Yoga Therapy: The Science of Personal Optimization
Yoga Therapy is a young field finding its way in the (western) world. The educational standards were just recently finalized as Yoga Therapy declares its identity and how it will interface with healthcare and other professions.
While the boundaries and definitions aren’t set, there is room for maximal possibilities. Right now, the field can define itself as half its potential or more fully.
The yoga research literature is full of studies about how a regular yoga practice (often as short as eight weeks) can yield significant improvements in physical and psychological conditions. To be sure, this work is absolutely foundational to having Yoga Therapy integrated into the healthcare system. And it’s stunning in its simplicity: coordinated breath and movement have the potential to heal. Yet, really, that’s only half of the story.
So what’s the other half? It turns out that there is a vast continuum to consider.
Pathology to Optimal States
Imagine a number line. In the center is zero, to the left lie the negative numbers, and to the right are the positive numbers. Now, let’s draw an analogy with therapeutic yoga. To the left is the long list of what yoga can do to fix what’s wrong – all of the specialties niches of Yoga Therapy. Yoga for Cancer. Yoga for Depression. Yoga for Back Pain. Yoga for Heart Disease, and on and on. Targeted techniques to remove a negative state. Don’t get me wrong. All that work is wonderful, very needed, and absolutely to be applauded when the conventional healthcare alternatives are considered: pharmaceutical-heavy treatments that usually address only the symptoms and not the cause. Showing that yoga works for what is dysfunctional (adopting the disease model) is the only language that modern medicine understands and so we have to speak it.
But maybe we can get around to brighter conversations in the future….
What does the right (positive) side of the number line represent? It’s better than OK, more buoyant than ‘good enough’. The right side blossoms with joy, flow, gratitude, and compassion and is more creative, productive and fulfilled. It flourishes with the potential of living in high performance states. So far, Yoga Therapists aren’t really talking much about how yoga enhances theses positive states and nurtures our talents and strengths.
Not Mirroring History
Yoga Therapists can learn a lot by remembering the history of Western Psychology. Freud provides an iconic example with his characterization of the adult personality, its stunted potential reflecting where frustrated fixation happened as a child. To reinstate normal adult functioning, years of talk therapy were needed to expose, mend, and move beyond the crisis that had once stopped normal development. For decades, the entire field of Psychology was mostly about fixing things to be less broken.
In 1998, however, Dr. Martin Seligman shook things up from the podium when he took his stance as the new President of the America Psychological Association. Psychology, he said, had become the science of mental illness. Instead, he called for redefining the mission to have equal emphasis in supporting human strengths and capabilities. Now, this wasn’t some uninformed guy just starting out with a goal of happy-ology, wanting to skippy skip along that right, positive side of the psychological number line. This was a researcher who had spent decades pouring the foundation of the theory of learned helplessness and its role in depression. Seligman is now known as one of the fathers of Positive Psychology.
For decades, Psychology had left happiness and positive emotion out in the cold. Yoga Therapy shouldn’t repeat the same mistake in our early days.
We know, based on the work of Seligman, William Larkin, and others, removing negative states is not the same as building positive capacities. In fostering optimal states, the real goal is finding engagement and meaning in your life. This doesn’t mean blissed out in some unrealistic way; the hedonic pursuit of pleasure does not, in the end, contribute to life satisfaction.
A state of thriving is more than simply removing the misery. Yoga provides a tool to amplify the way to thriving, positive emotions, and contentment (santosha). Yoga is the mastery of the mind, a methodology that can increase the vibrancy, engagement and meaning in your life, no matter your starting point.
What if we define Yoga Therapy as the science that meets you where you are today and moves you along in the right direction? It is the science of personal optimization.