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The Spiritual Dimension of Yoga Therapy

The field of yoga therapy is gaining ground, and its biggest hallmark might be that it addresses body, mind and spirit simultaneously. The idea of working with the body and mind is clear -- but what does it mean to work with the spirit, in a therapeutic, or helpful way, especially during this holiday season when so many feel let down, in pain, or depressed in ways they can't express.

Rooted in the Latin word spiritus, it might seem that breath itself would define spirituality Turns out it’s not that easy, and many prefer to duck the question. The International Association of Yoga Therapists’ definition of yoga therapy does not include the word “spirit,” nor do two thirds of the dozen contemporary definitions listed on its web site.

The integration of mind, body and spirit is the thing that distinguishes yoga from other therapies -- considering the person as a whole being, says Antonio Sausys, a California based yoga and somatic therapist who visits New York regularly. “While the relationship between the mind and the body is well established, the inclusion of the spirit finds some resistance, both on the part of the therapist and the client.”

It’s no wonder when we don’t really even agree on what the word means. “Each yoga therapist is going to have a concept or an underlying understanding of spirit, and each client will also come with a preconceived notion of what is spirit for them -- or no notion,” Sausys says. These notions might be intertwined with a religious perspective. “Yoga may say we are to pray on the object of Ganesha, but this might conflict with a Christian,.” he says. “How do you make those two jive?” He says it is important that the therapist be sensitive to these perspectives and to address them in the work.

“The body misses what has been lost, the mind struggles to understanding the meaning of the loss, but true knowledge of loss comes from spirit,” he says. “There is a saying that ‘Grief is the price we pay for love’ -- I strongly disagree. Grief is the price we pay for attachment. The spirit knows that attachment is bad news.” He says meditation is a key element in dealing with spirituality and loss, in that it teaches that fundamentally, nothing is permanent.

“Grief has many other very strong, spiritual symptoms,” he adds. “The most prevalent one is to question God. Grief may result in the beginning or ending of a spiritual path. It’s up to you [the therapist] to bring up the topic of spirit and to understand how to practically insert it into the treatment plan, but also up the client to practice what you suggest be integrated into their pre-existing spirituality.”

J. Brown’s Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn specializes in therapeutic yoga, and while many students come for a safe yoga class experience, “you need to have a spiritual component, you can’t separate it out,” Brown says. “It’s not just about diagnosing physiology and using corrective fixes to address that physiology. If it were, then the physical therapists would have all the answers for us.”

“I tend to think of spirituality as just the natural state of existing,” he says. “If you’re breathing, then you’respiritual. For me, the spirituality of the practice has to do with the context in which the practice is happening.”

After years of practicing in a performance-oriented way that resulted in many injuries, Brown settled on a personalized, breath-centered style influenced by the teachings of Mark Whitwell and T.K.V. Desikachar. In Brown’s view, spirituality comes through focusing on the breath, from emphasizing process over achievement, and from the viewpoint of the therapist him/herself.

“The sacrosanctual or radical minded viewpoint is that you are already whole,” says Brown. “Participating in that wholeness is where the healing takes place. Even if the teacher is only presenting the physical aspects, but has [spirituality] in their minds and in their sensibilities, I think that comes through them.”

He adds that ultimately, the experience of spirituality is unique to each individual. “I see it as a nurturing source. Other people have a different view, and I don’t want to say mine is better.”

Jeff Brown, a New York City based yoga therapist favors a definition of spirituality he learned via the Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico: “Spirituality is the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose, and experience their connectedness to the moment, to self and others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.”

With much of his experience spent working with cancer patients, Brown says it is important for the therapist to be present with no agenda other than meeting the patient where he or she is. “I try to not actually do something but to hold the space, to be there with mindful, compassionate assistance.” When he does that, he says, people often open up about much more than their physical symptoms or their current medical condition. He recounts the story of a young woman who began to talk to him about her difficult relationship with a parent and how it troubled her. As she worked through her feelings, not only was she eventually she was able to heal the parental relationship, but her disease healed as well.

“Speaking their truth is a form of spirituality because they are connecting to themselves in a way they might not normally have done,” he says.

Brown, who is also trained in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, says mindfulness could be the most important component of therapeutic work, whether it takes the form of breath awareness, lovingkindness, a body scan, a forgiveness meditation or the like. “It has that heart-mind present connection,” he says. “Everything is right there. I don’t want that to be diluted.”

-- Karen Schwartz, for more information on Schwartz, a New York City based Yoga and meditation teacher and writer.

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