Integrating Yoga Practices into Therapy
By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | November 2, 2018
“Come with me to a yoga class!” said my friend Caroline to me sometime last year. “Why on earth would I want to go to a stretch class with strangers I don’t know?” I thought to myself.
If you relate to this sentiment, you are not alone. I harbored great skepticism about the practice of yoga. It seemed like something trendy or what Hollywood celebrities talked about. Despite my reluctance, I decided to join my friend Caroline and attended my first yoga class. My first experience was not the “zen” everyone said I would expect. In fact, I was awkward and some of the poses just felt silly. I mean, who is this downward dog, anyway?
Amidst my struggles to follow the instructor and do my best not to fall on my neighbor, something about the experience made an impression on me. Was it the intention the instructor set at the start of class, or was it that I devoted an entire hour focusing on my breath and body movements? I am not typically accustomed to such practices. But, I went back. And, I went back again. And again.
I never thought I would say this, but I now practice yoga on a regular basis! I cannot get enough of it. For me, yoga made a significant impact in my life: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Also, I found a community of people who share the same experience and inspire me in many different ways. I not only look forward to my classes, I crave them.
Psychological Benefits of Yoga
When people talk about yoga, they reference the physiological benefits of the practice such as increased strength, flexibility, and relaxation. In fact, yoga is known to lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate. Some studies even suggest that yoga helps in weight loss and improves balance and coordination. However, not enough is mentioned about its mental, psychological, and cognitive benefits. According to a review in Harvard Mental Health (April, 2009), yoga has been shown to be helpful in reducing anxiety, depression, trauma, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). More recent studies suggest that yoga may help strengthen social attachments, reduce stress, and relieve insomnia.
Yoga involves paying attention to your breath and teaches a technique of deep abdominal breathing, which has been shown to reduce stress hormone levels in the blood stream. Thus, yoga can help you relax and reduce stress so you can think more clearly.
Calm the Mind
Focusing on your body movements and breath helps to minimize excess “noise” in the mind, thus helping you to achieve clarity about what is truly troubling you.
Put You in Touch with Your Body
Increasing awareness of your physical self can clue you in to emotions that you might not have recognized otherwise.
Worries are either future focused or based in the past. Yoga teaches us how to be present in the moment, with a focus on the here and now. Practicing mindfulness helps us in our daily lives by focusing on the present and identifying what is within our power to control at this moment.
Whether it’s enduring the heat in a Bikram yoga class, or holding a difficult posture, yoga principles teach us to lean into the discomfort. Yoga practice shows us how not to be afraid of discomfort. It helps us gain confidence within ourselves that we can tolerate distress by breathing, maintaining balance, and being present in the moment at hand.
Benefits of Integrating Yoga Practices in Therapy
With a growing body of research supporting yoga’s mental health benefits, Psychologists increasingly weave the practice into their work with clients. The benefits are many with these practices providing improvements beyond traditional therapy alone. Incorporating yoga into therapy helps you to learn practices that bring balance to your mind, body, and emotions.
- Enhances the collaborative relationship between you and your therapist
- Practices movements and techniques that you might be too shy to attempt in a traditional yoga class
- Expresses and explores emotions with your therapist as they arise during the physical movements of yoga poses
- Experiences an alternative to the traditional therapy setting, which may help you talk about personal aspects of your life more freely
- Practices techniques that you take with you following your therapy session to help cope with difficult emotions and challenging situations
Just about anyone can practice yoga. It’s not just for flexible or athletic people. Postures may look different from one body to the next and still be correct. You are in charge of how and when you utilize the suggested movements. You and your therapist will work together to identify techniques that are right for you.