I LOVE yoga! Over the years I have been in various therapies, trainings, and have gone through various psychological processes, but would count yoga as amongst the most helpful things I do. I am therefore utterly biased!
We are embodied people. How we are as bodies profoundly matters to both our general sense of self and also our ability to regulate our emotional life. When we feel at home with our bodies our sense of self is generally more relaxed and more alive. Counselling can at times be seen as focussing on our minds at the expense of our bodies or our whole self, and yoga helps address that imbalance. Yoga now has had an increasing amount of research done around how it helps people. What has been shown is that alongside strengthening muscles, posture building, increased blood flow, boosts to immunity levels, a dropping in blood pressure and toning aspects of yoga, peoples mental health can be considerably improved.
For issues of stress, depression and anxiety attending yoga on a regular basis allows for a reduction of symptoms. Whilst we are not always sure why this happens, the evidence for yoga having a wide range of physical and mental health benefits is compelling. Through taking time to combine meditative practices, strengthening and balancing poses and a shifted focus towards ourselves as accepted, the experience of yoga can be deeply liberating. An aspect of yoga is a focus on mindful self-acceptance which goes beyond cognitive ways of trying to accept ourselves; rather than trying to tell ourselves we are ok (which rarely works sadly), yoga allows a natural sense of acceptance to come through and a gentler attitude to who we are.
Through being able to work at our own speed, hold postures whilst in a reflective and mindful head space, we find that negative thoughts can be quickly let go of and worked through. I remember a time when I was struggling with an aspect of my identity. As I practiced yoga I recall looking in the mirror; I was sweating a bit (I practice Bikram yoga which is done in a heated room), but I looked alert, calm and happy. As the session progressed I was able to take on board myself as someone who is at peace, able to be flexible in both mind and body, and able to sit lightly with issues that stem from earlier in my life. My experience of who I was now allowed me to let go of earlier ideas of ‘me’. The panicky feelings that we often carry from the past and can be from trauma’s or unhelpful relationships are able to be reduced as we experience something new that is positive and engaging. I am not sure that this was in any way a religious experience in the conventional sense, but rather is what happens when we take time to look after our bodies and minds in a calm and accepting atmosphere.
Unlike some other forms of exercise and sport, yoga works on an egalitarian basis, where everyone is seen as unique, on their own journey, and to be encouraged just as they are. This allows for issues of body image and shame especially to be explored and let go of as we accept all of who we are through careful, disciplined, relaxed movements that build up our energy levels whilst simultaneously allowing us to find peace. Our lumps and bumps and alleged imperfections and differing fitness levels are all seen as part of the incredible being that we are rather than things to be improved on or criticized. On top of this yoga is not expensive. It is possible to start at home with a DVD or a good YOUTUBE video, or attend a group for as little as £5 a time.
Whilst theories for why yoga works are divided and range from the spiritual traditions to psychological or physical theories, I would want to add another. A large part of how we define ourselves is through what the Lacanian psychoanalytic tradition understands as a split in who we are. Our bodily sensations and experiences, wants and desires are slowly pad less attention too as we develop due to how we are treated and who we are told that we are. These various early voices that we depend on for life and love help us to relate to others through language and also help us to develop what we call our sense of self or perhaps our identity. This identity is just a construct; it is the way that we come to understand who we are. Everything we have been taught about who we are due to our gender, looks, abilities, culture, whether we are a failure or success, skin colour and so on all go to form an illusion which we usually see as who we are. When our experiences and our sense of self differ, as they often do, we can become conflicted; as an example my understanding of what it is to be ‘male’ may conflict with certain desires I have for activities which may be considered less ‘manly’. This split between our experience and our identity can stifle our development and can become rigid, leading to various unhelpful behaviours and feelings of shame or incompleteness. Yoga works with our direct experience rather than the way that we have structured who we are, allowing for new ways of seeing ourselves that are more authentic to our needs. Like other activities that I have written about yoga is not a replacement for counselling, and at the same time can bring new experiences into our lives that can give us a sense of peace and ease with who we are.