The Guest Blog: Yoga And Psychotherapy—A Modern Marriage
Socrates exclaimed that "the unexamined life is not worth living." I interpret his words to mean that we cannot possibly know who we are, how to best act, nor how to extract the most out of this precious human birth until we cast a light inwards and peer into the beautiful, tangled mess of our psyches.
For many of us, this is an overwhelming task. Years of imbalanced living and unhealthy relating lead to self-doubt and even self-hatred, making us susceptible to states of depression, anxiety, isolation, and self-harm.
The psychotherapy setting offers an imperfect yet effective context to begin, or even refine, an inward journey. A compassionate and non-judgmental guide in this process can be indispensable. Gone are the days when we were willing to put our lives on hold to seek out a mystic to dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds. Yet weekly 50-minute sessions, with some workshops and retreats thrown in the mix, seem much more palatable, but they still reflect the ignorance of life's supreme value.
Psychotherapy, the "talking cure," provides a contemplative space to explore the terrain of our conscious minds—our struggles, wounds, painful relationships, and the multitude of waves that have rocked our existence. These impactful issues are the surface layers of our suffering and when we process them we uncover wonderful and virtuous results, like patience, forgiveness, and possibly even self-love. But what happens when everything has been said, the talking has finished, and the pain is still there, or we "graduate" only to toil away for a few more years and find ourselves right back where we started?
My gratitude that the yoga tradition offers simple yet profound routes into the deeper layers of the mind, knows no bounds. The practices are accessible to everyone, without discrimination, and, even at their most basic level, they reveal our deepest natures and offer relief from our greatest sufferings.
Suffering in the yoga tradition is believed to stem from the ignorance that we are separate from the divine (anava mala). It is further understood that we are an emanation of essence and so can return to its source and state of consciousness when in healthy relationships with the self and the world around us.
As a psychotherapist I would be lost without this view and the yogic methods that have taught me everything I know about psycho-spiritual health and vitality. Classical yoga is a tried, tested, and true technology deepened throughout the millennia and rarely fails me as a clinician.
To begin to examine the self, we must first sharpen our tools: the body, mind, and heart. We must better learn to smell, taste, see, touch, and hear what's both inside and outside of us. Ayurveda teaches us to do this through daily activities such as eating, sleeping, sex, work, etc. Hatha yoga refines our perceptions as we practice breathing, movement, and meditation. With commitment, our senses begin to heighten, and for better or for worse we begin to come into deeper contact with this universe and our places within it. We actually begin to create a secret language within ourselves, a felt language that only we can speak. It tells us when to act and when to be still, when to speak and when to be silent, what direction our lives should take and how to meet each moment with wisdom, courage, and inspired effort.
In tandem with this awakening it is critical to cultivate compassion and self-acceptance. This is not an easy process and needs to be done with care. When we choose to feel, we cannot choose what we feel or how we feel, only that we are more alive. Personally, I would rather feel than be numb, but I know that not everyone shares this sentiment, nor did I always feel this way. I am fully aware of how painful it is to wake up to our actual situations in life, especially after many years of checking out through addictions, relationships, entertainment, and other unhealthy distractions.
In this stage, a psychotherapist can once again serve a purpose, especially if they have been through this process themselves. Since we are typically still plagued by negative thoughts of ourselves, when difficult feelings arise we tend to personalize their meanings as though we are "bad", "wrong", "undeserving", etc., rather than just uncomfortable with reality. This is an easy time to give-up on one's path and return to the habits that lead to comfort and dissociation. A guide can illuminate this process and encourage a client to be kind to their self while traversing these badlands.
With discipline, the yoga tradition reveals the base vibration of bliss that pervades all experiences. Yes, even in the face of great loss, trauma, and other kinds of human pain, those who sincerely commit to knowing themselves as love and wisdom personified can find pleasure in all human experience. When our channels open and we are in harmony with our inner and outer natures, this life is a marvelous dream.
Once we stabilize our lives as we come to discover them and make peace with this knowledge, we can begin to dig deeper. Both psychology and spiritual systems have long been in agreement that the vast majority of our desires, drives, and other motivating forces lie beneath the level of the conscious mind. If we want access to this material we must practice various forms of yoga and meditation. No amount of talk-therapy will ever lead us there. We can become masterful with what we know, but we do not know what we do not know and neither does another human being—unless they are masterful yogis themselves, but, truth be told, there aren't many on this planet. Our subconscious and unconscious material is ripe for the picking and the sincere seeker will find the right tools for the job.
This is where life can really open up and become exciting. We begin to learn things that we never knew, find new skills and talents, new virtues and ways of relating with others and ourselves. Our moods become fluid, responsive to the present moment, and none feels any better or worse than the next. Our confidence begins to peak and we are willing to take risks in life that never seemed attainable before. Our creativity knows no bounds and we contribute to this life in powerful and meaningful ways, ways that are unique to our authentic natures. We find ourselves feeling safe and at home, no matter what life brings, because we are at home in ourselves.
At this point, the wholeness that we've cultivated ends the need for a psychotherapist. As a clinician, I am thrilled to now close the relationship with a client, knowing that no matter where life takes them they have the resources to live boldly, lovingly, and brilliantly.
I have the deepest respect for the yoga tradition, yet I work as a psychotherapist, because until yoga is widely understood as a therapeutic application, I believe that this is the best marriage by which to administer these esoteric medicines for the mind.
May all beings be happy and free!