Aug 06 2014

Where yoga meets the psyche

By Joel Isaacs, PHD

Have you ever had the experience that certain asanas never seem to get easier, or that certain muscles don’t seem to respond the way most of your others do? Have you wondered why? Many years ago when I first discovered yoga I began to work with my hamstrings, which were tight. After a while I noticed that in the middle of an uncomfortable stretch I would often remember something important that I had to do. This happened so regularly that I began to interrupt the stretch to write it down, before I “forgot” again. Only later did I learn that my tight hamstrings directly related to my holding back of my power, my opinions, and my sense of direction in life.

Interestingly, the somatic psychotherapy my colleagues and I now practice, called Bodynamics, deals every day with the particular psychological content held in each muscle. So we have a perspective important for the yoga community, while not at all being experts in the field of yoga. We know (as does every yoga teacher) that a yoga practice will stimulate conscious and unconscious responses in every individual. Our body’s responses to the stretching and stressing of yoga, whether sensations, emotions, moods, or even images, are the first sign that something or importance is going on for us. This is the place where yoga meets the psyche, where mind and body can begin to integrate.

Let me give a concrete example of what I am talking about, and afterwards go on to how you can use this knowledge for your own growth and well-being. All of us have experienced and most of us have seen a young child learning to accept food from a spoon, usually wielded by a parent. When the child doesn’t like or no longer wants what she is getting, she will push the spoon away. This pushing away, the action of the triceps muscle in the back of the upper arm, is the pre-verbal child’s way of saying “No”, of setting a limit. If the child’s limit is consistently respected, she will develop the ability to sense and express her limits, to say “No” (And thus to be able to say a clear Yes.) This kind of ability at the physical and psychological level is what we call a resource. When a child develops this resource it is likely that she, as an adult, will be able to say “No” appropriately and set limits. If, on the other hand, the parent continually forces the child to eat (“for her own good”), the child may not develop her ability to sense her limits and say “No”. Or, if the frustration is less severe, she may hold back her “No”, or rigidly take on a resistant attitude and reflexively say “No”. These patterns learned at an early age will generally be taken into adult life and will have a strong effect on her relationships, especially intimate ones. Often, simply training the resource of setting limits can bring much greater ease to relationships.

In a similar way to this example of the triceps and setting limits, every muscle has its own associated psychological function. Each one retains an imprint of the response to its related behavior. So our history is stored in our body and in our brain, and it can be accessed through the body. (In fact, the attitudes stored in the muscles can be measured manually by palpation, and a map made from which our history can be “read”.) In our daily life the historical responses may be stimulated when the muscle is either stretched or stressed (used strongly). In Bodynamics, we talk about a muscle’s responsiveness, which is related to its elasticity. If the psychological function expressed by the muscle has been given up early or was not learned, the muscle will be under-responsive. A person will usually have a lack of liveliness and sensory awareness in this area. Psychologically there may be a sense in related situations of something missing, of not knowing how to do something. In this case, when we stress the muscle by using it strongly, the psychological history is likely to be stimulated.

On the other hand, if the disruption occurred later in the developmental period when that muscle was being imprinted, it will be over-responsive. A person will usually sense some energy in these muscles, and psychologically they may have a sense that in related situations they lack flexibility, hold back, or feel compelled to respond in a rigid way. For an over-responsive muscle, the history will be stimulated when it is stretched. Conversely, stressing an over-responsive muscle (or stretching an under-responsive one) will tend to suppress the psychological content.

For better or worse, the psychological attitudes contained in the muscles will not generally be changed simply by stretching, or toning, or strengthening them. You must first work-through the particular psychological issue and make some changes in your behavior. Working through a psychological issue frees the associated muscle from having to “hold” psychological history. This leads to more freedom of movement and more psychological flexibility. Then, the muscles responsiveness will change towards neutral, and a corresponding body and psychological resource can be developed. When a resource is established in our body we tend to act spontaneously in our best interest, rather than having to think through each situation. At a secondary level, other nearby muscles that had been recruited to compensate also become freer, and those abilities are somewhat more accessible.

The abilities or resources we call Grounding, Centering, Boundaries, and Limits, are generally most promising for work on one’s own. Grounding in one sense refers to our ability to contact the ground and draw support and stability from it, so it includes a lot of muscles in the feet and calves. But it also relates to being in touch with the reality of a situation. Centering relates to contact with yourself, with knowing your personal truth. It is modulated by specific muscles in the trunk and buttocks. Boundaries refer to sensing clearly which impulses and feelings originate inside yourself, and knowing which come from reacting to something outside. Your sense of your boundaries is regulated by muscles in your upper thighs and shoulders. And setting limits, as discussed above, relates to the triceps muscle and pushing away.

Most asanas will stimulate more than one set of muscles, stretching some and stressing others. For example, one pose that stresses the triceps is the “downward facing dog”. Additionally, this asana will simultaneously stretch the muscles in the back of the calf (gastrocs and soleus) and several muscles on the bottom of the foot. These latter muscles are involved in our sense of grounding. Our attention to our sensations, mood, and emotions will, over time, tell us which we are reacting to.

Now, how can this important information be used by the yoga practitioner or yoga teacher? Perhaps most simple is to notice if there are certain asanas you enjoy doing and others that you consistently dislike. Are there moods or emotions that are usually evoked? Do you get distracted when you stretch some muscles, or feel fatigue and give up easily when you stress others? If you do one of these asanas moderately and hold it for a while, what kinds of sensations, thoughts, feelings or images come up for you? What insights come up for you? Are any of these familiar from other situations in your life? At times it is important to put words to these experiences, and at other times it is important just to stay with the sensations. All of these experiences are indications that some unresolved part of your history is currently available to be worked with and moved through.

Most of the difficulties that are stored in the body relate to disruptions in our early relationships. Often these difficulties become more visible or active when we form close relationships as adults, or when we have children. We can also infer that they are active whenever we see repeated or limiting patterns in our relationships. Such patterns are often most amenable to change inside of a therapeutic relationship. Additionally, any strong physiological reactions to an asana may indicate that some traumatic experience is being stimulated. These also are best explored in a safe, contained environment.

While I have tried to cover a lot of ground here, much of this is straightforward and intuitive. The basics can be learned in a one-day experiential workshop or in a few private sessions.

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