It’s not about being good at something. It’s about being good to yourself.
What is Yoga?
Yoga, meaning “union,” has traditionally been associated with a practice aimed at achieving greater consciousness through the use of meditation, breath (pranayama), and lastly, physical postures (asana) – a harmonious union of body and mind. Its draw within the western world derives from its proven efficacy in fostering and encouraging relaxation, increasing strength and flexibility, and arguably most important of all, being present and mindful.
There are multiple sects of yoga, such as Vinyasa, Hatha, Iyengar, and Bikram. Within that, there are five branches of what is referred to as the “yoga tree,” described by Yoga Journal (2007) as each representing a particular approach to life– Raja (meditation), Karma (service), Bhakti (devotion), Jnana (academic studies) and Tantra (sacred physicality). Each different school of yoga can be adopted in line with one’s own goals and personal development.
Yoga in the Therapy Room
The Society for Psychotherapy discusses how it is widely acknowledged that holistic, complementary treatments such as yoga provide additional improvements beyond which traditional therapy can deliver alone. By integrating body and mind, a holistic healing process rooted in mindfulness and connectedness brings a heightened clarity and awareness to the client’s internal experience.
Mindfulness-based therapies, derived from Buddhist practices and influenced by the philosophy of ‘bare acceptance,’ have proven effective in treating mental health difficulties and improving psychological wellbeing.
It is hypothesized within mindfulness that addiction is a form of spiritual emergency, a profound spiritual yearning for “wholeness” that has wrongly manifested through addiction (Appel and Kim-Appel, 2009). Marlatt’s metaphoric concept of ‘urge surfing’ explains the mindfulness approach to treating impulsivity and addiction, by developing awareness to consciously notice the urge rather than trying to avoid or give into it – is suggested to regulate cravings for psychotropic states as a means of escaping the present moment (Shonin et al., 2013).
“It is not that mindfulness is the “answer” to all life’s problems. Rather, it is that all life’s problems are seen through the lens of a clear mind.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn, Founder of the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Program.
Physiologically, increased breathing awareness as a fundamental aspect of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness has shown to induce neuroplastic changes within the brain in neuropsychological imaging studies; increases in prefrontal functioning and vagal nerve output responsible for regulating heart ad breathing rate (Shonin and Gordon, 2016) which in turn reduces autonomic arousal and adverse psychosomatic responses to psychosocial stress (Shonin et al., 2013) – overall increasing the relaxation response.
What is Yoga Therapy, and how is it used? Meet the team!
“Yoga therapy is a self-empowering process, where the care-seeker, with the help of the Yoga therapist, implements a personalized and evolving Yoga practice that not only addresses the illness in a multi-dimensional manner but also aims to alleviate his/her suffering in a progressive, non-invasive and complementary manner. Depending upon the nature of the illness, Yoga therapy can not only be preventative or curative, but also serve as a means to manage the illness, or facilitate healing in the person at all levels.” – T. K. V. Desikachar.
According to the Minded Institute, Yoga therapy aligns the client’s unique and precise health needs with yoga practices and has been proven both within a yogic tradition and medical studies to have curative effects across both physical and emotional-based ailments.
For example, with lower back pain, there are specific postures for strengthening and supporting the back and even soothing the herniated disc symptoms. Likewise, with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), there are gentle, specialized ways of regulating the nervous system and fostering the return of awareness of the body. For anxiety, specific yoga postures can be used to reduce heightened sensory arousal and promote emotional regulation.
Yoga Therapy can be used to treat:
Mental Health Conditions
- Eating Disorders
- Post-Natal Depression
Patanjali first described yoga philosophy and practice in the classic text, Yoga Sutras, which is widely acknowledged as the authoritative text on yoga. Patanjali outlines an eightfold path to awareness and enlightenment called ashtanga, which means “eight limbs.”
The eight limbs comprise ethical principles for living a meaningful and purposeful life; serving as a prescription for moral conduct and self-discipline, they direct attention towards one’s health alongside the spiritual aspects of one’s nature.
- Yama (attitudes toward our environment)
- Niyama (attitudes toward ourselves)
- Asana (physical postures)
- Pranayama (restraint or expansion of the breath)
- Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (complete integration)
The physical postures and breathing exercises within yoga philosophy prepare the mind and body for meditation and spiritual development.
So we have to be mindful of Patanjali’s principles the next time we hit the yoga mat; the aim is not to get into the perfect posture but to be present, grow, and prepare our bodies so that our minds can experience calm and clarity in meditation. Samadhi awaits.