You recently have undertaken training in Embodied Relational Therapy and are incorporating aspects of it into your workshops and classes. Can you explain it to someone who isn’t familiar? How does it overlap with yoga?
Embodied Relational Therapy (ERT) comes from the work of Nick Totton who’s a very experienced body psychotherapist. It’s process work with roots in Reichian growth work. It centers on the theme of how our nature naturally seeks to both express and protect itself. This can cause contradictory pulls, which are sometimes hard to manage. Indeed, this natural polarity of opening and closing coupled with our particular style of relating can sometimes cause a few difficulties! To quote from Nick’s website: ‘we are embodied and in relationship. To be alive we need to be a body, to be alive we need to relate to others; our greatest challenges and our greatest joys follow from this.’
Being able to explore this on the psychological level echoes the yoga. In asana practice my approach centers largely around how we open and close. How we get flexible to lengthen our bodies out into space and how we get strong and contract back to the centre. Invariably as we work in yoga towards these two ends of the spectrum, over time we begin to experience dynamic stability. It’s this quality, this balance of strength and flexibility through repeated and mindful moving from one end of the spectrum to the other in a myriad of ways that supports the psychological work.
The character style model from ERT (which explores our various styles of relating and the key themes of where we may have difficulties, for example through our sense of boundary or control etc) has provided another layer to my body reading skills. I find the exploration of the relationship between relational styles and physical structure fascinating. It’s really helpful for clarifying appropriate, individual ways of working with different people. Overall I feel yoga and ERT combine well with each other, especially since Nick grounds his work on principles rather than fixed ideas. For me it was important to find a way to take yoga out into everyday life, to move it away from being just something that happened on the mat. Sarah helped me to successfully get in touch with my body in a relational way; Nick helped me to explore this in a much wider context.
Is there a point when different forms of mind/body practice stops being yoga? Should we concern ourselves with labels?
I guess that depends on your definition and understanding of the word Yoga. In a quick e-mail from Carlos Pomeda he defined it for me as ‘the solution to the existential dilemma given in the Indian context’ with a historical emphasis on meditative practice. Hatha yoga originally was given as a means to support meditative practice. Certainly whilst it helps my meditation tremendously, for me the existential dilemma bit is increasingly being worked with in the framework of ERT. Nick’s work provides a practical means for this. Ultimately being able to stay in the unknown without labels is a means to encountering ourselves more profoundly. Labels are only life rafts in a sea of the unknown, which is only ever going to be unknowable (as wide as we can imagine that to be). The only thing that we can work with is our own existence and therefore movement, breath, and awareness of our inner and outer worlds all help.
What are you working on in your practice and teaching?
I’m always working on an even deeper understanding of individuation in the body. The term individuation is borrowed from Jung who has also had a huge influence on my work. It seems we are made to individuate from the moment of conception. We creatively separate parts of our self out for different functions but these parts always remain, part of a dynamic whole. Trouble arises when we split parts off.
Our first major movement as an embryo is called the ‘moro reflex’ a primitive reflex which moves the whole body. This is a response of the nervous system to an outside stimulus, and in so doing we immediately face ‘relationship.’ As the months progress both in the womb and for sometime after birth a whole process continues as body parts become more differentiated and are able to move separately from each other due to the refinement of the nervous system.
We are designed to find levels of differentiation through the process of embodying our nervous system. A key part of my work is to keep exploring this. In Asana practice for example, only through being able to separate out parts of the body and move them away from each other can we create and experience space. When we taste ‘spaciousness,’ surprisingly we get a sense of totality (that’s very difficult to really convey in words!). It’s the space bit that I think really attracts people to yoga since this experience is simultaneously a physical and psychological one. Much of the work towards this is a sorting out process and along the way we experience more of the ‘colours’ of our self both physically and psychologically, we gain a much broader sense of self. This has a major impact on our capacity to relate since so much more of us is available.
I’m currently offering students the chance to go much deeper in their experience of ‘mind as not separate from body’ through the work of embodied relational therapy and yoga. A session may typically include both yoga and some talking. My feeling is that in order to experience this depth (which I received by having the years of 1-2-1 yoga and psychotherapy simultaneously) there needs to be a synthesis of approaches.
Also, I use a similar contractual frame as used in body psychotherapy; which means that I’m held in the frame of supervision. This is something that I see as a major lack in the world of yoga teaching. I think many teachers suffer a lot from not having supervision in a supportive and professional container where they can process all of the things that happen both consciously and unconsciously in their teaching and practice. I’m currently looking to develop some supervision models for teachers and to give trainees at least the basics in self-care and self-awareness in relational work. For me it’s so important to recognise that we train as yoga teachers to work with people. Otherwise we end up fetishising the body and treating it as a thing and therefore a posture is only useful if it helps us to connect with who we are.