Talk Therapy Meets Yoga

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A Class That Addresses Both Body And Mind

Akiva Daube has created an interesting blend of yoga therapy called PsychoDynamic Yoga, which is so subtle that you may need to experience it with your eyes closed. And that is exactly how he wants it.

Akiva drew from his own experiences, both spiritual and academic, to create this practice that uses breathwork, tantra and yoga to facilitate a true investigation of the self. An analyst in training at The New York Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, Akiva spent a year and a half at the San Francisco Zen Center as a "resident lay-practitioner" and picked up a certificate from the Yoga Alliance along the way. He still considers himself a Buddhist but teaches his hybrid brand of yoga/breathwork/self-analysis two days a week, along with seeing private yoga clients. YogaCity NYC heard great things about this class and sent yoga teacher and seasoned meditator, Gina de la Chesnayne to check it out.

Naturally calm and elegant in bearing, Akiva began the class seated before us in white. His studio, in the basement of an office building in Chelsea, was carefully lit but also filled with the quiet hush of darkness and the soft chanting of Om’s.

We began on our backs, eyes open, simply feeling our bodies on the floor; adjusting to suddenly being still. Akiva then instructed us to keep our eyes closed for the next 90 minutes, if we could, as he led us through a series of Kundalini and Tantric breathing exercises and postures using the mat as a physical guide to where we were. It was fascinating, liberating, rejuvenating and basically, really cool. Of course, I had some questions when we finished
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Gina de la Chesnaye: When did you first come to the Kundalini and Tantric practices and why?

Akiva Daube: I came down with viral pneumonia in my twenties and was bedridden for about six weeks. When the illness began to pass, I had the idea that I should find a yoga studio which emphasized breath-work to help me regain my strength. I found Golden Bridge in Chinatown, which instructs students in Kundalini as taught by Yogi Bhajan.

Spiritual experiences are notoriously difficult to describe so I'm not sure I can get the feeling across here of how much of a relief it was to discover yoga. It made me realize how much I had neglected almost every part of myself in the pursuit of a careerist fantasy. I regained my health in a surprisingly short amount of time after beginning the practice. This is probably a very familiar story to many practitioners, I became a yoga addict, often attending one or two classes a day, seven days a week.

GD: Why do you feel that is important for your students to keep their eyes closed during the 90 min. practice?

AD: The basic principle is that the more you look outside yourself, the less you see. And there is really nothing special to see outside. At the same time, there's really nothing to see inside either. There's a common misconception that in order to have a sincere yogic experience one must look within. Inner objects of fascination can be just as distracting as objects on the outside and do not necessarily lead to a greater depth of practice. So I ask students to close their eyes primarily as an exercise in letting go of ego-control and conditioning. Keeping ones eyes open and looking to the outer world, to the other for cues about how to behave, is one of the most deeply ingrained habits that every human being has to a greater or lesser degree. Keeping ones eyes closed can be a much more intimate (and scary, in a good way) experience of meeting yourself and yourself alone and learning to trust the Self and its own authority.

GD: There is a strong emphasis during the practice on being aware of and utilizing the pelvic floor. Why?

AD: In Psychodynamic Yoga we spend most of the time lying down on the mat and emphasizing awareness of the pelvic floor. The basic idea is that stress, depression, and anxiety are phenomena which come from an excess of "being up in your head," which is certainly a hallmark of New York City life. The practice is designed to root and ground ourselves as much as possible--in other words, we move the focus of attention down from the head and into the lower body. This energetic "lowering" brings vital energy away from thinking and into the heart and gut.

GD: I noticed that your students exhaled strongly through their mouths. What is the correlation between oral exhalation and the practice as you teach it?

AD: Oral exhalation and sighing through the mouth may be linked, unconsciously, to the act of speech. One of the fundamental insights of psychoanalysis is that we first relate to the world through our mouths. As we grow up, the mouth matures and transforms from a tool of incorporation (feeding) to the facilitator of communication and interpersonal intimacy (sharing). In Psychodynamic Yoga, I emphasize breath exhalations from the mouth as a way of "cleaning out the pipes" so that after class students may feel more able to speak their truth.

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GD: How do you see your roles as a therapist and a yoga teacher combining and influencing each other?

AD: As a psychoanalyst-in-training, I see the job of the therapist as someone who opens and holds a space for the other to come and do their own healing work. The good-enough therapist doesn't cure a client but instead guides the client towards the paths by which access to their own healing energies is gained. As far as I can tell, the good-enough yoga teacher functions in exactly the same therapeutic spirit.

GD: What led you to all of this?

AD: People often become emotional on their mats during asana or meditation. Yoga just puts you right smack in touch with yourself and if there's been any holding back or emotional repression, yoga and breathwork have this way of opening you up. You can't hide from yourself during practice. I mean, you can try but in the end yoga just comes and gets you. So I decided to be more explicit with my intention for my classes by declaring that at least in my studio, yoga is therapeutic and students are better served if they can come to class with the conscious understanding that they're there to work on themselves and their inner lives. By setting up this kind of frame, people tend to practice with a willingness to be vulnerable to their own arising thoughts and feelings and to explore them mindfully.

GD: Do your classes follow the same structure or do you vary it based upon who is there or the time of the month? Do you have a theme for each class?

AD: The classes tend to follow the same basic structure for the sake of continuity of practice. But the energy in the classes changes radically depending on the day. My preference is to feel out the emotional temperature of the group at the start of practice and tailor my teaching to meet people where they're at. It does no good to try to rev up a class which comes in with a downbeat "group energy"--the yogic way is to just be with whatever is coming up in the moment and I do my best to mirror this in my own teaching style. 

Each class has a theme in the form of a question that I ask the students to contemplate during their practice. Lately, I've been asking students to explore the question: "What happens if you allow everything to be as it is?"

GD: What does your own practice consist of and which teachers do you practice with?

AD: My own practice consists of Zazen (Zen meditation). My teacher is Shosan Victoria Austin of the San Francisco Zen Center where I was in residence. My zazen practice is followed by about an hour-and-half a day of following Rupert Spira's guided non-dual yogic contemplations. I'm also devoted to teachings by Adyashanti.

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