The mind-body link.
Psychologist Lori Allen, who also is a certified yoga instructor, first saw the promise in blending the two when she substitute-taught a yoga class at a local treatment center for people with eating disorders.
"I was hired just to do the yoga part, but I noticed while teaching that it would be the perfect time to talk about the issues these patients were facing with their disorders," Allen said. "I thought to myself that I really wanted to combine the yoga with therapy. It felt like a perfect, soft way to explore hard issues."
So she did. For the past 18 months, in addition to her regular psychology practice, Allen has been offering "Yoga Mind Psychotherapy," weekly small-group classes for people with issues relating to body image, eating or anxiety. She offers eight-week sessions, during which clients learn eight breathing techniques, eight different meditations and a series of yoga poses, or asanas, customized to suit the needs and abilities of each person in the class. Allen also helps her students see how the yoga practice can help them deal with the challenges they face, not only during class time but in their daily lives.
"Having the group approach is important for a lot of people, because it helps them realize that they are not alone, not the only ones dealing with the problems they face," Allen said. "When they are interacting with others who have the same issues they do, sometimes progress can occur faster, because they can take what they discover in the group back to their regular therapist."
For example, at the beginning of a new "yoga mind" class, Allen asks her clients "to do whatever they feel that their body needs them to do," whether actively stretching or simply lying flat on the floor. "At first, everyone is looking around at everyone else, to see what they're doing and comparing themselves with the others," she said. "By about the fourth week, they're not even thinking about the other people; they're doing what they want to do. It's so satisfying to see them develop that personal skill and confidence."
Unlike many yoga classes, where the instructor leads students fairly quickly from one pose to the next, Allen's students rest in "shava asana," or corpse pose, between each exercise.
"The way we learn naturally is to do something and then rest and absorb what we have accomplished," she said. "Most people don't notice change, but when they slow down and experience it, they not only feel better, but they realize how far they have come."
This is especially true for people with eating disorders, anxiety and depression, which Allen hopes to add to her yoga mind psychotherapy repertoire.
"Yoga helps people to slow down, learn to tune into their fears and anxieties and develop techniques to intervene in the reactionary things they have been doing that are destructive to their daily lives," she said. "The body-mind link is so important for mental health, and research has just begun to show how linked the two things really are."
Several years ago, the Psychology of Women Quarterly reported that women who practice yoga not only feel more accepting of the size and shape of their bodies but are less likely to develop eating disorders because of pressure to conform to societal body images.
A study at the University of California, Berkeley, found women whose exercise was primarily aerobics-based, such as running or exercise classes, were more likely to engage in "disordered eating attitudes," such as crash dieting, bingeing and purging.
More recently, researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine have determined that yoga practice may increase the level of gamma-aminobutyric acid, which helps ward off depression and anxiety. A comparison of two groups, in which one did an hour of yoga and the other read a book, showed a 27 percent increase in the acid level in the brains of those who did yoga and no increase in the others.
Allen, who has lived in Eugene for 12 years, turned to yoga 15 years ago to help rejuvenate herself each day after a high-stress job working with special education students with severe behavioral problems.
"I had tried yoga once in college and hated it because I wasn't used to slowing my body and mind down and really examining how I felt and the relationship between my physical and mental state," she recalled. "But when I went back to it, I was more aware of the importance of that kind of balance and how much better it made me feel."
Because of the research that supports the benefits yoga provides, "This is a pivotal time for bringing yoga therapy fully into the mental health field," Allen said. "I would like to see this way of promoting mental health in the public schools, although I know the economy now doesn't make that a priority."
She also wants to see yoga psychotherapy accepted by health insurance companies. "I don't want this practice to be something just for people who are wealthier and can afford to pay for it (out of pocket), because it is so important."
YOGA MIND PSYCHOTHERAPY
How to contact Lori Allen