As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are “Notice that” and “What happens next?” Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”
― Bessel A. van der Kolk,
I was reflecting the other day on words spoken to me by various clients after they had practiced yoga in this last week. They went along the lines of:
“I could really feel my tiredness”
“I do not know what it is I feel exactly, but I can feel my legs”
“Anyone who says yoga is easy is wrong, I could feel my heart pumping”
“It is so good to feel my breath, it has been a long time”
Any guesses to the commonality there, to the trend that emerges from the experience of each practitioner? Pretty simple really – each statement has a reflective quality to it and the use of the word FEEL allows the statement to be totally subjective to the individual experience. I am eternally in awe at how amazing yoga is, and the reason for this is because it invites us to “FEEL STUFF” which in a world that through its own insanity continually pushes us to shut down and feel less, is nothing short of incredible. Because it is through feeling that we come alive. It is through the experiential process of connecting the body with the breath that we may have the potential to invite in a greater sense of awareness to the given moment and it is through that awareness that we can see things as they truly are.
Yoga is many things to many people; however for me it is my therapy, my medicine and my daily practice BUT it also my mirror, because every time I step onto the mat I get to see myself reflected back at me. Some days I don’t really want to look in that mirror but yoga gives us no choice and that can be confronting, I know, I have been there many, many times. When I am feeling edgy, irritable and narky I will notice this in the way that I talk to myself on the yoga mat. When I am feeling overly stimulated and heated, I will notice this in the way that I may push my body on the mat. When I am feeling tired and depleted I will notice in the way that my body feels sluggish on the mat. Put simply my yoga practice is an open invitation to myself to feel into the moment and notice what is there; the good, the bad and the downright ugly. It is also an invitation to myself to be ok with whatever is there and that is my choice to take up or not.
The other day someone asked me what my yoga retreats are all about and it was a great question, I have not been asked this in such a direct manner before and it was interesting. At the same time I have been reflecting recently on my identity and how I wish to present myself to the world as a yoga therapist. I have been reflecting on what matters to me about yoga, about why I am so passionate about its therapeutic uses and why I spend chunks of my time persuading others to go away with me to immerse into yoga. I spent a day facilitating a yoga teacher training last weekend and as we talked about the business of being a yoga teacher, we talked about the importance of understanding your “WHY”. The why you do it, the why you teach yoga and of course the why you practice yoga and it helped me focus a little.
My why is this; little delights me more then when people express a felt experience be it good or bad, little gives me more pleasure than seeing a face drop peacefully and a body soften and relax into the moment of acceptance. It enthralls me how every experience is different, no one moment or experience is ever the same. When I teach, no class is ever the same, no response is ever the same. But there is always a common theme – there is always a shared, collective felt experience and an individual felt experience. An experience in which everyone on the mat, both myself and the student, goes through a journey of sensation, feeling and ultimately waking up. This does not mean every yoga class is a divinely blissful one, not at all, I am not suggesting that every moment on the mat is perfect and delightful and enlightenment is achieved. No, it can be clunky, awkward, painful, uncomfortable and difficult but there is as much beauty in the dark shadows as there is beauty in the joyful and delightful. The ability to look at these shadows and know that they serve a purpose is the best reminder we can have of our own fragility, vulnerability and sense of perspective.
We need to feel, in fact it is imperative that we feel, we need to feel because the opposite of feeling is to be shut down to life. To be shut down is to live a life of avoidance, to never look at our shadows, to never notice the present moment and it will always feel like we are running away from something, we will never allow ourselves to be still. To numb ourselves of feeling invites in a sense of restlessness, discomfort and fear. We are restless as we are always seeking a way to escape the sensation, we feel uncomfortable as sometimes we come close too it, we nudge the edges of what we feel and it unnerves us so we have to find a way to shut it out, we are frightened of it because we fear that if open up the pandora’s box then maybe what will come out will be too big for us to handle.
As a yoga therapist I am slowly finding myself dealing more and more with mental health, people come to me with anxiety, depression and trauma – they come sometimes with purely physical stuff but once we start to talk the underlying issue is always deeper than that. So I also find myself working with auto-immune disorders and pain. I spend so much time reading and researching, listening and hearing what others have to say, because I know it is what will make me able to serve these people with kindness and understanding. To come into a place of feeling when you have spent so long shutting it down can be hard, talking therapies are amazing but it is not always enough and that is very clear to me. The research shows that CBT is a brilliant therapy but with some forms of trauma it can not get deep enough. What is emerging is that yoga has something that is very unique and it is the mind body connection that makes it stand out. Even when the situation is very sensitive yoga has a way of accessing the body with such gentleness. There is much work to be done here, mental health is a global issue and one that is not going to go away and so it is imperative to continue to invite people onto the mat, to explore what it will take to empower them to feel, to empower them to be vulnerable and to empower them to find self managed practices that enable them to be ok with where they are, in any given moment.
There is a huge amount written about mental health on the internet, it does not take long to find articles and blogs about it. Plenty of stories people have shared about their journey are out there. But for me the science matters, the evidence behind it is increasing but we need more research done. We need to understand even more why it helps, what effects it has on the brain (see below for some further links and reading).
Taken from the book Stress Proof by Dr Mithu Storoni (a great read do check it out – https://www.amazon.com/Stress-Proof-Scientific-Solution-Body-Resilient/dp/0143130471 )
“Yoga demands attentional focus and self regulation, and careful analysis of what happens during the practice of yoga reveals a strong parallel with neuro-feedback training. There is emerging evidence that yoga may hep to correct an imbalance between sympathetic and parasympathetic activity. Some studies show that yoga has a positive effect on depression, anxiety and PTSD. This may be because in addition to being a workout for the body, yoga provides and excellent work out for your self control.
Traditional yoga requires postures that be held in complete stillness for a set length of time…While your autonomic system is seemingly having a party, your cortex must assert control. This pushes you into a form of focused attention meditation and self control”
I came across this TED talk by Mandy Saligari: Feelings handle them before they handle you and the title really caught my eye. She just blew me away, what an incredible woman who is doing amazing work and with such a wonderful passion for what she does. My take home from it was that we:
- Need to create a relationship with a part of ourselves that we can allow to be vulnerable
- We need to invest in the curiosity of living
- That gratitude for what we have makes a difference
- That we can allow ourselves to be available to live
And finally understand this, it is ok to feel whatever it is you feel and please know that it is very likely that you are not the only person to have felt this way and so never feel that you are alone. There are so many ways to deal with feelings that arise that are overwhelming, scary and uncomfortable. Talk to someone, reach out to a friend or if you seek a more confidential and professional approach, investigate seeing a counselor/psychotherapist. If yoga is not something you have done before, then maybe look into that too, yoga therapy is a fully integrative and holistic process that aims to empower people towards wellness. As a yoga therapist I am not a trained counselor nor an expert in psychotherapy, but I am an expert in yoga and I do know how to use the practice to help people. Yoga therapy does not state that it can provide a cure, nor a quick fix however the evidence suggests that it does do something to improve people’s lives and that is not to be ignored.
In peace folks