In body-centred psychotherapy, the physical gestures, breathing patterns and body language are looked at to determine the emotional and psychological state of the client. In one instance it was observed that a woman who was severely depressed used to rub her face with her hands in unpleasant situations as an habitual means of covering her feelings. When she was made aware of her habit and consciously explored it, she recalled an early memory of being at her mother’s funeral and being told by her father to “Wipe that look off your face” and not to cry. This memory allowed her to release much of her pent-up grief and anger at not having been allowed to mourn properly. Rubbing her face worked as a means to cover her feelings and keep them from being experienced and expressed.
In another example a woman was made aware of her breathing patterns. She realized that she was holding her abdomen unnaturally tight and that her breath was catching in her throat. She discovered that this was a response to not feeling able to relax and be herself, and she came to realize that the constriction of her abdominal muscles worked to repress her feelings. When she consciously tried to breath into the area, she experienced a sense of relief as well as further insights into her problems.
We have heard many times how we tend to keep feelings repressed in our subconscious and unconscious mind, but what we often don’t realize is that this is not a purely mental exercise. Our body plays just as important a role in suppressing feelings as the mind does. Just as we have a mental unconscious, so too do we have a physical unconscious. We have physical and postural gestures that we are not fully aware of and which often play an important role in restricting emotional expression and maintaining habitual conditioned patterns which limit growth.
To achieve this sort of catharsis and relief we see that a key issue is first awareness of the conditioned behaviours or habits and then conscious removal of them. It is in this sphere that asana and pranayama can be most beneficial.
‘Awareness’ in a yogic sense means the ability to feel, to know and to understand what is going on, not only around us, but within us as well. Awareness involves development and recognition of the inner witness who is able to observe with detachment all thought processes, actions and reactions. As we develop our witnessing ability, the depth and spectrum of our awareness increases and we are able to penetrate that everyday surface level of consciousness. The rational, cognitive mind is the topmost layer of our awareness through which most of us operate, unaware of the great depth of underlying mental factors that are actually controlling what we are experiencing at the surface level. That is why we often cannot rationally understand some of our actions, nor can we control our moods and mental states. This surface layer is nothing but a mere expression of our unconscious factors. Our habitual ways of acting or expressing ourselves physically are a speech form of our deeper mind. It is encouraging to realize that we don’t need to dive headfirst into hypnotherapy and deep meditation to contact this level, but instead just need to tap more closely into the forms of ‘speech’ we are expressing through our bodies.
Awareness starts with the physical body. It is the easiest and most practical place to begin, as well as being the ultimate link to our hidden nature. Caldwell (1996) says that the “ability to express and feel our physical experience is the foundation of recovery.” Asana is a direct means of getting into contact with our physical experience. Unlike physical exercise, asana combines awareness and breath to move us into an experience of ourselves which is far more profound. The more we practise asana and pranayama, the deeper we are able to penetrate those hidden parts of our nature.
High tension and stress resulting in feelings of anxiety relates to a blocking of energy which needs to be released. When we are overly anxious and stressed we understand that we need to relax, but find it hard to do so. Dynamic asanas which move the pranas and release muscular and mental tension can be used as preliminary aids to the later introduction of static and relaxing asanas. Often after a hard day at work, one comes home and flops in a chair or snacks or watches TV as a means of ‘rest’. But the body is not resting and neither is the mind; the body is slouched and slothful and the mind is ticking over and is still at work. A few rounds of surya namaskara (or any dynamic asana), then gradually slowing down to more stationary poses and then to relaxation in shavasana incorporates an active form of rest where the bones, muscles and nerves are gently stretched, and the mind is granted a different focus of attention to the narrow field of concentration it has upheld at work. The relaxation that ensues is far deeper and one feels recharged instead of exhausted. Physical and mental stress naturally accumulates over the day and asana is a means to release it and lessen future stress reactivity.
Many asanas act as symbols in the sense that they enable the practitioner to express a certain psychological state or to develop certain characteristics. For example, simhargarjanasana (roaring lion pose) is symbolic of the behaviour and characteristics of a lion. Therefore, one who practises this asana will be awakened to those inherent characteristics of strength, courage and assertiveness that exist within. Perhaps attempting to roar like a lion will alert certain people to their sense of shyness and introversion and will help them to overcome these feelings. Simply placing the body in a certain way and with full awareness causes psychological and energetic changes.
A backward bend such as bhujangasana (cobra pose) involves an opening up of the chest and stimulation of the body’s energy levels. Psychologically, some people may feel vulnerable, scared, or perhaps even elated after performing this pose. The expansion of the chest has effects on anahata chakra and many of us tend to close this area off. Bioenergetics calls this ‘armouring’ – the physiological response to emotional pain. The heart and chest region is concerned with emotions and feelings and so we often tend to protect ourselves with the armour of tensing that area and shutting it off. As a result the flow of energy in the chest is inhibited and therefore we become desensitized and less aware. Opening the chest allows the energy to move through and one can experience a whole range of emotions that seem to appear from nowhere. This is an accessing of the body speech.
Perhaps we have likes and dislikes regarding specific asanas. Why is that? One common reason is that we tend to enjoy those postures that we can easily perform over those that require a greater effort – but there is more to it than that. Let’s take balancing asanas, for example. I can physically perform most of the balancing poses as far as flexibility is concerned, but maintaining the posture for any length of time is difficult. As a result I can get incredibly heated and irritated. It can completely alter my mood – one moment I’m fine, and then the next I’m terribly annoyed. When I am really aware I catch my mind being critical: “Why can’t you do it, why can’t you concentrate?”; comparing: “He can do it fine”; and projecting: “I wish she’d stop moving and then I’d be able to focus and balance properly.” Asanas bring our habitual patterns of thinking to the fore. Disliking a pose can mean that we dislike the reaction it stirs within us. Perhaps my ego gets threatened in a balancing posture and it reacts by getting irritable and upset. But if I look deeper, I can really come to terms with deeper feelings of inadequacy and self-criticism. After all, if I didn’t feel inadequate in some way, wouldn’t I react more lightly to simply not being able to balance?
Through asana we remove postural defects and their associated personality traits. Slumped and rounded shoulders are often an indication of a poor self-esteem, or of the tendency to withdraw and keep feelings inside. An overarched back can indicate arrogance and pride, which are often a reaction to deep unconscious insecurities. When we become aware of tight shoulders, constricted abdomens, stiff and locked knees, etc., we are alerted to their psychological origins, and by addressing them through asana, we set the stage for deeper levels of healing.
What of a depressed person? When we are feeling low, our energy is low and we feel a great lack of motivation. Most of the time all our energy will be centred around the head and its negative thoughts which will cause us to feel overwhelmed, confused and dissipated. If we do dynamic asanas, we move the energy from the head and evenly distribute it around the body. Standing asanas, surya namaskara and any asana that involves constant movement will free stagnant prana and move one’s awareness away from the mind into the body. Dynamic asanas help the body to recharge and the mood lifts immediately. Of course, asanas will not completely lift a person out of his or her depression, but they will help and provide temporary respite and relief. Knowing that we have actively induced a better state within ourselves provides the impetus and motivation to continue. Self-confidence, energy, clarity and self-reliance are increased and we feel more able to handle our own problems.
When we practise pranayama we become aware of our personal breathing patterns. A full yogic breath often alerts us to the fact that we may be subconsciously constricting certain areas of our body. There is a lot to be learned from this. Perhaps one discovers a tight sensation around the throat and neck. Tightness in this area often is related to the inhibition of feelings or keeping something from being said. Perhaps we may find a tendency towards a longer inhalation or exhalation in our natural breathing pattern. Prolonged exhalation is often connected with depression. When depressed we heave long sighs out, and the act of inhalation (i.e. to ‘inspire’ – to fill the body with life and energy) is lessened. A shorter exhalation often points to an insufficient discharge of energy, of not being able to let go fully and relax.
Pranayama techniques can change our mental states. There are activating, tranquillizing and balancing pranayamas which work specifically on the body’s energy levels and thus on the mind. A state of stress and tension is normally reflected in shallow, rapid breathing. Bhramari, with its long slow exhalation, is perfect to calm down the dissipated energy and mental state. Often a depressed person complains of a feeling of emptiness which is usually experienced around the abdomen. Bhastrika activates energy in the abdomen and brings back sensation and alertness to the desensitized area. So, pranayama is a tool to actively deal with stress or overwhelming emotions. The freeing of blocked prana, or the activation of prana in a specific area, will bring back the physiological sensations along with the mental and emotional experiences that were previously held back.
The mind and thoughts flow with the breath and the two forces reflect one another. For example, we gasp with surprise and choke or sigh with sadness. We also find that it is nearly impossible to maintain the intensity of anger if our breathing is slow, steady and rhythmic. So, through pranayama we learn to first control the breath and prana and then to expand it and, as mind and breath are inextricably linked, we learn to control the thoughts and then to expand the mind and consciousness.
Of course, everyone’s reaction to an asana or pranayama is personal and the same reaction to any practice may be interpreted differently according to the individual. What is most important is to keep up the idea of being the listener. With these practices we are communicating with the body and really trying to understand what it has to tell us.
Both asana and pranayama ground us in the present moment. In the present we are not distracted, but are clear and focused on ourselves and our immediate experience. The mind is not dissipated and is therefore calm and relaxed. It is in this state that mental and physical speech will be heard more clearly and can be dealt with directly in a productive manner. As we develop the witness ability we will become more and more familiar with ourselves. We will discover things within that we did not know existed, but that provide great insight into our own personal make-up. Increased self-knowledge leads to an increased sense of purpose and clarity in all that we do, because we know exactly why we are doing things. Through asana and pranayama we become more clear about our own dharma and can make personal, powerful choices towards the furthering of our psychological and spiritual development.
Christine Caldwell, Getting our Bodies Back: Recovery, Healing and Transformation through Body-Centered Psychotherapy, Shambala Publications, Boston, 1996.
Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballantine & Swami Ajaya, Yoga and Psychotherapy: The Evolution of Consciousness, Himalayan Institute, USA, 1998.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha, 3rd edn, Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India, 2002.