Buried in and central to yogic practices are ways of breathing, moving, and being that profoundly change the way we feel. It doesn’t merely change the way we feel in the moment or for the few hours afterwards – it changes the way we feel our feelings, think our thoughts, and experience our moods. Science and medicine are proving, each day, what yogic science has known for a very long time: yoga changes our brains, our bodies, our hormones, and the way we think, feel, and process our experience, inner and outer. Stress, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, grief, trauma, insomnia, eating disorders and addictions all respond powerfully. Those with self esteem issues, childhood abuse issues, combat experience and sexual assault or trauma histories have all found healing on the mat that they may have given up on, elsewhere. Yoga touches these very human experiences and changes them in ways medicine and traditional talk therapies simply can’t. It is one thing to understand our problems and to understand healing. It is altogether different to feel change, beginning at the soles of your feet.
The practices of yoga began as a quest for that kind of healing and emotional well being. What we think of as a physical practice or a form of meditation was actually a deep inquiry into the human condition. Yogic sages knew human suffering just as we do, and their intention was to understand the human condition in order to attain freedom, joy, and emotional balance. The central archetype in yogic lore is the Jivan Mukti – or soul awake in this lifetime.
The Jivan Mukti expresses the idea that healing is possible. But not healing in the way we usually think. This isn’t about coping skills, getting over it, or learning to let go. It isn’t even about returning to okay again. The Jivan Mukti runs deeper. Healing actually becomes a deeper sense of being alive. Our grief becomes resonate with more compassion and a stronger sense of joy. Our stress becomes our wisdom and our teacher. Healing, passion, enthusiasm, attention, compassion, and love become deeply embodied.
Yoga as Therapy
Psychotherapy and medicine feature a rich collaborative relationship between client and therapist, or patient and doctor. Both are eloquent in addressing mind and emotions, as well as physical health and disease. Yoga bridges the science of body and mind.
The range of human emotion, mood, and cognitive ability cast a wide net, from panic attacks to dysthemia to perfectionism. Each and every one has some answer in yoga. Western medicine and therapy are starting to prove the fact that mind and body interface in both subtle and obvious ways. Our memories are held in our muscle structure. Our emotions are stored across the physical field. The feedback loop works both ways, so that our thoughts can change our body, but our body can also literally change our minds. When we don’t deal with the body, we leave out important parts of healing.
Many of the most basic human conditions are actually conditioned prior to our learning language. We learn our core standards of trust, security, anger, how to self sooth, how to respond to fear, and self-worth long before the language parts of our brain have matured. Additionally, traumatic experiences such as an assault, a fire, or even a serious illness are processed not in the language and rational parts of our brain, but in our instinctual, emotional, and spiritual selves. The concept of neurotransmitters and their role in cognitive functioning and our general mood are common knowledge. What is less well known but every day more evident is that similar ‘neural pathways’ and ‘neurotransmitters’ work in our spinal cord, our hearts, our fascia, and our muscle tissue.
For all of these reasons, it is strange to think that we could ‘talk’ or ‘reason’ ourselves into healing. If our hurt, fear, stress, or memory is stored in the body, it only makes sense to believe healing should involve the whole body.
The Ways We Hurt
There is nothing wrong with feeling stressed, angry, depressed, or anxious. These are a natural part of the human experience. In fact, they are appropriate responses to the world we live in.
All of us, at one time or another, experience grief. Anger is a natural and appropriate response to feeling violated in some way. And stress, psychology has shown, is actually a motivating, strengthening, learning human response. The problem is not that we feel these things. It’s that we become overwhelmed by them. At times, it may seem that we experience so much fear, anger, or sadness that all other emotions lose their place. At other times, we may be so overcome by the power of an emotion that we feel swept away, powerless, or dominated by whatever it is we are feeling.
We live in a stressful world. The World Health Organization suggests that by 2015 depression will be the #1 health problem on our planet. One in five persons struggles with some kind of depression disorder, and another one in five some kind of anxiety disorder. Add to this chronic stress, multitasking, the pressure to have it all, and a cultural value system that emphasizes achievement and individualism over self-care and community. Emotional imbalance is more common to the human experience than emotional balance.
That imbalance manifests in thousands of different ways. Low self-esteem, constant worry, insomnia, persistent body image issues, chronic pain, fatigue, compulsions, invasive thoughts, ruthless self criticism, and an underlying sense that there is something wrong are all terribly common. ‘Terribly’, both in the sense of being overwhelming in it’s frequency, and ‘terrible’ in the way it actually feels and expresses itself in our lives.
Imbalance may come from core family issues, abusive relationships, stressed-out or absent parents, financial or social strain, poverty, spiritual alienation, overwork. It is important to recognize how imbalanced our culture (and, to be fair, much of the human condition) is: competitive, consumer culture is stressful; difficult economic realities are stressful; world poverty, violence, terrorism and war are difficult; sexism, racism, and agism are realities. In very real ways, our global existence is under constant, if unacknowledged, threat. The sum total of human knowledge took thousands of years to double up until the last few centuries; our collective knowledge makes everything we thought we knew obsolete, now, within a few years. It might happen only once in a while, during particularly stressful points in our career or on the heels of a significant loss. Grief is, in it’s very nature, a form of depression. But for an increasing number of us, stress, frustration, powerlessness, apathy, sadness, or anxiety are more normal than not.
Yoga as Healing
No matter what ’caused’ it, and no matter how long it has been present, we do have the capacity to heal. To heal more deeply and more powerfully than we may be capable of believing. Much of our emotional and cognitive wiring is set, locked into a pattern, and difficult to change no matter how much you may want or understand. But therapeutic yoga can actually go deep enough to re-set our emotional and cognitive wiring. It literally provides new learning, new insight, and new experiences, while addressing the old ‘hardwiring’. Yoga gives a new collection of tools – experienced, felt tools more than logic tools – that reverberate deep into the mind-body-spirit network.
Yoga can be a first hand, embodied experience of vitality, strength, peace, and calm. It can also be a first hand, embodied experience of self-worth, at-one-ment and grace, which are so central to our religious and spiritual selves. Atonement and grace form the bulk of theology and prayer. Yoga, oddly enough, is a way to feel the power of prayer, and deep connection, in every tissue of your body.
“Emotional Yoga” as a yoga class
We tend to think of yoga as a fairly intense physical practice. No matter what style or brand of yoga you practice, you will be getting some of the therapeutic benefits of yoga.
But science and tradition also show that one does not need the intense physical workout, nor a daily practice, to experience the profound transformation available through breath, meditation, and posture. Indeed, some of the most healing work may come in gentle, restorative postures and simple breathing exercises.
You do not need to be in shape, flexible, or entirely mobile to participate in the class. You do not need any experience with yoga. Nor do you need to ‘buy in’ to any spiritual practices or cultural traditions. All you need to do is show up.
We all have different needs. There are specific postures and breath work that energize us from the lethargy of depression, and others that help to ground us and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system – soothing anxiety. The first standard in yoga is ahimsa, or do no harm. That is a guiding principal to all yoga classes. So while some poses might work especially well with depression, others with anxiety, etc, no pose will be harmful. The principal is balance. I’m committed to understanding individual students, and will be ready to change the class according to need and hopefully give further information and additional practices to those students who have specific concerns.