Blending Counseling Theory and Yoga Philosophy

philosophy therapy yoga Sep 27, 2021

By Dana Hampson, LPC and recently certified yoga teacher who wrote this piece as she navigated through her first teacher training.


I am deep into the process of becoming a Yoga teacher with My Vinyasa Practice. What's been cool as I’ve worked through the material is seeing so many parallels between what I say daily in counseling sessions and what Yoga philosophy teaches. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m heavily influenced by Aaron Beck (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), Abraham Maslow (Humanistic Psychology), Viktor Frankl (Existential Therapy) and William Glasser (Reality Therapy). I incorporate a lot of mindfulness work into the session because the Yoga Sutras tie in nicely to these theories and really is at the root of happiness. The more present and in the moment I can be, the more authentically and fully I’m living my life experience. Being mindful and in the moment allows me to confront thought distortions (CBT), realize my full potential (Humanism), have a strong sense of purpose and reason for living(Existentialism) and control what’s within my scope to control (i.e. just me- Reality Therapy)


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

As I’ve watched videos, read the material, journaled, and practiced on my own under the guidance of My Vinyasa Practice, my understanding of Yoga Philosophy has increased exponentially. Yoga is way more than just some “awesome poses." Its roots go back over 2500 years ago and are founded on principles that we all can use! The Yoga Sutras, which were written between 500 BCE and 200 CE by Patanjali, a founder of yoga philosophy, describe the Eight Limbed Path of Yoga with a strong emphasis on being able to quiet the mind to become enlightened. The Sutras describe five types of Chitta Vritti, or mental fluctuations of the mind. Of these, only one is actually true- right/correct knowledge. The rest are misperceptions and delusions that cloud our ability to understand ourselves and others. They impact the relationship we have with ourselves and others.This is what Aaron Beck calls “Thinking Errors” or “Thought Distortions” and we spend a lot of time in cognitive-behavioral therapy talking about these. The mental fluctuations that we decide are true, when in fact they are not, impact our ability to engage in our lives in the healthiest way. Part of the goal of yoga is to quiet the mind so that we are no longer governed by these errors in our thoughts. By engaging in self-study, we better understand where these errors come from and we can detach from them. In counseling, we work on recognizing the thinking errors and reframing them, changing them to ones that are more accurate and realistic. By doing this over and over, we change the “script” that until this point, just played on repeat in our minds, and reprogram our brains to a more accurate way of perceiving ourselves and the world.


Yoga Sutras

One of my favorite Abraham Maslow quotes (which is actually on my bio page on our website) is “What humans can be, they must be”. What this means to me is if I have the potential, that’s what I work towards. I can respect my limitations and work with those, but I don’t let self-doubt, lack of confidence, fear of success or failure, the doubt of others, etc. get in my way of becoming my best self. Yoga describes becoming my best self as the spiritual practice of Niyama, the second of the eight limbs of yoga. There are five in the Yoga Sutras: Saucha- which is purity of self and means taking good care of my body and mind via my diet, hygiene, exercise, etc.; Santosha- which is cultivating a sense of contentment, Tapas- which is being self-disciplined; Svadhyaya- which is self-study; and Ishvara Pranidhana- which is a devotion to a higher power greater than oneself (God, Allah, Community, Values, etc.). Practicing these Nyamas is a life-long endeavor, which Maslow referred to as Self- Actualization.


Sense of Purpose

In Existential Theory, Frankl proposed that the search for a life meaning is our central human motivational force. Frankl survived the Holocaust and lived in four different concentration camps during World War II. He lost both of his parents, his brother and his wife at the camps. His seminal work, “Man’s Search for Meaning” was written shortly after he was liberated from imprisonment and returned home after the war. He focused heavily on Socratic dialogue (open-ended questions like “What is my sense of purpose?” and “What brings meaning to my life?”) along with attitude modification. Both help clients find and pursue meaning in their life that they define themselves. Yoga philosophy asks these big questions and addresses our existential fears, like not knowing the point of one’s life, not having a sense of purpose and fear of death. It helps those who practice let go of fear and embrace one’s own sense of purpose and value.


Reality Therapy

Lastly, I see a lot of parallels between Reality Therapy and Yoga philosophy as well. Beck influenced Glasser, founder of Reality Therapy, and, as a result, there are a lot of parallels in the model of treatment. Both are very present and solution focused. They put the client in the driver’s seat, so to speak, of changing the way they think and act. They also help the client be aware of what they are feeling and how this impacts actions as well. Yoga philosophy teaches us to tune into our bodies so we are aware of how we feel when we experience strong emotion and how we can hold those emotions in our body. We also learn that emotion that are not expressed in a healthy manner can cause major problems (known as energy blocks) in the body and manifest as physical illness. Reality Therapy has a strong emphasis on personal responsibility and controlling the one thing we can- ourselves. Choice Theory, on which Reality Therapy is based, posits that when we try to control others using the Seven Disconnecting Habits, we are harming those relationships. The Eight-Limbed Path of Yoga begins with the Yamas, which are social constructs that help us engage with others in a healthy way. These Yamas aren’t contingent on someone else doing things right before we can. They are focused solely on the practitioner and what he/she is personally responsible for- their own behaviors, thoughts, and feelings.


For a long time, I was like most folks who think of my yoga practice as a fun (or perhaps not so fun for some!) class to go to at the gym. I’d get in some good stretching and some strength-building and then a nice relaxation and go on my merry way. Now I’ve learned that Asana (the yoga poses) is only one part of the Eight-Limbed Path and a tiny part of the Yoga Sutras. I’m seeing so many incredible parallels between my counseling training and centuries old wisdom. I’d like to encourage you to learn more about Yoga Philosophy if this sounds like something you might be interested in. It truly is life changing. Feel free to contact me at [email protected] for more info on how Yoga can help you improve the relationship you have with your own mind and body as well as with the world around you.