Yoga as Psychotherapy? Rewriting the hard drive of your emotions


Yoga Cikitsa means Yoga therapy. And the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga is normally referred to as thus. That is- a detoxing and flowing sequence of asanas with a lot of forward bending and an awful lot of twisting. Twisting to stimulate the stagnant pools of lymph into action. To wake up the body and encourage out of the sluggish and slightly inflamed state that seems to be the normal state of health in the UK- that is that aches and pains are normal, that painkillers are par for the course. Looking after your body in the Yogic sense has nothing to do with morals and everything to do with being able to let the body go. So much irony in the modern world of Yoga where it seems to be all about the body. But our bodies and our minds are so much the same thing. Secrets and problems in our psyches tend to hang out physically within us.

So- Yoga as therapy? A friend of mine whose opinion I respect a great deal pointed out a few weeks ago that in the Yoga world you meet many people who are ‘stuck’ and psychotherapy could be the answer. I know what she means. When you discover the miracle of Yoga practice it can start to become your identity. And then like it or not the ego gets involved and then there is competitiveness. Facebook rows about who is the most ‘shanti shanti‘. What practice is the most ’authentic’ and why if you do anything even slightly commercial you can’t call it ’Yoga’. It’s really a total joke. So much anger. So much craving for recognition.

On the other hand, the incredible Iyengar himself pointed out in ‘Light on Life’ that psychotherapy can become like endlessly picking a scab so that your hurt never heals. Talking about it and talking about it. And I’ve given this a lot of thought over the past few weeks. I have been writing about the Yamas, the foundations of Yoga and when you meditate on them- and think about how they can be applied to the everyday, suddenly you are holding yourself so accountable for absolutely everything in your life. And this is what I love and adore about the life that is Yoga. There is really nowhere to hide. There is no belief required. There is only doing. Doing and reflecting and making that commitment- that total assertion to the beyond that that is how you are going to live your life and whatever happens as a consequence you will just handle it. You don’t hand over responsibility to anyone else. There are no ‘healers’ involved.

The thing is though, for this development to happen, for true therapy within yourself to occur, and the word therapy is of Greek origin meaning ‘to relieve or heal a disorder’ you need to follow the Yamas to the letter. Ahimsa, as I wrote in my last blog is all about consciously disarming yourself. Letting yourself be vulnerable and no longer needing to win, or be right all the time. But it is the next Yama that is so pertinent to the question of do Yogis need therapy? My argument would be No. If you have the total ability to be practice the Yama of Satya- truthfulness- and be scrupulously honest with yourself at all times then your Yoga practice will bear its fruit, whatever that is. And sometimes the fruits bitter. And you will digest and learn from it.

The problem is we are so used to lying to ourselves all the time. And we are also so totally used to being lied to by the everyday world. By the media. By our friends and family who do it unwittingly. And we sleepwalk through our lives living unwittingly in where we dream of being rather than where we are. And then when we get to where we wanted to be we shift the paradigms again until we are always, always living in the abstract.

When you practice Yoga you can end up in some quite dark places. The practice can be like mining down, deeper and deeper, through good earth, through land that looks healthy, and then all of a sudden you could hit emotional shale. Or poisonous gas lying dormant. It can actually be really frightening. And then it is easy to understand why Yogis in ancient India kept themselves a little separate from the rest of society. Sometimes you need that space to rest and digest. And as I mainly practice alone these days I understand so much why a Guru is so important. Having someone to help you on the way could stop you going mad. Equally, if you are on a journey and you find yourself stuck in anger or negativity and can’t seem to find a way out then perhaps a good therapist could be helpful. A soundboard. Someone to give you feedback to help you figure out how you can change the hard drive of you. So that you can melt down and reassemble anew.

4 days ago I was chanting late at night before bed after my practice. And as I chanted I very clearly saw my own patterns. It was a strange thing. You remember the childrens game ‘Operation’? Where to avoid a dreadful buzzing noise and being the loser in the game you have to trace a very careful path with the instruments you are given- well it suddenly struck me that that’s how most of us live. We unconsciously tread the path of what’s safe, of whatever we think will save us from pain. And if we are knocked off it for any reason then theres that buzzing, that pain, that stressful and adrenal sense of loss. And the irony is that we can be clinging to pain purely because of its familiarity. And so we have to burn away our well trodden paths and find new ways of being through our Yoga practice.

How can we change our habitual emotional pathways? The first key is acceptance. Push anything away and it will only come back. Accept your patterns and try and understand them. Without falling into the blame game. After I taught my class this evening a woman came over to talk to me afterwards. A woman who has, in her life, had to let go of more than I could ever imagine. And she told me that recently her life had changed so much as she had decided to accept her own limitations. And this immense beauty crossed her face like a wave. And so I decided to let go too. I decided to accept that what I want is not always going to be the same thing as what I need. Lets be honest- it’s rarely the same thing.

And as this came into my conscious mind I saw a hedge and the leaves were heart shaped. I looked down and saw a puddle with clouds reflected in it and the puddle was heart shaped. And then a perfect bunch of pink flowers lay in my path as I walked home so I picked them up and put them in my best vase to remind me.

Yoga is Therapy. But you have to allow it to be. You have to let go, and letting go gets much much easier with practice.

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