Yoga and its ties to mental health is a burgeoning area of discussion in the mental health field. The way I see it, yoga and psychology are like two roads that eventually converge into one: they both lead toward healthier, more joyful lives, but they originate from different places. My name is Julie Caramanico. I am a certified yoga instructor for adults and children with a master’s degree in Health Psychology. I teach trauma-informed yoga to adults (vinyasa style) and teach kids yoga for children with special needs. For the purposes of this blog, I will be conducting an interview with Jessica Pavelka, a psychotherapist and yoga teacher. We discussed how she uses yoga in therapy, and she offered her wisdom on utilizing yogic tools for two of the most common mental health concerns: depression and anxiety.
My goal for this blog is to show how the fields of yoga and psychology meet in the middle, and to arm the Philly community with as much information as possible. I want to give you the lowdown on where you can go to find yoga teachers informed by modern psychology, and therapists who study and utilize yoga in therapy — right here in our city.
Yoga can be amazing for emotional healing, but additional support is needed for people who struggle with clinical depression, anxiety, effects of trauma, and other mental health concerns. Yoga teachers are trained to create a space for the yoga practitioner to find their own healing, but aren’t taught to provide additional emotional support for their students. If you feel like you need support that you aren’t getting from your yoga practice, it is recommended that you seek the help of a therapist.
Many psychotherapists practice “eclecticism”, in which they utilize different strategies to understand and treat the person in front of them,. Therapists who utilize yoga in their treatment can intersect modern theory of clinical treatment with yoga for a holistic approach to mental health. It is an artful integration of ancient wisdom and today’s science.
How do you use yoga in therapy practice?
Yoga translates to “yoke,” or to join and unite, so it made sense to me that if I was going to help a client “yoke” their physical, mental, and emotional body, I needed to employ a practice that would do just that. In a psychotherapy session, I integrate mindfulness, meditation, and pranayama (breathing) practices when clinically appropriate. When determining what intervention to integrate, I ask myself two things: What is the clinical need, and would the client be open and comfortable with it?
What benefits do you seen in combining the two for mental health?
Clinical trials have tested principle components of CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) modalities and determined efficacy and utility in the integration. Through research and in practice, the Mindfulness-Based practices I employ provide positive therapeutic effects for those suffering from mood disorders such as Major Depression and Bipolar to anxiety related disorders.
Traditionally, yoga practices are seen to enhance one’s overall well-being and quality of life. This happens when a practitioner is on their mat. Whether the individual is conscious of it or not, they are engaging in introspection. They are practicing being a curious observer of themselves, thus improving their self-awareness (you’d hear me talk a lot about this in a therapy session).
When done skillfully, their perspectives shift. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy their negative core beliefs and automatic thoughts are challenged, disputed and potentially diminished. As a result, the yogi leaves the mat feeling lighter, empowered, and now in charge of their life. What the yogi is doing is working to adopt the correct tools or coping skills to live life fully with genuine contentment. In therapy we are doing the same thing!
What advice would you give someone who wants to use yoga for his or her mental health (who is depressed and has low energy)?
The sister science of yoga is Ayurveda. Ayurveda tells us that when someone is struggling with low energy (overacting Kapha Dosha), the practitioner should engage in a faster paced, more vigorous style of yoga such as Vinyasa. This would help combat mood fluctuations. I would suggest practicing Sun Saluations A and B three to five times per day. Poses such as Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Fold), spinal rocks, to Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand) are optimal for mood boosting. Physiologically, I am helping clients improve their blood circulation, enhance cerebrospinal fluid flow and decrease potentiality of the stress hormone, cortisol. I would also recommend an intake with a Licensed Professional Counselor for a treatment assessment.
What would you say to someone who wants to use yoga to cope with anxiety?
Breathe, breathe, and breathe some more. There’s an abundance of breathing exercises and meditation applications available at your fingertips. Pranayama and diaphragmatic breathing is key in reigning back control of the mind when a triggering stimulus is present. Asana (movement) is just one out of the eight elements or “limbs “of yoga.
Author Julie Caramanico, MS, RYT, RCYT is a certified yoga instructor for adults and children with a master’s degree in Health Psychology. She teaches trauma-informed yoga to adults (vinyasa style) and teaches kids yoga for children with special needs. Find out more at www.yogawithjc.com.
Jessica Pavelka is a Nationally Recognized Counselor (NCC), Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), and Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT-200). She is also a member of the American Counseling Association. Her private practice counseling center is located in the heart of Philadelphia where she works with adults and families. Jessica is an integrative psychotherapist although primarily provides Cognitive Therapy and mindfulness techniques. To find out more visit her on Psychology Today.