Yoga and Psyche: Eastern Yogic Practices meet a Western Psychological Framework

My recent work with Mariana Caplan and her Yoga and Psyche training lead me to explore yoga and emotional release in the body. We hold painful emotions, memories, and traumas in our bodies, and these effect our relationships, self identities and beliefs. This can lead to various levels of anxiety and depression. We took yoga asana practice and integrated a western psychological model called Somatic Experiencing to find ways to access emotional holding and free up the energy that is bound up in it. Mindful asana is a perfect platform from which to explore this somatic-emotional connection.

We learned:

~How to access inner resources: a sense of something that supports and nurtures us in physical, emotional and spiritual well being. We all have ways in which we are supported and this is held within our bodies for us to experience at any time. This can be a feeling of warmth, humour, guidance and ease within.

~How to get a felt sense of these resources to bring into our asana practice and ultimately into life. We feel into an inner resource in moments of silence to note the sensation and area where it is felt. How big is it? Does it spread? What temperature is it? These and many more questions were asked to really get to know this place of inner resource.

~Establishing a base of inner resource to move from. When difficult emotions, images, memories rose to the surface in our asana/meditation practice we moved into them slowly and gradually (in 10 percent increments) always moving back into the totality of our inner resource.

Mariana states: “Traditional Eastern yogic practice brought into Western culture does not address the complex and unique make-up of the Western psyche. This includes the challenges of childhood trauma, broken families, self-esteem, and the types of anxiety and depression that impact so many of us, no matter how strong our yoga practice is. The spiritual development that occurs through asana practice is distinct from, but profoundly complementary with, the integration that happens through psychological work.

The aim of yoga and psyche is to teach yoga students and teachers how to use yoga practice to work with the psychological content that is unique to the Western psyche, and to process trauma that resides in the body. Gentle asana work is used to open the body, and cutting edge techniques in somatic psychotherapy are then applied to work with the psychological material that arises. Our bodies and psyches then integrate more effectively and fully.”

More on Somatic Experiencing:
(SE) is an approach for working with and healing trauma. It was developed by Dr. Peter Levine, who holds a doctorate in both medical biophysics and psychology.


SE works with:
Animal instinct: fight, flee or freeze

Trauma as a frozen freeze response:

Trauma is created when a devastating moment is frozen in time. A surge of adrenalin and chemicals is released. If not discharged or let out, this experience can stay within us and lead to destructive beliefs and actions. It interferes with our natural ability to heal by somehow blocking or changing normal reactions to the event. Trauma symptoms are not caused by the event itself, but by our reaction to the event.

Since trauma is locked and blocked at a body level, we need to free it at a body level. Somatic Experiencing helps people access information not only at a cognitive level, but also at sensation, behavioural, imaginal and emotional levels.

In freezing, there is a surge of chemicals in the body that slows the respiratory system, the heartbeat and all other functions. The system is basically ‘shut down,’ and we are immobilized.

The key with the freeze response is what happens afterward. Animals naturally know how to discharge the chemicals and energy that has built up by shaking and trembling to release them.

Humans, too, have this animalistic function and the fight, flee and freeze responses. But we also have a rational brain that moderates whether we follow our instinct or block it it. It is the blocking that leads to trauma symptoms.

The process of SE involves a guided exploration of the nature of sensations (or numbness) and extent of the physical experience that is harbored in the body as a result of trauma.

Techniques include “titration” of the client’s experience. That is the client is only exposed to small amounts of their distress at a time, until they develop tolerance and the capacity to handle more.
Another idea is that the client’s experience should be “pendulated”. ‘Pendulation’ refers to the movement between regulation and dysregulation. The client is helped to move to a state where he or she is believed to be somewhat dysregulated (i.e is aroused or frozen) and then helped to return to a state of regulation (loosely defined as not aroused or frozen).

“Resources” are defined phenomenologically as anything that helps the client’s autonomic nervous system return to a regulated state. In the face of arousal, “discharge” is facilitated to allow the client’s body to return to a regulated state. Through this process the client’s inherent capacity to self-regulate is believed to be restored.

By building tools of awareness, we can go into the trauma slowly and gradually to allow our bodies to discharge and release the frozen emotions held in the body. This often leads to a more free sense of being in the world, letting go of destructive behavioural patterns and beliefs.

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