Yoga in Therapy


Recently I learned about a therapy thing. It’s called CBT. No, not CBD. Although that can be really useful, too. I’m talking cognitive behavior therapy.


Image result for cbt triangle
The CBT Triangle


CBT is the idea that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interactive and can effect each other. We have a thought – my friends love me. We have a feeling – loved, belonging, joy. We have a behavior – talk more freely with friends, laugh, reach out. The thing here is those thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are so intricately connected they’ve made their own roads to each other. The roads are so old and we’ve walked down them so many times that we might not even notice what’s happening when it does. For some of us those roads, or neuron pathways, are not so pleasant. It could be more like this: We have a thought – these people do not want me around. We have a feeling – lonely, sad, outcast. We have a behavior – go home, close off, cry. The work is catching a thought and realizing how it is affecting your emotions and behaviors, then cultivating a new thought to create new emotions and better behaviors.

When I was first shown this it seemed pretty obvious, and I was excited to start catching my life at the first thought. At which point I would ask, is this thought helpful and is it true (true for me, meaning I needed hard proof). If it wasn’t either of those then I needed to create a new thought so I could have a new feeling.

This is Yoga.

A quick reminder that yoga isn’t just about physical movements or the breath. Yoga is a philosophy of life, and that’s the yoga I’m talking about today.

There is a book called The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It’s filled with tiny phrases and you can read more about it here. These tiny phrases are one of the roots of yoga, and in a way make up a cheat sheet for how to live your best life. Kind of like other religious texts, but Patanjali is cool and doesn’t tell you to kill any non yogis. Yay!

What he does talk about it the practice of removing the veil, or maya, that blocks us from seeing reality for what it is. A veil? What the hell am I talking about? Well, imagine walking around wearing a veil for a day. You could do it, but things would be more difficult. It wouldn’t be as easy to make out people’s faces, to know the distance from your hand to an object, and to read. That’s how we think with our mind. We can use it enough to survive, but when it comes to seeing things as they really are we’re limited. Those limitations cause suffering.

The veil is our perception and thoughts. It’s the little voice in your head that is always busy working up some kind of story to explain the world around you. That voice is absolutely integral for our survival. Both Bessel van der Kolk and Jill Bolte Taylor remind me of that. Kolk discusses PTSD in his book “The Body Keeps the Score” and explains how without the help of our prefrontal cortex we wouldn’t know the difference between Big Threats and little ones so, we would be forever yelling at everyone. Jill Bolte Taylor describes both her enlightening and agonizing experience when the left half of her brain was severely damaged and for eight years lost that tiny voice in her head. When it did return she was greatly relieved knowing that it meant her brain was back to fully functioning.

In the practice of yoga, and removing the veil, we learn to build a healthy relationship with that tiny voice. While it may be important to our survival in society it is also detrimental when left to it’s own devices. It spends it’s time making up stories and assumptions. Like a busy body at work it loves doing it’s job but sometimes the extra work is more harmful than helpful. When someone looks at us the “wrong way” our little mind begins to sell us a story of how we completely embarrassed ourselves and they are definitely judging you. For whatever reason it seems to think the only stories we’re interested in are the ones about us. Maybe it’s not wrong. If we can let go of it for a moment though, and look at what’s happening around us without bias we might discover that person was making that face simply because they were in pain or upset and maybe didn’t even notice you standing there.

In yoga we reflect, meditate, and work to become mindful so that in those moments we can drop the veil and see what is true. Cognitive behavior therapy is a scientists way of saying the same thing. It’s looking into the wiring of the mind and unplugging the stuff that isn’t true or is detrimental to our health. The more I practice CBT, the more I can see the truth lying under each thought. Like using CBT to realize a thought of wanting someone to approve of my decision, and using it again to spiral deeper and see how that would make me feel more secure, and diving deeper to realize I already felt secure, and seeking approval was just a habit. When I pinged into the last place I resurfaced from my thoughts with a sense of clarity and was able to manage my actions in a more helpful way.

The only thing that didn’t sit entirely well with me was the idea of creating a “new thought” because I don’t like the idea of selling myself new, better smelling bulls**t. It’s still bull. There is a sutra that states “When negative feelings restrict us, the opposite should be cultivated.” Maybe CBT is just cultivating those opposites and encouraging the neuroplasticity of the brain and building a happier space. There is also a sutra referring to one of the yamas, or laws of life, honesty. “When we are firmly established in truthfulness, action accomplishes its desired end.”

What do you think? Do you enjoy the correlation between modern science and eastern philosophy? Do you think creating new thoughts and new feelings is healthy, even if they’re false? Or do you think we should only encourage honesty, even if it may hurt?

I’m genuinely interested in discussing these ideas so please share below!

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