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When Yoga Becomes Psychotherapy

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

By Dan Charnas

For Farmer, finding a way to help her students meant finding a different kind of practice for herself. "I realized that a whole side of me was not allowed to be there."

New-Age Yoga: Come to Mama

"Not everyone does what we were taught to do," says Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, founder of Golden Bridge Yoga and a teacher of Kundalini Yoga for more than three decades. "We were given a whole lifestyle, not just a mat style. Just as important as asana, we were taught how the mind works, and how to help people get to their neutral mind."

And help them she does. After Gurmukh's classes, there is usually a long line of students waiting to speak to her.

"In order to help people," Gurmukh says, "you have to know where they are." Some healers can read auras, Gurmukh says, but most teachers have to hear their student's stories.

Gurmukh's most frequently prescribed yogic tool is the 40-day meditation, a vehicle for exercises that Gurmukh handpicks for each student. But Gurmukh's supreme remedy is her own Mother energy, the hours she spends simply listening to students.

"lf I'm not equipped to help them," Gurmukh says, "I have a whole network of people [who can.]" Her network includes dozens of doctors, psychiatrists, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and more. "If someone's got cancer, I'm not going to put them on a juice-fast. I'm going to send them to someone who's going to help them in the long run."

Seeing the Boundaries, Exploring the Possibilities

Many of those referrals go to Dr. Barbara Wingate, a Philadelphia-based psychiatrist, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and certified Kundalini Yoga teacher who uses yoga in treating her psychiatric patients.

Sarah (her real name and personal details have been changed) was a medical student with a "significant depression," Wingate says. Sarah was going away for three months and didn't want to take medication. Wingate respected Sarah's integrity, but she was worried, too.

"In the middle of the session," Wingate says, "I lay down on the floor and said, 'Let me give you a tool. I'm going to teach you Stretch Pose and Breath of Fire.'"

Wingate's concerns about appearing unconventional were eased when Sarah got right down on the floor and did the exercise with her.

However, Wingate is much more cautious about using her psychiatric knowledge in the yoga studio.

"As a yoga teacher, I want to keep a clear boundary," Wingate explains. "I don't feel that if people come to me for a yoga class, I should be treating them with psychiatry."

"Unless we're trained therapists, we're not therapists," says Blake Martin, a Thai Yoga teacher-trainer in Canada. "There would be huge liability issues in Canada if I were to go and counsel someone."

So how do you know where the line is? According to Martin: "As soon as I'm doing anything other than active listening, I've crossed it. As soon as I give them advice and say, 'Do you think that's about your mother?'

"I don't think it's your responsibility to fix people once they recognize they have a problem," Martin continues, "But you shouldn't just abandon them. You can't run off and say, 'Well, it looks like you're crying, I've got something else to do.' It's your responsibility to guide them through that moment."

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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,


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.

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