Lisa Kaley-Isley: Yoga and Mental Health
Lisa Kaley-Isley is a PhD Clinical Psychologist, Yoga Teacher and Yoga Therapist. Here she talks about developing the Yogacampus Mental Health Basics course for yoga teachers in order to offer support and compassion to students suffering from pain, anxiety or depression and to help individuals to shift out of these conditions.
How did you get into teaching the basics of mental health and why is it important to you?
I developed the Mental Health Basics for Yoga Teachers training at the request of Yogacampus with the intention for it to be an add-on elective for yoga teacher trainees on the course. We decided to open it up more broadly to all yoga teachers due to the fact that there is generally very little specialty training in mental health conditions on yoga teacher training courses. This lack of focus is all the more remarkable given that yoga is traditionally a methodology for managing the mind and many yoga practitioners and teachers take up yoga practice precisely because they are stressed, anxious and depressed. They keep on doing yoga because it helps them feel less stressed, anxious and depressed.
I was asked to create the course due to my background as a clinical psychologist and my integration of this experience with my training and practice as a yoga teacher, yoga therapist and yoga researcher. I was already teaching the mental health modules of the Yogacampus Yoga Therapy Diploma Course and was looking for ways to increase skills and awareness among yoga teachers more broadly, so from my prespective it was a perfect fit open door.
The interest in specifically adapting yoga practice is evident in the growing number of yoga teachers who write their essays questioning whether and how yoga can help with eating disorders, coping with trauma, etc. Yoga teachers and students are increasingly curious about the growing body of research literature, which is finding positive support for yoga as means to manage symptoms of mental health conditions, and wonder how to best apply what they are reading. There also continue to be a large number of teachers and practitioners who are uncomfortable talking and asking about personal and distressing matters. They fear saying the wrong thing and either ignore the crying person in the room, or overly respond making him or her even more uncomfortable. Feeling more confident knowing what might help to do and say, and how to more reliably create the conditions for a positive experience, go along way toward helping a well-meaning teacher be a more comfortable and genuinely benefical teacher.
All of these factors are very good reasons to offer the course, but it really came into being in response to a going out of being; the unfortunate suicide of two yoga teachers. None of us are immune to suffering, and as I stated earlier, many of us come to this practice specifically because we are suffering. However, some yoga practice can help more than others. A general yoga class can be of benefit, but sometimes that’s not enough. No one is responsible for the choice that another person makes to end his/her life, but sometimes we can help. I want to do all I can to give people the tools to be the person who can make a positive difference and to be that person myself.
Tell us more about mental health in the context of yoga. How can having knowledge of mental health conditions aid yoga teachers in their teaching?
The Yoga Sutras begin stating that the practice of yoga is stilling the mind. They go on to say that the root causes of all suffering are fear and a false belief that we are simply our body, thoughts, feelings and the identity we have formed from them. The Bhagavad Gita begins with the everyman hero in a state of agitated despair, fearful and unable to make a decision to act. He asked his teacher what to do and Krishna reveals the 3 paths of yoga. Anxiety and depression are part of the human condition and yogis have been struggling with their restless, fearful, and sorrowing minds for thousands of years just like everyone else. The thing the yogis realised though is that it does not have to be this way, and in fact, one reason we are discontent, agitated, and irritable is because we know life can be better and we want that life. The practices exist as a blue print to tell us how to create the conditions within ourselves, regardless of what is going on outside of us, to live a life that feels more joyful, purposeful, and free to be our highest Selves. It’s harder when painful things are happening to us, but that pain can also act as a stimulus to prod us into making changes we might not make if we were more content.
Having an understanding and compassion for these human conditions, rather than fearing or minimising them, is useful for us all. Feeling alone and cut off from others who can’t relate further re-enforces the false belief that we are separate. It is particularly helpful for yoga teachers to understand because assisting individuals to shift out of these conditions and into more optimal functioning is the raison d’etre of yoga practice. But doing so requires knowledge, skill and abilities of particular types. Traditionally the teacher guru was someone with extensive experience, not someone with 200 hours where much of it was spent learning to teach asana. The average teacher has been prepared to guide a group practice, not to delve into a particular individual’s experience and devise a personalised practice adapted to the needs of the person in the moment. The later is the realm of yoga therapy. However, yoga teachers will encounter students experiencing these conditions in their classes and some practical information relevant to classroom management can be very useful to help both teacher and student feel more comfortable and safe. It is also useful to begin to understand how the yoga tradition conceptualises these states of mind and to know how to apply the available techniques to support students who are caught up in them. There is much that a yoga teacher can do to sensitively create safe, empowering space for students before, during, and after class when armed with a broader perspective, more self-awareness, greater knowledge, and practical techniques that work. We’ll address each of these domains in the training.
How can yoga practice directly effect change in the body-mind relationship?
The latest diagnostic criteria for anxiety in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) include three types of symptoms: those that effect 1) the body, e.g. shaking, trembling, motor agitation, 2) the physiological systems of the body regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), e.g. heart and breath rate, quality of sleep, and the 3) the mind which mirrors the body and physiological body in terms of being agitated, restless, and repetitive in action and content. What is happening in the mind is happening in the body and in the bridge between the two that is the ANS. Yoga practice is uniquely well suited to effect change in all three spheres simultaneiously (Koshas is the Sanskrit word used to described these inter-dependent layers of ourselves) because the practice has direct action on all three: we consciously and purposefully think, breath, and move. If the actions of the mind, body, and breath are all coordinated and integrated so that the 3 are yoked together and made to move in the same direction together, then we can create shifts at the same time at all levels from being agitated and distracted to being more calm and focused. If one part does not shift, then it continues to exert pull on the others to return to dysregulation. This holistic quality of yoga practice is what makes it so effective. Psychotherapy has traditionally left out the body, althought that is changing now, and body approaches have traditionally left out the mind. We are whole human beings who store memory in every aspect of ourselves. Real sustainable change requires change at every level. Yoga practice with all its parts: asana, pranayama, relaxation and meditation can help us do that more effectively than any other approach I’ve encountered.