Embodied Social Change

The Science of Yoga and Social Change; Is Yoga linked to Social Change: the science says yes!

Can we use the teachings of yoga to improve our culture, our society, the way we interact with each other and our planet?

If we embody the essence of our practice does this embodiment support social change? ie. can practicing yoga support the climate change movement? Science suggests that it can, and provides us with an explanation about how the world could be a better place if we all just took the time to engage in yoga practices.

Social change is that way that human interactions and relationships transform cultural and social institutions over time. Neuroscience tells us that mirror neurons are important in imitation and learning and understanding intentions behind human interaction.

Mirror neurons are neurons in our human brains that fire/activate not only when we are engaging in an action but also when we are watching another engage in an action. For me this happens when I watch movement, in particular dance, my body reacts and engages to what I am observing. Subtly, I almost feel like I need to move alongside the dancers, sometimes I even notice my leg or foot twitch and inch or so.Similarly, mirror neurons play a role in emotional processing. For example, when I am sitting with someone that is sad and down I also experience this emotion.

Why? Because when I see someone that looks sad, neural pathways in my brain are activated to provide me with me information about this observation. I too then feel this emotion and understand that the other person is sad. This is where empathy comes from.

This process can provide us with understanding about how yoga practices can support us to encourage social change.

When using yoga practices to unite, breath, mind and body we are essentially connecting with self and others. This results in increased awareness and the development of higher consciousness which sits in a place of empathy, compassion, love, and the deep-felt truth that we are all interconnected. This, in turn, may be experienced by others through the process of mirror neurons.

If we embody our practice in all areas of our life surely this flows on to help others, causing a ripple effect.

Like a ripple in a pond throwing in one small stone grows and grows. If we impact one other person and they improve their ability to connect, be with self, be with others in a place of compassion then this ripple can continue further.

All it takes is for us to slow down, use the bodily senses that we were given to anchor this experience, which allows us to bridge the divide between each other.

Science tells us that this process provides a neurochemical change in our brains which in turn is mirrored by the persons’ brain that we are with. This powerful exchange of energies has been known about by yogis for years and now western science is simply catching up.

Therefore regular yoga practice helps us to mindfully engage with the world, experience a higher awareness and consciousness that can be passed on to others through our senses. Our sensory experiences of touch, sight, sound, smell, are an anchor to embody and enact conscious, mindful connected presence.

How to Embody Social Change:

When using our ears we can encourage ourselves to stop and engage in ‘deep listening’, slowing down our automatic thoughts that go along with taking in information and purely allow ourselves to hear and feel what the other is saying.
We can we use our eyes to look at situations with kindness. Using a gaze that sees the best in every situation and beauty in all forms and sizes.
We can use our touch to connect and sit with others. Slowing down and physically ensuring that we are present when with people in our lives. Connecting our hands to each other and holding each other for (and if only) a moment. The connection this provides lasts for much longer as we can return to this memory when we need some comfort.
Using our eyes we can look at each other and truly witness each other’s experiences. When we do this the message that we send the other person is that they are ‘seen’ and that essentially they are whole ‘just as they are’.
Ultimately the power of these simple practices may improve the quality of the broader communities we live in, enhance social connectedness and quite possibly create social change.

Therefore next time you are on your yoga mat remember that you are there not only to improve your connection with self, improve your health, but to engage and connect with your larger community and perhaps with all humankind.

The benefits of breath centered yoga: calm, steady, transform

Why are yoga and meditation people always on about breathing?

“We already breathe” I hear people say, so why all the fuss?

Firstly, the breath is a wonderful tool for minding our mind; and secondly, a breath-based yoga practice positively impacts our psychophysiology (the relationship between our mind and body), and supports our optimal health.

The Breath and Mindfulness

The first impact of a breath-centered yoga practice is that it brings us to the present moment. The breath is a vital life function that is with us day and night. It changes subtly from minute to minute and naturally captures the attention of the mind.

Breathing in and out, with your attention on your breath and movement… all the chatter in the mind begins to disappear. The worries of the day fade away and you begin to feel stable and calm in both body and mind. Over time you naturally bring more mindfulness into your daily life, and feel steadier in yourself. You begin to meet the world each day with more clarity and compassion, both for yourself and with those around you.

Of course we are not Buddha and we can’t stay in this state 24/7. But over time, you’ll notice that when you’re feeling particularly agitated you will start to ‘mind your mind’. You’ll begin to pause, take a few breaths and an appropriate length of time before you act (or not act as the case may be!).
(We’ll discuss more of the tools of yoga, and the surprisingly relevant age-old yoga psychology that supports this path to mental and emotional clarity in future posts).

The Breath and Optimal Health

Yoga is rooted in tradition and science. The practice supports optimal health, including mental steadiness.

It is ultimately about self care.

Through yoga therapy training I’ve learnt that:

  • Retraining the body and mind through a breath based yoga practice is fundamental, as the physiology of breathing affects the nervous system and all the other systems in the body.
  • Both agitation and calmness of the mind are reflected in the breath. Connecting to the sensation of the breath and modulating it through the yoga practice calms the mind. An appropriate breath-centered practice is a wonderful tool when feeling a little stressed, anxious or unsteady.
  • And, interestingly the physiology of our spine affects our thinking. The nervous system in fact starts at the tips of our fingers and goes through our spine to our brain. Consequently, doing an asana (in Sanskrit ‘asana’ refers to postures) practice before meditation, means that we come to the seated practices with a less disrupted mind. (Dr. Ganesh Mohan, Svastha Yoga and Ayurveda)

A breath based yoga practice is integral, as the breath is the foundational link between body and mind.

It takes a while for our conditioned Western minds to stop the habitual round and round thinking that goes on in our heads of past and future scenarios, but that’s what yoga is all about.… bringing us to the present moment, and out of the habitual flux of thoughts, towards a healthier and more balanced life.

Optimal Mental Health and the Importance of the Body

Reflections on the International Cognitive Analytical Therapy (ICATA) conference 

Yoga for Mental Health has just returned from presenting our work in Ferrara, Italy. Psychotherapist Jen O’Brien had the pleasure of sharing our integrated approach at the International Cognitive Analytical Therapy (ICATA) conference to yoga and psychotherapy practitioners from all over Europe.

The presentation entitled “Relational awareness through somatic experiencing” was a collaboration with Caroline Dower – a movement therapist from the UK who we recently met in Melbourne. Caroline uses somatic movement approaches with young people at Durham University with the aim of developing increased awareness of their bodies and stress. 

Our joint presentation introduced the approaches and then started a dialogue with other psychotherapists that are engaged in this space. After the talk an experiential yoga session was led by Roni Miteff to demonstrate the integration (as our Christina Browning was holding the fort back home).

Reflections from the conference were encouraging. There is an increased recognition from practitioners that they need to integrate somatic approaches with cognitive talking therapy. 

Why? The field of psychology and psychotherapy has been heavily based on ‘talk therapy’. It focuses primarily on using a ‘top down’ approach to understanding ourselves by analysing our thoughts and feelings. Practitioners have become highly skilled at applying these interventions, but in doing so many recognise that they have forgotten their bodies. 

By focusing on ‘top down’ approaches we are at risk of reducing our human experiences to thoughts, feelings and words. We forget the significance of our bodies, senses and physical experiences. Psychotherapy and psychology are now recognising the fundamental importance of the mind-body connection in shifting underlying unhelpful patterns, and there is a growing interest in integrating somatic approaches. 

This means using breath and movement as a way to develop increased awareness of our experiences, bodies and patterns. These can be called ‘bottom up’ processes as they harness the power of regulating breath through diaphragmatic breathing practices that engage our parasympathetic nervous system, increasing our ability to respond positively to stress.

Movement practices also provide opportunities to regulate our physiological systems. 

The Yoga for Mental Health program provides a workbook to participants. It includes theory and information about yoga practices and how they can improve mental health, and integrates this with the language and learnings from psychotherapy. 

The workbook is an example of how practitioners can give clients additional information as they go through therapy, supporting them to integrate both top-down and bottom-up approaches. 

We were overwhelmed by the positive response from our international cohorts. Italian, Swedish, English, Indian and Irish colleagues all made contact at the conference and were interested in running similar programs in their mental health services. 

We are heartened by this new space that therapists are moving towards. Engage in both approaches will surely improve therapy outcomes for all. 

Some key pieces of literature to further support your understanding in this area are in the references below.

Sullivan, M. B., Erb, M., Schmalzl, L., Moonaz, S., Noggle Taylor, J., & Porges, S. W. (2018). Yoga therapy and polyvagal theory: the convergence of traditional wisdom and contemporary neuroscience for self-regulation and resilience. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 67.

Forfylow, A. L. (2011). Integrating yoga with psychotherapy: A complementary treatment for anxiety and depression. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy/Revue canadienne de counseling et de psychothérapie, 45(2) 

Weintraub, A. (2012). Yoga skills for therapists: Effective practices for mood management. WW Norton & Company. 

Yoga for mental health self care

Yoga and Self Care

Yoga is essentially self care.

Practising regularly brings steadiness, clarity and insight.

Across the world people are taking up yoga in various forms. Mostly in group classes. The way yoga is promoted is often perplexing. It is commonly promoted as a way to become super fit, or as an esoteric exercise.

However, yoga was traditionally taught one on one. The original meaning and purpose of yoga is to achieve optimal wellbeing, using a personalised tool kit of self care practices.

Therapeutic Yoga

Therapeutic yoga addresses issues that people face mentally, emotionally and physically. Interestingly, modern-day science confirms that regular yoga practice has tangible physical benefits, including the improvement of nervous system functioning and strength.

When clients seek out a therapeutic yoga teacher they are coming to get relief from a symptom or health condition that is troubling them. Therapeutic yoga teachers focus on the specific needs and concerns of the individual client. The format of the class is either one on one, or a small group, to ensure the needs of each individual are met. Take home self care practices and tools are regularly shared by the teacher.

Therapeutic yoga can also complement the work of clinicians and psychologists; extending on what is done in psychological sessions by supporting clients to put planned interventions into place. Clinicians and psychologists work alongside the yoga therapist to support the clients’ mental health self care needs.

Reference: The Distinction Between a Yoga Class and a Yoga Therapy Session, Yoga International.>