In addition to being a psychotherapist, I am a certified Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy practitioner and a yoga instructor. I’ve long been interested not only in movement, but in the role of body-oriented techniques in the process of psychological healing.
Tuning in to the Body
This began when I was in my late twenties, long before I ever knew that I would someday become a psychotherapist. I started taking stretch and yoga classes at a fitness center where I’d been taking aerobics. After a few lessons, I discovered that I was beginning to experience my body from the inside, rather than looking at it—and judging it—from the outside. I was forging a new type of relationship with my body, one I hadn’t known could exist. Instead of being a source of shame and frustration, my body was becoming my ally. Tuning in and listening to my body began to open pathways for healing wounds I hadn’t known how to access before.
I asked my stretch teacher about this and she explained that our bodies hold emotional and psychological issues in the joints and other areas. She said that holding a given position activates that emotion and the associated issue (e.g., fear of abandonment, or anger at a person who hurt us). Intrigued, I went on to have private stretch sessions with her and then to apprentice with her to learn the theory and technique.
Yoga was a little different: I’d sometimes find myself crying during savasana, the final relaxation pose, and although I was now aware of the reasons, I didn’t know what to do when it happened. I asked my yoga teacher. He told me it wasn’t uncommon and suggested that I picture “a bucket of tears” by my side so they had a place to go. From then on, I had a sturdy container collecting all my tears.
In 1988, my beloved yoga teacher died of AIDS. My body froze with grief. I say “froze,” but that’s not quite accurate; something stopped me from taking yoga classes from anyone else. In this time, I went from taking aerobics and stretch classes to teaching them. However, I experienced an invisible barrier when I contemplated taking a yoga class. I didn’t know enough about yoga to have developed my own practice. I didn’t know anything about the spiritual and philosophical aspects of yoga. All I knew was the magical experience I had in my teacher’s classes, and the sadness and pain I was feeling about my loss.
Psychotherapy and Yoga: Addressing the Body, Mind, and Trauma
Eventually I went to graduate school to become a psychotherapist. After graduation, I went to work with inpatient eating disorder treatment programs and taught stretch classes as a complementary treatment. However, I didn’t return to yoga classes until about ten years after my teacher’s death. It was then when I learned about and went through the Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy training program, which combined my understanding of the psychological properties of the body with yoga. Although I don’t do yoga therapy with my psychotherapy clients—and vice versa—for ethical reasons, I’ve learned how to incorporate aspects of yoga into psychotherapy sessions. I include the body in our work so that my clients aren’t involved in therapy only from the neck up.
In winter of 2008, I took a Trauma-Sensitive Yoga teacher training presented by the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Boston. This organization is responsible for the latest research on the role body-oriented therapies and yoga in the treatment of posttraumatic stress. Yoga has been shown to repair damage done to the nervous system by traumatic experiences. Unfortunately, there are aspects of traditional yoga classes that can be triggering to trauma survivors, so the staff at the Trauma Center has learned how to modify teaching techniques to make yoga feel safe for people who have experienced trauma.
Developing Yoga for Body Image Concerns
After I began teaching yoga classes for survivors of trauma, something started thumping around in the back of my mind, telling me, “You should put together something like a ‘Yoga for Disordered Eaters’ class.” This went on for several months. Last month I finally began what I’m calling the “beta version” of my “Yoga for Eating and Body Image Concerns” series. I’m not sure whether it’s a class, group, or workshop, but I do know that I incorporate yoga philosophy and asana (physical postures) practice, meditation, journaling exercises, and group discussion.
We’re halfway through the eight-class session. I’m helping the students explore their relationships with their bodies, to listen to what their bodies have to say rather than judging themselves on their bodies’ appearances. I’m teaching them how to make sense of the tears that arise when they hold a posture that opens the heart center such as Cobra or Camel and to understand the relevance of phrases like “standing on your own two feet” in Warrior pose or “carrying the world on your shoulders” in Shoulder Stand.
Yoga isn’t just about movement. The practice of yoga enables us to connect with our true nature, that spark of the Divine that dwells within us all, and then shows us how to live from that place in our daily lives. I believe that the healing properties of yoga can play a crucial role in the healing of our relationships with our bodies and our psyches.
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