By Alana B. Elias Kornfeld Tuesday, Apr. 14, 2009
Talk. Share. Cry. Stretch? Psychotherapy has historically been an exercise of the mind, but in the offices of more and more modern-day mental-health providers, emotional healing is taking place not just on the couch but on the yoga mat.
The burgeoning field is called yoga therapy, and its practitioners include psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers who incorporate yoga poses and meditative breathing into their sessions, as well as yoga teachers who want to learn how to address the emotions that bubble up in students during class or in private sessions. The idea, say yoga therapists, is to allow yoga to empower people while priming them to access their deepest emotions.
A typical yoga-therapy session with Dr. Elizabeth Visceglia, a psychiatrist and yoga therapist based in New York City, often starts with some kind of breath work — energizing breaths for people who are depressed, balancing breaths for those with anxiety. Then patients practice yoga poses geared to their specific needs. People with severe posttraumatic stress disorder, for example, are prone to losing their sense of being in the room when they experience a vivid reliving of their trauma. So Visceglia has them hold simple grounding positions, like the warrior or chair pose, before transitioning into talk therapy.
“Emotional memories are stored in your body,” Visceglia says. “A group yoga class, is not structured to enable you to process that. Ideally one would want to work with someone who is paying attention to both the physical and emotional experiences.”
That’s the philosophy behind yoga therapy instruction at Phoenix Rising in West Stockbridge, Mass., where yoga therapists, who do not need to be mental-health practitioners, learn to address both the mind and body in one-on-one sessions and group classes. A Phoenix Rising yoga therapist puts clients in assisted yoga postures and does a kind of “verbal exploration” of the present moment. The yoga therapist acts as a witness to clients’ exploration, with empathy and positive regard for their experience.