Yoga and Psychotherapy

September 11, 2017

Yoga and Psychotherapy  

My work as a psychotherapist/psychoanalyst probably owes as much these days to my practice of yoga as it does to the rest of my training. Yoga, mindfulness and the like are terms easily bandied about in the clinical world, so let me describe one way it enters into my work with patients.

 

In hatha yoga, consider paschimottanasana, the seated forward bend. There comes a point moving forward when our body resists or contracts against the position we are trying to assume. We take this resistance to be an obstacle to be overcome. But this 'primary contracture' is not the problem. Our reaction to it is. In fear, we further contract in response to the contracture. We seize up. Christian Pisano, an Iyengar yoga teacher who teaches in Nice, France, explained that while we cannot prevent this first contracture, we can learn gently not to give way to the accustomed reaction, to the secondary contraction, as this is where the pain comes in. If we simply stop at the initial bodily contracture and go no further, that remains the limit of our pose, and in effect, our world. If we try to push past the contracture, we may get our head closer to our knees, but we are likely to pay for our aggression in the long run. Instead, he said, we must learn to relax and "read the contracture". What had been, when we were fighting it, painful, now, through surrender, or letting be, becomes bearable and even interesting. By dwelling in this, and attending more patiently to our bodies resistance, an opening emerges and we move forward in the pose ever slightly, with an increase in internal bodily intelligence. 

 

This is yoga. We dwell with the pain, surrender to it. Using an old fashioned sense of the word, we "suffer" it. We allow it, accede to it, stay with it, and reflect on it as we do. 

 

There is a wonderful passage found in RD Laing's Divided Self, which he got from Franz Kafka: “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”

 

What is Kafka saying? To be human, we have but to suffer, but insofar as we try not to, we only make our suffering worse. Not to mention miss out on life. 

 

This insight might serve well as a litmus test to distinguish psychotherapists worthy of your trust from those you should probably avoid. If any therapist is ready to take away your suffering for you, whether through techniquery, all-too-knowing explanations or drugs, she probably is not all that in touch with her own suffering. 

 

Suffering is the paradox at the heart of therapy. Many patients come more or less asking us to help rid them of their suffering, to *cure* them. Our job is really quite the opposite, to enable them to suffer, to enter into the first contraction, as it were, without fear, judgment or seizing up, so that they can pay attention to what their situation/behavior/history/body is telling them. We do not and can not know what is best for them. We can only help them find their own way. And sometimes, point out to them where they are getting in their own way or making matters worse. 

 

In the end, they will move forward, suffer less and suffer differently, suffer joy even, if we are not fooled by their fear and end up joining in the effort to get rid of what seems in their way.

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THOMAS A BARTLETT, MA

CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST AND PSYCHOANALYST

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