Psychotherapy and Yoga
by Bonnie Wiesner, RYT, EdS, PhD
(Ramsey, New Jersey)
As a psychologist, yoga therapist and founder of Attaining Mind-Body Balance, I have had the opportunity and privilege to
see, on a daily basis, the many ways in which yoga contributes to the reduction of stress.
In both classes and in individual sessions, we begin with a guided meditation, first focusing on the breath and then going deeper within one's self. This is akin to Pratyahara, the fifth step in Patanjali's Eight-Fold Path. The goal is withdrawal of the senses, directing attention inward, and quieting the body and mind. This is calming and engenders a feeling of peace and well being. Many patients and students have reported great relief from their persistent stressful thoughts and anxious feelings that have become all too familiar. They experience deep feelings of peace, joy and calm as they allow themselves to safely fall into a place of deep relaxation. Within the guided meditations, I remind my students that this experience is a gift that they give to themselves and encourage them to return to it daily by meditating at home and especially when they are feeling increased levels of stress.
The next portion of the program is the asanas (which is generally referred to as "yoga"). Once the body and mind have been quieted by the meditation, we begin to focus on releasing tension in the body thru the poses. The style is a slow vinyasa flow as well as poses that specifically address anxiety and depression. While doing the poses, students are directed to continue to keep their minds quiet, not allowing concerns of the outside world to contaminate their practice. In this way, they are active but cognizant of keeping their attention in the present moment. They are advised to "take notes" on the content of any thoughts they might have, information that will be used in the next portion of the program. The combination of the poses which naturally release stress in conjunction with a "quiet" mind, create a deep state of mental/emotional well being. I encourage my students to work toward making this peaceful state their default mode. An additional benefit of this practice is that students become aware of and familiar with their thought patterns, something that had been previously unknown to them. It is only when they are aware of any negative and anxiety provoking "self talk" can they begin to change it.
The third portion of the class or session is psychotherapy. I find this a crucial element because I have noticed time and time again that meditation and yoga do not and cannot change thought patterns, either conscious or unconscious. Students often revert to their typical stressful states just moments after shavasana, so it is necessary to address the thoughts and emotions directly. It is with traditional psychotherapeutic techniques that we make permanent changes in ones level of stress.
The last ten minutes are devoted to a final meditation in which we bring ourselves back to a quiet body and mind. We end with the intention to stay peaceful but to use meditation, yoga and psychotherapeutic techniques when stress arises, as it inevitably does.