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I had my first yoga-made-me-cry experience in a jam-packed New York City studio. At the time, I was new to the practice, showing up for twice-weekly classes because I thought the stretching would complement my triathlon training. Yet when I found myself holding Sleeping Pigeon Pose for what seemed like an eternity, the warm, salty tears that flowed down my cheeks were a sign that yoga was going to stretch me in ways I didn’t expect.
Those tears—and whatever was behind them—opened my mind to the possibility that there was a whole world within me I had yet to discover. Most yogis have similar stories of emotional outpouring on their mats, and for many, it’s a realization that the physical practice of yoga asana has a deeper, subtler layer and that tapping the energy stored there may be the key to real healing.
That’s where subtle-energy therapies come into play. “Just as yoga works on a structural, energetic, and emotional level to help us connect to the source—whether you call it god, spirit, or kundalini—energy-healing modalities aim to guide people back to a sense of belonging with that source,” says Susan Manchester, an intuitive healer in Boulder, Colorado, who practices biodynamic craniosacral therapy and the Rolf Method of Structural Integration. “Ideally, energy healing helps you come home to your body and connects you in a more profound way with your true Self.” Maria Villella, an acupuncturist and yoga teacher in Los Angeles, adds that yogis often have a head start when it comes to experiencing the benefits of these therapies. “With any healing modality, the more you’re able to put yourself in a deeply relaxed state, the more benefits you’ll receive,” she says.
From acupuncture and Reiki to intuitive counseling and craniosacral therapy, modalities once viewed as “alternative” are becoming increasingly mainstream. Yet choosing one that will work best for you can be daunting. Here’s a guide to help you home in on those that will enable you to explore the deeper layers within you, and as Manchester puts it, ultimately come home to your Self.
Walk into an intuitive counselor’s office and it may feel like you’re in for something similar to talk therapy: Your counselor will likely sit across from you, ready to dive into your emotional challenges, issues, or concerns. Yet unlike traditional counseling, an intuitive counselor won’t start with a question about how you’re doing or why you’ve come to see her. Instead, she’ll prompt you to get out of your mind and into your body with a short guided meditation, says intuitive counselor Carolyn Flyer. “This makes it possible for me to read someone’s energy.”
Then, Flyer asks her client to set a silent intention, offers a prayer that the session be of benefit to all beings, and asks the client to repeat his or her name three times. “Hearing a client’s name gives me permission to energetically read them and begins the formulation of images and words in my body,” she adds. These images and words often point to habits, patterns, and wounds the client may be facing, which can then be discussed. Once a client’s challenge is identified, Flyer says she channels spirit to provide practical tools to help that client work toward resolution.
Try this therapy if you’ve hit a wall in traditional counseling and want to tap into the power of your own intuition. “Each of us has experienced, and often dismissed, intuition as coincidence—say, in the form of your mother calling just after you thought of her,” says Flyer. “Yet this intuition makes us privy to so much information—and we tend to close ourselves off to it in the name of busyness and distraction. My work is to show people how they can tap into their own intuition, simply by getting quiet and getting into their bodies.”
Acupuncture involves pricking skin and body tissues with needles. The application of these needles along the body’s energy meridians is an ancient Chinese medical intervention—thought to be used more than 8,000 years ago—which has been proven to help ease and prevent a host of health conditions. “Acupuncture is just one modality within Chinese medicine, so we look at the whole being when deciding where to place acupuncture needles,” says Villella. “For example, while you might have pain in your back, we look at what meridian that pain is on and will place needles along that meridian to help you find relief.”
Try this therapy if you tend to be skeptical and want proof that a therapy will work. Acupuncture is backed by satisfying scientific evidence. Research shows acupuncture’s benefits range from helping relatively minor health complaints (one study published in the American Journal of Rhinology & Allergy found that acupuncture relieves sinus problems due to allergies) to more serious issues (researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Temple University found acupuncture helps ease cancer pain). And when it comes to treating chronic pain, there are hundreds of studies published in well-respected medical journals that reported positive results when acupuncture is used to treat ailments from back, neck, and nerve pain to premenstrual cramps.
How can a practitioner who lightly holds her patient’s skull and sacrum create profound health benefits using barely detectable movements? Craniosacral therapists believe these minute manipulations boost circulation of cerebrospinal fluid—the stuff that cushions the spinal cord and brain—improving the functioning of the central nervous system. “When my hands are holding someone’s body, I’m listening for the tidal movement in their cerebrospinal fluid,” says Manchester, a certified craniosacral therapist. “Once that person reaches what’s called a ‘still point,’ the body is able to drop out of fight-or-flight mode and drop into the wider wisdom field, where there’s more capacity and less contraction.”
Try this therapy if you don’t need scientific evidence to prove the effectiveness of subtle-body energy work. Craniosacral therapy was developed by an osteopath in the 1970s, yet since then there’s been little research proving its effectiveness. While the American Cancer Society says this therapy may relieve the symptoms of stress or tension, the organization also notes that there’s no evidence proving craniosacral therapy’s effectiveness in treating cancer or other diseases. However, proponents find it deeply relaxing and a helpful adjunct to other treatments for pain, trauma, chronic fatigue, and more.
Created in the early 1900s, this Japanese technique is based on the principle that a Reiki practitioner can channel energy into a client by means of gentle touch or near-touch to activate the innate, natural healing processes of the patient’s body. “It’s based on the idea that an unseen universal life-force energy flows through us,” says Andrea Hakanson, a licensed massage therapist and Reiki master and author of Yoga Journal Presents Your Guide to Reiki. “In yoga, we call it prana; the Japanese call it ki. If that energy is low, we’re more likely to get sick and feel stressed; if it’s high, we’re better able to be happy and healthy.” Reiki practitioners channel energy to their clients to help balance that life force. The result? Relaxation, more energy, and improved overall health, says Hakanson.
Try this therapy if you believe the energy of those around you can affect your own. Reiki is a practice that uses and harnesses healing energy, says Hakanson, and if you’re on board with the idea that someone else has the capacity to affect your energy, you’re primed to find this treatment beneficial. “Everything and everyone is made up of energy,” says Hakanson. “Sometimes you can feel it when someone’s energy is off—you might say they have ‘bad vibes.’” And sometimes, that energy—whether it’s coming at us from someone else, or originating within us—can bring us down, making us feel depressed, she adds. “Reiki practitioners act as conduits who put a higher, universal energy into someone else.”
Developed by an osteopath who became an acupuncturist, this modality works on the relationship between a person’s energy system and their physical structure. So, while practitioners use finger pressure and gentle traction on areas of tension, they also work with energy fields to clear blockages in the body’s energy flow and amplify vitality, says Linda Wobeskya, a licensed physical therapist in the San Francisco Bay area and director of the Zero Balancing certification program. “What we bring into balance are the areas where your energy meets your structure,” she says.
Try this therapy if you’re looking for hands-on adjustments and subtle energetic work. “What makes Zero Balancing unique is that we work on both the energy system and the physical structure at the same time,” says Wobeskya. “And for that reason, my clients feel fully met.”
Essential oils extracted from plants have been used therapeutically for thousands of years to improve physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Since the olfactory nerve is the only sensorial nerve with direct access to the brain, scent strongly influences emotion and memory—affecting physical, emotional, and mental health, says the Chopra Center’s Covington. What’s involved in an aromatherapy session? Your therapist will apply essential oils topically (for example, via massage), or ask you to breathe them in via a piece of cloth, steam machine, vaporizer, or spray. “Aromatherapy can be used in a wide range of settings and has been shown to help with many conditions, including pain, anxiety, depression, and more,” says Covington.
Try this therapy if you’re looking for quick, potentially DIY healing. “Aromatherapists believe every plant has a vibrational rate that has a resonance in us, and once you figure out its elemental arrangement, you can use it to reformat your subtle body in order to scale back on negative behaviors and bring out helpful ones,” says Covington. Play with a variety and see what works best for you—whether on your own or with guidance from a certified aromatherapist.
See also 7 Essential Oils Every Yogi Needs
There are seven major energy centers—or chakras—in the body. “Ancient Vedic knowledge tells us that we have a vital energy called prana moving through these energy channels in the midline of the body. Each center of energy relates to a core human need,” says Candice Covington, a certified aromatherapist and energy worker at The Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California.
Try this therapy if you’re feeling blocked. “When a chakra is blocked, energy becomes stagnant and intentions are more difficult to realize,” says Covington. So, for example, if you have a blockage in your heart chakra, you may have feelings of shyness or loneliness. “Unblocking that energy channel can help you find ways to break old patterns and overcome obstacles,” she adds.
See also New Year Chakra Tune-Up
How to Get the Most From Your Treatment
No matter what energy-healing modality you choose, there are a few tips to keep in mind in order to make the most of your treatment and experience the best results.
Avoid doing too many therapies at once.
If you’re getting four or five treatments every week, how can you tell what’s helping? You probably can’t. “When patients do this, I also worry that they’re not giving their bodies enough time to really absorb what’s going on,” says Gail Dubinsky, MD, a physician and yoga teacher in California.
Support your treatment with lifestyle changes.
Even if you feel you’ve landed on the best-matched therapy for you, supplementing your treatment by looking at your diet, exercise routine, and how you handle stress is crucial, says Dubinsky. “That’s how you’ll see lasting benefits.”
Boost the benefits of these therapies with your yoga practice.
Not only can your time on the mat and meditation cushion help you clue in to how well these modalities are working for you, but your practice can also help you drop in more fully and deeply when you’re experiencing them, says acupuncturist Villella. “I have noticed in my clinical practice that serious yoga practitioners tend to get really quick results,” she says. “Yoga helps quiet the mind. When that mental calm happens during an energy-healing therapy, it can be optimally effective.”
See also Yoga Therapy