Where yoga meets the psyche

Myrah Penaloza Yoga

By Joel Isaacs, PHD

Have you ever had the experience that certain asanas never seem to get easier, or that certain muscles don’t seem to respond the way most of your others do? Have you wondered why? Many years ago when I first discovered yoga I began to work with my hamstrings, which were tight. After a while I noticed that in the middle of an uncomfortable stretch I would often remember something important that I had to do. This happened so regularly that I began to interrupt the stretch to write it down, before I “forgot” again. Only later did I learn that my tight hamstrings directly related to my holding back of my power, my opinions, and my sense of direction in life.

Interestingly, the somatic psychotherapy my colleagues and I now practice, called Bodynamics, deals every day with the particular psychological content held in each muscle. So we have a perspective important for the yoga community, while not at all being experts in the field of yoga. We know (as does every yoga teacher) that a yoga practice will stimulate conscious and unconscious responses in every individual. Our body’s responses to the stretching and stressing of yoga, whether sensations, emotions, moods, or even images, are the first sign that something or importance is going on for us. This is the place where yoga meets the psyche, where mind and body can begin to integrate.

Let me give a concrete example of what I am talking about, and afterwards go on to how you can use this knowledge for your own growth and well-being. All of us have experienced and most of us have seen a young child learning to accept food from a spoon, usually wielded by a parent. When the child doesn’t like or no longer wants what she is getting, she will push the spoon away. This pushing away, the action of the triceps muscle in the back of the upper arm, is the pre-verbal child’s way of saying “No”, of setting a limit. If the child’s limit is consistently respected, she will develop the ability to sense and express her limits, to say “No” (And thus to be able to say a clear Yes.) This kind of ability at the physical and psychological level is what we call a resource. When a child develops this resource it is likely that she, as an adult, will be able to say “No” appropriately and set limits. If, on the other hand, the parent continually forces the child to eat (“for her own good”), the child may not develop her ability to sense her limits and say “No”. Or, if the frustration is less severe, she may hold back her “No”, or rigidly take on a resistant attitude and reflexively say “No”. These patterns learned at an early age will generally be taken into adult life and will have a strong effect on her relationships, especially intimate ones. Often, simply training the resource of setting limits can bring much greater ease to relationships.

In a similar way to this example of the triceps and setting limits, every muscle has its own associated psychological function. Each one retains an imprint of the response to its related behavior. So our history is stored in our body and in our brain, and it can be accessed through the body. (In fact, the attitudes stored in the muscles can be measured manually by palpation, and a map made from which our history can be “read”.) In our daily life the historical responses may be stimulated when the muscle is either stretched or stressed (used strongly). In Bodynamics, we talk about a muscle’s responsiveness, which is related to its elasticity. If the psychological function expressed by the muscle has been given up early or was not learned, the muscle will be under-responsive. A person will usually have a lack of liveliness and sensory awareness in this area. Psychologically there may be a sense in related situations of something missing, of not knowing how to do something. In this case, when we stress the muscle by using it strongly, the psychological history is likely to be stimulated.

Read more about this topic here on our guest presenter Jonathan Zebrin's website - Gestalt Reality


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