Yoga Therapy learnings

It was November 2021. I had just given notice for my role as CEO, though this decision was still mostly unknown to the people around me. I had made the decision to move on from my current life, with nothing but the conviction that it “felt right” to let go. At this point, I didn’t even know what I was going to do instead. Part of me wanted to deepen my practice and teaching of yoga and part of me wanted to take a completely new path to train as a psychotherapist. The combination of yoga and therapy had transformed my life. I had a secret dream that one day, I might be able to bring the two together to create a totally new kind of healing experience. As I scoured the internet for training courses in yoga and therapy, I soon discovered I was not the first person to have this idea!  

A sponsored link came up for a “Yoga Therapy Diploma” with the Minded Institute. I was immediately intrigued. Someone had already brought together yoga and therapy and there were training courses to learn how to do it. Over recent years, I have deepened my capacity to make decisions based on a “knowing” that they are right, rather than my previous approach, which had been to overthink everything to death! On the day I discovered Yoga Therapy, I signed up for an Intro Session and expressed my interest in joining the course. Within 10 days of discovering the existence of Yoga Therapy, I had signed up for the 2-year Yoga Therapy Diploma starting the following spring.

As I write these words, it’s now November 2023. Next month I sit my exams and practical assessments and complete the formal taught elements of the course. I will then dive deeply into my research topic and complete Case Studies of Yoga Therapy. It is not an overstatement to say that engaging in this training course has transformed my life. It has fundamentally changed my relationship with my body, my understanding of my mind and shifted how I show up in relationships. I have learned things about the human mind, body, and spirit that I feel should be essential learning for everyone who is on this planet in human form. People write books about the rich array of learnings in yoga therapy, but I wanted to briefly share the things that have made the biggest difference in my life.

The first thing is that our bodies are amazing! Learning about the various systems of the human bodies, their intricacies, and the way they work (and sometimes struggle to work) has been a revelation to me. This has changed my experience of being in my body profoundly. It has shifted my interest in my body from how it looks to how it feels on the inside. A shift from thinking about how to change it, to becoming really interested in how to honour it. Learning what feels good in the present moment and what will serve me in the longer term. It’s changed how I eat, when I sleep, what kinds of movement and exercise I do and how I speak to myself about my body. I realised recently that it has also changed my experience of being unwell. Last month when I had Covid, I was so grateful to my body for the way it was clearing out the infection, rather than feeling frustrated about its lack of energy and strength.

Another thing that I learned was that I had developed a very dysfunctional breathing pattern. I breathed mainly though my mouth, quite shallowly and sometimes in the reverse way to functional breathing (sucking my belly in on the inhale and releasing it on the exhale). I found it so difficult to extend my exhale or lengthen my breath and I realised why I had always hated yogic breathing! It was so opposite to the way I habitually breathed, and I’d never been guided through how to do it skillfully. Learning the benefits of functional breathing and crucially, how to actually do it, have been a game changer. I feel calmer, more connected to my inner strength and more able to exercise and exert effort without becoming breathless. I also speak more slowly and with more pauses for breath than I used to! I enjoy breathing now it feels more smooth and less choppy and forced and can even use it to help get to sleep when my mind is busy.

Which leads me onto the next big change – my mind! I have been fascinated by the mind since my breakdown in 2013. At first, I wanted to know how to “recover” from a mental health crisis, where it felt like my mind was acting like a wrecking ball through my life. In recovery, I recognised that I didn’t want to go back to the patterns of thinking that had made me so susceptible to having a breakdown in the first place. I wanted to know how to make my mind an asset, rather than a liability. Yoga Therapy has taught me so much about the human mind in general, and about my mind specifically. One of the biggest shifts has been that I bring so much more compassion to its idiosyncrasies than I used to. I have replaced the judging and critical voice with one that is curious, compassionate and much calmer (most of the time!). I understand my patterns and know how to work with them to shift my state. I forgive myself faster when I mess up. And sometimes even catch myself before I do. I think I’m a kinder and lighter person to be around for other people. But the biggest difference is that I’m a kinder and lighter person to be around for myself.

The final thing that has continued to change for me as I’ve developed my understanding of Yoga Therapy has been a deepening of my spiritual life and a growing confidence to trust the “still small voice within.” Studying a combination of psychology, physiology, neuroscience, and philosophy has challenged my cognitive mind more than anything I have done before. I think I’ve learned more knowledge during the last 2 years than at any other time in my life. And yet, I believe with absolute conviction that the cognitive mind is not the thing that I want to guide me through this lifetime. The cognitive mind is amazing and can be trained and honed to become a fabulous helper, but for me, the real change has come from learning to tap into the inherent wisdom that is underneath the constant mind chatter. The way I describe it is to say that I don’t give my mind things above its paygrade. Since I made this change, it feels like I have stepped into the flow of life, making choices that feel intuitively right, even when my logical mind would have made a different decision. There has been immense freedom in this way of living, and I actually think it has freed my cognitive mind to be sharper and clearer in the work that is its job to do!

What I have described above is changes I have observed in what are described in yoga as “layers of being” or Koshas. The first is the physical layer, called Annamaya Kosha. The second is the energetic layer associated with our breath; Pranamaya Kosha. The third and fourth are the cognitive and intuitive layers, the Manomaya and Vijnanamaya Koshas respectively. The fifth and final layer, Anandamaya Kosha, is the “bliss layer,” something that is always there and that can become a much more present part of daily life as we cultivate greater tranquillity and peace in the 4 outer layers. I learned about the Koshas as part of my Yoga Therapy training and their role as the foundation of Yoga Therapy. They are the lens through which Yoga Therapists assess clients and plan treatments. They represent a totally holistic and integrated way of working with a whole person and inform what practices may be able to help the most. I have loved learning about the Koshas, but the real joy of Yoga Therapy has been witnessing the changes and shifts on each layer of my own being. I truly believe that Yoga Therapy is one of the most effective ways of working with a whole human and that if we want to heal (i.e., become whole), finding ways to support and empower every layer of our beings is absolutely essential.