We are in week six of our NEXT Project group. They have so far spent ten full days studying psychological theory relating primarily to childhood, beginning the difficult process of unraveling their pasts and challenging their own view of their pasts. Childhoods that are often seen through rose tinted glasses at the start of this period begin to take on a different hue as the theory works its way through their defense systems. Our trainees, as we call them, study the meaning of core beliefs and understand where they come from, how they develop, and how they manifest in their everyday lives, applying the theory to themselves during the day as they do on each day of experiential learning. They study Schema Therapy, a relatively new form of psychotherapy that continues where Cognitive Behavioural Therapy ends, and which describes a comprehensive framework of ‘schemas’, blueprints which frame the way we see and experience the world. They explore how unmet needs in childhood develop into schemas later on in life and explore the fascinating but dark web of the schema matrix. They have looked at transactional analysis and the drama triangle, studied attachment theory and learnt difficult lessons that relate to what are often the roots to their substance misuse.
The group work day this week comes when it does, half way through the course, deliberately. It is structured in such a way that it cleverly exposes the deep dynamics that inevitably form from spending 5 weeks together in group and presents individuals with a choice that is not immediately obvious – do you slip into your old ways of behaving, your default setting, when faced with a challenging situation and often challenging behaviour? Or do you stay present, maintain awareness, stay in your meta or observer position and begin laying down the paths for new neural pathways and behaviours to set in. What happened today was fascinating and pretty much as black or white as I just described. Some individuals, when faced with a situation that blasted them right out of their comfort zone, sought (understandably) safety and familiarity, ie. cognitive and behavioural patterns that they were used to, reacting in the (negative) way they would usually react. People who had made great strides over the past few weeks, taking on the theory, applying it in their lives and appearing visibly different in group suddenly regressed to how they appeared at the start of the course. Others however, seemed to relish the opportunity to experience being out of their comfort zone and having a chance to put into practice what they had learnt and do something different. Their sense of achievement at having done so at the end of the day was palpable.
This may sound familiar. I actually thought a lot about my relationship with kapotasana (the pose pictured in the header to this blog post) throughout the day – a pose that takes me way out of what is comfortable, almost every time I do it. There are times where I know it’s on the way and when it arrives, I just want to get it out of the way as soon as I can to minimise the discomfort (a default setting I have applied throughout my life)… But in this mind state I am inevitably tense, not present, rush through it and generally hate every moment. Again, I can relate this to several periods of my life where this was my coping mechanism. There are other times, which thankfully feel as though they are increasing in number, when I am fully present, making each breath as full as I possibly can, staying with each moment, breath by breath, finding the space, moving with precision (which takes what feels like a massive amount of awareness) and… actually enjoying it.
Two things stand out for me here: the importance of presence of mind not absence of it, and the importance of the person holding the space. The internal nourished by the external. As is the case with creating new habits and behaviours, staying present moment by moment with a laser like awareness is the key to creating new pathways and ensuring you’re not simply reinforcing the old ones. Think about when you’re trying to not fall into the trap you’ve always fallen in to in the family environment, or what it’s like when you’re trying to find your voice in a relationship where you’ve always ‘just put up with things’… and the lightning speed at which all good intentions to do something different are erased allowing the old behaviour to reign supreme.
And the importance of the person holding the space, whether that is the yoga teacher, the group facilitator, the therapist… Bringing in psychological theory, the quality of the attachment you have with him or her is crucial. With secure attachment comes trust and ultimately a sense of safety. We feel more secure to move out of our comfort zone and explore the surroundings when the bond we have with our teacher/therapist/partner/etc is secure, our ability to create this being impacted by the type of attachment formed with our primary caregiver(s) when young. The majority of people I work with never formed a secure attachment with their caregivers and so a large part of my work involves working towards safety, learning to trust, and developing intimacy – all ultimately centred around attachment. It is from the foundation of attachment and a sense of safety that we are able to explore the things we usually stay away from.
With regards to yoga, this doesn’t just apply to the advanced poses but to practice in general and to developing one’s practice. To some, the idea of progressing or advancing is a touchy subject – “yoga isn’t about advancing!” are the usual accompanying shouts I’ve heard when discussing this (followed by “bloody obsessive Ashtangis” muttered under the breath). I would argue that it absolutely is. And that this doesn’t apply just to practice but to all life as we know it. We wouldn’t be here today if evolution did not exist. One of the many things I believe practice to be about is understanding patterns – becoming familiar with habitual, negative patterns of movement, where and when we hold tension, and learning to slowly change and heal these, which requires the ability to stay present, to feel. It requires the awareness to recognise those times when you have a choice between repeating what you have always done (and experiencing the same outcome) or doing something different and experiencing change, both physical and mental. Will the choice we make nourish or punish?