To understand how yoga therapy works two of the many theoretical models developed by ancient masters are discussed below in a simplified fashion. These models have been applied and clinically validated through experiences with 10’s of thousands of students over the 35 year history of the KYM (See: The Healing Tradition-KHYF and KYM)
The holistic view of the human system:
As a holistic and complementary form of healing, yoga therapy views the human system as composed of five layers which include:
- The physical body and physiological structure; this is the outermost layer and is nourished by food.
- The energetic system, which allows the outermost layer to function. This layer is nourished by prana, a subtle energy, closely related to the breath, for the breath improves and facilitates the functioning of this layer and all the other layers.
- The mind is the layer that determines where the energy is moved and distributed throughout the system-the intellectual structure/brain. This mind at its grossest level is a sense organ.
The mind, as a sense organ, is in the body. This is critical knowledge in applying the tools of movement and breath when working with the body to promote change at all layers of the human system
- The personality; this layer includes memories and behavioral patterns which influence our current experiences, the manner in which we communicate and engage in life. Feelings associated with emotions are expressed in this layer; long lasting change must come from work done at this level.
- The emotions
These layers of the human system are interconnected and therefore, interdependent. For this reason, yoga therapy teaches that just because symptoms manifest at a particular layer does not necessarily mean that the symptoms' contributing and aggravating factors are also at that level.
The human system is complex; the student's genetics, constitution, and patterns and habits expressed throughout the five layers may be influencing the cause and expression of their symptoms. For example, years of chronic arousal of the sympathetic nervous system may lead to the subjective experience of anxiety and, over time, aggravate diabetes.
By the same token, any practice a yoga therapist offers has the potential to impact every dimension of the student’s system. For example, a meditative practice may influence not only our mind and emotions, but our physical body as well. A breathing practice may influence the body and mind.
Impression, patterns and habits
Yoga therapy views experience as beginning in the womb. A child is born with seed potentials/ genetic tendencies and a particular constitution which has the potential to influence perception and integration of experience. The child, through the sense organs which includes the mind, begins to experience. These experiences leave impressions. If a particular experience is “sensed” repeatedly, the impression becomes stronger and leads to patterns and habits that express throughout the five layers. These patterns and habits become the source of future experiences, our accumulated impressions that determine how we react and engage in life.
Psychological example: If the child has had fearful experiences there is the potential, dependent upon the child’s constitution and genetic factors, for the "fearful impressions" to develop into anxiety patterns and habits which are expressed throughout the five layers. For example, the mind may experience repetitive thought patterns, the breath may be shallow and rapid, the physical body tense.The personality will compensate and adjust for these patterns as well as for conditioned emotional patterns resulting from these original experiences.
Physical example:If the child is born with scoliosis, the body will develop a particular physical pattern to compensate for the spine’s structural presentation. Over time, this may influence the breathing patterns; pain and its associated mental perceptions have the potential to appear and develop into patterns.
Considering the above two examples, the experiential application of the science of yoga through the design of therapeutic yoga practices has the potential to effect change in the habitual patterns that cause distress and discomfort in our lives. When patterns shift, our accumulated impressions are slowly transformed and we are able to experience ourselves in an authentic manner. We are freed to move from a life of dis-ease to one of comfort and ease.
How does the therapist choose which tools of yoga to employ and design a practice? (Note: the tools of yoga include movement, breath, sound, gestures, visualization, and meditation)
The therapist begins with knowledge gained from clinical experience: working with the physical/physiological level, i.e. the body, and the energetic layer, i.e. the breath, we can begin to change the patterns discussed above and, over time, slowly change the potency of the impressions. This is an easier and shorter term solution.
For example, if a student presents with chronic pain and fatigue, we work with shifting the existing patterns in the physical body and breath to reduce pain and increase energy levels. Likewise, for sleep issues we address the physical body and breathing patterns to induce an increased relaxation response that will improve sleep.
Working over the long term with meditation and visualization tools there is a change in the student’s relationship to the impressions and resulting patterns-they experience the impressions in an authentic manner and, in doing so, new patterns manifest.
For example, chronic pain, illness, and fatigue may be aggravated by impressions that express as anxiety and/or depressive patterns. If chronic pain and fatigue are lessened but still present, meditative and visualization tools may eventually lead to the student understanding and accepting their experiences,current and past. The student reports feeling better because the "impression's" potency and its expression in anxiety and/or depression has slowly been reduced, even though chronic fatigue, pain, and illness are still present.
The 5th layer is the domain of fundamental emotions, unconditional and without associations. When we live from this layer we experience reality as it is, our authentic self fully engaged. It is towards this layer, the most subtle, that our yoga journey leads. When we are experiencing life from this layer our relationship with ourselves and others undergoes a profound change. We are happier and our suffering decreases, regardless of our circumstances.