Yoga is a self-empowering practice with great potential to support grounding and safety. We can have a nurturing body experience through simple movements, befriend our sensations, become aware of breath, and thereby reconnect with ourselves and our surroundings.
In times of sudden change, uncertainty, or stress, our mental resilience is challenged and we often disengage from the present moment. How we respond to life's difficulties is highly individual. We may withdraw or fight back vigorously, we may suffer from coping silently with the given situation, or the mental pressure builds up and leads to mental illness.
The key to balancing mental stress is feasibility and accessibility. Not everything works for everyone. The way to maintain self-care in our lives often starts with something small, and once it feels integrated, we can introduce one new thing at a time. When we have the opportunity to explore our self, our innate wisdom, to understand and deal with our personal experiences and behaviors, it motivates us to embark on the path of resilience and self-compassion.

How can gradual stabilization and a greater degree of inner space be fostered in a meaningful way?
First of all, as a yoga teacher accompanying a person in fear and despair, it is important for me to

  • be a clear, approachable, reliable companion
  • offer an environment in which one can feel safe
  • start with a non-judgmental perception of what is and work open-mindedly with the client’s presented symptoms and strengths
  • mindful not to get caught in a helper syndrome, but rather be clearly responsible for the encounter, offer full trust in the client’s capability and reinforce their confidence (“You can do it”)
  • use the potential of yoga by working with the body, the breath and the mind and offer insight through the philosophical concepts (e.g., yama niyama)
  • be sure, that there is some social network supporting the person and if necessary, encourage him/her to talk to a doctor – as a Yoga teacher it is essential to know our own limits and to concentrate on our core competencies!

Some key interventions
for an immediate experience of self-centering are:

  • a protected place (security cf. polyvagal theory)
  • active listening, paraphrasing to allow the individual’s inner understanding and wisdom to emerge – a wonderful resource to dive into listening skills is a podcast by Dr. Lauren Tober “A grateful life – on listening well”
  • progressing from thinking – being trapped in narratives, circling around diagnoses, circumstances, dead ends – to perceiving and conscious, non-judgmental body and breath awareness by
    • feeling the ground under the feet, arms and hands resting
    • simple breath awareness; noticing/watching the breath come in and go out with gentle curiosity and no need to change anything (involuntary flow of breath)
    • invites simple breath awareness; feels the breath flow in and out with gentle curiosity and without the need to change anything (involuntary breath flow)
    • even breath coordinated with simple movements in samasthiti or in a stable seated position (a more voluntary way of breathing)
    • āsana supported by the ground; for example, on all fours perhaps humming from cakravākāsana sinking into bālāsana
    • rest poses during the practice to slow down and feel the effect
    • getting to know and cultivate helpful inner and outer posture(s)
    • observe the coming and going of sensations

What is already helping the person?

In my experience, most people know what they need, and what comes from within them is much more motivating than any advice, no matter how well-intentioned, could be. So it's incredibly valuable to ask about personal preferences and experiences to get you started: "What can you do today to feel a little better/worse?"
In this way, we build an "emotional first aid kit" of things that are good to take in and do:
sigh, make movements to release tension, connect with the body and breath, take a walk, repeat a metta phrase, listen to a recorded relaxation exercise, become aware of needs and boundaries, ask for support - we all need help from time to time....

Finding out what is helpful and feasible (less is often more!) loosens the grip of the entanglement. Everything is an experiment – day by day – and I encourage the person to acknowledge over time the things that have gone well.

Coming back to my own self-care I am aware that it is not about “I can fix this”. As the companion, remaining calm and settled during the encounter and winding down afterwards requires me to

  • be clearly aware of my own role and be able to let go so that the issues of others do not overwhelm me; YS 1:33 fits well with this, especially upeksā
  • be authentic, meaning “live what you teach” or the other way round “you cannot give what you do not have”
  • let go of the fruits of my actions and don’t expect all my great ideas to be well received
  • establish a ritual to clear my energy and protect myself
  • maintain professional exchange and mentoring

The poet Terence once said, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” meaning “I am a human being, nothing human is unfamiliar to me.” We all share the human experience, we care for each other and support emotional wellbeing and growth by our wholehearted presence, working together towards a state of mind that is called Yoga.

I am Katharina Lehman - registered yoga teacher (E-RYT500, YACEP), licensed practitioner for psychotherapy and art teacher. This article is inspired from working with my colleagues Janne Anger and Anneke Sips