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Ph: 0404 093 865

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Acceptance, patience and yoga

When people speak about 'holistic' counselling they usually mean something like 'mind, body, spirit'. Having just come out of a retreat on embodied integration of psychological work I'm particularly aware of how our physical bodies are a fundamental aspect of psychological healing.


A fundamental aspect of somatic psychotherapy is including the body, in the sessions, as a consideration, and as a literal field or ground of healing, but this can be taken further to complement what happens in the SE session.


I've been lucky enough, in the past few months, to rediscover a wonderful yoga teacher, Kristen Boddington, who I actually first started yoga with in Bondi over 20 years ago. After doing regular yoga for many years I stopped about 4 years ago, and have only just got back on the yoga wagon. Kristen now runs Living Yoga Sanga in Mullumbimby. After hearing about her from friends and colleagues for many years, I now understand what they meant.


What I notice is how much difference it makes to have a physical yoga practice that is aligned with principles of somatic experiencing - consciously including and working with the nervous system; taking it slowly to allow the body to find places or opening and release and extending, rather than pushing or forcing; precisely supporting the person/body to relax straining and pain patterns ... accepting and working with what's there.


I stopped yoga in the end, because I kept injuring myself. Because I felt miserable with the self-judgment and self-criticism about what my body couldn't do. Yoga was a fertile field for the superego, and despite all the benefits, I found it harder and harder to motivate myself to go, especially when I didn't feel on top of the world. Now I'm actually loving being at yoga. Even when I really don't want to go, I find that I'm always really glad that I do, because I feel so much better than I did before the class, and that often I have insights and ideas that come from a place of deep contentment and relaxation.


There are 2 key revelations I've had over the past few months in doing this kind of yoga, which I'd like to share because I believe they are crucial in facilitating real, sustainable shifts, on mental, emotional and physical levels.. allowing a deep healing.


The first revelation - and this is a real revelation to me as someone that has done a lot of yoga, and many different types over the years - is that it is possible to not have to push and effort to achieve change. That - indeed - acceptance and patience and support allow much greater opening and integration. This doesn't mean only doing yin (gentle) poses - it's important also to do strong poses, and develop core strength and muscle strength, but that yoga doesn't have to be an awful, self-punishing process.


Until now my experience of practicing yoga has been quite painful. What I mean is that it's been a stressful experience: even though I have often felt good, and appreciated the benefits of exercising and stretching, it has almost always involved a lot of efforting and pushing. I realise now how I've often fely on the edge of overwhelm, and tried to push through it. No wonder I didn't love yoga. It was fine on an energetic day, but overall was a difficult, quire unpleasant experience I forced myself to do for the result. I remember a great Bikram teacher, Darren Ma, talking about how a piece of metal can only be reshaped gently, with heat and in a way that the chemical structure softens and relaxes. That to sustain change to a structure, it has to be allowed to remould slowly, in the right conditions.


There have been moments of allowing and breakthroughs, but usually I've felt a lot of superego, a lot of self-criticism and working really hard to do a pose. I'm realising that the mental and emotional experience has been a sense of overwhelm, and over-riding where I'm at ... of pushing through. I now realise there is a different way ... of supporting the body to allow an expansion, of letting go and opening out of old holding patterns.


It continues to be profound to experience ways of doing poses and a routine that enables subtle shifts, and a total re-sculpting of old ways of holding the body. And in so doing, the mind relaxes, and concepts and ideas I didn't even know I had start to be recognised and able to be released. This is what I'm learning to understand 'holistic' healing to be.


For example I was in a 'relaxing' pose with my feet together and knees apart and felt the usual strain and pain. My thinking was 'yoga is hard work. It hurts', and an old familiar sense also of wrongness - that somehow my body was 'wrong', not enough .. so subtle I wasn't really even aware of this train of though. Struggling in the pose I reached for some bolsters, hoping to support my knees. Kristen came up with a blanket rolled lengthways, like a sling and showed me how to wrap it around my feet and under my hips. Suddenly, all tension was released and my whole body felt relaxed and supported. I could be in the pose for minutes with no strain. And something deeply relaxed. It was counter-intuitive, and a genuinely new, surprising and fresh experience.


The second revelation also relates to relaxation. Throughout my life I've often felt a sense of wanting to really stretch, to really feel relaxed and untroubled, and felt many subtle (and not-so-subtle) aches and pains that most human beings can relate to (whatever our age). Sometimes this can have an emotional or mood component, like feeling a bit scratchy, or irritated or not-quite-settled. We stretch to ease the ache. That is, we try to get rid of it. That is, we are resisting and fighting or struggling against it in one way or another. We don't like it. We want it to go away. This is natural, to want to resist pain or discomfort, to turn away from it, to dislike it ... as true of physical and emotional or psychological pain.


Much of the work we do in transpersonal counselling is to increase our capacity to sit with discomfort, to learn to make room for it, so that rather than being caught up in fighting the symptoms, we can go deeper and attend to what's underneath the outward manifestations of the deeper discomfort. Under fury there may be sadness. Under patterns of insisting that our needs are not being met, there is an unconscious experience of not having those needs met as a child which we continue to project onto situations until we can recognise what the real need is and how to address it effectively.


Rather than discharge the discomfort temporarily (in blame, or projection, or acting out our discomfort by reacting outwardly when we are triggered), we learn to attend to what's truly going on, to what is underneath the presenting pain. We learn to recognise that as adults, with an adult nervous system, and with the range of resources around us, we actually can hold the distress in ways that we simply didn't know how to do as children. Much of this process is learning how to accept those difficult feelings and sensations we feel. And to learn how to avoid just going into overwhelm or over-riding.


Using the somatic experiencing approach and techniques, we learn how to touch on the edges of these difficult feelings, so we don't feel consumed by them. In this way our nervous system learns that we can cope, and learns precisely how to cope, even with difficult feeling states. It's the same in a yoga that pays careful attention to precisely supporting and resourcing the body. To do so teaches us something new, on both unconscious and conscious levels. As we experience the reality of deep relaxation, of a lack of pain and strain, we learn to believe that we can feel this lack of pain and strain.


We actually experience what it is to feel different in our bodies, in our skin. Our experience of being in the world literally starts to feel quite different. Familiar patterns of pain, whether physical or emotional - which have come to feel true and inevitable, even at a cellular level, actually start to shift as we begin to literally feel that different ways of being are possible. We start to feel quite different. And that becomes our new experience, our new baseline, for being in the world. A bit like a wild animal that has been caged and beaten and who is gently and kindly welcomed back into the wild, and taught how to hunt and bask and relax .. we get our life back.


This is what it felt like to have my body supported to truly relax. It depended in this case on sharing with the teacher exactly what was going on, rather than just assuming I had to push through it. Then together we could observe what was happening and allow something different to occur. It meant facing the self-judgment and shame in saying 'I can't do this (like not being able to remember the sequence of a sun salute, or my mind freezing up and not knowing what to do in dog pose - even after 20 years of yoga).


It takes a lot of knowledge and experience to be able to observe and address the clues the body is providing .. but once we can, what happens is experienced as miraculous. A big part of the healing is allowing ourselves to experience that this support is actually available. Sometimes we also have to allow ourselves to ask for it, even if it feels silly, or embarrassing or even shameful. Peter Levine, the founder of Somatic Experiencing, discusses how we are herd animals, and when we are weak and vulnerable or stressed, to let ourselves by held and helped by others is actually crucial to healthy survival. For some of us this is a real letting go of old beliefs that we need to do it all ourselves. It's also a welcoming back out of isolation. A return to the human race.


This experience of physically supporting and extending the therapeutic counselling aspect of somatic experiencing with a finely-attuned yoga practice has got me thinking about providing a more total service. At least to encourage people, where possible, to include a good supportive yoga practice as part of their healing journey (also allowing more time to attend to and integrate the body). At best to provide a way for clients to come and spend some time in the Byron Bay / Mullumbimby area, to have a combination of SE and yoga sessions with Kristen, as a way of opening this door onto a whole other place of healing.


We're planning ways to offer this more holistic approach to people that can come up to the Byron Bay area for a week or two, specifically to provide a healing approach, individually tailored to each person: a programme of SE sessions supported by a programme of yoga. We can put you in touch with a range of accommodation options, to suit your budget and preferences. And of course the wonderful relaxing, healing experience of the beaches, walks, cafes and markets of the north coast.


A number of people have already started to take up this offer .. please do contact me about it if you are interested, and we can discuss what you need and how to make it work.