Since the practice of yoga has become mainstream, a growing number of people rely on its healing benefits to cope with life’s challenges. Under supportive circumstances, yoga can undoubtedly lift our spirits, release overwhelming emotion, and teach, through heightened awareness, how to cultivate a less judgmental and more peaceful relationship with ourselves.
At one point or another, you might have heard a friend or fellow practitioner exclaim, “Yoga is my therapy!” Maybe you’ve even said the words yourself. In a recent article on Refinery29, one woman shared her frustration with the practice when it failed to fulfill her high expectations: “I’d been thinking yoga had to be everything: a workout, a therapy session, a place to meet friends, a part-time job.” At her lowest point she felt a “rage bubble” surface inside of her during class, she wrote: “The frustration was as sticky as the mat under my feet, and it was preventing my mind from quieting down.”
It begs the question: Should yoga really be equated to therapy? And, at a higher level, does having such lofty hopes about the practice’s transformative powers diminish our ability to actually experience change?
A devoted long-term yoga practitioner would likely agree that yoga in its essence is innately therapeutic, and scientific literature has backed this up. We know that meditation on a most basic level decreases stress, anxiety, and depression while increasing immunity and concentration. Asana practice helps with sleep, digestion, hormone regulation, and bone health. As a clinician in the field of disordered eating and body image issues, my colleagues have become increasingly aware of the ways in which practicing yoga helps to improve body image and self-esteem.
Is Yoga as Therapy a Viable Idea?
While yoga’s therapeutic benefits are valid and essential, a regular yoga practice is not necessarily an appropriate replacement for seeking help through therapy. This is especially true in the context of many modern day yoga classes, which are taught with a focus on physicality and exercise, oftentimes lacking the spiritual roots of the practice. Even so, yoga is not a cure-all.
In combination with yoga, therapy provides a regular and consistent safe space for verbal processing and integrating of experiences, a process that accesses different areas of the brain and complements the visceral experience of yoga. With the support of an experienced clinician and depending on the type of therapy, individuals are encouraged to explore issues from the past, make connections to present patterns and develop new behaviors and coping skills to support better health, mindfulness, and well-being.
Making changes without supportive processing can be extremely difficult.
In fact, I have witnessed how many patients who come to me for nutrition therapy, for instance, become attached to taking yoga classes without actually making progress in healing from their eating disorder. They often bring their disorder onto the yoga mat, approaching the practice as another way to burn calories or to push their body beyond limits, reinforcing a disconnected relationship to the body’s wisdom.
Even when a patient does begin to embrace a more compassionate attitude from yoga, going to a group yoga class may still not be enough to actually change his or her behavior and do the hard work of healing (i.e. needing to gain weight or decrease bingeing/purging, which is typically done with the support of a treatment team). Not to mention, yoga teachers sometimes reinforce negative self-talk by making comments about extreme dieting or body, such as burning off holiday meals, that directly conflict with the work done in therapy.
Many of my patients also struggle with using their voice, and use harmful behaviors to express their needs instead. A significant and empowering part of their healing is learning how to speak their truth, a skill that therapy can help to develop.
Certain types of yoga therapy do exist, such as Integrative Yoga Therapy, an accredited system that involves anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and yoga philosophy for physical and mental health applications. Another is Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, in which practitioners combine tools from psychotherapy and yoga to offer a unique hybrid of a body-centered awareness and therapeutic language. And while this approach can offer distinct benefits, it is not meant to replace other forms of treatment.
It’s fair to assume that when we come to the yoga mat, our practice will reflect back various aspects of ourselves; and since yoga is a metaphor for life, whether its anger, impatience, or self-criticism, our issues tend to show up on our mat pretty quickly.
Yoga philosophy teaches us that through practice we can change our response to any given situation. But a consistently extreme response on the mat may warrant further investigation into the root of the issue.
In what ways can we view our mental and emotional reactions on the mat as lessons that reflect a need for further growth?
Hopefully, as yoga practitioners and teachers we take responsibility for our reactions by being honest with ourselves, having the courage to ask for more help when necessary.