Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Yoga Therapy?

By: Mark Sisson

Primal living, of course, is ultimately about overall wellness. Sure, we focus a lot on nutrition and exercise (important points, after all), but these topics are only part of the picture. Wellness, as it’s often defined, embodies healthful living in several dimensions of self-care and actualization. Our sense of emotional well-being, for example, figures strongly into our quality of life, and it’s about more than just personal happiness. Stress and unmanaged mental health concerns can take a true physical toll. In chronic cases, poor mental health/stress can become a downward, damaging spiral. We’re talking immune dysfunction, high blood pressure, systemic inflammation…. Stress response can even contribute to heart disease and cancer in extreme cases.

And just as our society seems to be sorely lacking in the physical health department, our mental health is in dire straits as well. Coincidence? Experts blame the prevalence of mental health concerns on a variety of modern perils. Contributing factors can be as varied as poor nutrition, environmental toxins, disconnect from nature, and the breakdown of intimate social networks. They all seem to have their kernel of sense. The mind-body connection (tying together all those wellness dimensions) is an undeniable, powerful relationship.

A recent Time magazine article highlighted a new offshoot of the traditional psychological treatment psychotherapy that appears to tap this connection. It’s called yoga-therapy, the incorporation of yoga poses and meditative breathing into the therapy sessions. The practices are believed to both release emotional blockages and empower clients in their emotional exploration and communication. For clients with depression, practitioners offer guidance for “energizing breaths,” while “balancing breaths” are modeled for those with anxiety. The approach can apparently have particular significance for clients with posttraumatic stress disorder. The physical “grounding” of certain poses (e.g. warrior or chair pose) may help center them in the present moment and place as they recount past traumatic experiences. A recent study of schizophrenia patients who received yoga therapy showed a “decrease in negative symptoms and increase in quality of life.” Dr. Elizabeth Visceglia, psychiatrist, yoga-therapy practitioner, conducted the study and credits yoga’s impact on the endocrine and parasympathetic systems for the treatment’s apparent success.

The therapy approach is gaining ground at an impressive rate. The International Association of Yoga Therapists “more than tripled its membership” since 2003 and currently has 2500 members. Therapists interested in learning the approach for their practice can now receive specialized training at over 50 yoga schools.

Our impressions? For one, we’re always intrigued by therapies that offer authentic and effective support for overall well-being. (And if it can be part of a practice that supplements – if not supplants, when appropriate – the pharmaceutical treatments so often offered as a first line approach then all the better, we say.) It makes physiological sense: inducing the relaxation response, helping trigger or soften hormonal release. But maybe there’s a deeper significance in this kind of therapy – a broader point applicable beyond the psychotherapist’s clientele.

As a society these days, we seem to either live in denial of our bodies (letting them go to pot) or live to conquer them (exercising into oblivion). We struggle to attain (or intuit) a “right,” natural relationship with food, with fitness, with aging, with our physical selves as a whole. On many front we’re disengaged from what’s natural, what’s hardwired into our evolutionary selves. Though Grok, as we’ve noted, certainly had his share of conflicts, he wasn’t strung out on chronic stress the way we moderns can be.

Think about it. We’re chained to desks, work stations, cars/buses/trains for much of every day. Our workouts provide needed activity, but oftentimes if we’re not mindful about it, they can become one more responsibility we check off in our day. We get through it rather than delve into it, making it what it could be – how it can feed the soul as well as work the body. Taking the time to recenter in the physical, in meditative movement of some variety, perhaps has the power to realign, release us from the emotional, social and technological baggage of our everyday modern existence. There’s a certain simplicity, even liberation, to living purely in our bodies – not in conflict with or in spite of them. In that selected span of time each day or week, it’s a therapy unto itself. Losing ourselves in a physical activity (or pose) can be freeing, grounding as we merge wholly with the moment and motion.

For us, the yoga therapy development ultimately underscores that essential cohesion of the mind and body (as representative of all the spheres of wellness). It’s no coincidence, we think, that the most creative and integrative therapies – as well as the healthiest everyday lifestyles don’t deny or diminish either the physical or emotional but give each their due. As the Time article notes, yoga means balance. Balancing the physical and emotional, bridging the two can bring us back down to earth for a time and offer a momentary emotional reset button. The release can lift the burden for a time, allow calm to seep in - or perhaps rise from inaccessible, primal depths. In both cases, it can help us reconnect with and open to what is most basic, most essential about ourselves.

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