Therapy Focus

Yoga Therapy: The silver lining in the dark cloud

Lisa Kaley-Isley is a clinical psychologist and yoga therapist who specialises in working with people struggling with anxiety and depression. She writes here about Robin Williams’ passing this week and how yoga and yoga therapy can be of help.

The silver lining in the dark cloud that is the passing of Robin Williams from this life is this: really good articles about how to understand and cope with anxiety and depression are popping up in the social media. Any state or condition that makes us hide away and isolate ourselves from the support of others makes that state or condition more frightening and unbearable. People are alone 99.9% of the time when they commit suicide. When someone we love and admire shines light into that darkness we can all see a bit more clearly what it is like, and that we are not alone in our suffering.

As a clinical psychologist and yoga therapist who specialises in working with people struggling with anxiety and depression, I am saddened to see that the help Robin Williams had in that particular moment when he gave into impulse was not enough to stop him. I am also gladdened to see that people are passing on information about resources so that others who struggle can get the support they need.

I also feel moved to contribute a resource I have not yet seen posted: yoga and yoga therapy can help. It has certainly helped me, and I’ve seen yoga practice make a steady and surprising difference in the lives of others. One of the greatest gifts of yoga practice is that the resource is always with us. Access to yoga classes has expanded tremendously both in person and online. Yoga therapy, the personalised adaption of yoga for home practice, is also increasingly more available.

One resource for yoga therapy is the Yoga Therapy Clinic at the Life Centre in Islington. After three years and hundreds of clients seen there, I can say that the most frequently endorsed items on the Health Information Form clients complete before the first session are: 1) stress/anxiety/worry, 2) sleep disruption, 3) digestive irregularity, and 4) pain. Depression is also commonly endorsed, but anxiety is even more frequent. The five go together because they are related disruptions caused by over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the activating part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Chronic over-stimulation of the SNS is also a primary physiological source for development of heart disease, diabetes, and other stress-exacerbated conditions.

A growing body of research suggests that yoga helps us feel and cope better with life’s challenges and our emotional states because it triggers the other half of the ANS, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) through long, slow, deep breathing, mindful movement, and increasing capacity for stillness and deep rest. We are out of balance so much of the time. Robin William’s explosive comic genius was out of balance, too. When alone he must have experienced the lows that were the other end of the pendulum swing from his highs. Anxiety and depression go together because they are the two ends of the swing.

The yoga tradition describes these phenomena through the 3 gunas: rajas, tamas, and sattwa. Rajas is the animating energy that in its positive expression gives rise to creativity, inspiration and animation. However, when out of balance it is mania, hyperactivity, restlessness, agitation and anxiety. Tamas is the grounding force. In its healthy expression it lends stability, steadiness, and earth mother groundedness. Excessive or unhealthy expressions of tamas are depression, fatigue, lethargy, stuckness, and inertia. Both rajas and tamas exist on a continuum, and as qualities of energy it is their nature to shift, so anxiety and depression can feel like an unpredictable roller coaster ride or a bike that gets stuck in the wrong gear going up or down a hill.

Yoga’s answer is sattwa. It is balance, clarity, and illumination. It is the state of being steady, alive, and alight all at the same time. Balance is a precarious state; it requires constant effort to maintain and regain. This is why we practice yoga. My teacher, Rod Stryker said this and it has stayed with me: “Yoga practice is the tool that helps us achieve the state of yoga.” I say this, yoga practice is not the goal; it is the means to the goal. The goal is to live a healthy, happy, meaningful life in which you offer your gifts to the world in service to fulfill your purpose. Everything we experience along the way is a lesson to help us accomplish that goal. If yoga practice itself becomes the goal we become obsessed with it and often continue to practice in ways that do not serve us when our needs and conditions change, as they inevitably will do. The state of yoga is reconnection with the light beyond all suffering, when you realise that all the conditions of earth are changing, but the essential light of yourself is deeply connected to all that is and held in that loving embrace. For that to be more than an idea or unreachable ideal, a steady diet of practice that you love and feel benefit from, connection with supportive others (sangha), inspiration through reading, and yes, connection to a Source far greater than yourself is extremely helpful.

My grandteacher Pandit Rajmani Tigunait taught a group of us this practice when a friend unexpectedly passed away. I’ve found it very helpful and used it many times since. I’ll share a version of it with you now. You can use it to feel you can “do something” for Robin Williams to give back some of the light he has given you. Then, because you have practiced it, you will have a ready tool to use to support you when anyone in your life dies and is passing on. One of the most painful things about loss is we have strong feelings and we feel powerless to make a difference. Having something to do that can help both you and the person is a powerful remedy.

Start by sitting quietly. Connect to your breath and the balanced tidal flow of it in and out. Allow it to gradually slow and become more effortless. Then visualise the person who is passing. See him or her in a field of light. Suffuse that light with love. Tell the person s/he is loved, will be missed, and is free to go. Encourage the person to let go and go on. Send them off in love and light. Say anything you want to say again, or didn’t get to say before to the person. Gradually bring yourself back to the present moment. You can take however long you have or wish to give to this activity, but for best effect take some time to do it every day for 2 weeks.

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