that the yogic brain actively rewires itself, creating new neural pathways and new ways of seeing. It's partly why we become so inclined to return to yoga above and beyond any other form of physical activity.
Just one example from yoga philosophy's banquet of offers shows us man's relationship to his mind: 'Pratipaksha bhavana' is a Sanskrit phrase that translates as the ability to turn afflicted thinking on its head. Put simply, it's the practice of changing negatives into positives and it's an example of early Indian philosophy's ability to regard consciousness as a mutable, manipulable phenomenon. Yoga as a philosophy understands that we needn't be subjects of the wild and unfocussed movements of our minds (as Patañjali's Yoga Sūtras attest, 'yogaḥ cittaḥ vṛittiḥ nirodhaḥ' – 'yoga is the cessation of the endless fluctuations of the mind') and furthermore, that we have the power to change the way we experience the world. If Hindu and early yoga philosophy allowed us to see that the world is an illusion created only by consciousness (much like the proposals put forward by Ellis) then Buddhist thought picked up this idea and ran with it, developing the notion that just as we seek a way to avoid the persistent suffering of life, we also have the power to radically alter our perspective on that suffering.
In the fourth of five psychology classes, and sitting among a group of hopeful future psychotherapists, all of us excited and happy to be discussing brain function, behaviour and therapeutic techniques, I was illumined by the thought: 'YOGA IS THE BEST PSYCHOTHERAPY THERE IS!' Aware that I was no longer in the room with 15 other Yoga Studies graduate students who knew what I was talking about but faced instead by a body of people whose prime interest lay in discovering cerebral and cognitive methods of therapy, I tried to explain myself to the classroom, telling the story of how I'd come to yoga in the first place.
While in therapy with a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist to help me work with grief and depression, I was recommended to try yoga and meditation with the suggestion that they might ease the symptoms of stress, anxiety and low mood. At that point I didn't have the energy or wherewithal to try either. Some months later, something had shifted and I was able to make my way to a local meditation class. CBT itself had opened to me for the first time something about the working of my mind: my fears, core beliefs and behaviours, all of which was curiously interesting. Meditation, however, allowed me to bear witness to these things in a way that created a more tangible separation between me and 'my self.' The observer and the observed, as we call it. Yoga followed meditation and with it, the beginning of a series of layers being peeled back and revealed to me in a way that was both healing and entrancing.
And that's it: because yoga works at both the subtle and the gross level, it allows the body and the conscious mind to soften together, having the added effect of quieting the daily, ongoing, chattering, anxious, always-moving mind in order to let the deeper work and the profound messages from within to rise up. It allows you to get in and take a good look around. The more one practices, the more that sense of intuition, bodily wisdom and inner healing is advanced, and because the brain receives positive feedback messages from the rush of endorphins and GABA (one of the central nervous system's neurotransmitters responsible for calming nervous activity, low levels of which are thought to be linked with anxiety and mood disorders) – not to mention the extraordinarily powerful calming of the autonomic nervous system which is responsible for fight or flight but which, through controlled and regular breathing is soothed into a state of quiet trust and relaxation – it is not uncommon to leave a yoga class feeling grounded and soothed from the inside out.
The positive feedback system works like this: the body holds a posture, say Warrior 2, for longer than it might like to. The muscles work hard to keep the spine straight, the front leg bent, both arms extended and straight. After a few seconds, the mind chips in and asks to stop, complains about the pain and the tension in the lower back, gets bored and wants to do something else. This is totally normal. This is where the breath comes in and why it is so crucially important to our yoga practice: without it, we are simply not practicing yoga, but gymnastics. In order to quiet the mind and train the brain we draw on the breath, inhaling deeply and exhaling fully. We stay with the movement of the breath at all times, in every posture. And in a nutshell, this is why: the sympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) flares up in response to the stress of holding a pose, sending messages to the brain that puts us into 'fight or flight' mode. By breathing deeply and steadily, we activate the parasympathetic or 'rest and digest' response in the ANS that counteracts this stress signal, leading to a soothed state of being. The more we practice, the stronger the feedback between the two responses becomes, meaning that when we're faced with stressors and aggravations from daily life, our neural memory knows how to maintain our arousal at a comfortable and safe level. In short, we become calmer and more easily able to handle life's ups and downs with greater ease. This is why yoga has shown to be especially effective for war veterans and PTSD sufferers - in fact, any population used to running on 'high alert' in such a way as to exhaust the adrenal system.
So there it is: Yoga is not about the asana and how good it does or doesn't look, nor is it about flexibility, which is actually the byproduct of practice, the release of blocked emotion and a removal of the mind's insistence that the body 'can't' or 'won't' get into a certain posture. It is brain training and soul therapy, pure and simple. I like to think of it this way: We move the body to still the mind and we still the mind to move the spirit.
And in so doing, we dive deep into the essence of who we really are, far, far away from the associations that the mind or ego likes to make with itself and the world around us. This inner voice – the one that has been cultivated into silence by society, our families, the structures that we live in in the modern world – is at the centre of each and every one of us. Its voice is so damn clear that once you hear it, it is not only profoundly moving but impossible to ignore. It brings confidence, understanding, compassion, focus and in my opinion, the ability to dig out from the root the debilitating thought processes that hold so many of us back from being as brilliant as we truly are. It also has the power to deliver the grace of spiritual wisdom; a stillness and resonance beyond language. At a grosser level it lends us the opportunity to understand ourselves better than anyone else can, and to intuit what is best for us at a properly humanist level. The practice of yoga is not only a sort of clearance sale of the mind so that the body and soul can speak but in so many instances, it is a naturally intelligent way of enacting the original Greek meaning of 'psyche' and 'therapeuin': therapy of the soul. Or to go direct to the source, it is Sanskrit's own definition of yoga, meaning to yoke or unite.
It's my responsibility to say that psychotherapy has a wonderful, charted history of deep thought and great success and that I've used it as a client with great effect. In fact, it's what I hope to study next. It's important also to say that severe mental health problems – though shown to be responsive to yoga and meditation in some cases – deserve individual medical treatment. Each of us has our own healing path to tread and in that sense different modalities will work for different people, and at different times in our lives. What I love in the study of mind-body relations is that these various tools and techniques can find intimate, revelatory ways of talking to one another and offer us a picture of ourselves in totality, in our full, beautifully-flawed humanness.
For further reading, I can't recommend highly enough these two books:
The Healing Path of Yoga, by Nischala Joy Devi
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind & Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D.