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When Yoga Becomes Psychotherapy

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

By Dan Charnas

Guiding Lights

So how do we guide our students when we're unsure of our own ability to do so? Here are some hints to help you help them, responsibly.

Use your emotional barometer. Some teachers who naturally offer emotional therapy may have a hard time sensing when they've crossed the line from teaching into therapy. So how do you know?

Your best barometer, Wingate says, is emotional. "If you're too excited to teach objectively, if something's making you feel emotional, it may be an issue that hits too close to home. When you start feeling off balance, that's when you know."

If you regularly go too far, Wingate says, eventually you'll get complaints.

Hold the space. The surest, best thing to do for our students is, happily, the most therapeutic: Just listen. Hold the space. "You can't create a space for them to feel safe if you don't feel safe," says Farmer. "What I try to do is be open to whatever is going to happen. I try to stay inside myself and listen from there."

Assemble a dream team. Especially if you're a teacher who is less comfortable with counseling, Gurmukh recommends networking to find the best healers in your community. "You've got to have a grab bag of people," Gurmukh says. Assemble a panel of professionals to whom you can refer your students. That way, when problems arise that are out of your league, you won't leave your students out in the cold.

The next time you have the inclination to comfort and counsel a teary-eyed student, take a step back and analyze the situation. While your urge to advise may be strong, a healthy caution is necessary. In any case, you can't go wrong if you allow your intuition, neutral mind, and referral list do the talking for you.

Dan Charnas has been teaching Kundalini Yoga for more than a decade and studied under Gurmukh and the late Yogi Bhajan, Ph.D. He lives, writes, and teaches in New York City.

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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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