These series of articles touch upon content of my recent book “Essential Yoga Therapy”, written for everyone involved using yoga for healing. Please join me on a journey of mind-body anatomy and physiology relevant to yoga therapy!
Merel Martens – Founder Parimukti Yoga & Meditation India
No book can capture the essence of yoga. Its profound benefits can only be experienced by doing it, and the effects go far beyond and far deeper than anything I can capture with the vocabulary available to me. Yoga therapy is a demand triggered by the growing understanding and experience that we are more than our tangible, physical bodies, and that maintaining health and well-being has to be sought both within and beyond the physical body. In order to be able to help someone, we need to start looking with different eyes and to understand that the complaint is only an expression of imbalance and thus treatment might have to take a different dimension.
What is it that makes yoga such a profound and effective ‘tool’ to help people?
I have come to recognize that the effect of yoga is threefold. I call these three combined aspects ‘the Yoga Therapy Effect’. All three tools can be applied together and in combination and there is no particular order to it.
Most of the people I meet who don’t include yoga or any other spiritual practice into their daily lives, live with high levels of stress. Some are aware of this, others not – they are used to stress and believe that they need it to function. They are simply addicted to stress because they have forgotten the beautiful feeling of being relaxed. Mind you, relaxed does not mean lazy!
Thus in general, many people can benefit greatly from simply (re)gaining the ability to relax. We are mentally and physically exhausted by our conditioned beliefs that we need to do, do, do, and perform, perform, perform. This is instilled in us from a very young age.
Relaxation is directly linked to rejuvenation, and it’s something that I feel is highly cost-effective! The beauty of relaxation is that we can apply different ‘tricks’ to achieve it, techniques that induce relaxation and work either through the body or through the mind. Relaxation in the body results in relaxation in the mind, and vice versa.
Some people find it very difficult to relax as they have many worries, anxieties and emotions stored up in their physical, energetic and mental bodies. They might need a different approach to find full relaxation – for example, dynamic meditation in which different emotions are being activated and released through movement or laughing, crying, or shouting. Explaining these particular techniques is beyond the scope of this book, however there are many sources of information available on that.
Relaxation, thus is a very important step in the healing process; both during a session asswel as a tool to give the client to integrate in their daily life.
The beautiful effect of yoga is that it not only relaxes us, but it ‘wakes’ us up, activates us in a healthy way. You could even say that in a relaxed way we feel energized. Thus, this activation happens at both broad and very subtle levels of our being. On a physical level, yoga practices activate our blood, and lymph to stream – improving blood and lymph circulation, thereby improving the health of all of our organs and promoting the release of toxins. Connective tissue is being squashed and twisted, and in these tissues too, toxins are being ‘activated’ to start moving. You can read more about this in the chapters on the cardiovascular system.
Energetically, yoga promotes well-being. Ask most people who practice yoga and they will tell you that they feel more energized, motivated, and creative. In yoga we acknowledge the concept of ‘prana’, the subtle energy which flows in our bodies. Like a stiff muscle, stagnated lymph, or blood clots, prana can get stuck in places. Our different yoga practices wake up the prana, improve its flow and remove blockages. This is why we feel our whole day has a different quality to it when we start our day with a yoga practice. Many, many people have told me that their days are so much better now that they do yoga, and that they feel more awake and alert.
On a mental level, transformation, change, and movement are the key to health; diseases develop due to certain states of mind, behaviour, lifestyle and habits, and without addressing them, lasting health cannot happen. The person seeking your help must have an authentic and deep desire to transform; without personal motivation and dedication, change and healing cannot happen.
A well-rounded yoga routine balances relaxing and activating practices and encourages both effects. However, at a therapeutic level, some people are clearly very stressed out and need to start off with full relaxation (even if they are not aware of this themselves). Others may need the opposite and require movement to break through stagnation and depression.
After gaining insight into patterns (in the physical and mind level) and disease development we have more space to cultivate awareness.
Awareness is actually the foundation to everything we do in yoga. Chanting a mantra, doing a pranayama practice or an asana routine without bringing presence and awareness to this very moment is not yoga. Sure, our minds might wander in and out of thoughts now and again – of course they do, this is the nature of the mind – it is our responsibility to keep observing exactly that, again and again, moment after moment. And gently bring it back. Or, even better, observe what your most frequently recurring thoughts are and what underlying beliefs and conditionings cultivate these thoughts.
Once we have recognized, observed and understood how a thought takes us out of the moment, maybe coming to a certain realization and insight, we can make a change. Allowing yourself to observe your mind and its products is much different from your typical rumination and daydreaming. The difference is: awareness. We are looking at the thoughts, rather than diving into them, or drowning in them. If any emotion comes up, like anxiety or fear. We can no longer think rationally but if we can stay neutral, if we do not judge ourselves, but merely look at what’s happening, keeping our distance, it is usually much easier to see what is happening and what needs to be done (or not done) to overcome a difficult situation in our lives, or to make the changes that we have wished for over a long period of time.
Our lives are happening now. It does not start after your pension, it does not start on the weekend with a glass of wine, it does not start next year after you have finished that project. It is now, in this moment. Life is a collection of moments and we can make the most of it by bringing presence in each and every single moment. Yoga is the practice of bringing awareness in each and every moment. Yoga is like kindergarten, and once we’ve done it, we have to bring what we’ve learned and experienced into our daily lives, encounters and communication. We need to do this as much with others as with ourselves! We spend most of our time communicating with ourselves, so let’s do it with awareness. Only then can you become aware of what you are telling yourself the whole day through, and you may be inspired to change.
The three effects of yoga manifest simultaneously which is what makes yoga unique, and thus moves yoga practice beyond most other types of treatment and sports.
At the core of a yoga therapy treatment plan are yogic practices such as asana, pranayama and concentration/meditation combined with changes in lifestyle and nutrition However, it is possible as a therapist to put more emphasis on one or the other, as well as to focus more on the physical, mental or energetic layers of the body and their symptoms. This is where a therapists comes in: recognizing what the person sitting in front of you needs at that particular time.
Maybe somebody first needs relief from very intense pain and then simply, some medication is needed. After, you can start looking and working with this person on the underlying causes the symptoms. What is causing this weakness, this imbalance? What mental component or habit is feeding this? What about somebody’s lifestyle and dietary habits? So, rather than simply ‘prescribing’ a combination of asana, pranayama and meditation, yoga therapy goes much further and looks into habits – ranging from mental to physical habits, lifestyle, daily routine and diet.