Therapy is Spiritual Practice

When I was ten my parents separated and they put me in therapy to help me “adjust”. Honestly I don’t remember much about the whole experience. I remember certain elements, like her office. I remember where we sat in relationship to each other in the room. I remember her generally; how nice and sweet she was to me. Although I can’t remember anything she did or said except for one.

I once told had told her it was difficult for me to pay attention to my mom if she was yelling at me or talking for a really long time. Flash forward, and I now know that ongoing contact just overwhelms me easily. I need pauses and breaks and moments in between. In the heat of the moment we don’t always get that. But at ten I was just scared.

The therapist told me that instead of trying to pay attention and listen, I should count my mothers eyebrows.

“What do you mean count her eyebrows? She only has two.”

“No” she said. “Literally count her eyebrow hairs, one at a time. That way it seems like you are making eye contact and paying attention but really you are focusing on counting her eye brows.”

So that’s what I did. I counted eyebrows. It worked. The eyebrow thing and the therapy.

I then went back to therapy in high school for an eating disorder, anxiety and depression. Back then though I was really manipulative and sneaky. There was something about being the identified patient in my family that gave me special powers. It made me feel like I was getting some attention. I didn’t really want to “get better”. I must have been such a difficult client--seeming like I was getting better, but secretly hiding other thoughts and feelings.

They say therapy thrives on honesty in the relationship. Well I wasn’t always honest in that relationship, but I still reaped benefit. The woman made me think maybe studying psychology in school would be a cool idea. I took A.P. Psychology my senior year because of her. Frankly, I became a psychology major in college because of her. She planted so many seeds in me. I have a garden of self-love in part because of the seeds she tossed into my not-yet-ready soils.  Because the thing is, no matter the manipulation or the hiding, I was aware I was only hurting myself in doing so ultimately. We did come to a tipping point in our therapy actually, and I knew sooner or later I couldn’t count eyebrows anymore. I knew that hiding from the therapist was only hiding from myself. I had been far too shame avoidant and ultimately fear avoidant. So she helped me face some fears. She planted a myriad of seeds. So it worked.

I started college with a therapist recommended by the woman mentioned above. This was the only time I didn’t like therapy. I felt kind of like I had it together. I felt like I had overcome some serious shit. The most healing thing was to be at college itself. I felt I needed trust and the benefit of the doubt. Her modality of clinical work did not suit my style or me. I felt like she was mean, too direct and combative.

But in the mirror of this person I learned something about myself. In the twenty twenty vision of retrospect I know I can be like that too. I am still learning from this reflection through memory. So while I didn’t enjoy therapy at the time per se I do think it worked. I fired her after my freshman year of college. Being at school and away from home was enough for me. being social and loving school was the healing I needed at the time. I went back to her for a brief time four years later after a major panic attack where I was convinced I was going to die. She gave me courage and helped me find my voice at a time I was defeated, terrified and confused. So yet again, therapy worked.  

I put myself back into therapy with a clinical social worker when I felt I was backsliding into my nasty, not-so-good-for-me habits with a broken heart. Once more I must say that this therapeutic relationship “worked”. I think it was one of the first instances where rather than be questioned or interrogated about my behavior and asked to analyze it, I was understood and validated and loved in the face of it all. That was incredibly healing. To feel unconditional love in that way gave me the courage and faith to move across the country. This relationship laid a groundwork to rebuild healthy attachment and connection to a strong healthy sense of self and Ego.

When I started grad school at Naropa we were required as part of our training to be in therapy. I continued with that therapist for five years and I still see her. This is one of the most meaningful relationships of my entire life. Somewhere along the line in working with her, I realized I didn’t “need” therapy. The momentum was not in repairing the backlog of emotional clutter I had yet to drain. My pipes were clean and clear. I was finally a well-integrated system.

I wanted to be in therapy though. I still do.

When I am, I am able to recover from emotional bumps and bruises more resiliently. I am able to contextualize better. And of course healing isn’t linear. Nor is life or relationships. So just because I have repaired old wounds doesn’t mean I won’t get hurt in the future, or that I won’t get stung.

So for me therapy is Spiritual Practice. I want to leave no stone of my soul uncovered in this life. I want to know it all. If there are things I have neglected or parts that are still hurting, I want to heal them. If my job is to rejoice for my health and wholeness I want to be witnessed in that process. For me, the therapeutic relationship is indeed reparative in that we heal old wounds that prevent us from living and loving fully. But it is also a path of knowing ourselves deeply. Ultimately it is a path of being witnessed. When we are witnessed something inside us can’t help but change. Noticing, feeling into, and integrating those changes is what heals.

The same is true in yoga asana. When we first start we need to get our physical body organized. If there is injury we repair. We also start to open to some possibilities of emotional life. Eventually we get to a point where we do not need to go to class with the same regularity as before. Actually, the appropriate work becomes standing on our own two feet as a yoga practitioner not only a yoga student. We become students of our own practice by integrating the voice of our teacher(s) and then we come to our own conclusions and hold our own experiences. If we get injured we apply our knowledge to help ourselves.

But there are still be big poses that require some extra hands, eyes, and encouragement. There are still times we need to be witnessed in our getting or loosing of a pose. The need for witness does not disappear. It just appears differently and perhaps less frequently. The moral of the story here is: go see your teacher.

And in the same vein, go see your therapist. It's money in the spiritual bank.

Therapy is no longer for hysteria and psychosis. Although I am sure that some people still believe it is. There is a misunderstanding that “therapy” is about going and talking about your problems while you lay on a sofa. The therapist nods with their stuffy glasses slipping down their nose. That is not therapy. It is just talking about shit that annoys you. I think basic talk therapy is kind of like masturbation of your ego problems. Like, it feels good at the time. You get some relief and satisfaction. But in the long run it doesn’t actually satisfy the need for body-to-body contact and connection. So its no wonder to me why people would rather go to yoga than therapy or meditate then see their shrink. Talk-therapy is dead. And so is Freud.

But what has always been true actually, remains true and continues to be proven true in the fields of psychotherapy and neuroscience, is that moving your body while being witnessed is reparative and healing. Having someone in there with you in the moment of recalling impact helps and heals. Emotional regulation does not occur by the other person just watching you flail. It occurs when they help you reconnect to your own shape—or asana if you will.

I’ll digress momentarily.

Yoga may not be psychotherapy but it is inherently therapeutic because it’s a bunch of people moving their bodies and breathing together and feeling shit. It really is that simple. But without the missing link of direct witness and reflection it cannot be considered psychotherapeutic. Therapeutic yes. Psychotherapeutic no.

When I was first placed in therapy, I was embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t understand why I was the one who had to go to therapy. When I returned in high school I was still ashamed and embarrassed but I also felt special since I was allowed to leave school during the day to go. And since I hated high school, the hour and a half I didn’t have to be there was amazing. I put myself back in therapy years later for a short duration because I loved myself enough to know I couldn’t hold myself together alone. I didn’t feel shame or embarrassment at all. I felt like the one in my family actually being responsible for my thoughts, feelings, and actions. Rather than hoping I could change others, I figured I would work on myself. And when I was required to go to therapy as training at Naropa, I knew it was a total blessing. I also put myself in educational communities where processing and therapeutic benefit was common.

Of course none of these experiences happened in isolation (because life so rarely does). I started yoga in high school, which influenced the nature of my therapy and my path. By the time I got to Naropa, I was completely uninterested in having a therapist who didn’t understand yoga. I leaned things on my mat and through yogic teachings that no therapist could have ever given me. Yoga might have saved my life. But therapy helped me learn to live it well.

There is no way I am the only person who felt they needed to hid going to therapy. I sure as hell am not the first yoga teacher to also have shrink. Therapy is also not about being trendy. Of course we know much of yoga has become that. So beware. Triumph is not a single-handed or solo event. We know that from Hanuman and the Ramayana. And your life kind of depends on it.

Therapy is Spiritual Practice.