ACTively Living Your Yoga – How ACT psychology supports and enhances your practice

Typically, today when the Western world talks about yoga, a series of bendy poses designed for physical exercise come to mind. But a quick delve into the history of yoga indicates that there is much more to it than just the physicality of it.

In ancient India, the yoga asanas (postures) were originally designed to facilitate the release of energy blockages or emotional blockages in the body, so that yogis could reap the benefits of sitting in meditation for long periods of time.

In fact, the Upanishads (a collection of spiritual texts on Indian and yogic philosophy) talk about five koshas, or layers, that surround the essential self. These layers start from the superficial and go deeper and deeper, going from the physical body, to energy, to the mind, to wisdom, and finally to bliss. The idea is that we must work from the outer to the inner, starting with the asanas. Thus, the asanas are not an end but a means – the physical postures pave the path for our inner growth. Many modern yoga practitioners can attest to these benefits. As a result of increased present moment awareness and detachment to thoughts and emotions, with consistent yoga practice we tend to see positive changes in our personal lives, health, and in the way we choose to respond to stress and the challenges of modern life.

In a modern Western yoga practice, we aim to keep our connection to the breath while being physically stimulated and challenged by the asanas. As we engage in this practice, we begin to observe our thoughts and emotions with great detachment, and thus, great clarity. In this respect, it has been said that yoga is like a mirror – that what happens on your mat is what is happening in your life. When we find ourselves being mentally cruel and judgmental with ourselves and others within the context of our yoga practice, we can look to our lives to see where else we may be doing the same. Our practice shows us that which gets in the way of our own peace, joy, and freedom, so that we can observe it, accept it, and only then, transcend it. Psychologists explain this principle more simply by the phrase, “you’ve got to name it to tame it”, meaning, first we must become deeply aware of our shortcomings, and only from that place of awareness can we choose a different path.

Exposure to these possibilities gives us an experience that tells us that we are more than just our thoughts, feelings, memories, urges, sensations… we are more than our physical experiences. Mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, this realisation is the beginning of true freedom. At the heart of this freedom is the ability to create space between the moment that our fears, limiting beliefs, or negative habitual tendencies pop up in our minds, and the moment where we choose how we wish to respond to them.

So, the mind-body connection is very apparent in yoga. Our yoga practice takes us out of our heads, into our hearts, and aids us in our physical and mental flexibility and stability.

So how can ACT psychology (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – a modern mindfulness based form of cognitive behavioural science) help us to get the most of this journey that yoga takes us on? How can we take what is subtly insinuated on our mats, blow it up to life size, and use these concepts make sweeping, real, significant strides in our personal lives, moving us towards a life that feels rich, full, and meaningful? How can we actively use yoga’s lessons to become the people that deep down in our hearts, we really want to be?

Well, coincidentally, the aim of ACT is to produce psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility has been defined as the ability to experience the present moment, and whatever comes up for us in it, with a sense of nonjudgmental openness and awareness, and to actively choose our actions, ensuring that the lives we lead are in line with our own chosen values.

ACT, like yoga, facilitates participants’ direct experience of being able to focus on the present moment, and observing what comes up for us with a sense of detached acceptance. But ACT takes it one step further. Once you’ve acquired these necessary skills, ACT begins to teach you how you can use them to actively create the life that you truly, deep down in your heart want to live by stimulating activity in directions that you consider meaningful and vital (we call these valued directions).

Through a series of experiential exercises and meditations, ACT helps you clarify who you want to be:

  • In your relationships
  • With your family
  • In your friendships
  • In your career
  • In the way you handle stress
  • In the way you handle your finances
  • In the way you handle your physical health
  • In the way you take responsibility for your own well being

ACT helps us get clear on what we want our lives to stand for. When we start asking ourselves the hard questions, moving towards being the people that we really want to be, and becoming the creator of our lives instead of victims to our external experiences and the automatic thought patterns that follow, that’s when inevitably, the mind starts up the negative chatter. Feeling threatened by our grand plans (in which the ego has no place), our mind will start to bring up those limiting beliefs, fearful thoughts, anxiety, depression, lethargy – you name it!

And from there, by using the mindfulness skills that we learn on our mat, by practicing acceptance, and with our deep heart values clear and in the forefront of our minds and hearts, we can begin to change our relationship to these thoughts and feelings that tend to hold us back from our full potential. ACT teaches us how these blocks can have less influence over our lives, and give us the freedom to be the people that we want to be – both on and off the mat.