Yoga in the Therapy Room: Centering the uncentered client
By Amy Weintraub
Q: I’ve taken yoga classes for several years and know there are many physical, mental, and emotional benefits associated with the practice. How can I use yoga techniques to enhance my work as a therapist?
A:You can offer your clients many yoga-based practices to help them focus, relax, and access their feelings more readily during the session, as well as self-regulate at home. As you may know, the physical postures, known as asanas, are only one aspect of traditional yoga practice. A variety of no-mat yoga practices and rituals can help quiet mental chatter, reduce bodily tension, and promote a heightened awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings. All these techniques are perfectly suited to the consultation room.
The work of therapy can’t begin in earnest if the client’s mind is racing or fogged by depression at the beginning of the session, or if tension is so great that bodily awareness is lost. Offering a simple yoga practice as a portal into the session can enable your client to experience a shift in attentiveness and mood. Having moved into a state of heightened awareness, she or he may then be able to bring newfound clarity of mind to the issues looming throughout the session.
Carol, a woman in her mid-forties with a history of trauma and bulimia, was referred to me for yoga therapy by her psychotherapist. She entered our first session in a highly agitated state. Her shoulders were tight and drawn up toward her ears, and her breathing was rapid and shallow. She was fairly new to yoga and nervous about our work together. After two rounds of a tense-and-release exercise and a brief check-in, I guided Carol in these simple, yoga-based practices: mudra, the use of a hand gesture; pranayama, a simple yoga breath; bhavana, locating an image of sanctuary or peace; mantra, a soothing universal tone; and kriya, a cleansing breath. This series of practices, which took under two minutes, respected Carol’s revved-up state while helping her self-regulate.
Tense and release. To begin, I said to Carol in a calm voice, “Take a moment to tighten as many muscles as you can. Draw the shoulders up to the ears, squinch up your face, make fists with your hands, and sustain your breath. Compress all the getting-here-on-time anxieties and all the judgments you have into a little ball, and place it at the back of your neck. Squeeze the ball, and then let it roll down your back as you let the breath go. Beautiful! Let’s do that again. Inhale and tighten as many muscles as you can. Squeeze whatever is keeping your heart and mind from being completely open. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. Now, let it all go . . . beautiful!
Carol was visibly more relaxed after this exercise. Although her breath remained shallow, her face was softer and her eyes more focused.
The use of image. At this point, Carol agreed to try a simple practice we could do in our chairs to bring her current state of mind into balance. I asked her to think of a soothing image. “It could be a place,” I prompted, “real or imagined, where you’re relaxed and at ease. Or maybe,” I said, “a face comes to mind that makes you feel peaceful. It could be a human friend, a precious four-legged friend, or even a deity.”
Carol closed her eyes. After a few moments, I asked her to raise her finger if she’d found an image. When she’d located an image and had opened her eyes, I asked if she’d feel comfortable sharing her image with me. She said she saw her favorite beach in Hawaii. (If your clients can’t find an image, you can ask them to simply think the word peace.)