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 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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