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Is your yoga practice a vehicle for mental health and self-actualization or are you content with just the physical practice?

Yoga was originally intended to be a practice to facilitate self-actualization, meaning to realize who you are and be comfortable being you. More recently, in the western yoga world, there has been a separation between physical development and spiritual development. Social media has defined yoga as a cool physical posture. Do not be fooled into believing that by only practicing asana you will be self-actualized. Asana is only one of the eight limbs, and is intended to be practiced as much as the other seven to help you reach your potential.

Let’s start by defining Mental Health.

The definition of mental health according to the World Health Organization (WHO) is: “subjective well-being, perceived self-efficacy, autonomy, competence, inter-generational dependence, and self-actualization of one’s intellectual and emotional potential, among others.” The WHO further states that “the well being of an individual is encompassed in the realization of their abilities, coping with normal stresses of life, productive work and contribution to their community.” So for our purposes let’s agree that mental health is an expression of self-actualization.

Next let’s look at where Ashtanga Yoga comes from and what it has to do with mental health

Ashtanga Roots: For the traditional Ashtanga Yoga perspective, we can defer to Guruji (Sri. K. Pattabis Jois – founder of Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute) who always referred to Ashtanga yoga as a practice taken from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The original intention of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras written over 1600 years ago (~400 CE) was to promote self-awareness and lead to self-actualization. This is stated clearly in the first 4 sutras.

Ashtanga – The 8 limb approach to Mental Health – Self Actualization:

If you have read the Yoga Sutras you may have realized that the eight limbs of Ashtanga is a method of promoting mental health by developing discernment. All eight limbs are to be practiced in order to be aware of the thought patterns that we identify with. Asana is one of 8 limbs (moral and ethical practices, personal habits, asana, control of the senses, breath control, concentration, meditation and absorption) presented in chapter 2 of the Yoga Sutras.

There is a great opportunity to deepen your yoga into a practice that goes beyond just a very good coping mechanism, but unconsciously practicing asana is not enough to get you there. Thinking that asana is sufficient in that way is spiritual bypassing. This is the notion that if I practice asana, then I do not have to work on anything else because doing the postures is my spiritual practice. This is just magical thinking. There are many benefits from doing the physical practice; improved overall physical fitness, reduced stress, relief from anxiety and depression. But how can your yoga practice be an instrument for self-actualization?

Motivation is important. You have to want to do it. Without the desire to grow and learn, self-actualization will not occur. You have to be in a place that nothing else is working. You have tried everything else and you are still not recognizing who you really are. What to do?

The Trifecta Approach

There is a combination that will help you on your path towards discovering who you are – self-actualization. I call it the trifecta approach. Here are the three key methods that work together to facilitate mental health and living your life fully.

  1. Yoga Practice -Find the right yoga teacher that supports your individual development beyond the physical asana.
  2. Meditate – Develop a solid sitting practice. This more subtle practice will strengthen the ability to observe all mental activity.
  3. Psychotherapy: Find a good therapist where you can be seen, heard, supported and guided through your own transformation, and where you will be encouraged to keep at it.

This may seem like a complex combination. But here is a case that demonstrates the trifecta’s approach in action.

Alex’s Story (This is a fictional character; the events are real.)

Alex is a dedicated yoga practitioner. For over 10 years she rolled out her mat daily and practiced her yoga. Some days she practiced with strong motivation and most days with some resistance. Alex was not aware that the thoughts in her head often got the better of her, but she was determined to practice her yoga because it made her feel better. Asana was helping her cope, but she was still not experiencing transformation. Alex kept feeling stuck and no matter how much yoga she did and how many self help books she read, she could not move forward with her life.

Alex felt discouraged and anxious. She thought perhaps when she got the next pose, she would magically feel better and stop suffering. She began to realize that although practicing yoga helped her manage her life a little better, transformation continued to elude her. Alex knew she needed help. After a long search she found the right teacher for her. She felt seen, supported and encouraged to be herself. Most importantly she felt safe in the mysore room.

Her teacher was also a licensed psychotherapist and meditation teacher. Alex felt she was now ready to commit to her transformation.

Alex’s yoga practice immediately changed. She started to show up more consistently and she started a meditation practice, specifically designed for her, which she integrated into her yoga practice.

Alex committed to doing  individual therapy. In therapy, she began to recognize debilitating old mental patterns and habits. Together they started to disentangle her thought process, allowed old ignored emotions to arise in a safe space and understand where the old beliefs came from.

Defining Entanglements:

From a psychological standpoint, entanglements occur when we identify with thoughts – meaning that we take thoughts on as real. Some common examples are: exaggerating negatives, minimizing positives, overgeneralizing, catastrophizing, personalizing and concretizing.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, he defines these thought patterns as kleshas: ignorance of who we are, attachment to the pleasant, aversion to pain, stories of the me, myself and I (personalizing) and fear of ego or death.

All human beings have a mind that is constantly thinking. Trying to stop the thinking is not possible. What is possible is to develop the awareness that thoughts are there. Thoughts will come and go if you can just watch them. We do not need to believe the thoughts and feelings that arise, we can just watch them. Does the sky identify with the cloud? If you are the sky you allow the clouds to come and go, the cloud does not control the sky. Be the sky.

Working with a good therapist to help point out when you are identified with thoughts, and can expedite and increase your ability to be aware. Through consistent therapy one can process trauma and mental events in a safe space. In yoga practice you can integrate mental health and develop the physical body. In meditation practice one can learn subtle techniques to fortify identifying with the witness and awareness instead of being the thoughts themselves.

With all three methods in place, Alex was able to slowly and successfully upgrade her internal operating system. She went back to school and finished her degree. She created a new home where she felt safe by moving into a new apartment. For the first time in her life, she is in a healthy relationship with a man who loves and supports her. Most importantly, her sense of self changed. Alex is more comfortable with her true self. She is less identified with anxious thoughts and is spending more time practicing self-compassion, and less time judging herself.

This is the trifecta approach at its finest. We all need tools and guides to help us along the way to self-actualization. We cannot do it alone.

So what can you do right now to jumpstart your own transformation?

Psychology of a Yoga Class:

One of the most important decisions you will make is finding the right teacher for you. It is important that you have a heart connection with your teacher. This relationship is paramount to support transformation. It is vital that you feel safe, supported, seen and encouraged to be you.

Here are a few questions to consider and evaluate whether you are in the right relationship with your teacher.

  1. Do I feel safe? – Before you start your practice, take a moment to ask yourself, do I feel Safe? Safety is a primary need. Every human being needs to feel safe in order to grow. In every stage of development and in your yoga practice feeling safe is imperative. Do you feel uncomfortable with where the teacher is placing their hands or their body on your body? Does your teacher respect you and the other students in the class? Is she or he having a sexual relationship with a student?  Sexual relationships between a teacher and a student is inappropriate, unprofessional and can be very harmful.  If you do not feel safe on your yoga mat or in the yoga studio, then you have a choice. You do not need to stay in space where you do not feel safe.  You can choose to speak up and find another teacher.
  1. Do I feel seen and supported? – Does your teacher see you as an individual and do you feel you seen? Does your teacher work with you on some appropriate postures that will help you where you are at?
  1. Do I feel encouraged to be myself? If your teacher is telling you that you are not good enough or your posture is not good enough, then you can ask yourself why you keep going to this class? If your teacher is over-adjusting you and making you go further in your body than you are comfortable with, then you are not being encouraged to be yourself. Why is it so important for you to do a pose a certain way if your body was not designed that way and any amount of external force will not make it that way? Is it ok for your teacher to break your ribs to get you there? There is a fine balance between supporting and challenging you to reach your potential and forcing something that is painful and is really not necessary to self-actualize.

 

Transference:

Another important consideration in the teacher student relationship is transference. Every yoga teacher and every student should know what transference is. The definition by Webster is

A process by which the feelings that you had for someone (such as a parent) when you were a child become directed to someone else.” Transference is unconscious and happens in every relationship that we have. In every yoga class, students experience transference. This happens when unresolved issues are replayed and projected onto the teacher. Ideally, a well-informed teacher will be aware of transference and their own countertransference. If they are aware, then they will be able to keep the space clean for the student to heal. If transference is left unaware, the unconscious patterns will dominate. How many stories are there where a yoga teacher abuses his or her power with a student?

Ashtanga yoga teachers are usually not trained mental health professionals. Most Ashtanga yoga teachers are trained in asana technique, but are not equipped or licensed to untangle thought patterns and behaviors. It is unfair for a student to expect their teacher to help them resolve their personal issues. Furthermore, it is also unjust for yoga teachers to put on themselves the expectation to heal students’ emotional issues.

Having a psychotherapist can be very useful on the path towards self-actualization. A good therapist can help you become aware of unresolved issues, transferences and trauma. By becoming more aware of our patterns we can develop the capacity to heal instead of playing it out over and over again in yoga class and even in our own personal relationships.

Physical Practice or Spiritual Practice

Yoga practice can be a doorway into a spiritual practice. It can open us up to have direct spiritual experience. If practiced correctly. But be careful. Just because someone can practice 2nd series or 3rd does not mean they are mentally stable or enlightened. Many students think that advanced series means advanced spiritually. This is a mental conditioning very similar to commercialism. It’s similar to the idea that if I just had enough money to buy that car or house then I would be happy. It is simply not true. Achieving does not necessarily equate to mental health and neither does advanced asana practice.

Can a yoga practice help us cope with the mental stress? Yes, but it does not necessarily solve any old patterns or psychological wounds. Old beliefs like not feeling good enough can be played out over and over again. They may even feel comforting in the sense that they are familiar pain. For example “If only my teacher can see me do this pose perfectly, I will be good enough to get the next posture. And then I will be happy.

Ashtanga Yoga is a practice developed with the intention to help understand and realize who we really are. The first realization that occurs is that we are mostly living our lives identified with our body and thoughts. If we practice correctly by cultivating discipline, learn how to direct our attention through meditation, and if we can seek professional support and encouragement , then we are on our way to becoming aware of our True Self and continue to evolve and Self-Actualize.