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Why Yoga and Psychology Need Each Other

Psychotherapist and yoga instructor, Mariana Caplan makes a case for combining both fields, with powerful effects.

“Yoga saved half my life; psychology saved the other.”

With these words, psychotherapist and yoga teacher Mariana Caplan begins her book Yoga & Psyche. Starting in her teens, Caplan followed both fields separately, turning from one to the other when necessary. Initially, she met spiritual teachers who guided and nurtured her, but was left traumatized after several of them sexually assaulted her. She turned to graduate psychology programs that helped her explore her inner world. In her thirties, however, Caplan found herself in the midst of a severe health crisis, one that she was only able to cure through a yoga training in Hawaii.

Caplan had been using both yoga and psychology to heal her wounds, but it was only when she considered combining them that she realized the full potential they held. She devoted herself to exploring extensive research and her own practices to discover the possibilities. As she notes: “Yoga and psychology are like perfect lovers. Each is distinct and uniquely valuable, but when they join they create endless possibilities for transformation that are far greater than what is available when either is practiced alone.”

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Why Yoga Needs Psychology 

Caplan spends the first part of Yoga & Psyche explaining both the offerings and the pitfalls of yoga and psychology—in other words, why yoga “needs” psychology and vice versa. Let’s start with yoga. These practices have been around for thousands of years in some form, and have provided many with a roadmap to peace and enlightenment. However, the types of yoga that have been popularized in the West were primarily created by men, for men. They don’t always take women’s bodies and psyches into account.

Similarly, yoga doesn’t necessarily consider Western afflictions. These can include specific types of trauma, anxiety, depression, and isolation. Caplan relates a story about the Dalai Lama coming to the West and being unable to comprehend the concept of self-hatred. While yoga does explain structures of consciousness that apply to all humans, it sometimes fails to address individual sufferings and stories.

Finally, Caplan argues that most yoga teachers don’t have the training to address strong emotional reactions that their students may have. Teachers can find themselves in an uncomfortable and unsafe position, especially if they have set themselves up as spiritual authorities. Caplan recommends that teachers either find further in-depth psychological and somatic training, or refer students to therapists and other resources.

In this section, Caplan also explores the concept of “spiritual bypassing,” which occurs when people use spiritual practices to avoid dealing with psychological wounds. People can get hooked on the high provided by asana and pranayama practices, which can become an addiction and even a form of denial. This lack of self-knowledge can also lead to misuses of power by spiritual leaders, who may take advantage of their students because they have not fully explored their own psychological makeup.

Why Psychology Needs Yoga

One of yoga’s strengths is that it has been used for thousands of years. Psychology is much newer, with many of its more modern tenants forming in the last 135 years. One way that psychology has been lacking is that it doesn’t always consider the importance of wisdom from clients’ bodies. “Talk therapy” is often an intellectual exercise, but a focus more on the body can lead to huge breakthroughs. Caplan mentions newer forms of psychology such as transpersonal psychology and somatic techniques, which take a more holistic view.

Similarly, psychology doesn’t always take peoples’ spiritual processes and crises into account. Caplan notes horror stories of people undergoing spiritual experiences who were hospitalized, overmedicated, or even given shock treatments by those who misunderstood what they were going through. Happily, with the decision by the American Psychiatric Association to include “Religious and Spiritual Problems” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, this appears to be shifting.

Yoga + Psychology = Healing

Other parts of Yoga & Psyche delve into various aspects of the intersection between yoga and psychology, including chapters on neuroscience, somatic techniques, and trauma. These sections provide a more research-backed argument for the benefits of both fields, and how they can help to bolster the effects of each other.

While this book is geared towards therapists and yoga teachers, all readers can gain unique insights and apply them to their yoga and therapy experiences. Caplan provides a chapter called “The Yoga & Psyche Method Toolbox” that offers concrete takeaways both for healers and those who are looking for healing. For healers, she offers practices such as titration and pendulation for helping clients explore emotions and trauma safely. Caplan also shares a Ten Step Method that yogis can use to apply somatic technology to their asana practice.

Caplan ends the book with a vision of the possibilities that the synthesis of yoga and psychology can provide. She believes the combination will “enable us to safely uncover and explore the images, memories, psychological wounds, and even multigenerational imprints that each of us carries, while simultaneously introducing us to an expanded and more developed spirituality.” What greater mission can there be?

For more information on Caplan, her book, and her services, check out her website here.

For another BBL article on trauma-informed yoga, check here.




 "Actor/influencersJulia Bartz is a yoga instructor, Reiki II practitioner, MSW candidate, and the co-founder of Demystified. Follow her on Twitter at @juliabartz or Instagram at @juliabartzwellness.




Photo Credit: iStock


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