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Yoga & Therapy: The Same or Different

It is probably safe to say that yoga is not just a trend. The practice of yoga has certainly grown to be a lifestyle for many people. People are flocking to their neighborhood yoga studios, recreation centers, and gyms to attend their favorite yoga classes. Yoga students of all ages, ethnicities, and body types are experiencing the physical benefits of yoga: greater flexibility and mobility, improved strength, and better balance. Men and women are also finding that yoga is helping with their stressful lifestyles. Yoga is proving to be beneficial to those that suffer from anxiety and other emotional stressors like depression and anger. Yoga is improving peoples' health on many levels: physically and mentally. As a result people are finding that yoga is improving their overall well-being.

So, if the simple practice of yoga is helping with mental health for some people, how does it compare to some of the more traditional ways to treat conditions like anxiety and depression? Can yoga take the place of psychotherapy and case management? Let's take a look at some of the main components of yoga and therapy to see how they differ and compare.

When you attend a class, whether it is a mindfulness meditation class or a power vinyasa yoga class, breath is the foundation of both styles. Yoga instructors remind their students to focus on their breathing while they practice. It is considered essential when the intended goal is to be more present and aware of themselves. There is a particular practice, called Pranayama, which is a set of breathing exercises to assist the student with mindfulness connection. The breath work also features healing aspects that can be very beneficial to people who practice yoga or meditation. These breathing techniques have a direct effect on the circulatory system. They can have a positive impact on blood pressure and heart rate. A person trying to manage stress and anxiety symptoms can use Pranayama or other simple breathing exercises to actually lower their blood pressure to reduce the debilitating effects of stress: hypertension and other chronic heart disease.

Because the breath can influence circulation, the result of having good blood flow also helps the body move more efficiently. That's why one becomes more flexible and strong with yoga. As blood circulates to all the limbs of the body while you engage in a physical practice, it allows you to experience those desired physical results.

Further, the combination of breath and putting the body into various postures keeps the yogis's attention on themselves. It's a great practice to be more self aware. The yoga path often starts on a physical level, but over time, that awareness shifts and deepens to an awareness of more subtle aspects of the whole body. When the yogi establishes a consistent practice, he/she gains a greater sense of mindfulness; there is a deeper connection and awareness of the physical body and the subtle mind.

Although an instructor may lead a class, yoga has an aspect that involves an element of "self-discovery." Rather than the yoga instructor treating a presented condition, as in a clinical situation, the yogi discovers more about him/herself by the very nature of the practice; they tap into their own beings: their personality, mindset, or belief system. As a result, the yoga student experiences natural changes in these areas. This is one reason why some people believe yoga to be a very therapeutic experience.

As we shift our attention to traditional therapy, the professional works with clients directly to unveil aspects of their personality, thinking, and behavior so that they can make conscious shifts to possibly change them. Often, these tactics are done through traditional talk therapy. In some modalities of therapy, the clinician is known to take the lead in providing new ways of thinking and behaving. In this standard, clinicians assess, diagnose, and treat the condition of which the client presents.

In one-on-one situations, a therapist can further enlighten the client by reflecting back on how he/she sees the world, how they react to it, and how they behave in it. When these ideas are laid out on the table, so to speak, the clinician can help the client make sense of the picture and make changes if that is the intended goal. The clinician may offer suggestions on new ways to think or behave. In a sense, the therapist is guiding the client toward a greater awareness of themselves. When they have these revelations and insights, the client can go back out into the world to practice what they've learned in the therapist's office. For many, this style of treatment is very effective. A person, with the neutral help from a therapist, can make progress when they are given direction on how to make internal shifts and changes.

When you look at these two modes of taking care of yourself, going to yoga classes and seeing a therapist, the outcome can be very much the same. They both, with dedication and the desire to change, can result in a healthier we-being. Both can take time; patience is key to both styles of self-development and growth. The differences arise when you examine the specifics on how you reach your personal goal. With yoga, it is self-guided. Since there is a non-verbal dialogue between the student and teacher, the yoga practitioner is left to interpret the practice in any way they see fit in the present moment. The instruction from the yoga teacher is general and vague - mostly focusing on the movement of the body - the student can use the movements, the instruction, and the breath for their own desired needs.

In classic therapy sessions, there is a dialogue between the patient and therapist. The clinician can offer advice, suggestions, and directions to the client that will lead in the appropriate direction. In turn, the client can ask questions, get clarification, and gain specific information from the therapy session. This can help the person be more clear as to how and what they should do to manage their anxiety or depression, for example. In both cases, though, it is up to the student/client to practice what they have learned off the mat and outside the therapy office. Whether it is learning how to mindfully meditate with cleansing breaths in a yoga class or gaining insight from your therapist on how to manage your turmoiled situation, it is up to you to use these teachings to gain sustained and managed mental health.

Is one better than the other? That is a difficult question to answer. Although they have similar intentions, the modalities or the road taken toward these goals may be different. In a perfect world, the two actually compliment each other. One can have the assistance and guidance from a mental health clinician AND use the yoga practice to embody what they have learned and gain a sense of ownership of their personal change and growth over time. In many ways, you can align therapy work and the yoga practice side by side. There are many similarities to the intention of each: a greater awareness of your whole being.

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