The Thin Line Between Yoga Teacher & Psychologist. ~ Kristin Skotnes Vikjord

Via on Mar 18, 2013

freud therapy

Yoga practice tends to focus heavily on self-transformation and connection.

As a clinical psychologist, I can’t help but be concerned by the issues that arise in this self-exploration and how well equipped yoga teachers are to deal with them.

In any given yoga class, taught by any well-meaning, big-hearted teacher, there’s a good chance that the topic of transformation will arise. Perhaps the teacher will even share his/her personal life-changing process, on all levels (be it from becoming more conscious about foods, turning vegan, losing weight—or confronting other challenges).

The issue is that even though the teacher could positively inspire many of his/her students, others might take away the message that “If I only focus on my yoga practice, everything will be alright.”

This can elicit negative projections in students, attributing their own current situation to shame, or undermining self-worth, and triggering insecurity. “I practice yoga regularly, becoming more aware, though not feeling more content, actually sliding further into depression. I did everything ‘right’, why do I not feel better?”

Yoga, in a clinical sense, certainly compliments traditional psychological and psychiatric treatment, and has many therapeutic qualities. The practice of mindfulness is based on certain dimensions of continuums, or unspecified factors, one of which is contact. It can be contact with bodily sensations, or just the body in general, and contact with thoughts or feelings.

In most psychiatric diagnosis, symptoms affect the function of the whole being, in one way or the other. This means that clinical issues involves either lack of contact (consciously or not), or an experience of too much contact. Inner, intense feelings of unease, restlessness, anxiety, worry, and similar, are underlying symptoms in many diseases. At worse, these are connected to traumas (as in abuse); at best they are the result of simply poor general awareness.

As these practices invite connection, there is a probability of triggering traumas, symptoms and intense unease. Regulation of feelings are already challenging, so to contain what you come in contact with during such practices might actually be more exposure to symptoms than a release of tension.

Examples of this could include asking someone struggling with eating disorders to connect with the sensation of having food in the belly, or any sensations, breath etc. that are in the belly, or asking someone with an addiction to tap into the sensation of abstinence/substance craving, or asking someone with anxiety to pay attention to what is actually happening when anxiety comes up, and so forth.

Not to say that exposure is wrong, because applied wisely—with care and as part of other treatment—it can have a positive effect. Yoga and mindfulness-based approaches applied in clinics emphasize a follow-up around the individual, and the mastering of symptoms and difficult emotions is a high priority of support in treatment.

As a note of reflection, to any given yoga teacher with a big heart, and to the whole yoga community, I think there are many benefits of viewing yoga as a multidisciplinary field of science.

Even though the science of yoga encompasses many levels of connection and self-awareness, a teacher training, or your own personal experience, doesn’t necessarily make you an expert in dealing with all the the issues that might surface in your yoga class. The professional field of yoga is rapidly growing, and with the growth many important questions arise about the training necessary to equip teachers in dealing with the many facets of their position.

 

 

Kristin Skotnes VikjordKristin Skotnes Vikjord works as a clinical psychologist, yoga teacher and mindfulness instructor. The commen denominator of her work is processes of change, and the passion of guiding people in their own explorations. Kristin finds her roots in the Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition and Buddhist meditation. She is a certified yoga therapist, with training in Mindfulness and Trauma Sensitive Yoga. She co-founded Delight Yoga, in Amsterdam, and the initiated the Bodø Yoga Festival in Norway. In the last seven years she has applied yoga and mindfulness in her clinical work, including developing specialized programs for both eating disorders and addictions within psychiatric treatment. Check out her blog.

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Assistant Ed: Olivia Gray/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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8 Responses to “The Thin Line Between Yoga Teacher & Psychologist. ~ Kristin Skotnes Vikjord”

  1. Back At-cha says:

    As a yoga teacher, I can't help but be concerned by the issues that arise in the therapeutic setting and how well equipped psychologists are to deal with them. In any therapy session, conducted by any well-meaning, big-hearted psychologist, there's a good chance that the topic of transformation will arise. Perhaps the psychologist will maintain a supposedly "professional" stance and not share his or her story, but even then, the psychologist will confuse the unsuspecting client-patient, who has come into therapy for ego support, not transformation. Therapy is meant to support the ego. Yoga was never intended to be an ego-supporter. Some people get in trouble with yoga because their ego structure isn't stable enough to handle being messed with yogically. Similarly, most psychologist aren't able to handle sticking to their job. It's too mind-numbing to hear the same stuff every day and just stick to the status quo of helping people with ego support. Being interested in "transformation" themselves, they react with counter-transference, and try getting people to transcend the level of consciousness on which all their problems exist. So, actually, everything the author of this article is concerned with in respect to yoga classes happens continually in therapy because psychologists can't stick to supporting egos. Again, it's mind-numbing to sit there on a non-transformational level, and they didn't really understand that when they were in school and for the first few years of doing therapy. Then they get involve with "transformation," and refer to themselves as yoga therapists, or Buddhist mindfulness therapists, or both, and while yoga and Buddhism have both been intrinsically involved in transformation for thousands of years, psychology is not transformational. It's supportive. It supports the ego-level of everyday life, and people come into therapy to get help living their everyday life. It's a boring thing to help with, but people coming into therapy are looking for ego support. If they were ready for transformation, they would come into yoga, or start with Buddhist meditation, and while the breathing techniques of yoga and the mindfulness techniques of Buddhism can be used in effectively in a therapeutic session to help calm and support a client/patient, using yoga and Buddhism for transformational aims is something psychologists do at great risk to unsuspecting people. People coming into yoga classes should expect to be encouraged toward transformational experiences. If they don't, it's because articles like this have created so much confusion.

  2. raven says:

    Hmmn. Kristin… your article just seems like a power trip to me. A supposition of "the ivory tower". You say, "Even though the science of yoga encompasses many levels of connection and self-awareness, a teacher training, or your own personal experience, doesn’t necessarily make you an expert in dealing with all the the issues that might surface in your yoga class." This just seems so pompous to me. All your schooling for clinical psychology hasn't made you an "expert" in dealing with all the issues of your clinical psychology practice either. Unless your field considers it "expertise" to get one in four women taking psych meds. This idea that somehow an "expert" is what is needed in life is a most unfortunate one. It denies the power of connection, compassion, and the yogic teachings themselves. This just smacks of dominator culture… of collective ego… of separation … of the status quo which is perpetuating insanity in the first place. Do your practice please.

  3. I understand the comments above, and want to nuance the message by lifting out some of the points this text was an attempt to do:
    First of all, the edit of this text was done, and published without my approval, thus there are formulations in this which I don’t recognize as mine. My title was "Connecting – release of tension or exposure to pain?" I had no intent of comparing yoga teachers to psychologists, nor yoga to psychology.
    The intent was to say something about the transformational process that yoga and other meditative practices elicit, and that there are certain states and conditions where certain stages of change is more challenging. And therefore invite to a debate around how yoga as a therapeutic intervention could become more present in the clinical field, by looking at the trainings there are today.
    I think it’s well established that the teachings of yoga has powerful potential. I've practiced yoga and Buddhist teachings (yes, all my teachers are rooted in this tradition) for a decade, and I wrote this text because I believe yoga and meditative practices offers beautiful potential. With this I hope to have clarified some points of the text, and I must apologize if I offended anyone.

    • Morgan says:

      Kristin – as a yoga teacher and a doctoral candidate only a year away from becoming a clinical psychologist, i can relate to a lot of the points in your article.

      it is funny because i tend to stick to very concrete themes in my classes (power of breath, acceptance vs. tolerance, etc) both because they relate directly to the moment and the body, and because i feel any more esoteric talk of transformation, spirituality, and chance has associated caveats that i wouldn't be able to address during my yoga class ramblings.
      a regular yoga practice can certainly be a powerful variable in the transformation process, but for someone dealing with more than the average neurotic's struggles it does not address all aspects of healing.

      thank you for writing this piece!

  4. kathik says:

    I believe it’s my job as a teacher to empower students to help themselves. I certainly don’t take responsibility OR credit for any ‘work’ that does or does not get done. Thanks for your viewpoint.

  5. kathik says:

    I think the point that needs to be spread far & wide is that practice isn’t all sunshine & rainbows!

  6. Kristin, thx for your acrticle. I am a clinical psychologist too and love yoga. I think yoga teachers should be aware of their limitations regarding psychology. I am so happy with my yoga favorite teacher, because she does not talk much. I have been to yoga classes who wanted to address psychological issues. That was hard to bear. Crude mixtures of popular psychological myths and simple yoga philosophy. As if they wanted to be more than a yoga teacher, but also a psychological teacher.

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