gaia magazine

Off the Couch and Onto the Mat


At the Intersection of Yoga and Psychology

IN EARLY August 2008, Margot Andersen’s newly-married, 29-year-old son was hit and killed by a car while crossing a busy highway in Chicago. For Margot, a social worker in Chicago schools for more than 13 years, the pain of the sudden, tragic loss was overwhelming. Enrolled in a yoga teacher-training program, and recently trained in LifeForce Yoga, a type of yoga focused on mood management, Andersen turned to methods she knew would have an immediate affect on her emotional stamina — yogic breathing, visualizations and mantras.

“It’s what’s gotten me through this past month,” says Andersen, 56. “Otherwise I’d be in bed, I’d be horrible.”

When she felt too exhausted to complete daily tasks, Margot used LifeForce’s breath of joy to access untapped energy. To calm down enough to sleep she practiced nadi shodahna (alternate nostril breathing); San kalpas (intentions) and mantras (chants) gave her the strength to leave the house.

“When I had no energy, and could feel myself sinking, I used the breath,” says Andersen.

Andersen also underwent a phone session with Amy Weintraub, the Arizona-based founder of LifeForce Yoga and an international leader in the field of yoga and mental health. Weintraub designed LifeForce to train psychotherapists, social workers and yoga teachers to use classical Hatha yoga methods with their clients. She says the methods work because, “The sense of separation, which is the literal source of depression, is diminished and the sense of connection to oneself and others is enhanced.”

At a time when the practice of physical yoga poses, or asanas, is at an all-time-high (with 15.8 million practitioners nationally, according to Yoga Journal’s most recent survey), psychotherapists and yoga teachers are discovering — or rediscovering — how yogic tools might apply to therapeutic settings. At the same time, many yoga teachers, wanting to be of more service to their students, are borrowing methods from traditional Western psychotherapy. For both sides the goal is the same: integrate these practices to help people help themselves.

Teach Them To Fish

“We’re giving people tools they can use for the rest of their lives,” says Bo Forbes, founder and director of the Center for Integrative Yoga Therapeutics (CIYT) in Boston. “It’s a modality of healing that comes from within the client themselves — it’s not therapist based.”

Lauren, a high school teacher in Queens, NY, entered into “yoga psychotherapy” five months ago, because she felt she needed to talk to someone about the stresses of her job and life. “I was getting weighed down with negativity,” says Lauren.

Working with Joan Stenzler, a licensed social worker and Kripalu-trained yoga teacher, Lauren has tamed her anxiety using meditation, visualization and precepts from yoga philosophy.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the universe and how people react to you and you react to them,” Lauren explains, adding she prefers this process to the traditional talk therapy she had experienced in the past. “These are things my yoga teachers also talk about in regular classes.”

Lauren often applies her newfound coping skills on the job at school. “One of the biggest things to remember in dealing with teenagers is don’t take it personally. Deflecting what’s aimed at me allows me not to carry it through the rest of my day.”

For example, when a tardy child makes a scene about having to sign a late card, Lauren imagines surrounding herself in a white light that bounces back negativity. “It sounds corny, but even if it doesn’t completely work, it definitely puts you in the mindset of analyzing what’s going on and why they are reacting to you that way.”

In-Body Experience

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, has noted a recent shift in psychotherapy as therapists, such as Stenzler, turn to yoga for more effective ways to treat clients, especially those with long-standing issues. “What psychotherapists are beginning to realize is that the body has been left out,” says McGonigal.

Opening the way for yoga-based therapeutics are the mindfulness practices of the Buddhist traditions that, over the past 10 years, have been increasingly accepted into clinical settings and taught in American medical schools. According to Paul Fulton, president of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy based in Newton, Massachusetts, empirical trials such as those conducted by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center have helped establish mindfulness as a viable treatment in the eyes of the medical establishment. In September 2008, Fulton’s own organization launched a new 9-month certificate program in mindfulness and psychotherapy for mental health care providers.

No Touching, Please

However, integrating yoga-based methods into psychotherapeutic work presents inherent challenges. More than just watching the thoughts or the breath, clients and therapists may also be working with the body. Strict licensing standards today protect clients against physical abuses from their psychotherapists, which unfortunately were all too common in the past. The body is taboo.

Ann Friedenheim, a psychotherapist, drug and alcohol counselor and yoga teacher in Allentown, Pennsylvania, gets around this restriction by using very simple yoga-based techniques with her clients, ones that don’t involve touching.

One woman who had a long history of abuse both as a child and as a spouse, came to Friedenheim in physical and psychological pain, barely able to cope with daily tasks. Friedenheim used breath and hands-off bodywork to ease her client’s emotional paralysis. “Every session began with just breathing for five or ten minutes. She always refers back to it. She says, ‘Remember when we started breathing?’ It had a big impact.”

Other practitioners have kept their yoga therapy distinct from their clinical practices, sometimes having separate offices or studios for the two techniques. Boston-based Bo Forbes — who has nearly 20 years experience as a psychotherapist and over 10 years as a yoga teacher — has found yoga-based techniques so effective, she has closed her private practice in order to teach integrative yoga therapeutics, and to supervise the Center for Integrative Yoga Therapeutics in Boston.

“Talking can almost activate and rehearse issues that you’re trying to work through,” says Forbes, whose Elemental Yoga Mind-Body Teacher Training Program has been approved by the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers as ongoing training for psychotherapists and social workers. “Some people have done 15-20 years of therapy, are motivated and insightful, but they can’t change because their nervous system is holding and retaining its pattern.”

That’s certainly been true for Maria Ray, a Chicago-based flight attendant. When she got out of rehab for alcohol abuse, she knew she didn’t want to go back to traditional therapy. “All of the therapists suggested taking medications or talking about stuff that happened in the past but they could never really solve it,” says Ray.

That was until she stumbled on a Kundalini yoga center whose director, Shabad Kaur Khalsa, was also a licensed counselor. They began their sessions talking through what was happening in the moment and spent the second half doing breathing and meditation exercises, and a few simple poses. “Talking helps with the release, and the meditation brings me full circle,” says Ray. “The relaxation therapy helps to integrate it.”

Ray says friends and colleagues have observed the change. “My friends noticed that my face has gotten more relaxed and there’s a sense of calmness to me from how I used to be.”

“Shabad taught me how to be in control of my own mood,” says Ray, who is now off medications altogether. “It’s been a miracle.”

Down Dog Processing

On the other end of the spectrum, a growing number of yoga teachers who are not licensed to diagnose or prescribe treatments are bringing more traditional Western psychological insights — and training — to bear on their clients’ practices and issues. Ashley Turner of Los Angeles, who recently completed her MA in Counseling Psychology at the Pacifica Graduate Institute, uses tools from her academic work, techniques from her yoga teaching, as well as images, sounds and insights drawn from yoga’s built-in psychology to guide her clients to greater self-awareness.

Stephen Lewis in New York also brings a psychological orientation into individual yoga sessions. Trained in Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, a form of yoga therapy that incorporates witnessing, dialoguing and reflecting in client-centered sessions, Lewis has also enrolled in an MA program in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness at NYU’s Steinhart School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. For his clinical internship, he is providing yoga therapy to the psychiatry inpatient unit of New York’s Bellevue hospital. “There’s so much demand, they are hungry for it. I just go where I’m needed,” says Lewis, 31. In a separate project at Bronx Psychiatric Center, Lewis is collaborating with psychiatrist and yoga-practitioner Dr. Elizabeth Visceglia on a two-month trial assessing how yoga helps people with severe mental illness such as schizophrenia.

For some, “yoga psychotherapy” could become a one-stop shop for addressing physical and emotional issues in the same session. Leah Metzger, a client working with Ashley Turner, likes the integrative nature of the sessions. “I can see Ashley for everything,” says the LA-native. “For other things I’m going through like relationships, career, health things. It’s a well-rounded way to grow myself.”


Mala Yoga: Small is Beautiful


Mala Yoga sits on the second floor above a corner real estate office in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, at arguably one of the cutest intersections in the neighborhood. With coffee shops, restaurants, a Montessori school and a small independent bookstore nearby, this could be Main Street, USA. The church spire rising in the distance completes the picture.

But it’s Court Street, a bustling, residential part of Brooklyn. Run by three yoginis, two who left white-collar careers for yoga, Mala has only a sandwich board outside to mark its presence. It gets most of its students from walk-ins and word of mouth.

Opened in November 2007, Mala bucks current trends of expansion and franchising as one of the smallest studios in the city, at just 700 square feet–including the bathroom. Space is used efficiently: students’ bags and shoes go in one small closet, props in the other. Subs for the week are posted on the bathroom door, and the sign-in desk is tucked up next to the wall inside the practice space.

Such a vibrant place doesn’t feel small. In fact, there’s a bit of a love-fest going on at Mala. Students praise the smart, down-to-earth teachers, and teachers adore their students.

“We have really fantastic students here,” says Angela Clark, of of Mala’s co-founders. “They’re really into practicing, really into knowing who they are.”

Mala’s warm community of professionals, freelancers, and new parents is also remarkable.

“People are gregarious here, we all talk to everyone,” says Robyn Sklarson, VP of Library Content and Development for Sony Pictures Television who assists classes as a part of Mala’s new-teacher apprenticeship program. “If it’s a really packed class, everyone gets cozy and squishes up next to each other.”

Popular classes sell out at 26 – 30 people—when there’s an inch or less between mats—and so students get to know each other. Teachers walk through the class before it begins, learning names and discussing injuries or issues.

“You never have to worry about not getting an adjustment or getting lost in the shuffle,” says Sklarson.

Mala has done exceptionally well in its first year of business thanks to its location and handpicked staff, but also to the founders’ pre-existing popularity at other studios. One Mala fan, Rick Jakobson, a professional cook, had practiced with all three founders at Area Yoga just a few blocks up Court Street. “I’m teacher-centric–I like to hear the same voices,” says Jakobson.

Co-founder Stephanie Creaturo explains the vision that infuses the studio. “Practice is a thread — the beads on the mala are your life.” All three founders wear mala beads that have been blessed by Amma, the hugging saint.

“You come to the practice in your 20s, keep practicing into your 30s, as you go through family life, and get older,” says Creaturo. “Yoga can be with you through the stages of your life. That’s how we approach it.”

Mala Yoga 162 Court Street, Brooklyn, NY, 11201 718 237 9642