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Health and Wellness

By Ranu Boppana, MD

Yoga, Meditation and Psychotherapy

Yoga, meditation and psychotherapy come from disparate traditions that customarily have been suspicious of each other. Western psychotherapists worried that yoga and meditation fostered regression and dissociation that would be harmful to one’s psyche. Eastern practitioners did not understand psychotherapy’s preoccupation with the self. Today, however, these techniques are increasingly being used together as complements.

Hatha yoga or yoga, as it is known in the west, is an ancient Indian system of physical exercise that, combined with pranayama or breathing exercises, promotes relaxation and body-mind integration. Yoga has been shown to lower blood pressure and decrease stress-related illnesses. It is now being studied in the treatment of substance abuse and anxiety disorders such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Meditation involves the retraining of attention from the outer world to one’s own patterns of activity. Buddhist mindfulness, or Vipassana, focuses attention on feelings, thoughts and sensations, teaching one to disinterestedly observe one’s own coming and going. In the Buddhist view, emotions, like physical sensations, can be controlled by the mind. The Vedas also promote “detachment,” suggesting that all human suffering stems from desire and ignorance about the true nature of man, which is one with the infinite. Research in meditation is showing its effectiveness, and it is now being studied in the treatment of everything from ADHD to pain management, depression and anxiety.

Interestingly, psychoanalysis also promotes the development of the observing ego, a part of the psyche that disinterestedly watches the interaction of the id, the locus of drives and desires; the superego, the internal moral judge; and the ego, the part of the psyche that mediates between the id, superego and the external world. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, a different theoretical model of psychotherapy, also postulates that psychopathology occurs as a result of cognitive distortions and teaches people to become aware of their automatic thoughts. The behavioral component of this therapy seeks to change an individual’s response when distressed by shaping that behavior itself. These therapies seek to mitigate neurotic self-centeredness, correct misinterpretations and teach new more effective strategies to meet one’s needs. In the past, different theoretical models of therapy were rarely combined. Now they are not only combined with each other and medications that treat depression and anxiety, but also with yoga and meditation.

Yoga, meditation and psychotherapy all seek to promote self-awareness, liberation from fear, openness and the discovery of the authentic self. Practitioners who combine these approaches are debating how best they should be combined. Such discussion is very exciting. It may turn out that when East meets West, we may discover quicker, more effective treatments for mental pain and suffering that will reach more people.

Ranu Boppana, MD is a Board Certified Adult and Child Psychiatrist in private practice in New York, New York. She is also a Clinical Instructor at the NYU School of Medicine and was included in the Consumer Research Council of America's "Guide to America's Top Psychiatrists 2007 Edition."

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