In recent years, much research has emerged about the efficacy of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness as treatment modalities for mental disorders. It’s thrilling to witness neuroscience validating what ancient yogis have known for centuries. But what are these links and what does it look like when clinical work and mind/body healing come together?
Practicing psychotherapy looks different today than it did in years past. Although the traditional practice of insight-oriented, psychodynamic therapy continues to exist as the underpinning of many of the therapies we see today, the spectrum of practice is expanding and evolving.
Through talk therapy, clients develop insight about the origins of experienced mood states such as anxiety and depression – helping to create an understanding by linking past and present. However, a deepened cognitive understanding of the symptom origins doesn’t necessarily lead to easing the symptoms themselves. Reinforcing the inner narrative (stories) surrounding the anxiety and depression through talk therapy can, at times, intensify the symptoms. So, how can healing unfold in a more effective way? The answer exists beyond and beneath verbal processing in the therapy room.
Reprogramming our Minds and Bodies
Through body-based practices, we can harness the capacity for neuroplasticity, creating profound brain change. This transformative brain change is available to our clients as they sit before us in our offices. As humans, we journey through life experiencing relationships, events, and traumas that create imprints on our minds and bodies. These imprints inform our attachment styles, personalities and the way in which we perceive life on this earth. But, often times, the hyper-vigilance we’ve developed hijacks our capacity to receive the joy and love available to us in the present moment experience. In the modern day, we do not need to stay vigilant to survival sources such as food, water, and safety to the same extent as our predecessors. But for many of us, our brains have not caught up. Our amygdala continues to scan the environment for safety and danger, even though it doesn’t need to do so anymore. This hyper-aroused amygdala is one of the leading causes of anxiety.
Enter mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. Currently a hot topic in popular culture, mindfulness appeals to many types for many different reasons, ranging from a high-powered CEO in hopes of better productivity and creative energy, to people in recovery wanting an effective tool to treat anxiety, depression, and addiction. We are catching up to what eastern medicine has believed for hundreds of years; healing through the body, from the bottom-up works.
Mindfulness, Meditation, and Yoga in Therapy
One of the best definitions of mindfulness belongs to Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way–on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” All humans possess a negativity bias, where we’re wired to hone in on the negatives in our environment in addition to internally experienced negative thoughts and feelings. The power of presence provides the opportunity to create space between our thoughts and the essence of who we are. This space is truly our liberation from suffering. Mindful awareness can unfold in many ways – through the practice of meditation, yoga poses, sensory experiences or breath work.
Let us look at our body’s stress response to anxiety: Anxiety is mediated through the autonomic nervous system, which involves sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and relaxation) responses. There are integrative ways to work with the body to help shift ourselves into parasympathetic dominance. Working with prana in a session can be very useful in countering the hyperarousal that typically accompanies anxiety.
First of all, what is Prana? Literally, prana is the Sanskrit word for “Life Force.” Prana is the energy of the universe that we’re all connected to through breath. The way in which you breathe is a powerful metaphor for the way in which you walk through the world. In times of anxiety or stress, are you restricting your breath as if you don’t deserve the fullness of each breath cycle? When we restrict the breath, we dim our inner spirit. Inviting and embodying the fullness of breath enlarges the spirit, helping us reconnect with the light of our heart space. Yogic methods enrich our prana and can be used to help you reconnect with your natural state of peace available within.
Various body postures, or asanas, can help you cultivate an awareness of their present moment experiences, easing symptoms of anxiety or depression. Asanas can also be used to work with the heart in ways that enhance our capacity for empathy, compassion, and kindness. If you have difficulty giving or receiving love and their heart feels closed and tight, you might want to consider a heart-opening pose. For example, shifting your hands over your heart space in eagle mudra, pairing this yogic pose with a slow chant of “Yam” – the root sound for the heart chakra, creates brain integration. Here, beneath words and story, you have the power to access a sacred moment of mind/body connection, shifting away from anxiety perpetuating narratives, into the safe sanctuary of the body.
I feel energized by the expansion of our scope of practice. As a mindfulness-based psychotherapist, I like to say that “To Journey Inward is Our Highest Calling,” because this body-based approach to healing strengthens the greatest relationship that we have ~ the one we possess with ourselves.