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Why Language Choice in Yoga is Important for Mental Health

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

The benefits for yogic practices for mental health and well-being are becoming increasingly realised. Central to mind-body practices, such as yoga, is the cultivation of somatic experience; being aware of what is happening in ones body. One way to cultivate awareness is the use of invitation language when facilitating / teaching a yoga practice.

Invitation language offers an opportunity for individuals to move in ways that feel helpful for them. This promotes choice making based on internal sensations rather than outer referencing based on an external idea of what a yoga pose should look like. Moving based on interoceptive experiences offers an individual the chance to reference internally and develop a deeper mind-body connection.

I like using the example of piano players to explain the development of a body-mind connection. Piano players have a larger area of their somatosensory systems devoted to processing finger movements and sensations relative to matched controls. This neuroplasticity take times and practice. Similarly, the practice of yoga requires both gross and fine motor skills to refine a pose. Over time this alters neuromuscular connections along side awareness of physical sensations. Yoga is particularly interesting because a pose is never "finished", one can always be more flexible or develop further fine muscular control in a pose. The overall result is the every changing development of a deeper mind-body connection.

This is a personal journey. No matter how experience a teacher maybe they do not have the ability to perceive the proprioceptive matrix of another person. Thus, directing a yoga practice using reductionist point by point alignment cues does not facilitate a deeper mind-body connection. Instead, using invitation language offers an opportunity for an individual to notice, appraise, and respond based on the ever changing myriad of their own internal sensations.

Image: Pixabay kaboompics

Invitational language is a key methodology for trauma-sensitive yoga, a body-based therapy proven beneficial for complex trauma. Individuals who have experienced trauma have difficulty feeling internal states, leading to a fundamental disconnection in their mind-body experience and impaired states of well-being. This interoceptive disconnect is thought to be a protective mechanisms, whereby overwhelming emotional or physical sensations associated with a trauma(s) are "blocked-out". Just as one can be practiced at noticing body sensations, individuals can also be skilled at suppressing these same sensations.

However, turning attention away from body sensations is not just a manifestation of a trauma-response. How many of us have been guilty of blocking out body sensations in order to meet a deadline. "I'm thirsty, hungry, need to take a break... but just need to spend another hour or so on this to get it done". With regards to a yoga practice, moving based on an external reference can lead to undesirable sensations, which might be mental suppressed in order to "move correctly" in line with that reference.

The inability to notice sensations in ones body impacts emotional regulation and decision making. With regards to emotional regulation, there are body characteristics associated with emotional states. For example, feeling stressed may be accompanied by tightness through shoulders and shallow breathing. Being aware of these body sensations can bring an individuals attention towards their current emotional state. At this point, an individual may implement behavioural and physical patterns that reduce feelings of stress, promoting both physical and mental health. The alternative is not being aware of ones physical and mental state, this can have a detrimental impact both in the present moment and over the long-term.

Individuals often turn to yoga to reduce stress and increase mental well-being. There are a number of ways in which yogic practices can facilitate these processes. As discussed above, one way is by developing a sense of embodiment; being aware of internal body sensations. The language used by teachers, or more specifically facilitators, of yoga can have an impact on the quality of this mind-body connection.

About the Author

Dr Kathie Overeem works one-on-one and in group sessions with people who wish to experience the healing and transformational effect of yoga. She works with clients that have experienced stress, anxiety, complex trauma, PTSD, eating disorders, complex mental illness, and people in alcohol and other drug rehabilitation. Classes are offered online and in person.

To book a private session or attend a group class with Kathie Click Here

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