Yoga vs. Psychology or Yoga as a Psychology?

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Today I passed my National Counselors Exam, the last step I needed to become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. That process took a good part of a year after receiving hundreds of hours of supervision. This test required me to know all the major psychology theories from psychologists like Freud, Perls, Rogers, Skinner, and Ellis. It required me to know statistics and testing design. It also required me to know about group counseling dynamics, career and lifespan developmental theory. There was a nice dosage of ethics questions in there too.

Just about six months ago, I passed my Introductory II certification for Iyengar yoga. Because I was dumb enough to work on both certifications simultaneously, it made me reflect many times on which one is more difficult. Both certifications require one to be current in their field and adapt to constantly evolving changes. Both certifications require a code of ethics that require one to give beyond what is asked of them.

To reframe the question of which one is harder, what would happen if I just stopped studying for my psychology test? I would probably still be a good mental health counselor and may require an occasional refresher course to get my CE credits. What would happen if I stopped doing or teaching yoga? I would get jettisoned back to square one in no time fast! So yoga is, gulp, much harder than Psychology.

About 10 years ago, I was accepted into a Psy.D. program. After careful evaluation, I opted out of the program as I had my Masters in Psychology and could focus more on my ultimate goal of using yoga as an adjunct therapy for anxiety and depression instead of spending another 5 years in school. Ten years later, I have conducted many groups with clients using yoga as a means to decrease anxiety. In one Psycho-Social-Rehabilitation (PSR) group with clients who had severe mental illness to the point where they were hearing voices, doing standing poses greatly relieved their symptoms.

In graduate school, I wrote many papers on yoga as an legitimate theoretical orientation (like psychoanalysis or behaviorism). The more I practice, the more I believe that yoga transcends many of the contemporary psychologies. The path of yoga directs the practitioner upwards toward self actualization (much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model). Many contemporary psychologies focus on client pathology. Freud pretty much reduced humans to a spring loaded sexual impulse just ready to pounce on whatever got in the ego’s way. He has many great points, but yoga seems to easily trump them with practice and detachment. I anticipate much rebuttal from practicing psychologists who will have valid points refuting my claim. Before they pounce, I just ask them to practice yoga daily 2 hours daily for one month.

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19 thoughts on “Yoga vs. Psychology or Yoga as a Psychology?

  1. cody

    Interesting… In the case of the clients who had severe mental illness, did any of them mention specific aspects of the yoga practice that helped reduce their symptoms? and as a follow up question, what do you think makes yoga such an effective treatment for mental illness a.k.a. why does it work?

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  2. yogibattle Post author

    Thanks for your questions.

    Many group participants reported that giving them specific instructions on how to move their bodies was helpful in getting them “out of their head.” Many had very poor health and required lots of props just to do Utthita Trikonasana. But because the standing asanas were so challenging they had the euphoric effects that one would have after doing a fairly strenuous workout.

    For anxiety, forward bends greatly relieve symptoms because it tones down the parasympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response. For depression, backbends stimulate the nervous system and release endorphins. For those with auditory hallucinations, we found that Bhramari pranayama with Sanmuki mudra was effective because the intense buzzing sound counteracted the voices they were hearing. Since they were making the sound it was real and not imagined. Their reality is to hear constant sounds and whispers that are difficult to tell are real or not.

    Best of wishes to your new yoga studio in Kahalu’u. That side needs more yoga options.

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  3. michelle

    Congratulations on passing the test! I agree with you about the therapeutic qualities of yoga. I have experienced them myself. I’m happy there are people out there, like you, writing about it and talking about it!

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  4. ashlisamarieyoga

    I love this post! Good for you for delving wholeheartedly into yoga therapy and truly using this to help people. Detachment is key to self growth because it requires responsibility. Anxiety is symptomatic of “lack of control” which yoga helps us remember is a fear of being separate from each other and divinity. Your work is inspiring!

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  5. djahariahmitra

    Just tell them yoga is a science – because it is. A very effective science giving an actual map to balancing all aspects of the human body, mind, and spirit. What’s there to rebut?

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      Excellent point! Currently there are scores of studies being done on the effects of yoga in treating different health concerns. In the next decade we will see yoga being on par with acupuncture as an alternative medicine in the West. The confounding variable in all this research will be how precisely the treatment will be in administration. For example, if someone has insomnia and uses “yoga” as a therapy, the outcome will be very different if they do backbends vs. forward bends vs. pranayama. Iyengar and his RIMYI staff have developed very specific sequences and timings for different ailments in the medical classes there. The real challenge now is convincing the medical community in the West about the efficacy of these treatments. That is why the tone of my blog post is so conciliatory toward practicing psychologists.

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  6. Helen O'Shea ~ WAP

    I love this post, I’m so very interested in what you are doing. Yoga led me away from many troubles in my life at a time when I was depressed and taking drugs it completely led me back to myself and continues to do so every day!

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  7. Mapula

    Thanks for liking my post about yoga as an analogy for life learning. I wholeheartedly agree with points discussed in your post and wish you success with your teachings. You have chosen an excellent mix of skills. Yoga is an all encompassing practice of understanding, much like psychology – their learnings overlap and we have much to learn from both. All the best 🙂

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  8. eatplayyogatravel

    Thank you for this post! I totally agree with the points you discussed. Last year, I had several yoga sessions with victim/survivors of sex trafficking/prostitution and feedback of the women was overwhelming. Some say that for the very first time they learned to appreciate taking care of their body that’s been abused for a very long time. Many reflected on the breath, how it helped them focus and be at the moment. One even said that her favorite pose is samasthiti because she never really stood up straight whole her life. Sadly, I have to hold this activity for a while because I have to do my training. I dream of continuing this and make it part of the healing program of the organization I am working with. I would be very interested on your researches/papers if it is possible for you to share it. Thanks again!

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      Thank you for your response. It is very interesting that your client felt relief in tadasana. Iyengar often says that pathology comes from not being pranically aligned, and there is no better alignment than in Samasthiti. Today I had a client who reported 10/10 anxiety with 10 being the worst. He had not slept well all week and said he felt paranoid. He was calling me every 5 minutes. I took him to the park and “blasted” him with standing poses, then did a series of standing forward bends. He was exhausted afterwards and reported 2/10 anxiety and said his paranoia disappeared. My phone hasn’t rang since…

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      1. eatplayyogatravel

        That’s great! I do admire your work. Hopefully, I can do more of this with the women too. Please write more of this in your blog so many of us can learn from your experience. Namaste 🙂

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  9. beastjones

    Learning the psychology of the human mind is important, but the study of psychology in school is limited in its accepted practices. I commend you on your discovery -BEAST

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  10. neonplasticlotus

    I must disagree.

    Maslow was the WORST thing to happen to psychology.
    His concept of self actualized beings hinged on “peak experiences” to reach “enlightenment”.

    In other words, according to Maslow, an orgasm, a drug high, sky diving, equaled enlightenment.

    And he was WRONG.

    Freud, on the other hand, though his concepts actually came from a French psychologist who’s name I cannot remember, he was very astute in realizing humanity’s base nature.

    You recently made a post about rock star yogis.

    Think about THAT in relationship to Maslow, yoga, Freud, and Freud’s concept of Id, ego, and super ego.

    Yoga has become a bastion of Id dominated personalities, as has most of humanity, therefore current events actually validate Freud as being correct, not Maslow (though the hierarchy of needs created by Maslow, which is taught to corporations, and a corporation, by definition, is a sociopathic entity, is the fuel that feeds a sociopath, and should NEVER be taught to anyone with a cluster B personality disorder – now part of the personality disorder spectrum, in the DSM-V)

    I must admit I question any mental health professional that dismisses Freud and relies upon Maslow.

    Essentially, if I learned that, I would tell that person to walk the other way, and look for a new counselor.

    Besides that, I would disagree with yoga as psychology.

    I have seen enough both spirituality bypassing and therapy bypassing through yoga, which has essentially made yoga the current home of behavioral disorders and personality disorders.

    That is my personal observation.

    Besides that, I commend you in your Iyengar certification.
    It is the only form of asana practice I respect, as it’s not fast tracked, taking upwards of 8 years before being allowed to lead a class.

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  11. yogibattle Post author

    Finally, a dissenting opinion! You have an interesting interpretation on Maslow and corporations. I’m still sticking to my views that I appreciate that Maslow presents a different model that focuses on self actualization vs. self pathology. I do agree with your points about the strong Id force being present in the modern yoga practitioner. It is a mountain I must overcome when teaching younger practitioners who are naturally flexible and get bored easily at my instructions because they “know already.” I didn’t say I disagree with Freud, I just don’t subscribe to his pessimistic outlook on human nature.

    Axis II (sociopath is an outdated term) clients are difficult yoga students. They are often court mandated for treatment and are doing it just because they want to avoid punishment (pre conventional on Kohlberg’s Moral scale). My interests in using yoga is not to harbor personality disorders, I just want to treat the Axis I symptoms i.e. decreasing anxiety and depressive symptoms.

    As for my clients, I hear it every day how much they don’t like my viewpoints about how they can improve themselves. But in the end, they keep coming back.

    Thank you for your comments.

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  12. Pingback: Yoga blog trends I would like to see in 2015 – part 2 | Home Yoga Practice

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