by Karen Carnabucci
As a psychotherapist, coach and educator -- and sometime yoga practitioner -- I have repeatedly observed that yoga is an excellent adjunct to psychotherapy. Actually, it's an excellent adjunct for any kind of path of growth, personal or professional, because it helps stabilize us and helps us take in learning, accelerate change and advance spiritually.
Contemporary psychotherapy has become more interested in neurobiology -- the interaction of the many hormones and other chemicals within sections of our brains -- which affect our emotions and behaviors. We know that the chemicals can be shifted and changed in a variety of ways: by medication, by certain experiential therapies, and by yoga.
I have found that many people benefit from yoga, often in surprising ways: a teen-ager who denies the effects of marijuana on her body learns that she cannot breathe very well during a posture; an overwhelmed care-taking mother learns to slow down and take time for herself; a business man who is experiencing high blood pressure begins to relax and feel more in control of his body. A study published in a recent issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly reported that mind-body exercise, such as yoga, is associated with greater body satisfaction and fewer symptoms of eating disorders than traditional aerobic exercise like jogging or using cardio machines. Yoga practitioners reported less self-objectification, greater satisfaction with physical appearance, and fewer disordered eating attitudes compared to non-yoga practitioners.
Here are ways that yoga is helpful:
Sometimes we think too much and we need to clean our brains. Our thoughts fill our heads and seem to control our entire reality with "When…" and "What if…" Yoga, as a method of uniting mind, body and spirit, seems to bring the thoughts in the body. When you are focusing a posture with a good stretch, mindful of hand and feet placement and taking a breath, there is little time to ruminate and worry.
Yoga postures also aid in releasing emotions in a healthy way. If it is stress, your boyfriend or your job making your emotions go wild, the postures help contain the emotions and release them in a safe and appropriate way. No one is embarrassed or confronted with angry outbursts, and
Yoga reduces stress and helps us slow down in this fast, fast world. When we are calm, we are able to make decisions, large and small, more clearly. Sleeping better, and therefore feeling more rested, also contributes to optimism and energy rather than exhaustion and irritability.
Yoga helps reduce pain and physical discomfort. It is hard to be cheerful and optimistic when you are in physical pain. For many people, the pain and the limitations that it causes in each person's personal life creates depression.
Yoga is self caring. Many people who have few self-care habits can begin to appreciate their bodies and what their bodies can accomplish. Motivation and dedication, rather than expensive equipment, increases a person's ability to care for self, and some of the benefits can be experienced almost immediately.
Yoga offers a comforting philosophy that complements psychological principles. It gives attention to the body while also identifying the importance of the mind, the spirit and numerous lifestyle choices.
If you practice in a group, you have a ready-made support group. Your teacher and fellow students will be glad to see you -- or they should be glad to see you in a good and well-run yoga class! -- and you will widen your support network. Community helps us feel more connected and less isolated; research studies have shown that people who enjoy a wide social network appear to be more healthy and live longer.
Having written this, I also will say that there are times when yoga is not suitable for someone in the therapeutic process, either at a specific moment in time or in general. I can remember one woman that I worked with who experienced difficulty and stress. The woman -- who was a survivor of sexual abuse perpetrated by her sadistic mother -- had been referred by her psychotherapist to one of the best yoga instructors in the community. The idea was that the yoga would help her feel more connected to her body.
The woman felt uneasy with the class, which took place in a partially lighted room, and she experienced strong triggers when the instructor moved from student to student to correct postures. Despite the gentleness the instructor, the class was simply too threatening. The woman later found relief and growth with a male bodyworker who worked with her in one-to-one sessions with other modalities where she felt more safe and comfortable.
Nevertheless, yoga is a very good thing for most people. A good instructor should hear your concerns and adapt instruction to fit your needs. I am always looking to refer people to yoga.
Read more of Karen's writing and check out her great videos at Lake House Blog: Thoughts about whole person wellness, change and personal growth from Karen Carnabucci, MSS, LCSW, TEP, psychotherapist, coach, educator and psychodramatist at Lake House Health & Learning Center at 932 Lake Ave., Racine, Wisconsin