Yoga and Psychotherapy – An Introduction

Yoga and Therapy: Minefield or Goldmine?

Is this Yoga?

Is this therapy?

Modern yoga, like modern psychotherapy, is both a goldmine and a minefield.

There is a spectrum of possibility on offer in each. How do they interrelate if the goal is that of moving through from breakdown to breakthrough, from being half asleep to full awakening: How might yoga help us to catalyse the process of extracting the alchemical gold seen as the task of integrative transpersonal therapy. Practically speaking: Can yoga help the therapist and or/ the client in the psychotherapy process and relationship? There are several reasons why yoga can be perilous and several ways in which, when well applied, a practice of yoga can offer great rewards to therapist and client. We’ll look primarily at the modern Western mainstream teaching of yoga in this article- without discussing particulars of the many-branded styles (as the styles are varied- from Ashtanga to Anusara, Rocket Yoga to Restorative Yoga).

We’ll delve more deeply into the specialised form of yoga therapy in future articles.

yoga man


What is yoga?

Yoga is a set of practices generally aimed at ‘yoking’ or drawing together/ integrating the various aspects of the self on a path towards, in classical terms, ‘liberation.’ In classical yoga terms, the goal is ‘enlightenment’ or a state called ‘samadhi’ or transcendence that is equated with ‘meditative absorption’ or oneness with the divine or universal. The ‘transcendence’ model of classical yoga is complemented by the ‘imminence in transcendence’ model of modern Tantric-based yoga. (The parallels between psychodynamic psychotherapy and classical yoga vs transpersonal integrative therapy and Tantric-based yoga practices will be the focus of a future article in this journal.) Essentially, when practiced as a ‘householder’s practice’ modern yoga has both serious pitfalls and incredible potential for assisting with transformation in the direction of grounded and soulful awakening.

Modern Yoga?


Limbs of Yoga.

How the above photograph of the woman in pink leggings exhibiting a yoga stretch in the glass box on wheels relates to yoga leaves many people befuddled. The modern western yoga world tends to focus on yoga postures when referring to ‘yoga.’

While this is only one part of the 8-limbed path outlined in the foundation text of yoga attributed to Patanjali (and as explained paraphrasing internationally recognized yoga teacher Donna Farhi) the physical practices of yoga alone can be both a starting point for a therapeutic process or can potentially sidestep the deeper transformation potential of therapy.

The modern western yoga world tends to focus on yoga postures when referring to ‘yoga.’

In the classical formation of Ashta-anga (the 8 limbs of yoga) practice begins with the Yamas and Niyamas: Ten ethical precepts that seek to promote peace within the individual, and in relationship. These can be seen as strictures or as touch-points for understanding where there is harmony or disharmony in life. While these may be mentioned in modern yoga classes, contemplation of such matters is often left to the individual (at best) or (at worst) can appear as a set of dogmatic dos and don’ts.

The practices then move from the most gross or physical to the subtle.

Asanas: Donna Farhi defines asana (poses) as ‘internal dances in the form of postures’ which strengthen or stretch different areas of the body, often simultaneously. These help to keep the body strong, flexible, and relaxed. Their practice strengthens the nervous system and refines our process of inner perception. This is the primary mode of practice in one –to-many teaching in modern western yoga studios.

Pranayama: Roughly defined as breathing practices, and more specifically defined as practices that help practitioners to develop constancy in the movement of prana, or life force. This involves both observation of the breath and directing the breath to either de-excite or activate the nervous system, with both psychological and physical effects. Most modern yoga classes emphasise pranayama to some extent, often within asana or postures, but often without consideration for the deeper psychological shifts that ensue when practiced.

Pratyahara: The drawing of one’s attention toward silence rather than toward things. This is often referred to as a ‘turning inward’ and may be one of the key tools for imaginal work in transpersonal psychotherapy. As practices become more subtle they are less likely employed in average yoga classes, taught by graduates of the proliferation of 200 hour teacher training courses, as the teachers themselves may not have experienced these practices and the states that they confer.

Dharana: This term has been defined by Dr. Douglas Brooks (personal communication, 2007) as ‘a container for consciousness’ as created by meditation. Donna Farhi defines it as ‘focusing attention and cultivating inner perceptual awareness.’

Dhyana: Sustaining awareness under all conditions. This could be related to Assagioli’s model of expanding consciousness to the total self, from the higher to the lower unconscious and incorporating all sub-personalities. (See here for a diagram of the psychosynthesis model. )

Samadhi: The return of the mind into original silence. This may relate in therapy terms to the union of the personality or ego with the innate Self, or perhaps the end result sought in Alchemy- the ‘gold’ of divine soul nature expressed in one’s human nature.

From classical to modern practice.

yogiClassically, much like Freud’s psychoanalysis was a 5-day- a week, long term depth process, classical yoga involved a close student-teacher gurukul (often a home school) in which the teacher personally guided the student’s spiritual practice. There was generally some intimate knowledge of the student on the part of the teacher, and the teacher was expected to know from experience how to guide the individual student in her or, more usually, his practice.

The yoga revolution arguably took place with Krishnamacharya, ( who could be considered the father of modern yoga therapy, as Freud is often considered the pioneer of the modern form of psychotherapy. Like Freud’s form (talking cure, analysis) gave rise to Jung, Klein, and the modern Gestalt therapies in some way, Krishnamacharya gave rise through his students to the fast-form, vigourous and totally standardized Ashtanga vinyasa yoga via Patthabi Jois, the precisely aligned Iyengar yoga form via BKS Iyengar, and the less publicised yoga therapy style espoused by his son, TKV Desikachar.

classical yoga involved a close student-teacher gurukul (often a home school) in which the teacher intimately guided the student’s spiritual practice.

In the modern western yoga studio, the transmission of practice is one-to-many. This has its benefits, and also its perils. Most modern yoga teachers have attended 200 to 500 hour teacher trainings that enable a basic understanding of postures, breath, alignment and perhaps some yoga philosophy. This has led to the wide reach of modern yoga. It is cheaper for the student, and offers a more accessible, palatable and marketable version of practices designed initially for spiritual liberation. One might argue that it has, in its mainstream form, become a fitness trend with additional benefits of focusing on the breath and relaxation.

This mainstream of modern yoga can be seen as a simple gateway to what the Minded Institute –, the London-based international yoga therapy for mental health training body suggests is a two pronged approach to improving mental health- the dual processes of regulation and mindfulness. Regulation is seen as an ability to shift out of states of distress or discomfort, such as a trauma response or mounting anxiety, by learning specific practices and techniques and implementing them: at first explicitly and then later integrating them into less-conscious more deeply patterned response. The second prong- mindfulness- is enabled when the yoga practitioner is able to ‘sit with’ the sensations, emotions, thoughts and images that arise in a state of distress. I offer, for the purposes of therapy that a third prong is needed in order to plug into the electrical hub of healing. That third prong is that of deeper transformation and is where the self-knowledge practices of yoga and the reflective depth relationship of therapy excel.


So, what are the perils of yoga? The primary peril of yoga taken into the world of psychology and therapy is that of Spiritual Bypass, a term first coined in 1984 by California-based psychologist John Wellwood. R.A Masters summarises it as “using spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.” The more a person gets into yoga, the more the philosophy may be superimposed on the student’s inner world and can possibly paper over the actual feelings or emotions by supplanting with platitudes like ‘this too shall pass’ or ‘it’s all good.’ While these things are ultimately true, they may contribute to the very beautiful, fit and physically healthy ‘False Self’ (as described by Winnicott) that says spiritual words, while systematically disallowing the shadow emotions of fear, anger, sadness, etc in consciousness, pushing them back into the unconscious to emerge ‘sideways’ in harmful behaviour or the perpetuation of old self-destructive patterns dressed up in shiny £100 yoga pants.

The more a person gets into yoga, the more the philosophy may be superimposed on the student’s inner world and can possibly paper over the actual feelings or emotions by supplanting with platitudes like ‘this too shall pass’ or ‘it’s all good.

A secondary peril is that of over-regulating. The practices are so adept, when done regularly, that they can create dependency. They can help a dedicated practitioner to manage the discomforts of life so well that one essentially has a yoga addiction: to performing asana, breath practices or meditation to whisk away tension and create an endorphin/ serotonin ‘high’. In some ways, yoga can act as a natural anti-depressant, even when depression is a natural response to repressing difficult emotions, past traumas, and genuine feelings that must be listened-to in order for health to ensue.

In some ways, yoga can act as a natural anti-depressant, even when depression is a natural response to repressing difficult emotions, past traumas, and genuine feelings that must be listened-to in order for health to ensue.

Given these possible perils the benefits may far outstrip the drawbacks. We may see yoga as an enabler of deeper transformation in therapy in the following ways:

Asana: Postures, Stretching and Somatic Awareness.

Yoga postures practiced in good alignment and held for a reasonable length of time with breath awareness help a person to identify areas of tightness and constriction or openness and expansion in the body. For the Thinking type in particular, this journey through the ‘sensate body’ can be a powerful route into ‘feeling’ as Jung’s followers noted when discussing dominant functions and the ‘wing’ functions. A practitioner may begin noticing patterns- e.g. when I have this thought, this part of my body contracts. Additionally, asana can help to strengthen the ‘container’ for transformation in that the agitated, tense and contracted body often accompanies a mindset of a similar nature. Opening the body can lead to decrease stress and distress, leading to greater mental and emotional receptiveness.

Somatic Sense and Countertransference.

For the therapist, increasing body awareness is a powerful way of identifying unconscious communication in the client via countertransference. If a therapist always gets a certain pain or sensation in the body around a certain client, there may be areas to explore, as certain body areas correspond to developmental areas generally, or may relate to the client’s individual history and ‘body map’ of experience. (For the general discussions see the work of Anodea Judith- Eastern Body Western Mind or resources on Bio-Energetics by Alexander Lowen and books like Kelemen’s Your Body Speaks its Mind)

Therapist self –care and modeling well-being.

On a practical level, when a therapist is seated, receiving hours of difficult client material each day, the body may become stagnant or impressions of tension may remain resident in the body. Doing some conscious movement through yoga asana and breath practice can help alleviate energetic strain, and strengthen the therapist’s ability to sit and ‘hold space’ without pain. In addition, a healthy body serves the therapist’s longevity and personal wellbeing, which ultimately benefits her or his clients. It may be argued that a therapist who does not attend to her own physical wellbeing is missing some areas of their own consciousness and may fall prey to certain types of countertransferential hooks.

Pranayama/ Breath work.

When a practitioner learns, for example, to lengthen her or his exhalation in response to a stressor. This gives a moment for the heart rate to come down, and for the person to pause and respond rather than immediately react.

Breathing in certain ways helps to decrease stress responses in the nervous system that prevent receptivity to change, as in the case of anxiety. Altering breath patterns can also increase stimulation where, for example in depression, there is lower excitation and not enough ‘energy’ for transformation to take place.

Basic Repose

In addition, even general group classes encourage an easy form of meditative relaxation (corpse pose/ savasana, a lying-down posture intended to rest and integrate energetic shifts done at the end of nearly every asana class) that is seldom a part of a stressed, anxious, defended individual’s daily life. Time to simply stop and exeperience breath and awareness begins to surface what is there beneath appearances.

Deeper Rest: new brain wave patterns.

Breath work and meditation also shift brain wave patterns from the ‘disorganised’ waking state patterns to more synchronous brain wave patterns, which give rise to more ‘creative’ or ‘unconscious’ thought rising to surface.

Learning to be in this state can be helpful for clients seeking deeper meanings not accessible through the logical-rational analysis of cause and effect often used in psychodynamic approaches or CBT. Arguably, this shifting of states is the gateway to Jung’s collective unconscious or the ‘transpersonal’ realm. It is reasonable to assume that this state cannot be activated easily when a person is dominant in the sympathetic nervous system (which at its extreme exhibits the flight or fight response), and most people in the modern West are dominant in the SNS due to over activity of the brain and less rest and contact with nature than the human animal was designed to receive. When a person activates the ‘parasympatheic’ nervous system (PNS) the rest and digest functions of the body kick in, stress hormones in the body decrease, heart rate decreases and thoughts are generally calmer and more expansive. Most modern western urban-dwellers require specific training to learn to re-enter this state during waking hours. It is during time spent in this state that old patterns of tension and trauma may be unraveled most effectively.

yoga can provide us with a tremendous potential for deepening the process of transformation that both client and therapist seek in the integrative transpersonal therapy endeavour.

In essence, the practices of yoga offer the potential for spiritual bypass or an addiction to a process that ‘makes it all better’ temporarily, averting crisis and perhaps, forestalling the deeper work. However, yoga can also provide us with a tremendous potential for deepening the process of transformation that both client and therapist seek in the integrative transpersonal therapy. Even more mainstream, less contemplative yoga practices offer a way for clients and therapist to regulate and to become more aware of physical, mental and emotional states. When the ‘container’ is strengthened in this way, a client may shift from the extreme states of pain or crisis that initiated the therapy relationship to a more reflective, receptive and responsive state where the work can go deeper, initiating deeper transformation. Arguably, yoga offers vital tools for therapists both in their own self-awareness, and in understanding clients on all levels. We will continue the conversation about yoga in its less prevalent forms in future articles.



For more information see Lisa Sanfilippo’s yoga page on facebook

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