There is a lot of talk about "yoga therapy" these days. So what is yoga therapy intended to mean? Given that I am not a certified yoga teacher I cannot clearly give you a definition of what yoga is, despite practicing it for 25 years. Although we all have an idea in general about what this is, and it is true that a yoga practice can be therapeutic. But the two are different.
Yoga can be differentiated from yoga therapy in the following ways. In Yoga Therapy, which is offered by either a certified yoga teacher or a mental health therapist with training in yoga therapy (100 hrs- 500 hrs.), the following principles are adhered to. A safe environment is created, meeting the client where they are at, individual empowerment, working within the client's "zone of tolerance", belief in the client's innate capacity for healing, inviting clients to embrace their instincts rather then brace against them, and finally there is as a rule no touch or hands on in yoga therapy.
On the last point, I know there are various opinions, and of course non sexual touch can be very healing. But as a starting point, no touch is the standard. If these principles are in place a client can move through challenging and perhaps uncomfortable internal experience with increasing tolerance for this eventually changing their relationship with their own body and changing the default. So the shift in Yoga to Yoga Therapy is from a focus on yoga methods and practices to the client's needs, and helping to balance their fight/flight/freeze system. The therapist here, needs to be aware of the client's system- is it being activated? Can I offer something to help bring the activated system back down, engaging the parasympathetic system or rest and digest. Yoga is a perfect system to assist in this; there is the physical work, the use of breath and the use of focus (harnessing the mind) so it uses the whole body to address a whole body problem. For example if depression is the identified problem, well depression does not just live in one's head and thoughts. One cannot think oneself out of depression. When you think of it nearly all mental health problems affect the individual's basic functions; appetite, sleep, energy, and the individual's moods. If the problem lives in the body, then the body must be engaged to help the problem move out of the body.
A key part of Yoga Therapy is the language that is used. It can be categorized as "welcoming" or "Invitational". so some examples are; become aware of... notice...if you're willing...when you're ready...be curious about...What do all of these have in common? Choice.
Food for thought; next time you are going to your favorite community yoga class, be curious about the language used.
This is What I Know… Your mindset is at least 80 percent of the outcome. Just like arriving to your first therapy session is 80% of the work- for real. It's hard to believe this but our minds are very powerful things. All you have to do is take a look at some amazing stories that seem humanly impossible and you can see it; Monks in India who are wrapped in wet blankets and meditate in the cold and can raise their core body heat to dry, yes I said dry the said towels, or the recent news story of the teen girl who went to go ask her father for the car and he was pinned under it. What did she do- lift it- no big thing. Or even the simple research experiment of test taking and cell phones. Three scenarios; high schoolers taking tests with phones facing up sounds off, phones facing down sounds off and the third group, phones away in bags- no sounds or images. Can you guess which group gets the best test scores? Enough said.
What IS anxiety? There are so many technical definitions of it (google DSM definition of anxiety), but what is it really? One of the ways I talk about it with my clients and often in the first session is that anxiety can be seen as obsessing about the past or worrying about the future, right? So what if you are right here right now? Is that a problem? What anxiety is not, is being in this moment right now.
Clients very easily see this definition and can start to think of anxiety in this way. Which brings me to homework assignment #1 (if you like homework). "Next week, notice how much of the time you are not present". This is best observed doing the mundane, like preparing dinner, taking a shower or washing your dishes at the sink. Are you "all in?" That is, feeling the warm water running over your hands, noticing the pattern/colors of your plates, smelling the scent of the soap. That is being all in or fully present. Most likely you are elsewhere; running over that awkward conversation you just had with your neighbor, reminding yourself to call your mother later, or finding yourself in fantasy land where you are CEO of your own successful company that helps companies throw the best rewards parties for their employers! Some places our minds go are fine, helpful and even good for us like the last one, the fantasy job-but that blog is a whole other topic!
But what if our minds continue to take us to the negative, dark and scary places? That has a real effect on the system; physically and mentally. If the thought is a worry one, it can start to trigger the Amygdala center or our fight or flight system. Are you aware of what is happening inside your body when this system get initiated? The body's sympathetic nervous system is activated by the sudden release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands. These are primarily adrenaline, and cortisol and they get released to prepare you for battle! To be at your best, your amazing system works to dilate your pupils so you can see better, your senses become sharper, your muscles feel tensed up but what's happening is your heart starts beating faster pushing blood to the muscles for increased strength and the breath feels shorter but lungs airways are opening to take in as much oxygen as possible. Think people with superhuman strength in an emergency! All this to help you prepare to defend. But what if your really aren't in a situation where you need to defend yourself, like for example forgetting to call your mother? Well the system gets triggered anyway if your thoughts are worrisome enough to initiate the system, and this may indicate your system needs a tune up. And guess what, the more we worry, the more we prime ourselves to worry. Our system loves habit,"Oh last time you had that thought- it was green light to the amygdala! You're having that thought again? Let's go!"
So you can see how our system can get on auto-pilot, meaning it is over reacting to things that shouldn't really be triggering the fight or flight system at all. The good news is we can actively work to reset our system so it can return to the natural guardian it really wants to be for us. Now, isn't it a better idea to stay focused on that boring old dish we are washing? Give it a try, this is active mindfulness. See how much you are actually present with your current experience for 1 day. When clients return the following week they report they are amazed at how much they are actually not present much of the day. This is a good starting point.