Body Countertransference and its Relevance For Yoga Therapists
Published Winter 2017 in Yoga Therapy Today
M.’s first email was titled, “Need to hear from you.” He was a leadership consultant who ran his own business. He had a deep, resonant voice, and during our initial phone call he talked at length about his interest in trauma sensitive yoga, his personal history and, in particular, the anger he held as a result of his childhood trauma. He repeated the word “anger” quite a few times. At a certain point I realized that I had let him speak for far too long and that he was someone with whom I would need to set boundaries. Throughout the rest of that day, I began experiencing back pain that became progressively more irritating (I choose this word consciously); during a transaction at a local business, I became angry myself over a perceived injustice and found myself voicing my feelings more assertively than I normally would. I thought my reactions could well be a response to M.’s own aggression.
Body countertransference (also called somatic countertransference or embodied countertransference) can be seen as a process parallel to psychological countertransference. Transference is a term coined by Sigmund Freud to describe the process whereby a patient or client “transfers” his or her thoughts and feelings based on early relationships onto the psychoanalyst, and countertransference was defined as the analyst’s transference of thoughts and feelings onto the patient.(1) Transference can play an important role in the therapeutic process by providing a window into the client’s past and present experiences of relationship and illuminating beliefs about self and others that no longer serve the client. It is considered essential that the therapist pay attention to these feelings. Countertransference can reflect the therapist’s feelings toward the client, and provide insight into a client’s interpersonal behavior; for example, feelings of aversion toward a client may be a response to behaviors that bother others and serve to keep the client lonely and isolated. Countertransference may also reflect the therapist’s own repressed or triggered feelings. It is considered essential that the therapist be aware of and responsive to these feelings, so that treatment serves the client’s needs and not those of the therapist.
Body countertransference is a similar process, in which the therapist experiences his or her reactions as physical symptoms, which may include (but are not limited to) vague muscular tension, headache, stomach discomfort, sexual arousal, and numbness. These symptoms can be experienced within either analytical or somatic work. Yoga therapists might experience changes or irregularities in their own breathing patterns or physical pains. The prevalence of body countertransference does not appear to be well known (although therapists in one study reported experiencing psychological countertransference in 80 percent of sessions).(2)
My experience with M. occurred while I was completing my facilitator training in Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY), a methodology developed at the Trauma Center in Brookline, Mass.(3) TCTSY uses invitational language, emphasizes interoception (identifying sensation in the body), and empowers survivors to make choices and be in control of their own experience. I began to wonder whether body countertransference might be likely to occur in TCTSY facilitators and in yoga therapists working with traumatized people.
Traumatic experiences bypass cognitive processes in the brain and become laid down directly into the emotional centers without generating a story explaining the event.(4) This makes sense in terms of survival: we want to quickly recognize and react to a danger without having to think about it first. However, it becomes problematic when the “danger” response is later triggered by sensations and stimuli that seem related to the original source of trauma but we have no coherent narrative to connect the experience to any past event. The feelings are therefore experienced as if the traumatic event is happening in the present moment.
Psychotherapists who are privy to their clients’ trauma histories can obviously be emotionally affected by taking in details of horrific situations; however, as we will see, mechanisms of nonverbal communication suggest that even yoga therapists and TCTSY facilitators who focus strictly on physical practice – without discussing the client’s story -- may experience strong responses because they may be resonating with their clients’ somatic experience in the present moment.
Tara, a New York City-based trauma informed yoga facilitator, described just such a session. While she and a client were exploring sensations of tapping their feet on the floor, Tara began to notice numbness in her feet, which she had never experienced before. Later, her student shared that she had been feeling numbness in her feet at that same moment. In a session with another client, Tara described beginning to feel heat in the center of her chest; her student later shared that she had felt heart palpitations and heat in her chest as well. “For me as a facilitator, it really does feel like a shared experience that goes beyond words,” Tara said.
The Impact of Nonverbal Communication
Psychoanalyst Martin Stone compared the analyst’s body to a tuning fork that resonates with the client’s experience: “I would suggest that resonance occurs when the analyst’s tuning fork vibrates with the patient’s psychic material through the unconscious. When this is experienced in the body, the feelings are not clear or thought through, and the analyst has to be able to sustain the state of not knowing and confusion even more than usual.”(5) This suggests that yoga therapists could potentially experience physical sensations and symptoms that may not appear to have any logical cause, but are in fact countertransferential. Analyst Susie Orbach says, “The therapist’s body, like the therapist’s mind and heart, is part of the relational field. How I feel in my body...and the shifts in feeling between the bodies in the room are of enormous importance.”(6)
These shifts in feeling may result from the process of attunement, which interpersonal neurobiologist Daniel J. Siegel describes as “the ways we take in the internal worlds of others and allow them to shape who are are in the moment.”(7) He suggests that these processes take place in the brain and are not necessarily intentional. “At times we may automatically soak in the internal states of others as we pick up their signals and have internal shifts in our own state.”(8) He states that attunement precedes the activation of “resonance circuits,” which stem from mirror neuron activity. “This is how we come to resonate physiologically with others – how our respiration, blood pressure and heart rate can rise and fall in sync with another’s internal state.”(9)
Trauma Sensitive Yoga – Forget Everything You've Been Taught
Published May 4, 2015 on YogaCityNYC.com
There's no chanting, no meditation, no hands-on assists. Postures are referred to as "forms," and the teacher may not even make eye contact with students.
Trauma Sensitive Yoga might fly in the face of everything you've ever learned about teaching yoga, but a recent study shows that it has reduced symptoms for survivors of complex trauma when little else had previously helped them.
"Trauma Sensitive Yoga is a movement-based practice focused on choice-making and interoception," explained Jennifer Turner, yoga program coordinator at the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA, where TSY was developed.
Interoception is the practice of noticing sensation in the body. TSY students are encouraged to notice these sensations, and to then make choices about relating to them, such as whether they want to feel more or less intensity. "We focus on empowerment as opposed to a hierarchical methodology," Turner said.
In one study, 60 women with a history of repeated childhood trauma participated in hour-long TSY classes once a week for for ten weeks. The women suffered from treatment-resistant PTSD that included feelings of low self-worth, shame, reduced body awareness, and difficulty with communicating.
After the TSY treatment, 52 percent of the women no longer met the criteria for PTSD and reported many positive results, such as greater self-compassion, self-acceptance, body awareness, and feeling more related to others.
In a TSY class, the instructor might invite students to notice sensations, or suggest they experiment with variations, but never command or direct them to do it. Language is kept as simple as possible, and teachers avoid Sanskrit terminology or descriptive language. "Part of this is not to be imaginative or get a story involved because [in trauma] that is what the body is tied to," Turner said. "The word ‘form' is used because the idea of posing can be triggering for many clients who have been asked to pose—but also because ‘pose' implies doing it for an external opinion or view.
"We strip away any adjectives that we can, we're not looking to label the experience," she continued. "Our job is to help people feel and notice their bodies and, possibly down the line, to use their bodies [for greater self-awareness]."
Classes are somewhat gentle, but not restorative, and long holds aren't emphasized. "There is movement from one form to another, but not vinyasa," Turner said. "Forms are held for 3-5 breaths and then we move to another form so people don't feel trapped, stuck, or held." Students can choose to practice a form, possibly exploring two or three simple variations, or choose another form, if they wish.
TSY was developed between 2006–2008 by David Emerson, a yoga teacher at the Trauma Center that is headed by Bessel Van der Kolk, a neuroscientist specializing in the neurobiology of trauma and the efficacy of using the body in its treatment. TSY is taught to a wide-ranging population, including survivors of childhood abuse and combat veterans.
Turner, who trained as a Kripalu yoga teacher in 2003, came to the work as a graduate student interested in trauma. Now a licensed mental health counselor, she began teaching at the center in 2008. She believes it is important for all yoga teachers to understand this work.
"One in four women will be assaulted by the time she's 21," Turner says. "In my training, we didn't talk about it at all. It's important for us to know the potential impact of what we're doing."
Turner will be leading a TSY weekend workshop at ISHTA Yoga, downtown, on May 22–24. She says that relationship is key for working with people with complex trauma.
"For so many of our clients, the trauma was born out of relationships that were supposed to be safe and trusting," she says. "We try to be as transparent and honest as we can about the work we do and the intention behind it so we don't become the focus or distract, and people can get to the work of being in their bodies."
Turner says that teachers at the center do not know their students' stories. There is a screening process that is conducted by staff, and all students need to have a therapist, but beyond that, teachers maintain a consistent style and try to remain detached from the results.
"Someone might have a triggering experience and they might not come back, or they might come back in a year," she says. "We try our best not to look for progress." Allowing students to have and to control their own experiences is the core of TSY philosophy. "Even when you see someone struggling, that can be more powerful than anything we could prescribe."
Is Your Body Image Holding You Hostage?
Blog post April 16, 2017,
I’ve been a health, fitness and yoga teacher for more than 20 years and I’ve always been in great shape — strong, flexible, and falling within a healthy weight range. Still, I’ve never had the proverbial “Instagram” body. Over the years, my struggles with compulsive eating have resulted in pounds alternatively piling on and dropping off, accompanied by feelings of self-consciousness, shame and debilitating worries about body image that felt like they were holding me hostage.
As a result, I dressed for my classes accordingly. When I was “feeling thin,” I’d wear closer fitting tops that revealed my frame. When I wasn’t, I’d wear billowy tops over my leotards that hid my belly, hips and thighs. Once, when I was trying to demonstrate a yoga posture to my class, I realized my oversize tank top completely obscured my body and prevented my students from seeing what I was doing. I paused, had a moment of terror, then pulled the tank off over my head. The earth didn’t swallow me up and the students didn’t run from the room screaming. With a giddy mix of freedom and fear, I continued my demonstration, realizing that this body image thing was something I needed to get a handle on.
Despite the rise and evolution of the feminist movement, body image continues to be an issue for the majority of girls and women in the United States and worldwide. According to recent statistics compiled by The Body Image Center in Washington, D.C., 89 percent of girls have dieted by age 17, and 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Interviews conducted with 10,500 females across 13 countries for the 2016 Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report found that “women’s confidence in their bodies is on a steady decline, with low body esteem becoming a unifying challenge shared by women and girls around the world – regardless of age or geography.”(1) Recent years have seen progress, like a broader spectrum of women’s images portrayed in the media, and a wave of pushback against magazines and advertisers that routinely airbrush and Photoshop out “flaws” in appearance; however, it takes constant vigilance not to fall prey to the pressure of unrealistic norms. Loving and accepting ourselves completely is an ideal that many of us have not even come close to.
If you’re not sure where you stand with your body image, think about it for a moment. You might look at yourself in the mirror and determine whether there are things you feel like you need to hide, or that somehow make you less than you think you could be. Now, flip that script — simply state the opposite out loud. Can you do it? Can you actually feel it? The degree of resistance you have to changing your perspective may indicate just how deeply rooted your beliefs are.
Of course, body image isn’t only about weight and about the images we see. Difficulty expressing emotions, sexual objectification, physical and sexual abuse and trauma can all result in a fraught relationship with our bodies, and may result in addictions or eating disorders that affect both our actual appearance and our self-perception. Women who have been objectified or assaulted might come to see their body as something evil that needs to be controlled, hidden or denied. The “me” that we see might look perfectly lovely to an outside observer, but when we look in the mirror, we see a surface layer that is hiding pain, rage, shame and all the shadows of our experience from the rest of the world. It keeps us safe, but it also holds us hostage.
Enter the healing power of yoga — not an approach centered around perfecting forms and achieving extreme flexibility and strength, but yoga that teaches us to be present in each moment, noticing the sensations we feel and honoring our experience. When we practice, first and foremost we witness what is there, releasing judgment and even relinquishing the desire to change. As we stretch, move and breathe with mindful awareness, we come to understand ourselves on a deeper level. Practicing in this way loosens the grip of our habitual ways of being, allowing for greater self-trust and making room for a new perspective.
For many of us, this takes time. Patterns can run deep, especially when they’ve served to protect us for so long. When we’re used to feeling bad, feeling better can be scary, and as much as we want freedom, we might not know what to do with it when we find it. That’s why it’s important to be consistent with our practice, but gentle with ourselves as well. I practiced and taught for years before I began to understand yoga in this way, and to develop a compassionate relationship with my body that opened the doorway to greater freedom.
The beauty is that you can begin any time. As a start, next time you put on your yoga clothes, step in front of your mirror and pause. Is the voice in your head rushing to judgment? Try closing your eyes and doing some movement. Are you comfortable? Can you breathe and stretch freely? Do you begin to feel more spacious inside? Yoga gives us a new touchstone, one that focuses on the feeling inside. Try taking that risk — like an oversized tank top, you can pull off that outer layer and let your true self shine through.
Can You Measure Your Spiritual Practice? – We Asked Some Experts – It’s Not an Easy Yes Or No
Published February 18, 2015 on YogaCityNYC.com
You work long and hard to open your hips and hamstrings and one day -- voila! You achieve the elusive splits. You’d probably call that progress in your asana practice, but what about your spiritual development? Can you measure it? Should you even try? YogaCity asked three established teachers from three different lineages, and their answers reflect just how tricky this question can be.
"Spiritual growth has to do with the dissolution of the sense of separateness from the whole. We begin to transcend the constrictions of operating under a limited and distorted consciousness," said Swami Asokananda, president of New York’s Integral Yoga Insitute. "It's tricky to measure your own growth; it's useful to have a teacher to bounce off of and to help see yourself more clearly."
On the other hand, senior Iyengar teacher Genny Kapuler says, “I don’t think it’s possible. I think all we can do is practice and cultivate in ourselves those values that we feel are worthwhile and that we want.” Kapuler, who started out as a modern dancer and found Iyengar Yoga in 1982, agreed that “it’s very hard to see oneself.”
“I don’t feel that I can measure my [spiritual] progress in terms of my yoga practice, which is something you can really see,” she continued. “I work to cultivate myself to be more attentive, more helpful. I always feel better after I practice, but in terms of progress? I see deepening. I feel more and more what is meaningful to me -- but the way I care about people? That’s not progress, that’s understanding what’s meaningful in my life.”
“I never felt that yoga is a performing art,” she continued. “I’ve always done it as kind of a healing art so it was just about taking care of my body and taking care of the body-mind continuum.”
But then, Prem Sadasivananda, a Swami for 24 years in the Sivananda tradition, believes that not only can spiritual progress be measured -- but that it should be. He said the most important goal is to balance the three gunas -- tamas, rajas and sattva -- so that one is living in a more sattvic state. He recommends keeping a “spiritual diary,” or daily account of not only the practices one undertakes, but one’s changes in mood and state of mind.
“The spiritual diary acts as your true self as it tells you exactly how you’re scoring in different areas, without being hard on yourself,” he said. The diary can be shared with a teacher, or even a trusted friend, for a more objective perspective.
Swami Asokananda said that early on, he relied on strict adherence to practice to measure it. "In my early days, I had to prove to myself that I was sincere about leading the spiritual life. So I read more spiritual books, meditated longer, did more advanced asana, even had longer hair than anyone else," he recalled. "Though I could sense this need to be superior arose out of a feeling of inadequacy, an arrogance was setting in that separated me from others." He said it took a good decade or so to get a realistic understanding of his level of development, loosen up his rigidity and start practicing out of a sense of enjoyment.
“People said, ‘You’re slipping man!” he chuckled, but noted that now his practice is less of a struggle. “One of the signs of growth is that worry, anxiety, depression start to lift off you,” he says. “You have more faith and it’s less about your effort.”
All three teachers agreed that quality of life is an important indicator of an on-going spiritual practice.
“The best way to measure it is, in very simple terms, by the level of serenity and calmness that you manifest in your day to day life,” Sadasivananda said. Improved physical health, peacefulness, cheerfulness, a fearlessness that comes from a decreased identification with the body and a certain selflessness -- he said all of these are signs of growth.
“I practice to keep my body fluid and open and my energy good,” Kapuler said. “If I’m doing pranayama, it’s to really focus on the breath so I can feel the lightness. That does go with the spirit -- air is light and expanding.”
“Yoga is about sthiram and sukhanam -- stability and ease in the pose,” she added. “How does yoga itself organize [us] to deal with the reality that keeps coming at us so that we’re more skillful and graceful in how we live our life?”
"We're uncovering something within us that that's already full and whole,” said Swami Asokananda. “It's already all there; we are just letting go of what's covering that. If we truly understand this, then spiritual life shifts to something more easeful and fun."
Asana and Mudra: A Yoga Therapy Case Report
Published March 2007 in Yoga Therapy In Practice
During a night out at a concert, Mary, 67, slipped, fell, and broke her right shoulder in three places. The surgery inserted a titanium plate, nine screws and bone grafts, and led to considerable pain and severely restricted mobility. After more than eight years of studying and practicing Yoga with me, Mary had enough experience to know that the practice could be a source of healing and comfort to her, and enough faith in me to trust that I could guide her toward what she needed. Two weeks after her surgery she was ready to begin, and we spent the next six weeks working three days a week in intensive Yoga therapy.
The abrupt change in circumstances, combined with the urgency of her need, ignited a creativity in me that stretched me beyond my limits, deeper into the mental and energetic realms of the practice. Because of her limited arm use, I immediately thought of incorporating mudras -- hand gestures that require virtually no arm movement -- as an accessible way to intentionally focus energy and healing. Beyond this, I had no plan or agenda, and trusted that being present and listening would result in the appropriate guidance. What emerged was a spontaneous, organic process, woven together through meditation, visualization, asana and mudra, with its own themes that became clear to me later as we proceeded with moment-to-moment awareness and sensitivity.
Day 1: Offering Support, Nurturance and Hope.
Mary’s arm is in a sling and she is in a lot of pain. She’s had difficulty sleeping. She is tired and overwhelmed, but looks forward to the healing, restorative effects she is sure will come from Yoga practice. I allow myself to tune into her feelings as closely as I can and feel humbled by the responsibility of my role as teacher and guide.
We sit in chairs facing one another and I begin with a guided meditation/visualization, focusing first on relaxation to dissipate the tension accumulated from holding an injury. Eventually she releases her arm from the sling. I ask her to draw her attention to the injured area and, with each exhalation, focus on releasing pain. Then I ask her to bring her awareness to the parts of her body located closest to the injured area that are pain-free, and to allow the sensations of ease and comfort in those areas to flow into the injured area. After about 20 minutes, her face is softer and the pain in her shoulder is greatly diminished.
We do some seated Yoga stretches to begin to awaken and enliven her body, and then move on to standing postures. I guide her first in knee-bending exercises borrowed from bioenergetic therapy, to get energy moving through her legs; we continue with uttanasana (standing forward bend), virabhadrasana II (warrior pose) and uttitha trikonasana (triangle pose), all with the support of a chair. Throughout the postures, she lets her injured arm hang freely or rest at her side. These poses, practiced with ujayyi breathing, allow her to feel her whole body, and remind her that she still has considerable strength and power. She is greatly encouraged to realize she can still do many aspects of the practice she has grown to love.
We finish by sitting again and focusing on mudra. With eyes closed and soft, and with steady breathing, we practice an energy mudra, using the fire energy associated with the thumb to send warmth and healing to the shoulder and elsewhere throughout the body. We do a mudra for internal nourishment, a mudra to move prana, and a mudra for joint health, in which she has special interest. After the session she feels revitalized and, for the present, pain-free, a great relief.
Day 3: Consistency and Focus
On this third day of practice, Mary is still in acute pain and highly focused on her injury. Again, I sense the need to send healing energy to her shoulder, and also to encourage her to feel her whole body, especially the parts that feel strong and well.
Along with the same asana and mudra of the past two days, today I offer a chakra meditation in which Mary begins with muladhara and moves upward, focusing on the qualities of each energy center and, thus, the different qualities and strengths she possesses and can access to assist her healing. As has happened over the past two days, she emerges from her meditation with diminished arm pain, and she feels lighter and more energized.
Day 5: Recovering a sense of self
Mary speaks of the bereavement group that she and her husband have been going to for several months after the loss of their daughter to cancer. Remembering that we are working with this additional layer of trauma reminds me how we can suffer fragmentation on many levels. As she speaks of her own experience and the shared experience of the other parents there. She begins to notice that others appear quite fragile -- unable to leave their homes, interact socially or function at work as they had before – but that she herself is not fragile in the same way. She also describes waking up in the middle of the night with pain, and being pleased to figure out how to support her arm so she is more comfortable.
Today’s meditation focuses on locating a center of energy in her core that feels strong and grounded, and that eventually radiates out through her body and through the permeable boundaries of the self. It is meant to strengthen her sense of self, while reassuring her that she can move out into the world. The asana practice includes some new standing poses that require greater concentration and maneuvering, such as dropping to a lunge on the floor, and a modified pavritta trikonasana (rotated triangle pose) with chair support. Each new asana or modification increases her sense of mastery. I include a mudra to increase endurance and self-confidence, and the mudra for joint health, now a staple on which she insists be included in each practice. After each session her arm feels virtually pain-free long enough to provide some much-needed relief and give her healing process a boost. I am struck by the way healing works simultaneously in mind and body, with interventions on one level affecting another.
Day 6: Dealing with Frustration
Today Mary expresses frustration with the fact that she has been practically homebound for several weeks. She is unable to go out alone on the busy New York City streets without someone to act as a shield against someone jostling her or bumping into her arm. The pain in her shoulder persists, challenging her tenacity and optimism. Her husband’s overprotection, though well-meant, at times clashes with her sense of self-sufficiency.
I empathize with her frustration and want to help counter this sense of helplessness. As we settle in, I ask Mary to rub her hands together, and then gently place her free hand on her injured shoulder, allowing the warmth and healing energy to sink in. We utilize the thumb energy mudra early in the session, first sending heat and warmth to one side of the body at a time, and then focusing on the two sides merging, moving energy through the body as a whole; my conscious intention is the reintegration of the wounded parts of both her physical and psychic selves.
We continue with a focus on leg work, with fewer modifications so the practice feels more like one she might do under normal circumstances. She comments that she feels more like her old self. We conclude by practicing mudras for grounding and for joint health. While practicing the mudras, I have Mary focus on the continuum of energy moving in and moving out so that the frustration can be experienced and then released.
Day 7: Recovering a Sense of Hope
After her first doctor’s appointment since the surgery, Mary is excited to report that her range of motion has improved dramatically. It is still too soon to tell how well the bones will heal, but she feels she is on the right track. She was given new exercises to do, focusing partly on movement of the rotator cuff. She slept well the night before and managed today to put on a pullover shirt by herself.
With her renewed sense of optimism, I sense that today Mary needs activity to support this sense of forward movement. We do kapalabhati and anuloma viloma pranayama to increase energy. An adjunct to the physical therapy exercises, I show her how to use the natural movement created by the breath to loosen up the rotator cuff muscles. The chest lifts and opens on the inhalation, allowing gentle external rotation of the arms, and the upper back rounds and slightly collapses the chest on the exhalation, allowing the arms to rotate inwardly. We move on to our regular asana work, continuing to build grounding strength and power in the legs. I guide her in energy and joint mudras, and notice that her fingers curl easily into the shapes now, almost without thought.
Day 8: Offering Empowerment
Mary recounts a recent social encounter with an older man—a priest, in fact -- who asked about her injury. As she explained it to him, he nodded his head knowingly, and said “Well, you’ll never be the same…you’ll never be able to do what you used to do.” As she describes the exchange, both her blood and mine begin to boil.
Though such comments are often meant to be “realistic,” we cannot know what someone is going to go through based on our own past experience. With Yoga practice, we learn how to work with our limitations in order to transcend them. I point out to Mary that, in fact, she never will be the same in that she will no longer be someone who has never had this experience before – the same as it is with her daughter’s death. However, now she can choose how she responds, which will be the real determinant of her unique experience and outcomes. I offer a guided meditation to call up the assertiveness and strength of the manipura chakra, visualizing swirling yellow flames burning up any obstacles to freedom. The asana on this day challenges her to use her strength and balance to do things she did not think she would be able to do: she practices modified sun salutations and simple vinyasas to create a continuum of energy, and vrkshasana (tree pose) and virabhadrasana III (balancing warrior pose) with no support. She chooses the mudras that give her the greatest sense of healing. Later, she says firmly that she is determined not to let this injury diminish the quality of her life or her energy, no matter how it plays out.
Day 10: Integrating Empowerment
Mary excitedly describes being able to cook for friends over the weekend for the first time since her injury. As her late daughter’s birthday approaches, the first since her passing, Mary and her husband discuss what they will do that day to support themselves in case the pain is especially hard to endure. They accept an offer of company from good friends, and she talks about understanding how important it is for them, and for her, to practice self-care in this way.
We practice kapalabhati pranayama to increase energy and activate a sense of power in the manipura chakra. During asana practice, I lead her through modifications of sun salutations and poses such as ardha chandrasana (balancing half moon pose). However, much to my surprise, I find her continually making more appropriate modifications of her own. She seems confident and in charge of her practice. When I point out on several occasions that she is spontaneously (though carefully) using her injured arm for support on the chair, we are both delighted. After practicing the energy mudra and joint mudra she is animated and energetic, and exclaims that we make a good team.
Day 12: The Road Ahead
As soon as I arrive, I can feel Mary’s excitement. Her second doctor’s appointment since the surgery confirms not only continued improvement in range of motion and strength but crucial bone regeneration as well. She was given additional exercises and told she could even drive while on her upcoming island vacation, taking short trips on easy roads.
The news was bittersweet, coming on the same day as her late daughter’s birthday, and we shared a moment in which joy and pain seemed to float side by side. It occurred to me that though the healing would continue, the process of reintegration after a major wound, be it in the body or in the spirit, requires awareness, deep compassion for oneself, and true faith in our connection to an energy greater than ourselves -- the essence of Yoga.
The Power of Connection
Published June 2008 in Fit Yoga magazine
The next time you roll out your mat for a Yoga class, take a good look at all the people around you doing the same thing and consider this: those folks might be playing an even greater role in your physical, mental and emotional health than the asanas you’re about to perform.
Although Yoga may have started out as a practice of solitary seekers spending long periods of meditation on mountaintops in search of the Truth, in the west it has taken on a decidedly more social feel. Group classes proliferate and new studios and centers are cropping up everywhere. And while Yoga therapy for specific injuries and health conditions is gaining a foothold of acceptance within the realm of western medicine, research is proving that connection and intimacy -- the same kind of connection that you find in a group asana class -- play an equally critical role in health and healing.
“The nature of studying Yoga has changed in the west, “says Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., a Stanford, California-based Yoga teacher and psychologist specializing in the relationship between health and social support. Pointing to modern Yoga’s shift away from a more traditional focus on the one-to-one student relationship, she says, “Some teachers disparage that, suggesting that the west has taken this wonderful relationship and made it a commodity. But there’s something very powerful about being in a group setting…filling a very powerful need that was missing from our culture.”
Yoga and Western Medicine Agree
The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, long considered a gold standard in research and developments in allopathic medicine, recently published a supplement to their monthly health newsletter entitled “The Power of Connection – Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Intimacy.” The issue mentions studies showing that people who feel isolated and lack support lead shorter, unhappier lives, and are at risk for serious health issues. However, the outlook for those who have cancer, heart disease or impaired immune system functioning, the outlook is better with a support network. That speaks volumes for the potential power of the group.
“The power of people being together and doing the same thing in a deeply spiritual way is like going into a mighty river – the current takes you to a deeper level,” says Nischala Joy Devi, who created the Yoga of Heart training program, adapting Yoga for cardiac care patients. “If Yoga practice in the west is meant to help the body…why is it that people keep coming back more and more to the classes?” Devi asks. “There is something that happens that connects them to themselves on a very deep level.”
McGonigal says her classes always include a self-guided component so students don’t use the class “as a crutch” to avoid personal explorations of their practice, but the group structure offers something equally valuable. According to the Buddhist tradition (her primary influence), “You cannot do the practice by yourself. You need the support of people on the path,” she says. You must do the spiritual work, but being in the community helps keep you honest about your practice, and helps keep you focused.
The emerging emphasis on connection couldn’t come at a more critical time. In a recent article for the IDEA Health and Fitness Association Journal, McGonigal reported that Americans are more socially isolated than ever before. In 2004, the average American had just two people to talk to about important matters; research found that socially isolated individuals are 25 times more likely to die over a nine-year period than more socially connected people. Further, she reported, low levels of social support are associated with increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, cancer and other infectious diseases.
Dr. Robert Sheeler, medical editor of the Mayo Clinic Health Letter, did his preliminary research for “The Power of Connection” supplement during a week-long retreat at Kripalu Yoga Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. Inspired by 25 years practicing medicine and his own personal spiritual journey, he said he felt a powerful need to express those ideas, researching and writing the majority of the supplement himself. “Everyone needs a natural sense of community,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Studies show that people who feel they are connected get less infection, illness, heart disease and cancer.”
While successful medical advances such as penicillin, vaccinations and various drug therapies may have served to shift traditional allopathic approach away from the whole person, Sheeler says both health care consumers and providers are rediscovering that focus. “If you have bad arthritis or a bad back, the better your mind-body-spirit connection is, the more likely you are not to have as intense pain.” He also points to the findings of a now-famous breast cancer patient study conducted at Stanford in 1989. Of the 86 women in the study, those randomly assigned to weekly support groups lived twice as long as the group who received only conventional care. While the results are not definitive, they had a great impact on the collective mindset of the health care community.
Devi mentions the impact of the study as well, and says she has seen the importance of connection within a group of cardiac patients with whom she originally worked in 1985. Member of the original group, who practiced Yoga and met weekly for satsang and support as part of their care, are still meeting weekly, more than 20 years later. They continue to support one another’s health and have become “like a family,” she says.
A New Definition
It appears that as Yoga continues integrating into the fabric of western society, its very definition is evolving, with connection and interrelationship becoming a central theme. “The common definition of Yoga points toward union with the spirit and higher intelligence,” says Ganga White, president of the White Lotus Yoga Foundation, “but I feel Yoga certainly implies personal reintegration as well as connection with others, with nature and all aspects of life.”
“Traditionally Yoga is ascetic and solitary. It is primarily ‘renunciate,’ or letting go of this world,” he says. However, connection and community are central features of White Lotus retreats, and include sessions of “vichara,” or spiritual inquiry, and “council circles,” a native American tradition in which a talking stick is passed around. Each person holding the stick is allowed to speak freely on whatever they are moved to share, and receive the full listening and support of the group. “The best transmissions of insight and understanding take place in dialogue, communication and communion between people, “says White. “Practicing, talking and inquiring [with others] are the keys to sharing Yoga. The council circle is an unparalleled means of connection at our gatherings at White Lotus.”
Perhaps you don’t even know the names of those other students in your class – does it make a difference? It turns out that “regulars” tend to notice each others’ absences and your presence may well be missed. “You don’t need to be best friends with the people in a spiritual community,” Mc Gonigal says. “Just knowing you have the space and can always show up” is important, both to you and to them.
Even the age of technology offers new opportunities for meaningful connections. In 2006 McGonigal offered an online class called “The Yoga of Connection,” in which she presented reflections for practice and invited students to correspond with her and with each other via message boards. Students had the opportunity to connect with people from all over the country.
McGonigal found both parallels and differences between the ways people participated online and in her live classes. The online format stripped away many of the typical roles people unconsciously play in social interactions that might foster competition and actually create separation, she says. Without these role restrictions, and accompanying judgments, self-consciousness and other feelings of limitation, people often felt freer to express themselves honestly.
On the other hand, some students simply “lurked” online, reading the boards but not engaging in the exercises. McGonigal encouraged students to pay attention to these patterns and how they might influence their sense of connection (or lack thereof).
But most people do want to connect. Dr. Sheeler says the “Power of Connection” supplement received the highest volume of feedback of any issue the clinic ever published. So as you’re waiting for your next Yoga class to begin, send a mental thank-you to the person on the mat next to yours – without even knowing each other, you could be making each other’s lives a little happier and a whole lot healthier.
The Spiritual Dimension of Yoga Therapy
Published December 12, 2014 on YogaCityNYC.com
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’re spiritual. 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.”
Helping Students “Own” Their Yoga Practice
Published August 2006 in Yoga Therapy In Practice
It is wonderful to be valued for the work that we do, be it as a teacher or a healer, but the real magic of our work is the partnership that develops when we each take responsibility for our role in facilitating the process.
Years ago, when I was practicing social work, it occurred to me that my goal might be to put myself out of business. If I could help my clients become self-sufficient and empowered, proactive instead of crisis-driven, able to find their own resources and develop healthy relationships with themselves and others, they'd no longer need my help – and I'd be out of business. It was an unrealistic goal, of course, since the world is large and complex, and people will always need help, for many different reasons. However, I couldn't help but wonder if what the helping system actually did was to foster a subtle, ongoing dependency that ensured we'd continue to exist.
As a Yoga teacher, I have similar thoughts about teaching. How many times have you had a student ask you to suggest a pose to work on some part of their body, when you know they've done that kind of pose many, many times before? Or perhaps you've worked with a longtime student or client who comes into a session aching, distressed, or unhappy, and leaves feeling peaceful, thanking you for the miracle you've performed?
I've come across many Yoga students over the years who put their Yoga in a box, practicing only in class or with their teacher, doing pose after pose without understanding the choices or the sequencing of each, never integrating adjustments and repeating patterns over and over. It can be nice to surrender the need to think and to ride the wave of group energy that develops in a class, but we know that's not the same as developing an individual practice – and I often hear students say they would practice at home if only they knew how to put the pieces together.
Just as people will always need help, there will always be new students who want to learn and others who want to deepen their knowledge, so a good teacher will always have a place. What I don't want is for students to feel that they can't do it without me, or that I have some mysterious power over them. In short, I want students to "own" their practice. If you do, too, then here are some elements you can weave into your teaching that will help students understand that there's no one-size-fits-all in Yoga, and they can begin to make the practice their own.
Begin with acceptance.
In our goal-oriented culture of self-improvement, it's almost impossible to approach a new endeavor without the notion that something in us needs to change, and Yoga is no exception. The idea of being more relaxed, centered, happier, peaceful, spiritual-somehow it all seems to imply that we need to be different, and better, than we already are. The paradox, of course, is that without accepting the way things are right now, a subtle resistance develops that actually prevents change. We are who we are for many reasons, and those reasons need to be honored for the way they have served us in the past. The sooner you can set a tone that emphasizes acceptance -- of tight hamstrings, of a stressed-out mind, of our fears and insecurities -- the sooner students may begin to unhook from competition, comparison, and self-judgment, and allow the experience of Yoga to unfold.
Create an atmosphere of self-discovery.
I teach a lot of beginners, and one of my favorite questions to get is, "What am I supposed to be feeling?" The very phrasing of the question is telling. It supposes that there is a "right" way to do something and, if done that way, a particular result will follow. I notice this question coming up a lot in hip-opening poses, when students may be accessing a part of themselves from which they have been long disconnected. On a physical level, different poses focus on different muscle groups, emphasizing strength, flexibility or both, and observing proper alignment principles means most people will feel a pose in the area of the body that is being emphasized. However, there can be many layers to an individual's experience, and breaking down the vast experience of sensation is a particularly rich area for discovery. Distinctions between discomfort, pain, and intensity are often finely edged, and sometimes change in an instant. Students can begin to differentiate between the feelings and their habitual responses to them -- such as backing away, ignoring, or pushing through -- and cultivate a moment-to-moment awareness of and sensitivity to feedback. When the emphasis shifts from goal orientation to honoring the self in this way, the practice becomes a rich metaphor for life.
Work with open-ended questions and encourage exploration.
If you do get the "What am I supposed to be feeling?" question, and you answer "your left hip" or "your right hamstring," you've closed off an opportunity for exploration. An open-ended response would simply be "What are you feeling?" This way, you and your student can determine whether the pose needs physical adjustment, or whether there is a deeper issue to be explored. I like to explain alignment concepts in terms of safety, but encourage experimentation to help students understand lines of energy and how to make the pose feel alive for them. Even beginners can start to understand how this works.
Help students develop holistic awareness.
In most poses, there is usually one part of the pose that grabs the attention – for example, the inner thigh in utthita trikonasana (extended triangle pose), or the side of the body in utthita parsvakonasana (extended side angle pose). In these poses, it's common to see the head hanging off to the side or the shoulders hunching up to the ears, creating and holding tension or breaking the energy flow. I remind students that they are working with the body as an energy conductor, bringing life and awareness to parts of the body from which they have been closed off, and freeing blocked energy from areas where it's trapped. Opening up one part of the body only to close off another simply shifts the imbalance in the system. I ask students to "move their awareness around the pose," noticing where there is the most sensation, and where there is the least. Striking a balance in energy flow, between strength and flexibility, between pushing and yielding, mirrors the efforts we all need to make to balance our work and home, friends and family, service to others and to self. Bringing awareness through the physical practice is a great first step.
Share your "failures."
While there is a healthy professional boundary to maintain between you and your students, they like to know you aren't perfect (even if you think that's evident). Letting them know some of the challenges you've faced, and continue to face, gives them hope and minimizes the expectation that there are goals to be achieved. I often share with students that when I started teaching Yoga, I had been teaching health and fitness for years, and I couldn't believe how difficult the practice could be. It was a whole different way of working from what I was used to. It was about two years before I understood that it wasn't a competition, with myself or anyone else, and it was only then that I began to be able to accept myself and let the practice unfold. There have been plenty of times when I've fallen out of a pose in front of students, or that I've practiced challenging poses with them but not quite "gotten" them. Students appreciate your commitment and your expertise, but they want to feel like the practice is accessible.
Get out of your "right" mind.
It's also important to realize that there is often a very distinct hierarchy created in our conditioning about teaching and learning. The teacher is the one who knows, the expert, the "guru." Certainly, many Yoga traditions have a hierarchical orientation
themselves. We speak reverently about own gurus and teachers, and authoritatively about traditions and meanings-what is "right"-often without realizing what we are doing, or without giving credence to the possibility that there may be different interpretations.
Of course, we all have a point of view. However, students may go to different classes and teachers and get conflicting reports about what is "right." The more you know about the different traditions and can explain the various provenances of different approaches, the broader your students' options are. I always explain what I teach and why I teach it, and if there is something I believe in strongly, I will express that. But I always emphasize that each person is unique, and it is up to them to find what works best for them. This may change over time, as our lives and bodies also change with time.
It is wonderful to be valued and acknowledged for the work that we do, be it as a teacher or a healer, but the real magic of our work is in our relationships with students and the partnership that develops when we each take responsibility for our role in facilitating the process. I want to help my students learn the techniques of body and mind that will help them heal, relax, grow, and find peace for themselves. I hope the practice of Yoga becomes an integrated, essential part of their lives, and I want them to benefit from my guidance, but not be forever dependent upon it.
Those Scary Halloween Costumes
Blog post November 1, 2015
I’ve never been a Halloween person.
When I was little, I wasn’t allowed to go trick-or-treating. My mother claimed it was a Christian holiday (I think she meant pagan) so we didn’t celebrate it, but I think the truth is that the neighborhood was getting a little dangerous. A few years before, my father had answered the door to give out some candy, and a kid about his height was standing there with an axe. That was the end of that. I couldn’t go outside, so I would don my fake leather, fringed Davy Crockett vest and stand by the kitchen window watching the other children in their costumes going by. When the latch was lifted, the peephole to our apartment door was actually open to the outside, so I took single wrapped pieces of Trident gum and tossed them through the opening, hoping kids would pick them up.
As a result, I never really got into costumes (though at sleepaway camp I painted my face, put aluminum foil on my platform shoes, stuck out my exceptionally long tongue and did a mean version of Gene Simmons from KISS), but the question of identity has always fascinated me. In yoga and meditation, we spend our time pursuing, exploring and trying to understand the truth of who we are — the energy that not only enlivens us but is in fact the thing that connects us with everyone else. That includes those walking around in, as my teacher Erich Schiffman said recently, “their scary Halloween costumes.” When he said that, it gave me pause. I suddenly thought that seeing people as merely costumed beings, masking their true selves, might make it easier for me to feel love and compassion for them — because let me tell you, here in New York City, it’s hard.
People are everywhere here, pushing their costumed selves right up against you. The mean-spirited, angry, always-ready-to-fight types. The inconsiderate ones who won’t take a simple step to the side and make it easier for others to board the train or bus. The ones who know their religion is better than yours and need to tell you about it, loudly. Kids acting rudely. Aggressive people. Misogynists. Thieves. Murderers, even. These people wear their costumes so well, they’ve come to believe themselves that it’s who they are, and they make me believe it too. I get angry, frustrated and I judge, constantly. It doesn’t feel good.
It can be hard to remember that these scary, aggravating or off-putting costumes are often covering up unimaginable pain. Fear, loss and anxiety. Trauma, abuse, and neglect. Abandonment. Lives of poverty and unfulfilled promise. These costumes become a survival technique, and a way of life. It takes an awful lot practice for me to “live in the light,” and keep my cool when the heat turns up, to say nothing of feeling compassion and love.
Still, there are moments. A young man offers me a seat on the train. Another helps a young woman up the steps with her stroller. Random conversations with strangers about everyday events. It helps.
This year, the New York City Marathon came the day after Halloween. I know of no other event that serves so effectively to strip away the feeling of disconnection between us and others. Thousands are running and thousands are cheering, all strangers but all united in a way you can almost touch. That is inspiring. The costumes are off and everyone can see, and there’s nothing scary about it.