The Yoga Marathon Experiment
Monday August 20, 2012
Every scientist practitioner designs experiments. This is Dr. Sogge’s Yoga Marathon Experiment from the Summer of 2012.
The Body in Psychotherapy: The Problem
The Body comes up all the time in the clinical practice of psychology. Clients come in the door with painful presenting issues of eating disorders, anxiety, body dysmorphia, physical tension, trauma, health problems, and alienation from the body. In psychotherapy, The Body is an active participant: often there are psychotherapy process issues of clients’ bodies saying one thing to the therapist, while their words say another. Sometimes clients tell me they have very intense physical reactions before and after a psychotherapy session with me and they have a difficult time articulating why. Sometimes we have to actually physically practice new actions in seasion, to teach the body that something the mind is having a fear response to is actually safe. With good evidence-based psychotherapy, many clients can find a feeling of peace with the body; they can find a decrease in pain or other difficulty physical symptoms, they can also find they know better how far to push the body, how to distinguish important signals from the body, and how to trust and take pleasure in the body. Is psychotherapy the only way to heal disruptions in the mind-body connection? Emerging evidence says psychotherapy is not the only way to heal mind-body disruptions. Emerging evidence also says pharmaceuticals are not the only way to mind-body health. The problem is, both contemporary evidence-based psychotherapies and big pharmaceutical companies are notorious for ignoring the natural ways we can develop a healthy relationship with our body, even as they seek to heal some of the most painful mind-body rifts such as depression, anxiety, body image, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, physical trauma, stress, and pain. This post is not about dismissing the benefits of traditional psychotherapies and pharmaceuticals, it is about an experiment intending to rediscover what ancient practices, with good emerging scientific evidence behind them, might offer to one seeking to build a strong, flexible, healthy mind-body relationship.
In this post and later posts, I will let you in on my own yoga experiment, and my discoveries as I try to remedy the problem of traditional psychotherapy’s ignorance of the body; at the end of this first post I will link you to some of the scientific evidence for practices that seek to heal the mind body connection and that may complement your growth in psychotherapy.
The Yoga Marathon Experiment
The experimental questions: What happens with the body-mind relationship in the practice of yoga? What is the potential for yoga to be integrated into the treatment of disorders of the body-mind relationship?
This is my single case experiment. Sometimes the pathway to knowledge can seem a little crazy. This psychologist wanted to experiment with the body-mind relationship. There are lots of ways to explore the body-mind relationship. I wanted to try a method that was accessible, fun, mindful, and that had piqued the interest of scientists interested in treating mental health problems. Like the scientist who for ethical reasons must try a new antidote on herself to discover its risks and side effects before offering that antidote to patients, it seemed clear that I should be willing to put my own body on the line if I sincerely wished to offer clients meaningful insights into the effectiveness of this method for the healing of the body-mind relationship. My method was to spend a month on a yoga marathon.*
The purpose of the yoga marathon was, through participating and observing the effects of intensive yoga on the body-mind relationship, to determine whether yoga could be integrated with psychotherapy for the treatment of mental health issues that have disruption in the mind-body relationship as a salient feature.
What is a yoga marathon? First, I found two of Ottawa’s best yoga teachers Mark Laham and Louise Sattler. Mark and Louise, through Louise’ business Galloping Yoga, offered a month long intensive for those who dared submit their bodies and minds to a kind of yoga gauntlet.
By signing on with Mark and Louise, I hoped to learn what I could about yoga and the body-mind connection from the best, most competent, and well qualified yoga teachers. Finally the start date of the Yoga Marathon arrived. For that first day, and for one month in total, I hauled myself out of bed to do yoga for two hours followed by 4-6 hours of exploring postures, learning the anatomy of yoga postures , studying the history of yoga practices, as well as experimenting with meditation practices that integrate body, mind and breath. Some days, I did between 5-7 hours of yoga postures, or asanas, a day. At night, for the first week stiffly, I walked myself home to integrate observations, read, do yoga homework, and convince my loved ones I had not fallen off the edge of the planet. Every night I fell asleep only to dream about yoga.
How does one evaluate the ethics of yoga as an adjunct to psychological interventions? Would integrating yoga into psychotherapy even be ethical? The Canadian Psychological Association ethical code has a principle of Beneficence. This means that Canadian psychologists should not do harm to their clients, and should only seek what is of benefit to their clients. It was my humble opinion that the body-mind connection needs a more thorough consideration in both the science and practice of psychotherapy offered by registered health professionals, if psychotherapy is to offer maximum mental health benefits and minimize harm to clients who are struggling with body issues. Ethically speaking, putting my own body on the line, as well as investigating the psychological science supporting yoga as a potentially psychotherapeutic intervention, were important precursors to future research projects integrating yoga and other evidence-based psychtherapeutic interventions.
My yoga marathon experiment was clearly an exploratory and descriptive one, a classic “what happens if we…” descriptive experiment in the best of an open scientific spirit.
The sample for the Yoga Marathon Experiment was an n of one. The sample characteristics were: a 45 year old female, registered psychologist, active but not an elite athlete. The participant had a history of typical female relationship with her body, which meant she has had to overcome inherited cultural assumptions about food, beauty, body image, and women. An expert observer could perhaps detect vestiges of perfectionism and Type A features, modified by years of professional practice as a psychologist, a personal mindfulness practice, and past investments in her own psychotherapy. Typical eating patterns: the subject cooks for a crowd,so sometimes quantity wins over quality; she likes the occasional rich chocolate dessert; as a Westerner and descendent of farmers and ranchers, the subject confesses to the occasional near-bloody slab of beef. Truth be told, the author and subject of this experiemnt loves food, loves movement, likes and respects her body within its limitations.
The Yoga Marathon Experiment was full of surprises that I will be unpacking for quite some time. The first surprise was how hard it was to integrate body and mind. One month of intensive yoga training was nothing like one month of doctoral work in a PhD program in psychology: one month of all yoga, all the time, was much harder. A PhD program is all about intellectual challenge and psychological resilience to stress; a month of intensive yoga is all about intellectual, physical, emotional, spiritual, and interpersonal stress, resilience AND immense personal and professional growth. I am fortunate to have spent years building a strong personal container for growth, so I did not experience what one of my teachers described as the “kundalini psychosis”, a condition known to yoga practitioners that is thought to arise from one’s vitality arising too quickly before the heart, mind, and consciousness are ready to channel and direct it. Potential for psychosis would be a clear contraindication for some of the more esoteric practices associated with Hatha yoga. Transformation does have its risks, and it is recommended that those practicing yoga as an adjunctive treatment for mental health problems consult not only a trained yoga teacher but also a registered mental health professional. That said, intense experiences in the body and the mind are not necessarily contraindications for the practice of yoga as an adjunctive mental health treatment. I I observed yoga practice to be transformational. Some of my colleagues in the yoga marathon month were very open about their struggles with anxiety, anger, and other personal struggles. I was able to note that these colleagues, now friends, went through noticeable changes in a month of intensive yoga practice. I also noticed physical, mental and emotional changes in myself. Transformation, like yoga, can be painful, stretching, strengthening, surprising and interspersed with moments of intense emotion as well as profound peace and joy. During a process of transformation, you may have found that every part of you wakes up. Neurons waking up can be like crabby newborn babies. They would often like to be back in the unaware bliss of the womb. I found in my marathon date with my body, there was no way to escape, cut corners, or let one part of myself do all the work while the rest slipped into oblivious somnolence. For mothers who have birthed a child without pain medications, you will understand this comparison: trying to integrate the body and mind through a yoga marathon was akin to a process of birth.
After the first week of the yoga marathon experiment, I ran to a massage therapist and begged her to pound out the old wrinkles in the fascia of my shoulders and neck, tensions I had held for years, that were finally being contacted and released. In the mid-phase of the experiment, I quite literally had to find balance; it was difficult to find the space between pushing/striving and challenge vs. accepting/nurturing and rest. However, gradually the mist of oblivion that lay between the mind and body began to lift: in the latter weeks of the yoga marathon experiment, I found pools of physical sensation and energy I had not seen before. As my body and mind began to communicate better in the latter weeks of the yoga marathon, I marvelled at the areas of my body that I had never consciously attended to. I was surprised that I now discovered there were entire large regions of the body that had either been supporting the activities of my busy imaginative mind without any attention, gratitude or nourishment. I also discovered weak or recalcitrant areas of the body that had been dragging me down through incorrect use, misalignment or just plain wasted effort.
Here is something that was surprising for me as a psychologist: as I released the deeply held tensions and awkward movement patterns in my body, I observed that I had new ways of thinking available to me. Breaking up old patterns and creating new patterns in the body, seemed to give my mind new freedoms. Throughout the yoga marathon month, love was also there: I learned to really love and appreciate the communications from my body, even the unpleasant ones. Despite what my mind had to say about the intense sensations deep in the abdomen during one of Louise’s famous sessions of Forrest Yoga, everything the body had to say was valuable. Unlike my mind, my body communicated to me much more directly without adding any extraneous element of judgement.
Is exposing oneself to an immersive, sometimes painful, growth experience with the body worth it? For me, the month long immersion in yoga was both personally and professionally valuable. Professionally, as a clinical health psychologist who treats many clients with eating disorders, stress disorders, and other exemplars of disruption in the body-mind relationship, I felt strongly that exposing myself to the growth opportunities in a yoga gauntlet was essential; it was essential, as a psychologist looking for evidence-based strategies for healing the body-mind, to explore firsthand the best practices that teach a healthy relationship to the body from the inside out and quite literally from the ground up.
Empowering individuals to make free choices about their lives, without undue influence from automatic reactions, compulsions, or pain is a value of our psychology practice at Sogge & Associates Psychology for Health and Performance. If scientific evidence indicates that yoga might offer another pathway to freedom for individuals suffering from disruptions in the mind-body relationship, then the science of psychology just might have a responsibility to apply a neutral critical eye to examine the potential indications and contraindications in the application of ancient yogic arts to contemporary body-mind problems.
On a personal level, when I embarked on the yoga marathon I had the genuine intention of observing how I was changed by the process of an intense immersion in ancient yoga practices designed to transform and integrate body, mind and breath. I will be unpacking the gifts of these observations and the linked ersonal transformation from yoga practice for years to come. I am sure that I will share more about these personal transformations in this blog in the future. Let it be said right now that paying attention, in a particular way, to the movements of my breath and my body gave me myriad opportunities to learn to love and challenge myself as an embodied woman. I came into the yoga practice believing I was strong and whole. I still believe that. I also, through yoga practice, discovered some surprising things; for example, in trying scary inversions for the first time, I discovered ways I used my physical and emotional strengths to avoid developing my weaknesses. As Jung said, the most spiritual growth always comes from the development of the inferior function. yoga not only nourished me where I was strong, it also humbled and challenged me to love and attend to my weaknesses. More on that later!
Professionally, after my yoga marathon I am left determined to explore and create more opportunities for the integration of body-based practices into psychological interventions for mental health and psychological disorders with a body component. This will be an exciting and growing area of research in the future. There is already a good foundation of researchers integrating yoga into psychological treatments, and I would like to see this research grow and deepen. Are you curious about whether you might want to experiment with yoga as a body-based mindfulness practice in your own process of recovery and growth? I want you to be an informed decision maker about your own health. Here is some of the scientific evidence for yoga as a practice you can adopt to assist you in your journey toward healing in the body-mind relationship. Psychotherapy can be an excellent complement to your yoga practice. Yoga can be an excellent complement to psychotherapy. Yoga and psychotherapy in the same hour? We are working on what that might look like.
Areas for Future Research:
I am excited to design and propose further experiments integrating the healing benefits of yoga with third wave psychotherapies for anxiety, stress, eating disorders, and trauma. Art and science will need to come together to find the best ways to create the optimal mix of yoga and psychological interventions to heal disruptions in the body-mind connection. Here is a sampling of some of the scientific evidence for yoga and mental health.
Yoga for Anxiety & Stress
The best evidence for yoga is in the relationship of yoga to the reduction of anxiety and stress. See more info on evidence for yoga for anxiety and stress here. There are questions remaining about the mechanisms that drive yoga’s ability to reduce anxiety and stress, but initial indications are that yoga operates in a similar way to other forms of exercise and relaxation techniques, by teaching individuals how to access their body’s natural autonomic nervous system responses. See more info on yoga and stress here.
Yoga for Eating Disorders
There exists a good study showing that 8 weeks of regular yoga practice, when added to minimal medical treatment (nutritional consults and regular visits with family physician) for adolescents with eating disorders, resulted in significant reductions in eating disorder related thoughts and other mental health symptoms. See more info on yoga and adolescent eating disorders here.
Yoga for Depression
There is only weak evidence for the effectiveness of yoga and other alternative therapies in relationship to depression symptoms. Click here for more information on yoga and depression.
However, mindfulness based cognitive therapy, another meditation based intervention combined with traditional cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, was shown to be as effective as medication for reducing risk of depression relapse in individuals with a history of two or more episodes of depression. Click here for more on MBCT and depression.
Yoga for PTSD
Yoga’s positive benefits on the regulation of arousal in the central nervous system have been applied to the autonomic overarousal and hypervigilance common to those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). An Australian study of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who were severely disabled by PTSD, daily drinkers, and who were on at least one psychotropic medication, found that after just 5 days of an intensive program involving yoga, breathing techniques and relaxation, the veterans’ average PTSD symptoms score reduced significantly and these positive benefits persisted at a six month follow up to the study, compared to veterans who received no treatment, whose PTSD scores remained elevated and who continued to experience significant PTSD symptoms six months later. For more information on the Australia study of yoga and PTSD click here.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a research hero in the treatment of PTSD, has recently become interested in yoga for the treatment of regulating core arousal in the brain and finding safety in the body. This pioneer of treatment for people experiencing symptoms related to trauma is looking to yoga as an element of treatment; we look forward to following his work and using his research to transform treatment at Sogge & Associates Practice in Psychology. See interview with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk here.
*My apologies to clients who found me infuriatingly unavailable during the time of my experiment. I assure you that the purpose of my month away was to sharpen my best tool (myself) and develop new strategies for healing that I will offer to you in the future. Thank you again to my wonderful clients, their loved ones, their families, and our network of referring providers in the community for your patience and understanding. Namaste!