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Having trained as a yoga teacher and as a psychotherapist and counsellor, I’ve been particularly interested in the growing […] Read more...

Yoga Therapy – a holistic therapy?

Having trained as a yoga teacher and as a psychotherapist and counsellor, I’ve been particularly interested in the growing profile of “Yoga Therapy” as a treatment for people suffering with anxiety, depression and other issues categorised as “mental health” conditions.

There is little doubt that the key elements of yoga practice, namely mindful movement, posture, breath work can be effective in reducing stress and anxiety.[i] However, I also believe that long-term effective transformation is more likely to occur if we are able to bring some level of consciousness and literacy to our emotional states both on a bodily, felt, intuitive level and a cognitive, narrative, verbalised level. Leading from this, as Dr Sophia Reinders notes in a recent article in Yoga Journal[ii], yoga asana not only can produce an emotional uprising of joy and release but also feelings of pain, sadness and frustration. Without processing this effectively, the feelings that arise and need to be addressed can simply re-pattern and sink back down into the body-mind system. My first therapist used to liken the process to going into a dusty room and shaking it all up only for the dust to later re-settle in a different pattern.

A significant part of the therapeutic process means giving space to painful and difficult symptoms, allowing them to arise and be present, not necessarily making their quick removal the goal of the therapy session. This can present something of a dilemma for any therapist…But I contend it could be especially so with yoga based therapy – ironically because yoga can be so effective in temporarily removing the symptoms that in the long term it may obscure the possibility of more profound emotional processing and healing.

In keeping with this, if Yoga Therapy is to be a genuinely holistic approach, which is one of its key claims, I believe it is important that we seek ways to integrate its strengths with relationally based psychotherapeutic practice.  On a recent Yoga Therapy training, I encountered the view that because Yoga Therapy is held to be in the domain of ‘bodily’ felt experience, it is therefore more effective than psychotherapy, which is seen as more ‘talking based’, therefore more ‘mental’ and less ‘holistic’. Yet this itself is not a holistic perspective. It simply means that the approach of Yoga Therapy is skewed in a particular direction perceived by its practitioners as absent from more ‘conventional’ psychotherapeutic approaches. My belief is that this view, although to a degree understandable, is ultimately too simplistic and not helpful – especially if Yoga Therapy is to evolve as a genuinely holistic therapy for mental health conditions. To do this, ‘Yoga Therapy’ must include verbal processing and the ‘mental’ sphere – not least because ultimately these are inseparable from the bodily felt dimension. As Nick Totton a Body Psychotherapist and pioneer of Embodied Relational Therapy points out:
“thought and language are not ‘mental’ qualities, which exist over and against the body. On the contrary, in line with the holistic bodymind concept, thought and language are qualities of the body itself and separating them off from the body acts to reinstate the bodymind split, which body psychotherapy hopes to overcome.”[iii]
My sense is that part of the reason why such positions are taken up and identified with is that they are rooted in collective socio-cultural, political splits, which are infused with long held feelings arising from entrenched positions in each camp. In other words, the tension which is created by identifying with what is held to be a more ‘body’ based therapy such as Yoga Therapy versus what is perceived by the latter to be a more ‘mind’ based therapy such as psychotherapy is underpinned by age-old vertical oppositions and associations such as,
mind-

body

masculine-

feminine

rational-

irrational

cultured-

primitive [iv]
These have their felt counterparts such as superiority-inferiority, inflation-deflation, which potentially lead interchangeably to persecutor/victim identification their concomitant behaviours.
While these may be the reasons behind some of the prejudices, which from the political perspective are certainly worth debating and getting passionate about, my belief is that from the perspective of therapeutic efficacy, a more central ground should be sought. In other words, Yoga Therapy should not promote its contribution and potential benefits by emphasizing  the body route as being more effective than ‘talking therapies’ but take a more inclusive, integrative approach.  Indeed, there is a wealth of material, particularly in the contemporary body psychotherapy field, which could inform its approach and vice versa [v] – not least the political dimension touched on above.

[i] A note of caution. These practices may also exacerbate anxiety and stress. See http://www.yogajournal.com/for_teachers/1915

[ii] See http://www.yogajournal.com/for_teachers/1915

[iii] See pg 133 in “Body Psychotherapy – an introduction” by Nick Totton (Open University Press, 2003)

[iv] Nick Totton notes that many key opposites which structure our thinking are patriarchal, and only appear to be parallel to each other let alone equivalent. See “Wild Therapy” by Nick Totton (PCSS,2011)

[v]A number of body psychotherapists are elaborating perspectives on yoga theory such as the Chakra system eg see Roz Carroll’s interesting paper on the subtle body and counter-transference http://www.thinkbody.co.uk/body-psych/subtlebodyctr.htm

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