A passion for yoga is one of the things that most strongly distinguishes Vancouver's culture, especially in the Kitsilano neighborhood where I work. I have practiced yoga for many years and have derived tremendous benefit from it. I also recommend yoga to many of my clients because I believe that it can both speed and deepen the processes of transformation that psychotherapy is designed achieve.
So, what is it about yoga that makes it such a good support for the therapy process? There are many different reasons. Among these, are that yoga increases physical flexibility, reduces stress, and increases heart rate variability. For me though, the most psychologically valuable aspect of yoga is that it is essentially a form of moving mindfulness (see my recent blog post on mindfulness and therapy). I believe that this particular aspect of yoga is often realized most strongly in the slower forms of yoga, such as yin yoga (the form that I currently practice).
In yin yoga we hold pauses for a very long time, typically up to 5 minutes each. This allows for stretching of the fascia, the body's dense connective tissue. Yin encourages us to start a pose at a gentle “edge”, or at a depth where we are initially only aware of subtle stretching sensations. However, because we hold the poses for such a long time, these sensations usually deepen a lot over time. As this happens, we are encouraged to develop our capacity to stay mindfully present with this increasing discomfort, neither avoiding the sensations (by zoning out etc.) or by allowing our thoughts to make them worse than they actually are (“this pose is awful...it will never end!”). However, we are also instructed to practice self-compassion by backing off if the sensations ever begin to change from discomfort to actual pain.
So what does this have to do with therapy? A lot actually. Yin gives us chance to develop exactly the skills we need to overcome anxiety and avoidance, which are at the very heart of most of our suffering as human beings. When we look closely enough, we will find that the concrete “thing” that actually stops us from doing many of the things that we long to do (things like standing up for ourselves, being explicit about our love for a partner, or fully letting in a partner's love for us with an open heart) is a physical sensation. It is our desire to avoid experiencing the tightness of anxiety in our chest that leads us to tell a joke rather then to say “I love you”. It is our desire to avoid the sinking sensation of shame at pride in our stomach that leads us to minimize and deflect when a partner says that they love us. So a big part of being able to begin get what we want in life, and especially in relationships, is to develop some tolerance for these uncomfortable bodily feelings. It is only after you have developed some of this tolerance (by, like in yoga, pushing ourselves to intentionally experience the unpleasant sensations in a self-compassionate way that always stays within your window of tolerance) that you can become confident enough to have these uncomfortable feelings and to still follow your heart anyway. So that, for example, you can begin allowing the sensations of anxiety that come with being deeply vulnerable to arise, and still chose to say “I love you” anyway.
When this kind of shift happens you can begin to reap the incredibly rich rewards of living in this braver, less avoidant, more connected way. So I encourage you to try out a yin yoga class if you haven’t already done so.
At the very least you will have earned yourself a coffee and a treat afterwards.