Saturday, June 25, 2011

"The Best Therapy I've Ever Had"

My title is not my title. It comes to us from Alice Walton. In a Forbes article on yoga, the second in a series, Walton explains the mental health benefits that befall those who undertake yoga.

In her words: “After all, many people say that after starting yoga they feel mentally stronger, more relaxed, less depressed and more level-headed than before. Heck, I’m the first to admit it’s the best therapy I’ve ever had.”

Some might say that this does not speak very well for therapy. They would be right to say so. Beyond the benefits she gains from yoga, Walton is also saying that therapy, in her experience, has not lived up to its billing.

Given the current American and international mania about solving emotional distress through psychopharmacology, it is worth emphasizing the benefits that yoga, among other forms of exercise, can and does confer.

I am not anti-medication, not at all. Yet, I have seen far too many people do better on a regimen of aerobic exercise than on medication. And I have seen many people profit enormously from yoga and meditation.

Everyone knows that these forms of exercise are incontestably beneficial. More people should practice them. If they don’t, one reason must be that the culture has persuaded us all that our problems are biochemical and that salvation and cure will come to us as soon as we pop the right pill. .  

But it isn’t just the culture; it’s also our willingness to indulge our tendencies toward sloth. Whether it’s the Stairmaster or the yoga class, both require sustained effort.

Of course, many people who do not believe in pills believe that they can solve all their problems by lying down on a couch. What better symbol of terminal sloth could there by than the psychotherapist’s couch.

On the one side you have to contort your body into any number of ridiculous postures. On the other you lounge around on a couch and indulge your tendency to run off at the mouth.

Better yet, the average couch dweller comes to imagine that if he spends enough time in this singularly flaccid posture he will be rewarded with an epiphany that will solve all of his problems.

As the old song says: Dream on!

You can immediately understand why many people prefer couch therapy to yoga and aerobic exercise, and why they persist even when they can see that therapy is ineffective.

Since therapy assumes that all your problems stem from your mind, it tells you that you need not concern yourself with your body or your physical stress. Mental gymnastics will ultimately render it all unnecessary.

But what does yoga do for your mind? Walton has spoken to some experts in the field and she summarizes their observations: “In other words, yoga teaches a new kind of attention. People who practice yoga learn how to accept all the stress-inducing thoughts that flit around in one’s head – negative self-talk, worries, snap judgments – as just that: thoughts, and nothing more.”

To me this is not entirely clear. Calling the new attitude non-judgmental does not help very much either. The term “judgmental” is too loaded to serve much of a purpose here.

Yet, the basic insight is correct. It is also diirectly at odds with the attitude fostered by psychotherapy.

Allow me to explain it differently. Let’s imagine that you have thoughts that are flitting around in your head. They may be positive or negative, they may be worries and they may be impulsive judgments. We all have them.

The real issue and the real point of contention is that yogic mindfulness seems to teach you that those thoughts are not your own, and that you need not own them.

Psychotherapy, on the contrary, wants you to own the contents of your mind. Introspect, the therapist orders, because they you will be able to catch more and more of your mental productions, the better to weave them into a new narrative. This narrative will supposedly tell you the meaning of your life.

Let’s say that you are thinking about being abused. It may be that someone told you about his experience of being abused. It may be that you saw a story on television about abuse. It may be that you felt sympathy or empathy for the victims. You were trying to understand abuse and you projected yourself into an abusive situation.

Now, fast forward. One day you suffer abuse yourself. The experience traumatizes you and you are having difficulty coming to terms with it.

Therapists who owe their theoretical basis to Freud would say that your problem stems from your failure to accept that the abuse is really fulfilling one of your old wishes.

Which wish? Well, the one that exists in your fantasies of being abused. If the fantasies once crossed your mind, that means, to the therapist, that they are inalienably yours, that they represent your deepest personal wishes. If you explain to your therapist that these thoughts were only your mind’s sympathizing with an abuse victim, you will be accused of being in denial.

If this is the way most therapists have seen the human mind, it is surely a step in the right direction to learn to take a step back from the thoughts and fantasies that course through the mind, and to accept that just because I thought it, that does not make it mine.

I do not want to leave anyone with the impression that I consider yoga or even aerobic exercise to be a panacea. Exercise should be part of your daily routine, but it does not, in and of itself, tell you how to deal with the everyday dilemmas that might be causing stress, distress, or demoralization.

Yoga is positive and beneficial, but it is not all there is. Even mindful distancing from your own mental static is not an end in itself.

It does not spare you from the necessity to be involved in your life, to manage your relationships effectively, and to pursue your goals and aspirations.

1 comment:

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