Reducing Anxiety and Finding Unity with Yoga in Therapy
Conversation with Dr. Manjit Khalsa
January 27, 2023
“The breath and mood are interwoven. You can influence your mood by working with the rhythm of your breath.”
Not long ago, I incorporated a restorative yoga practice into my active lifestyle. My body craved a slower form of movement that would initiate deep relaxation.
I didn’t expect yoga to both relax, and rejuvenate my mind. I felt my mind shift from its overly active fight-or-flight state to a place of alert relaxation.
Through stretching into restorative postures, controlling my breath, and focusing my attention on the here and now, I began to recognize negative thoughts and emotions that were no longer serving me. I learned how to let them go.
When we learn how to cultivate our innate mind-body-connection we start to recognize, accept, and let go of the thoughts, tensions, and emotions that create anxiety.
It’s no surprise that over the years increasing studies have suggested that yoga is an effective complement to therapy for treating anxiety.
An Introduction to Dr. Manjit Khalsa, Ed.D with HBH
Dr. Manjit Khalsa, Ed.D with HBH is a licensed psychologist, licensed yoga trainer, and co-creator of Yoga-Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (Y-CBT). Y-CBT, created by Manjit Khalsa and Julie Greiner-Ferris, LICSW is a “third wave” treatment model that combines cognitive-behavioral-therapy with yogic practices and philosophies, didactic material, and group process.
Dr. Khalsa offers Y-CBT to individuals wanting to deepen their understanding of the mind-body connection through the application of cognitive behavioral therapy, yogic practices, and philosophies: resulting in an improvement of their mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. Dr. Khalsa welcomes and supports all individuals interested in the practice of Y-CBT.
Dr. Khalsa understands the differences, challenges, and adversities that each individual may face.
As noted by Cari Chapderlane Cox, LICSW and Clinical Supervisor with HBH, it’s necessary to listen to your body, and ensure that your medical provider is aware and supports your practice of yoga. Exercise practices can be modified, if necessary, to meet your physical needs and potential limitations.
It is always suggested to follow the recommendation of your PCP before starting any physical activity.
In the following article, Dr. Khalsa discusses why integrating yoga in therapy can help reduce anxiety, and what clients can expect from the integration of yogic practices and philosophies in therapy.
How can integrating yoga in therapy help reduce symptoms of anxiety?
Studies have shown that yoga can reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep regulation and mood, reduce risk factors for chronic diseases, and even reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
We know that yoga works wonders to balance the body’s hormonal system. We also know that yoga positively affects the brain and the body’s regulatory system in terms of attention, emotional control, mood, and executive functioning.
So, how can integrating yoga in therapy reduce symptoms of anxiety?
1. Yogic breathing
The breath and the mood are interwoven. You can improve your mood using your breath, but your mood will initially control your breathing pattern. You can pay attention to, and slow down the rhythm of your breath to improve your mood.
Yogic breathing techniques decrease arousal in the sympathetic nervous system, the network of nerves that activates your body’s fight or flight response. The sympathetic nervous system is overly active when you’re in a state of anxiety.
Lengthening the exhalation of the breath relative to the inhalation shifts the body from sympathetic to parasympathetic, which restores the body to a calm state.
When you slow down your breathing you slow your entire metabolism through an action in the lungs that affects the vagus nerve, the main nerves of your parasympathetic nervous system which control the body’s digestion, heart rate, and immune system.
Adding meditation to your deep breathing can further calm the nervous system by focusing attention away from the anxious thoughts, and inward to the present moment.
2. Yoga postures
In Y-CBT we practice Kundalini yoga, a form of yoga that works on your spiritual awareness through chanting, singing, breathing exercises, and repetitive postures.
With eyes closed and palms together, the therapist or instructor will lead clients through a series of precise movements, while inhaling and exhaling deeply. The combination of movement, breath, meditation, and mantras help balance the energy centers in a client’s body.
The various postures intend to activate and increase your awareness of how your body feels. Often when we’re in a state of anxiety, we’re unaware of the sensations happening in our body.
Yogic postures can also strengthen and balance the body’s endocrine system, nervous, and circulatory systems. Certain postures in yoga can increase blood flow to the brain, which in turn leads to improved concentration, decision-making, and mood.
3. Yogic meditation
Traditional CBT focuses on replacing the content of one thought with another thought.
In Y-CBT, we believe that a thought has a physical form. We store our thoughts not just in our brain, but in our lungs, heart, organs, and immune system.
People with anxiety might be thinking about an unresolved conflict in their relationship. They respond to an anxious thought through raising their blood pressure, speeding their heart rate, shortening their breath, and tightening their muscles.
In yogic meditation we focus our attention on our internal experience, while controlling our breath. This mindful relaxation technique allows us to step back from our thoughts. We learn to observe the thought as a unique event without attaching or reacting to it.
What can someone expect from practicing yoga in therapy?
Someone who practices yogic postures and philosophies with a therapist can expect a complete body and mind orientation. The integration of yogic practice and philosophies in psychotherapy can help people with anxiety:
1. Identify the parts of ourselves that are stuck
Yoga teaches us how to identify, through using our breath, body, and mind, those parts of ourselves that store negative beliefs, feelings, and behaviors, which create anxiety.
We learn how to use the body, breath, and mind to allow the negative thoughts to come, understand why they are there, listen to them, care for them, and let them go.
We learn how to then locate the parts of the self, all throughout the body, that are naturally compassionate and calm. We can then enjoy existing in that space.
2. Communicate authentically
We often communicate from our mental state, which involves thoughts, assumptions, opinions, images, and from our experience of feelings. When we aren’t consciously aware of our thoughts and feelings, our responses to situations can stray from what we want to convey.
Yoga teaches us to listen to the body, through using our breath, and notice how we’re feeling during stressful interactions or events. Through bringing mental awareness to the physical sensations happening in our body we can learn to identify what will sound good, and what won’t.
Yoga also encourages us to observe our thoughts before letting them out to ensure that what we’re going to say is intentional and aligned with our beliefs. We can then channel our thoughts and feelings into positive actions.
3. Connect with others
As humans, we understand how another person is feeling through identifying their body language. We connect authentically with another person by mirroring their body language.
When we’re communicating with others, our body is expressing what our mind is thinking. In yoga we learn how to relax our body and mind so that we can mirror the other person we’re communicating with, and understand what they are experiencing.
When we learn how to align our body and mind, we present ourselves to be authentic and truthful; people want to talk to us.
We know that our mental health can have profound impacts on both our mental and physical wellbeing. Our bodies physically respond to feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression.
When you work with a trained therapist who integrates yoga and therapy, you will learn to identify the parts of the mind and body that need healing. You will learn how to slow down your thoughts and clear your mind, control your breath, and align your body to a place of relaxed awareness.
If you are interested in deepening your therapeutic experience and reducing the symptoms of anxiety through yogic practices, please contact us today at (413) 343-4357 to schedule an appointment with one of our trained therapists.