Yoga

Why YOMI is always led by psychologists

Regular practice of yoga is, as far as the still quite thin body of research as well as the very thick empirical knowledge show, beneficial to us, both on a psychological and physiological level. It has helped numerous people feel better, get stronger, overcome sadness and grief.  

And yet, we as yoga teachers should be careful with what we make claims about and what problems we address in the yoga room.

A very important thing about being a licensed psychologist is that your license comes with a responsibility: ethical guidelines and a promise to practice in line with empirical knowledge and evidence. This is important because when we’re dealing with people who are suffering in one way or another we need to ensure that they get proper treatment. Therefore, we cannot make claims about the effects of something without having something to fall back on; research, empirical practice, health care guidelines. Even if we have your own experience of being helped by a certain thing or practice, we need to keep in mind that this might not be the case for everyone. This is tedious at times, but it’s also what makes it possible to do a good job and help people who might come from other circumstances than yourself.

One reason we’re not calling YOMI psychological treatment is that we simply don’t have the research to back it up (at least not yet). We can, however, say that YOMI seems to be beneficial both psychologically and physiologically, especially for people dealing with stress and worry.

It has been important to us to build YOMI on a solid theoretical and practical foundation. In order to make sure that we really use the psychological knowledge correctly, ensuring the quality of the YOMI practice, we early on decided that YOMI should be led by psychologists who are also trained yoga teachers. The psychoeducation in YOMI might not seem too advanced at a first glance, but it’s built on principles and theories that people have been researching since the greater part of the last century.

 It might seem like small things, but to us as trained psychologists, there’s a big difference between saying “don’t think about the negative stuff” and “observe your negative thoughts before allowing yourself to let go of them” (In psychological terms: the first one encourages avoidance, the second encourages defusion). There’s also a big difference between saying that we’ve seen in studies that YOMI Yin can lower people’s perceived anxiety and saying that YOMI cures anxiety. And not the least: knowing what we can deal with in the yoga room, and what we should refer to health care facilities.

Yoga and mindfulness are powerful and beneficial tools, but we should be humble towards what we have the competency to deal with and in what context. And as yogis, we should encourage ourselves and each other to stay open minded, but also remain a little critical from time to time in the yoga room.  

 

 

Exposing yourself to your emotions – how we do it in YOMI  

Unpleasant things are, as the word indicates, mainly unpleasant and unpleasantness is usually something we like to avoid. Which is fine enough, except when we can’t. For example when it comes to our emotions.

There are things in life we have much control over and then there are things we’d like to think that we control, but that we in all honesty don’t. Our emotions fall into the latter category. Or to be more specific; our emotions are something we can regulate and approach in different way, but that they’re hard to avoid altogether.

One of the basis in YOMI is the assumption that we can’t avoid suffering, but we can find ways of dealing with emotional as well as physical pain, and we can gird ourselves with tools to approach the unpleasantness that life offers – potentially reducing the length of our suffering. In behavioral therapy the concept of exposure is one of the most powerful methods we use to help people deal with things they are afraid of. If you're scared of spiders, we expose you to spiders, it you're scared of riding in an elevator we expose you to riding in an elevator. And in the YOMI practice we use the same principle of exposure, but apply it primarily on our inner states, practicing to stay with whatever inner sensations, may it be thoughts, emotions or physical reactions, arise during our practice.

Say for example that I’m in a YOMI class, in a challenging yoga posture (perhaps “Saddle”, which you can see below) and I know that I will be in this posture for at least a few minutes. My first impulses might be to get out, to change the posture or to give up. Thoughts that arise might be “this is so uncomfortable”, “how long will we stay here for?” and “I hate this, I hate myself”. Emotions that show up might be fear (of what’s going on in the body in the position) and anger (at being in the class at all, or at myself for not being as advanced in my practice as I would’ve liked to be).

In our everyday life we often act on our initial impulses in order to avoid the unpleasant emotions and thoughts. “If I get out of the position I won’t have to feel scared or upset”. This will give us a temporary relief, but in the long run it might make us more afraid of feeling unpleasant feelings. Which might make us avoid even more situations where unpleasantness might arise. Which might make our lives more limited. And so on and so on.

And since emotions arise within us they’re hard to avoid, no matter how much we may try.

Life sometimes offer unpleasantness, pain and sadness, we may as well prepare ourselves the best we can. One way of doing this is by practicing exposure to our own emotions. Staying with them, breathing through them and observing them without reacting to them. In this example staying put in the position, letting whatever arises arise, allowing for it to be there, giving it space, reminding ourselves that all emotional states are temporary, that they all change eventually even without our meddling. On the contrary, they usually change quicker if we don’t meddle in too much. This non-meddling, non-reactive, non-judging approach to our emotions is something that intellectually might make sense, but that practically requires continuous practice and courage. And that is exactly why we’re here - to help you practice through it.  

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YOMI research published – on the art of perseverance

 

2017 started off not only with the birth of a child, but also with the news that our article on the first study on the effects of YOMI Yin got accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal Anxiety, Stress and Coping and is now available online: Yin yoga and mindfulness: a five week randomized controlled study evaluating the effects of the YOMI program on stress and worry. Not only is this the first article on YOMI, it is also the first scientific study that has evaluated effects of Yin Yoga, which we're both surprised by and proud of.  

It has been a long process pulling this all together over several years, with plenty of little bumps in the road on our way. Many times it has forced us to remind us about our valued direction; what is important to us when it comes to our work with YOMI and why. To keep putting one foot in front of the other, or rather one reference after the other to slowly reach acknowledgment in a peer-reviewed journal. To persevere in order to reach a goal that has importance. To remind ourselves that the satisfaction after a thorough work process is blissful.

Without getting into a rant about how the scientific publishing world works, sufficient to say that the article won’t be available open access (we are very pro open access, firm believers that the results of research should be available for everyone), simply because we don’t have thousands of dollars to pay the fee. For anyone with access through a university or other academic institution, the article is available here.

We also have a few copies available for those who are very interested in our research, in YOMI and in future studies. If so, please contact us on kontakt@yomi.nu

Our mission for YOMI has always been to have it be a method that has some scientific ground, not relying merely on our own personal experiences of the practice, but also on the more objective evaluation of western science. With that in mind, this article is surely something to celebrate!

Yoga as part of a psychological treatment - a personal reflection

For this week's blog post, YOMI co-founder Maria shares some personal reflections on bringing yoga into the therapy room:

Working as a clinical psychologist and yoga instructor, I early on realized how easily these two fields can connect to one another. I always use my knowledge from one when I’m working with the other. Not so say that one doesn’t have to be careful with what pieces of the yogic tradition you bring into the therapeutic room and how you use these tools.

As a psychologist, working primarily in the primary care, I meet a lot of people who are feeling stressed, worried or who are more severly affected by anxiety or exhaustion. Many of these people have a hard time slowing down, resting without sleeping and letting go of things that bother them, like thoughts, feelings and destructive behaviors.

 Many of the psychological treatments for these conditions include different ways of learning to relax. I find yin yoga to be a great tool for this! Not only because it in itself is a way to relax the mind and body, but also because it is a way for the mind and body to become more connected. Many people who worry, suffer from anxiety or exhaustion experience troublesome physical sensations and – more troublesome –  often fear these, which makes their suffering even worse. Yoga can be a way to, once again, become friends with your own body; learning how not to react to it and its sensations as if it were an enemy or something disconnected from you. Instead, one might learn, what an incredible tool the body can be, alerting you when you are expanding your own perception of what you thought you were able to handle.

 Even if yoga and breath control is not as easy as pressing a button, it certainly does a good job moving you from a place of arousal, to one of relaxation. Working on becoming aware of the breath, slowing it down, has many times been proven, through experiences and science, to be an effective way to induce certain processes in your body while disconnecting others. And maybe this might be why yin yoga is such a powerful tool in stress and worry reduction; it continuously allows the practitioner to work with the breath and body, connecting the mind to all physical sensations in order   to encourage the relaxation response to start. In our program YOMI yin, we explore the effect of psychoeducation, mindfulness and yin yoga, on people who experience stress and worry. A few scientific studies down the line we’ve just submitted a manuscript the we’re hoping will be ready for publication shortly, and then of course shared here on our web page. Until then we will sit down on our mats, gently fold forward, hold the position for 3 to 5 minutes, and breathe. 

Facilitating behavioral change: establishing a daily practice

If there’s something we psychologists know it’s how hard it can be to make behavioral changes. If it weren’t then this world would look a whole lot different, your life would probably look a whole lot different.

We’re creatures of habit, lovers of the path of least resistance and automatized to the point of in many ways resembling an autopilot that has set out across the ocean, navigating us through our daily lives.

Luckily, something else we psychologists know are a few tips and tricks on how to facilitate the desired changes in our behavior. And, lucky for you, one of our aims with YOMI is to share whatever knowledge we have that might make life easier for just about anyone who’s interested. Hence: this series of blog posts called “Facilitating behavioral change”, fresh with psychological knowledge and research, applied on our yoga and meditation practice, in our regular everyday stressed out lives.

When getting into yoga and meditation, whether it be through a more structured program such as the YOMI program, via a youtube home practice or the occasional yoga class at your gym, most people eventually become more and more intrigued by the thought of establishing a daily practice: a daily sadhana. Which, due to our somewhat habitual and lazy nature, can be easier said than done. Establishing new habits usually requires a bit of effort, but can be facilitated by a number of things:

·      Take small steps: the hard part of creating a daily practice is usually not so much the actual “practice” part as the “daily” part. If we focus too much on the practice being big, advanced or strenuous, chances are it’ll be hard for us to keep up on a daily basis. Rather, when starting out, try to take smaller steps in the beginning, gradually building your practice. Start with a shorter practice, using only poses and exercises you know well. When establishing a daily sadhana five breaths on your mat everyday actually is more beneficial than one and a half hour of advanced asanas once every other week. 

·      Create a good space: It might sound like an obstacle that shouldn’t have much impact on your own willingness to practice, but not having a good space to set up your mat or meditation pillow will decrease the chances of you practicing on a regular basis. People are fairly easily conditioned (as much as your average dog or rat), and our brains love to make associations between activities and certain places (e.g. associating our bed with sleeping, our dining table with eating, and the bathroom with brushing our teeth). So much that it can help us get sleepy when we are nearing our bed in the evening. Creating and condition yourself to a certain place for your practice is a good helper. It doesn’t have to be fancy, you just need to know where to roll out your mat, and that this preferably is a place where you have room to raise your arms, and not be disturbed by too much noise or other people. If you want to cozy it up, go ahead, see that as a bonus, but not as a required.

·      Keep your things handy: When NIKE claims “Just do it” they’re probably not thinking about that in order to do it we need to take a few steps first. Such as getting into the appropriate attire and finding our blocks. The rule usually goes that the more accessible your needed stuff are the likelier that you’ll do it. If you do your practice in the morning, set up your space and lay out your clothes the night before. Keep your mat visible, it’ll remind you of your practice. (Remember the previous step about creating a good space, and about how the brain loves to associate things with each other, such as your mat with you doing your practice).

·      Be humble towards the fact that you have a whole other life to live – but adapt accordingly: Few of us have the luxury of leading lives where time seems to come in abundance. We are usually quite busy, especially the one’s of us who seek out yoga and meditation to help manage our stress levels. And in some ways life is what it is; we won’t get rid of certain daily chores, our kids will need picking up from school at certain times each day, our bosses might keep giving us the evil eye if we slip home early too often from work. So, while you get ready for making that really big life change of downsizing or quitting your job (or if you’re just quite happy with keeping things fairly much as they are, but would like some more time for yoga), stay humble towards the fact that life is there, and it’s requiring quite a bit of you. But learn how to adapt accordingly. What time of day would be the easiest for you to practice? Are you a morning person enough to get up half an hour earlier and roll out your mat? Are you an evening person that would benefit from winding down with a night time practice? Is it possible to come into work later and staying later, giving you some more time in the morning? Are you willing to give up a bit of TV time in the evening to practice?  Do what suits and do what works for you, it’s usually a good guideline to increase your chances of getting on your mat. And that’s really what it’s all about: getting you onto your mat and start breathing. Once you’re there you can gradually build the rest. 

​ Yoga won’t always make you feel good - and that’s exactly as it should be

In most yoga schools establishing and keeping a daily sadhana (daily practice), including both asana and meditation, is highly encouraged. Often this daily practice is talked about as the foundation for one’s yogic development and an essential part of getting closer to the 8th limb of yoga; Samadhi. The quote by famous yogi Sri Pattabhii Jois: “Everyday do your practice and the rest will come”, is something that yogis worldwide believe in and live by.

There is however, in a wide array of yoga circuits (not the least on facebook and instagram), a fairly well established culture of spreading the message that yoga will somehow automatically and every time you do it make you feel great (a quick search on the instagram #yogaeverydamnday offers captions where expressions such as “nothing in the world compares”, “you always have a choice” and “feeling grateful as hell” are amongst the first to pop up.) And while this of course at times is true, it certainly is a bit of a modified truth. Sometimes yoga doesn’t give you that incomparable feeling. Sometimes we don’t have a choice when it comes to the state that things around us are in. And gratitude usually takes quite a bit of hard work, and does not always naturally pop up at the end of our practice.

But – and this is an important but – there is sometimes (note: not always) an important difference between what feels good and what serves us well. There’s also often times an important difference between what feels good short term and what is beneficial for us in the long run. Sometimes yoga doesn’t feel good; not at the beginning of practice, not during and not even after. Sometimes it stirs up emotions, sometimes your body’s sore as hell, sometimes you haven’t slept all night and are exhausted, with your mind occupied by thoughts about the fight you had last night with your partner. In the short run, sometimes, yoga might even make you feel worse – sad, irritated, frustrated and disappointed. This doesn’t however necessarily mean that your practice hasn’t served you well, and that the benefits of it won’t come dripping down into your life later on.

One of the skills we need to develop, as yogis, but also in regular life, is to learn and get to know what it is that actually serves us well – even though it sometimes doesn’t feel like it in the moment. And equally learn what doesn’t serve us well, even though it really feels good in the moment. As psychologists this is something we continuously work with our patients, particularly patients suffering from depression and anxiety: finding out which things are meaningful and beneficial for you, and finding a way of getting them into your daily routine. Sticking with them even when you feel like rolling back into bed and skipping life altogether. Learning to trust that sometimes it’s enough to know what’s good for you, adapt accordingly, and be patient as the benefits might not show up until a while later. Or in other words; Everyday do the practice that serves you well, and the benefits will eventually start pouring into your life, even if it sometimes feels like shit in the moment.