Thursday, November 16, 2006

Why Yoga and Therapy?

The metaphor between what happens in the body and mind becomes very direct when yoga and psycho-therapy are combined. Yoga stretches, strengthens, and brings the body into balance. Therapy stretches, strengthens and brings the mind into balance.

Yoga, as a physical discipline, gives us direct access to a practice using our skeletal (voluntary) muscle system. What goes on in our heads is less voluntarily controlled. Yet, what we do and how we heal and take care of our bodies directly impacts our mental health. In this way, yoga and therapy come together to heal the whole person. I use the word “heal” with an assumption that the process of living causes various levels of both physical and emotional injury for everyone.

Yoga is a more complete physical exercise than most other athletic systems. More complete, in that it offers a system that addresses not only the entire skeletal system, but in addition to offering muscle strengthening, the skeletal muscles are also very deliberately worked through their length, creating increased flexibility, and strength through the length of the muscles. Alignment becomes a means and a goal as the body works through various “asanas”. (Asana is the Sanskrit word for pose or posture. Next time you hear a yoga instructor give the name of a posture in Sanskrit, you might notice that the names of all of the postures end in “asana”). The variety of asana is as endless as the imagination, and limited only by the practitioners willingness to play.

The same effect that is obtained from a regular yoga practice will not be achieved by exercises such as running or bicycling, which are repetitive and focused on some, but not all, of the muscle groups. A cyclist or a runner, or any number of other classic athletes, will more easily get a thorough aerobic workout than a yogi or yogini, but they also have to be very wary of developing muscle shortening and imbalances, or a variety of joint injuries. In fact, many athletes are discovering that a yoga practice offers an important enhancement to their main game. This is not to say that someone who practices yoga can not develop injuries from their practice, of course we can and do. When done well, however, yoga can be a very effective therapeutic for the physical body. Which now brings me back around to my original topic.

As an effective form of therapy for the physical body, it is my firm belief that the yoga practitioner thereby addresses their psyche as the physical body is being offered important exercise towards a more functional and healthy bodily alignment. As a massage therapist, one of my favorite truths that I tell my clients is: “the issues are in the tissues.” When people hear that, generally they will at least smile, or sometimes laugh outright. The recognized humor in this statement speaks to a deeply understood truth. We all have experienced how our bodies are so adept at taking on form and shape, molded by the issues in our lives. A massage therapist can help you undo deep muscle tension. A psycho therapist will help you to address and uncover the issues in your life that bring on bodily tensions. A yoga practice however, will bring your awareness keenly to your habitual form, and help you to see and feel how you carry your life in your body.

My contention is that when we do that, we are better primed for our psychotherapy sessions. Yoga may be very good therapy, but I don’t believe it replaces good talk therapy. We are social creatures, and as much as we can develop good understandings of ourselves as we allow a closer and healthier relationship with our physical bodies, I believe we also need the affirmation and understanding that comes from having a healthy relationship with a good therapist.

So, to sum up why yoga and therapy: Yoga develops our own personal awareness of ourselves through a discipline that works towards our becoming well aligned, physically. This tuned in physical alignment moves our psyches in the direction of also becoming more well balanced and aligned, creating a beautiful opening for working with our therapists. The individual awareness developed during a potentially meditative yoga workout, gives the client access to important material. Serious yoga practitioners understand that yoga is much more than an exercise of doing daily asana, but that our lives take on their own unique asana. Having a therapist available to offer encouragement, understanding, and insight can create a very meaningful merging of modalities as yoga on the mat is brought to life off of the mat.


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