This article emphasizes the role of thoughts in health and how yoga therapy can be used to affect not only the physical body, but the subtler levels from which illness can arise.
Mis-identification Leads to Limitation
As stated in the Bhagavad Gita, while the body lives and dies, the consciousness from which the body arises and into which it dissolves does not. Yoga and Ayurveda tell us this unmanifest, eternal consciousness is our true nature. But, according to Patanajli’s Yoga Sutras, we mis-identify with the body and mind and call it “me,” forgetting our essential unchanging and eternal nature. In the absence of experiential knowing of our true nature, we interact with the world through an accumulation of impressions and experiences called samskaras.
Samskaras are not bad. They are simply constellations of experiences the body/mind has registered in its journey. These experiences actually help the individual survive and succeed in society through patterned and learned behaviors acceptable in the culture in which they live. However, some of these patterned behaviors are not helpful and can unconsciously drive our lives. For example, an impression left by a cheating husband can either cause one to make conscious, prudent future choices, or can cause one to unconsciously see all men as cheaters, driving the individual to stay away from relationships altogether. Unhelpful samskaras are limiting to the body mind. And if we are identified with the body/mind as who we are, we are also at the effect of these limits – not only mentally and emotionally, but physically as well.
The Subtle Affects the Gross
First described in the Taittiriya Upanishad, traditional texts tell us the body is actually composed of progressive densifications of energy called koshas. Literally meaning “illusory sheaths,” these densifications seem to separate us from our true nature and obstruct perception of the true self.
The subtlest kosha, and closest to our true nature, is the anandamayakosha or bliss body. Like a magnetic tape it registers and imprints all the experiences the body/mind has ever had. As the subtlest sheath, the anandamayakosha affects all the denser sheaths below itself. These are; the wisdom body, the mental body, the energy body, and the physical body. In effect, the samskaras held in the bliss body act as a blueprint, influencing the structure and shape of the koshas below it. That is why it is often said that the body is the gross mind and the mind is the subtle body. The body is simply a visible manifestation of the subtler aspects influencing it.
Your Body Hears Everything You Say
This is not so different from western science, which tells us that our body hears, and is eventually shaped by what we consistently think. Every thought is translated to a chemical version of that thought. Thought is received in chemical form not just in the brain, but in the cells of the lungs, the heart, the kidneys, the gut, and the immune system. These chemicals literally tell each and every cell how to behave based on the nature of the thoughts. A study shown at UCLA showed that method actors playing various negative emotions showed lowered immune system response in just one day. Studies show that chronic, unmanaged emotional stress is more predictive of cancer and heart disease than smoking. A study by Sara Pressman at the University of Kansas showed that there is a stronger relationship between health and positive emotions than basic human needs – and that this relationship is strongest in the poorest countries surveyed. Another study shows that those who have the highest degree of self-regulation (ability to manage emotions effectively) are up to fifty times less likely to be dead or suffering from a chronic disease fifteen years later. What does all this mean? It means what is held in the subtle realms of thought counts and that if we want to invest in true health, we must address health with subtler aspects in mind.
How Can Yoga Therapy Help?
Yoga therapy is intended to work with the body as the manifest aspect of samskaras. The body can act a unique tool to help the helping professional work with something that is often subtle, virtually undetectable, and prone to mental analysis versus true resolution at the root. Though this is rapidly changing, traditional western psychology has historically been based on understanding the root. The premise is if we can identify and understand the root, we can let it go. While this is often effective, it doesn’t address so many of the issues that live outside our conscious awareness. How do we address those? And does understanding guarantee that we can let go of patterning, or does it mean in some cases that we can just talk about it more intelligently? Ultimately, understanding only works if it creates a fundamental shift in perspective at the causal level.
The energy body, or pranamayakosha, is the sheath which surrounds, infuses and animates the physical body with life giving functions. The invisible circuitry of the pranamayakosha in the physical body is made up of nadis, or invisible energy meridians, and meridian hubs known as chakras and marma points. This energetic system feeds and maintains every organ and system of the body. This energy network in the body is not only responsible for life, but healing, and homeostasis. Samskaras are capable of affecting this energetic circuitry. When we are free of samskaras, as in deep sleep, our body is best able to heal itself because prana is able to move optimally.
Unhelpful samskaras often create circular patterns of thought. These affect the flow of energy through the subtle energy meridians. These nadis feed the organs and systems of the body. Subtle changes in energy flow cause minute changes in the way certain organs and systems can be maintained. As a result, changes begin to arise in the physical bodies which often become more pronounced over time.
According to yoga therapy, unhelpful samskaras manifest in two primary ways:
Mental and Emotional: Samskaras can affect mental/emotional states. Individuals get caught in an old impression and live in an endless feedback loop of repeated thoughts and emotions. A common one is not “measuring up”, or being “good enough.” This samskara distorts perception and keeps the individual looking for evidence to validate and reinforce their original conclusion about life. It also limits the individual to seeing only what they have come to believe the world to be. Samskaras manifesting on the mental emotional level can also present as a continuous perception and attempted resolution of a past problem in the present moment. For example, someone in their forties under the effect of old impressions could still be trying to get the approval their parents didn’t give them. Sometimes these mental and emotional patterns will begin to manifest in the physical body--sometimes not. Regardless, they do not serve overall health and wellbeing.
Energetic and Physical: When samskaras move from mental and emotional to energetic and physical, they tend to manifest subtly before becoming more visible. What begins as a lack of connection or a “void” in a particular area of the body, can eventually move into chronic tension, pain, and even show up as muscular patterning and imbalanced posture. Eventually samskaras can manifest as physical symptoms and even disease.
Yoga Therapy offers a powerful adjunct to traditional therapies. Knowing what the issue is, where it came from or even how it is showing up is not a pre-requisite. The goal of yoga therapy is quite simply to re-establish the optimal flow of energy in the body. This energy already knows how to heal and balance both emotionally and physically. It just needs to have the obstructions to its optimal functioning removed.
If we can move into the body, and open up areas in which the flow of prana has been negatively affected, we open up and restore optimal energy flow. We know the traditional poses of yoga are intended to do just that. The poses have physical benefits, but they also powerfully and profoundly affect the energetic system in a way traditional exercise does not. As we move into areas of tightness, holding, lack of connection, we are restoring the flow of prana through attention, breath and awareness.It is possible that by restoring energetic and physical balance in the body, we create a corresponding effect on the samskaras themselves. The thinking is that the body is a map of our samskaras made visible. The suggestion is that shifts in the visible manifestation can cause shifts at the root as well. In my opinion, this could have some validity. For example, when we go to the gym or take a walk, the chemistry of the body changes. As the body changes, it affects the aspects more subtle than itself. The mind tends to be more clear, energy more vital. This is an example of changing the body to change the mind. Yoga Therapy, which works on a level even more fine-tuned than traditional exercise should then garner the same if not more benefits in this regard.
Aspects of Yoga Therapy Technique
Yoga Therapy can be performed in many ways. The technique being presented assumes that the body is a storehouse of unresolved experiences and emotions resulting from unhelpful samskaras. Each yoga pose is designed to energetically open and release specific areas of the body. By performing the yoga poses with this understanding and focus, we can perform the pose in such a way that it gives an opportunity for the “somaticized samskara” to be resolved and released. These are some of the aspects that make this approach to yoga therapy maximally effective.
Supported Postures: One effective technique is to support the individual receiving the session with props or with the therapist’s assistance. This allows the recipient to focus solely on the area of opening without having to support themselves in the pose. Since each yoga pose will release certain areas, the added benefit of support and attention to the area of opening magnifies the effect of traditional yoga poses.
The Edge: The place where we can find physical abilities limited by subtler patterning is at what is called the edge. When going to the edge, mental and emotional resistance or physical tension will arise, but with attention and breath the individual should be able to stay relaxed and present. If not, the therapist needs to back them out of the pose to a place where the sensation is intense, but not so much that they cannot relax with it.
As the recipient is held in a supported version of a traditional pose, they are able to penetrate deeply and profoundly into held areas manifesting as emotional holding, energetic tension or muscular patterning. This is similar to the concept of Rolfing (structural re-alignment through bodywork) in which a Rolfer’s job is to move the recipient back to into natural alignment. In doing so, that which is obstructing natural alignment—be it energetic, emotional or physical has an opportunity to be released.
Breath and Attention: As the edge is encountered, breath and attention is used to move into the area of most holding or resistance. Individuals are coached to breathe and feel what is present without trying to push the discomfort away or forcing through it. This is a common mistake among yoga practitioners who try to push through the physical limits of the body, but do not end up releasing subtle underlying issues. “Somaticized samskaras” can be overpowered, but that does not mean they are gone. It is important to encounter them with mindful attentiveness and a willingness to allow the resistance to be fully felt. This is the key that allows these deeper tensions to begin to unwind. As an area begins to release, individuals commonly report tingling, heat, or a streaming sensation. They will often let go more deeply into the pose one or more times. It is postulated that recipients move more fully into the pose as not only physical limitations, but mental patterns inhibiting fully physical capability are released.
Deep Relaxation: Supported holding in postures at the edge, combined with breath and awareness, often results in reports of entering into a deep state of relaxation or meditation. A yoga therapist will encourage this to happen, coaching individuals to let go of the mind and enter into a meditative state where prana can flow freely and re-establish balance at all levels. Different from traditional therapies, it is thought that this is where the shift in relationship to samskaras is happening – not from understanding, but by allowing the prana itself to do the work from beyond the understanding of the mind.
Yoga Therapy and Emotional Integration
Any object in manifest existence has a life and a death or a beginning and an end. All objects in existence are further composed of a subtle or gross condensation of prana (energy). The body lives and dies – and so do emotions. This means the body, but also the emotions, are forms which are composed of prana. Prana, as it manifests through the body, can be felt in as physical sensations. Thus, when we work with emotions in yoga therapy, we work with prana – or its concrete manifestation – sensations.
Each emotion creates a different pattern of sensations in the body. Notice that a genuine emotion is only ever experienced as a sensation. If “sorrow” is experienced as an emotion, it has to be felt. The only way it can be felt is through sensation, otherwise it is just a thought. It is this feeling sensation aspect of emotion that allows us to work with it in a different way.
All emotions are forms of prana. These forms vary, just like the weather. Individuals have varying levels of comfort with some “weather” patterns of sensations versus others. Some people are comfortable with sensations associated with joy and bliss, while others find this extremely uncomfortable. Some are comfortable with sensations of anger, while others are not.
Whatever constellation of energy we are uncomfortable with, we tend to resist. I suggest that when emotions become “blocked”, it is not that prana is blocking itself. Instead it is our unwillingness to allow energy to flow in that particular form. Prana like water, will naturally flow where it can and will eventually seek its own level. It knows how to find its own balance. But instead of trusting this natural balancing process, individuals tend to shut down to certain configurations of energy; effectively making it impossible for prana to flow and return to balance. This, of course, sets the stage for the inhibited flow of prana and the effects we have already discussed.
In yoga therapy, the focus is on learning to relax with forms of energy one would normally resist and recognizing that even the most intense, uncomfortable sensations lead back to stillness and calm – when allowed.
The following technique is based on the teachings of Yogi Amrit Desai, PhD (hon) and was further developed by Sandra Scherer in the form of The Wave Work. I have further refined it into what I call the Energetic Diffusion Technique or EDT. For the last twenty years this is how I have taught individuals to integrate unresolved issues and work more skillfully with their own emotions so that they do not contribute to ill-health. This same technique can be used with any area of the body in which there is pain, discomfort or a lack of connection.
Aware: (choose one technique below)
Chosen Situation: Bring to awareness the situation you want to work with. Feel it fully, make it very real for you as if you were in the middle of it right now. Where do you feel that in your body? Put your hand on it.
Body Awareness: Bring your awareness to the place where you feel pain, tension or where you feel there is a lack of connection.
Allow attention to float to this place that feels most restricted or dense
Use the breath to create space for the restriction, tension, or density; don’t resist what you are feeling
Give yourself this time to cultivate a relaxation right in the midst of the feelings
Make no effort to control or manipulate
Be soft, spacious, and at ease
Truly feel the restriction; explore that which you have been trying to avoid
Give the sensation you full permission to be
Feel the details and subtleties without trying to change any aspect of the experience
Meet the restriction with an attitude that says: “it’s okay you’re here, I’m willing to feel you.”
Stay present and be interested and curious about what you are feeling
If you feel yourself moving into avoidance, breathe and come back to an openness to what you are feeling
Notice what happens in your body as you remain present, relaxed, and connected
If the restriction moves follow it patiently and easefully; stay with process, repeating the other steps.
Allow the wisdom of your body to integrate the feelings as needed
Remove yourself from any tendency to control, resist, or encourage
Simply make space for the emotions and feelings; they just need to be acknowledged
Trust in the process
Now wherever you happen to be in the process, allow yourself to return to a place of resolution right now.Trust that whatever has moved and wherever you are is perfect for today.
Drop below the sensations into an empty, open, relaxed space. Allow yourself to be held in absolute stillness.
Let the energies of the body return to balance, harmony and integration.Energy freed to carry out healing at all levels. If there is any insight or knowing, simply allow that to surface. Otherwise rest deeply and trust that your prana, which knows what is best, is doing it for you.
Published in Light on Ayurveda Journal 2012
By Kamini Desai, Ph.D.