Relational Formulation for Helping Professionals

When we think about the general rates of mental health issues within the community; that is that 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health issue during our lifetime, it is inevitable that yoga teachers will be working with people with mental health issues. Add to this that we know that many students attend yoga to address trauma and improve their mental health, it is highly likely that within your yoga class there are people experiencing difficult and challenging mental health experiences. Recently, I have been hearing more and more from yoga teachers about the complexity and issues that they experience when they are working with a large group of people with varying needs.

Yoga teachers inevitably are drawn to the profession as they themselves are passionate about helping others. The role of a yoga teacher can be vast. Teachers often find themselves as not only yoga teacher but also adviser and counsellor for many of their students. More often than not this occurs because a student needs some extra support and help, and students reach out to yoga teachers who find themselves in a position where they want to help but may not always know how.

Quite regularly, I hear from yoga teachers that feel tired and overwhelmed. Yoga teachers are taught to facilitate a class with the aim of ‘holding space’ for the yoga practice, but they also explain how this can become blurred when students need extra support. When we talk about ‘holding space’ we are talking about the process of being present, open and connected with the people that we are working with. This ‘holding of space’ allows the student to experience a ‘container’ where they can confidently explore and engage in personal enquiry and their yoga practice. Students with additional needs are therefore often drawn to yoga teachers who can provide this space. For example, recently working with a yoga teacher they described the demanding schedule of teaching classes at several studios and the additional stress of several students reaching out for support after class. It left her feeling tired and burnt out.

Within my psychotherapy supervision practice, I have trained many professionals in this skill. To be present, to ‘hold space’ when working with individuals and groups. Key to engaging as a helping professional is the importance of understanding the relationship between yourself and your clients and what you bring to this. Transference and countertransference are terms used in psychology to describe the reciprocal nature of relationships and how we may unconsciously influence a relationship based on our previous experiences.

Psychotherapy frameworks provides us with tools to explore and understand our relational patterns. A relational formulation is a process where we identify these patterns so we can identify and map these. This map is your own blueprint into how you relate and engage with yourself, others and the world. It is helpful for helping professions to take some time to look at their helping patterns, review these in order to identify how to help helpfully. Understanding how our helping patterns interact with workplace culture, pressures and our student’s expectations allows us to navigate how we want to be as a helper, teacher, counsellor. As a therapist I see this as imperative when I am ‘holding space’ for others. Engaging in a relational formulation process myself has provided me with insight and understanding about my patterns and inevitably has developed my resiliency to continue within a helping profession. I am able to know how and when to fill my own cup so that I can continue to give to others.

Working with a yoga teacher recently we looked at the transference and countertransference present when she was teaching one particular student. Through this exploration we were able to uncover a challenging pattern for the yoga teacher where they were feeling drawn into needing to provide extra care for this client. These patterns involved “giving too much” to others and then “feeling empty”. I was struck by how often the teacher was putting the students’ needs before her own. This of course is a default position for many. Through our session together she was able to identify how and where that pattern had emerged. We learn these ways of relating early on in life and taking the time to explore this then helps us to understand and accept the patterns. Together we were able to identify several small refinements to this helping pattern that allowed her to look after herself whilst also looking after others, building her resiliency as a teacher and facilitator. She now has a practice before starting a class and some simple strategies for checking in with herself to ensure she maintains this helpful position. The session helped her to rethink about the idea of ‘holding space’ as applying to both the needs of students that one is working with but also to her own needs as a helping profession.

If we don’t allow space to check in with ourselves, notice our own helping patterns it is difficult to truly ‘hold space’ for others. So, take a moment to think about how you engage with your students. Reflect on your helping patterns. Where did you learn these? What do you know about them?

Please reach out and contact me for more information about relational formulation sessions which can be provided face to face or via zoom.