Monday, April 21, 2008

The Psychology of Yoga and the Yoga of Psychology

[The following essay first appeared as an article in the March/April 2008 issue of The Los Angeles Psychologist, the bimonthly publication of The Los Angeles County Psychological Association. This publication is geared to mental health practitioners, and this particular issue focused on creative approaches to psychotherapy. As editor Meghan Moody states in her introductory comments, "This issue . . . offers a look at a few creative practices that go beyond traditional talk therapy, inviting you to color outside the lines" (5). As a psychologist and yoga teacher, I was asked to contribute.]

The challenge for me is how to be present. To my sensations, my feelings, my thoughts, and my actions. It's an awful lot to ask and very hard to achieve. But yoga has helped by providing a method. Its has given me a safe space in which to practice showing up.

One reason I love yoga is because it's concrete. I attempt to work my body without getting distracted. Without trying to escape the intensity of the moment. Bending forward, bending backward, twisting sideways, and lifting skyward. All without losing a smooth, balanced breath. All without losing a smooth, balanced mind.

But we invariably do yoga the way we do life, and the same unwholesome habits inevitably plague us. For some, it's overworking. For others, it's being distracted. For still others, it's not managing to get onto the mat. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says in the title to his book, "Wherever you go, there you are."

And that's how yoga works. We start with a posture and end up with ourselves. Increasingly aware of our distractions and habits. It's hard to see our weaknesses in all their florid glory, which is why practicing yoga takes so much courage. But the practice also encourages us to be kind, to practice ahimsa or non-violence on every level, to discern with compassion instead of judging with harshness. This makes it possible to tolerate others. This makes it possible to tolerate ourselves.

The great thing about yoga is that we get to keep practicing. And the longer we practice the more we can grow. Of course, it's always tempting to avoid growth at any cost. All we need to do is reinforce our old habits. But if we really want to change, yoga's a good bet. It gives us a chance to see what we're up to.

By revealing in living color our unconscious habits, yoga helps us cultivate non-attachment and presence. Over time, we can learn to optimize our practice. We seek sensation and avoid pain while maintaining our breath. We get stronger and more flexible and assume harder postures. We notice with greater speed when we're becoming disregulated. We think about why we are getting overwhelmed. And we change what we do so that it feels better.

Gradually, we're more able to observe our experience, to reflect on our observations, and to act on our reflections, all of which enables us to become much more present -- to maintain our homeostasis under stressful conditions. In essence, the practice helps us achieve quiet mind, which, more or less, is the definition of yoga.

And then there's psychotherapy. Being a patient is hard enough. But being a psychologist is infinitely harder. Especially when it comes to encountering yourself.

A thousand times a day, I'm challenged with feelings. Frustration with this patient for coming late again. Anguish for that patient who's binging and purging. Fear for this patient who's feeling suicidal. Sadness for that patient who's just lost his father.

Every session is another chance to be overwhelmed by the torrent of feelings that threatens to flood me. Every session is another chance to push the feelings away - by getting sleepy, becoming directive, or spinning cogent theories. These are some of the ways I unknowingly create distance, from the patient, from myself, and from the relationship between us.

This is where the yoga comes into play (not to mention the years of therapy, supervision, and classes). Because is a glacial sort of way yoga has changed me. It has helped me to notice when I'm not showing up, and it has helped me to figure out how to come back. It has also helped me notice when my patients are absent. They may appear to be there, but it's really an illusion. They're a million miles away -- angry, silent, or distracted. It's thrilling to bring them back. To guide them toward their core. To help them stay present to the pain they uncover.

How astonishing it is to be able to be present. If only for an evanescent moment now and then. Though the presence comes and goes, it's amazingly deep. It brings with it an indescribable feeling of intimacy. I can see it in my patients. I can see it in myself. It is thrilling. It is transformative. It is scary. It is sublime.

This is the hope that keeps me alive. To go deeper. To get closer. To stay longer. To be more present. To move nearer and nearer to a state of quiet mind. To move nearer and nearer to the essence of yoga.