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. 

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