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When Yoga Becomes Psychotherapy

Learn to spot the boundary between guiding poses and guiding emotions.

By Dan Charnas

My mother is a psychotherapist. I became a yoga teacher out of that same desire to heal. I was intrigued by yoga's ability to deal simultaneously with body and mind: Emotional issues that might take years to tease out in conventional therapy were instead brought to the surface physically, and causes of physical disease could often be deduced through conversation.

For me, the union of yoga and psychotherapy was natural. Students would come to my class not just in need of a physical workout, but often in great emotional pain. For those who stayed after class to talk, I'd spend time listening to their problems and trying to guide them on their healing path. Most times those remedies would be an exercise or meditation. But at other times, I'd speak to them with the bluntness of my teacher, Yogi Bhajan, the Master of Kundalini Yoga, who would often not even let his students finish their sentences before reading their energy and dispensing instructions.

I've never gone quite as far as that, but venturing into "therapeutic talking" with my students scares me a bit, partly because it comes to me so easily. I am, after all, just a yoga teacher, trained only in the effects of certain sets of exercises on the body, mind, and spirit. I am not a psychotherapist. I don't have an advanced degree in psychology or social work, nor do I have any training in the clinical detachment that therapists use to guard the people in their care. This is serious stuff, and as a yoga teacher, I've had students with serious problems—addictions, bipolar disorder. God forbid I should overstep my bounds and say the wrong thing.

In classes where our students come to heal both physical and emotional wounds, they may turn to us for advice—not on postures, but about relationships, hardships, moral and ethical questions, and more. Many of us are unprepared for that kind of connection and responsibility. How do we navigate the fluid boundary between teacher and therapist? The answer often depends on how you were trained.

Old-School Yoga: Keep a Stiff Upper Lip

Years ago, Angela Farmer was practicing in B.K.S. Iyengar's studio in India. In the afternoons, Iyengar put his students into front bends for a half-hour at a time, which Farmer found excruciating. Something released inside of her, and every day, tears streamed out of her eyes into puddles on the floor.

"This went on without mention," Farmer says, "Until one day Iyengar simply said, 'You've stopped crying.'"

Far from having worked through her emotions, Farmer now believes, she had simply arrived at a place where she could hold more stress within herself.

"You were discouraged from expressing emotions," says Farmer of her Iyengar practice. Now a renowned yoga teacher in her own right, Farmer says that it's hard for yoga teachers trained in primarily physical disciplines to relate to the emotional breakthroughs and breakdowns that often come with yoga practice. "When that happens to their students," she says, "they're thrown off balance."

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Reader Comments

Lara Bricknell

That's why I am about to embark on training to be a counsellor! I've been a yoga teacher for 5 years now and think they would go well together.

Joann Lutz, M.S.W.

Thank you for the fine article. As a long-time yoga instructor (Integral Yoga) and psychotherapist, I want to emphasize that real change happens slowly and requires steady support, both internal and external , as well as consistent behavior on the part of the care-givers. The term " titration" comes to mind, a concept from "Somatic Experiencing" (and chemistry!), where whatever is prescribed is carefully modulated to build on previous mastery and avoid overwhelm. This is particularly important for trauma survivors. I offer trainings to both psychotherapists and yoga instructors on this topic, www.yogainpsychotherapy.com.

Vijayta

I agree with this article that there is a beautiful marriage with Yoga and Psychotherapy, and I must stress how important it is to practice within your boundaries. I am a Yoga Psychotherapist and have had some intense sessions, and see how beneficial of a tool yoga is in helping people manage their moods. www.asiamhealing.com

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