Yoga, Psychotherapy and Wholeness

Trish Haugh with Alan Mooney

Psychotherapists are in the business of relationships. It is essen­tially in the relationship between the client and the therapist that therapy takes place. The quest of therapy is wholeness and wellbeing, specifically in the client but it presupposes that the therapist is also looking after his or her own wholeness and wellbeing.

To the extent that therapists are expected to be professional and to work for the benefit of the clients it is essential that they recognise that they may not seek to have their own emotional needs met in the relationship. Of course it is inevitable that there will be satisfaction in the work but it should not be the primary place where therapists seek to meet their needs.

Trish reminds me that Yoga is about the concept of wholeness. It is about the healthy functioning of body, mind, intellect and spirit. Yoga can create a space for people to get in touch with what is going on in them. The breathing is the link with emotions. Because we tend to live our lives in various sorts of competition, eg, for approval, success, money, etc., we get to be out of touch with the clues and messages coming from the different levels of our bodies. To that end Trish sees herself in the role of “creating a space where people can get in touch with and be aware of their bodies”.

People are fearful of and ignore their bodily experience. They miss out on their state of health and the cues their bodies can give them about what is going on in them. Trish has met people who are so out of touch with and fearful of their bodies that they cannot allow themselves to trust the support of the ground. She says, “It’s like people have to be Up to be Feeling”. Trish talks about “horizontal grounding”, she remarks how difficult it can be to release oneself to gravity. Sure, we lie down to sleep, but the kind of lying down Trish is talking about is more active and aware. I tried it and it is an unusual sensation to lie on the floor feeling the parts of myself that do not want to let go; that protest at the risk of relaxing. My lower back does not want to connect with the ground and there is a slightly uneasy feeling about being ‘exposed’ – especially in my belly. I become aware of parts of my body that seem to have little feeling, I’m surprised I haven’t been aware of the tiredness in my neck and chest. Staying in this position, just breathing, I note that my mind begins to race. There are lots of things to do and I’m wasting time. Noting that I become aware how much I want to be up and doing, I understand a bit more what Trish means in her comment above. One of the aims Trish has in her approach to Yoga is to help people come to a place in themselves where they are aware of the “dead places” in themselves such that they can breathe life back into them. Horizontal grounding can then be translated into “Vertical groundedness” where awareness is brought into everyday action. At a bodily level, areas of weakness, insensitivity, over-flexibility etc., can be highlighted so that moving in a more balanced way one can pay attention to the body as an energetic flow.

The breath, she says, “is about movement and expression”. It is a good monitor about the state of groundedness of a person to note the quality of their breathing.

From Trish’s point of view, Yoga helps to create an awareness of the Self, she says that “stress has become a meaningless word that tries to say a lot. It is a word now commonly used as a substitute for emotion.” In many cases it would be more correct to say, “I am feeling emotional” or “I’m blocking feeling” than to say, “I am feeling stressed”.

Being aware of the things, people and events in life that cause “stress” is useful because it helps to alert the individual to the quest for wholeness. All of us are fragmented in our lives and the work of psychotherapy concerns itself with addressing the fragmentation in clients.

Yoga is not therapy but it can be a vehicle for therapists to stay in touch with their own exploration of their wholeness. The idea of being a complete shape (or whole) is central to good therapy (and good Yoga).

A complete shape is not a rigid shape – a cushion or a bean bag is a complete shape but it can be changed and adapted as the need arises with­out losing its identity. Therapists find themselves being drawn into, and around the issues clients present in their sessions and the personal aware­ness and flexibility required by them means that they need to be clear about who they are, otherwise they experience confusion and fragmentation that can lead to emotional burnout where they cease to be effective both in their professional and personal lives.

Although Yoga does not have to be strenuous like aerobics, if through the gentle connecting that happens when body movement, posture and breath­ing arc focused on, the individual is enabled to make contact with other levels of their living, it can be a dynamic experience. One person may realise that he or she is deliberately staying on the surface and may come to a real­isation that they are running away from their inner body where their inner wisdom is knocking for attention.

Stress, or the need for emotional awareness and attention, can be good insofar as it is an indicator of potential growth towards wholeness. When “stress” is recognised, the energy locked up within it can be released and put to work in one’s personal development and freedom. Thus, burnout, which can be described as the complete depletion of energy, may be avoided. With this released energy may come a clarity of thought and insight that might indicate the need to take a significant break from the work of psychotherapy in order to recover a balance that reflects a person’s optimal shape more clearly. Trish is clear that a fundamental principle in her approach to Yoga is the re-establishment of balance both inwardly and in the relationship we have to the external world.

One very important factor about the breath is that when one is ‘stressed’, breathing is incomplete and shallow. It lacks the fullness and depth that helps the physical body to stay healthy and properly detoxified but it also locks the feeling body away so that emotional expression and awareness become limited. Yoga is about “honouring your bodily experience” and that takes place through an authentic movement of the physical body and the breath. Through these means, the different levels of existence and each individual’s authentic shape are brought into alignment and given express­ion.

The therapy session is not the place for therapists to experiment with discovering their own unique shape. The only way to find out what one’s shape or wholeness means is for one to try it out and see what happens – how does one feel and how do others feel about it. This can be done in one’s personal life and in one’s own therapy. Supervision (which is a requirement for all therapists working in the humanistic and integrative field) is an excellent way to explore and develop one’s professional shape. It can also be explored through self-help, like Yoga.

Therapists share a common humanity with their clients but each indivi­dual is a unique shape (whole). Because therapists are constantly interfacing with clients at a very intimate and challenging level, this uniqueness can and does cause transferential and counter-transferential reactions. Yoga can offer one way to be in touch with one’s own uniqueness.

It is a way to explore what makes me, me. (Pathological stress is one result of not paying attention to that idea.) It is a way to stay in touch with what most fulfills me. It can help me to discover things about myself and others that ultimately help me to discover and honour my own unique shape. This is not a once and for all time discovery: it is the process of a lifetime.

Breathing

You don’t think about breathing. It is something that happens automatically. Imagine what it would be like if you had to be responsible for every breath …! It is a distinct advantage that your nervous system does the work for you. Anything automatic can be taken for granted. When it is taken for granted problems can arise. Unwanted imperfections can creep in. When you are stressed (out of touch with your shape or denying what is going on in and around you) your breathing compensates by becoming shallow and more breaths are needed to oxygenate your blood. When stress becomes a habit your breathing becomes inefficient.

There is a particular connection between breathing and relaxation (or balance). Follow this demonstration: Tighten all your muscles as much as you can and then tighten them even more. Let go …! You probably noticed you held your breath as you tightened your muscles and as you let go you will have noticed your sudden outbreath.

Breathing Exercise: (Know your breath)

1. Lie down on your back with your legs straight and slightly apart. Allow your toes to point outward, without strain. Let your arms lie by your sides but not touching your body. Turn your palms upward and close your eyes.

2. Notice your breathing. Do not try to change your normal breathing pattern. Place one of your hands on your body where it seems to rise and fall the most as you breathe. If this spot is in your chest, you are not making the best use of your lungs.

3. When you breathe, your tummy should rise before your chest. Place your hands on your tummy and chest and notice how you are breathing. When you are breathing well it should feel like a gentle wave under your hands, beginning in your tummy and flowing into your chest. It is a good idea to breathe through your nose. This is nature’s way of filtering the air you breathe.

4. Now scan your body. Notice any areas that feel tense or uncomfortable.

5. Don’t go out of your way to change sensations in any part of your body. If the discomfort is because of the way you are lying, move to a more satisfac­tory position.

You can turn this awareness exercise into a deep relaxation simply by quietly continuing to breathe and by focusing your attention on the depth and regularity of your breathing.

Trish Haugh has been teaching and practicing Yoga for 14 years. She has completed training in body orientated psychotherapy and can be contacted at 2807320.

Further Reading

Stirr. J.L., Structural Fitness (1988) Elmtree Books.

Sacaravelli. V., Awakening the Spine Harper-Collins.