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.





The First Fundamental Yoga Practice – A Breath Enquiry 

From our first breath in the world as a little baby, breath is fundamental to our existence. Similarly our last breath out is also a milestone of life, this time as a marker of it ending. We breathe in as we are born, and we breathe out on our death. 

This is telling of the power and nature of this phenomena. Breath is life, breath is energy and with this breath we exist within this world. Without this breath our bodies cease to work. This life force is in a continual flux and flow of movement within us and around us from the day we are born. 

Therefore, it is no surprise that when we teach people to engage with themselves that we start with breath work. The first fundamental movement of yoga is the movement associated with breath. The rhythmical patterns associated with breath moving in and out of our body are subtle and complex all at the same time. 

Engaging in breath enquiry is an exercise in life enquiry. 

The first of the key moving principles within yoga is breath (Farhi, 2000). Breath is an anchor with life. The moment that we are born breath moves us as each cell in the body expands, reduces, and rests in rhythmic pattern and is in a constant state of oscillation. This rhythmic oscillation is an intrinsic part of movement and life. Connecting self to breath is key in yoga practice as breath should lead movement and gives birth to the movement.

Breath can be both a conscious and unconscious process. Neuroscience tells us that people that have experienced trauma, are experiencing psychological distress, or are in physical pain engage with breath in a disrupted, stilted, difficult or strained manner. Consider times when you have pushed yourself further than your physical limits, pushed yourself mentally or experienced loss, trauma or pain, your breath changes, it becomes stilted, short and you may experience or a panicky feeling in your chest where you struggle to get the air that you need. This struggle with the breath moving in the body is representative of the psychological and physical distress that you are experiencing at the time. This struggle triggers your body into a sympathetic nervous response where you have an automatic response to protect yourself by either fleeing or fighting. This flight or fight response is an indicator that we are feeling stressed, overwhelmed and not coping. 

We can engage in a breath enquiry in order to witness and notice our connection with our breath. When we stop to take a moment, ground ourselves in the present and try and slow down the breath we are managing to turn on our parasympathetic nervous system which is our body’s way of regulating our stress response. The parasympathetic nervous system activates our ability to engage in situations calmly and with awareness and connection to the situation. Simply by engaging in breath exercises we can trigger this response and start to feel more calm.

Therefore, in yoga practices we are ultimately training ourselves to engage this response. We are using breath practices when we are moving in asana practice (postures) in order to connect mind and body. The breath moves us into the asana and guides us to observe and notice our body’s stress levels. 

If we find that we disconnect from our breath in our practice then perhaps the practice is too quick, and too complex for where we are at in our practice. Slow it down, engage back into your rhythmical breath patterns so that you can then notice and observe yourself within the space and notice and observe your physical and mental ability to cope and manage with the practice, with the challenges that you face.

So…, start slowly. Try this breath enquiry practice in your own time.

Breath Enquiry – Connecting mind and body through breath

  • Stand with your feet hip width apart, ground down in your feet and bend your knees with a micro bend or a bigger bend, depending on what helps you to feel connected to the earth. 
  • Imagine your spine running from your head, neck, down your back to your tailbone. 
  • Draw the bottom of your spine to the earth and pull the top of the spine upwards like you are pulling yourself up towards the roof. Start to notice your breath, don’t force or do anything to the breath but let the breath be the guide for you.
  • Once you start to notice your breath exhaling slowly tilt your head down, round your shoulders and curl your spine one by one from neck to tailbone all the way done so that your head starts moving to the floor. 
  • When you reach the end of your breath out and a new breath is drawn in bring yourself back upright again. 
  • Work with this oscillating breath noticing and observing how it feels to let the head, neck and arms drape down as you breathe out. Letting go of any concerns or any thoughts about how far you roll forward and begin to sense and notice your breath entering and leaving your body. 
  • As you continue this enquiry you may notice that the breath begins to lengthen and you may even notice a pause at the end of the breathe out and a pause at the end of the breathe in. Invite your body to trust the breath, invite your mind to notice, witness and allow your breath and body do what it will do, simply noticing, not judging, not forcing but rather curiously allowing your body and breath to work together. 
  • Feel the way the breath expands the lungs and then as the breath leaves they reduce in size, notice the brief moments between this expansion and reduction during which there is stillness.
  • Give over to this rhythmical pattern bringing your attention to this awareness with curiosity and acceptance. 

Reference to read more information about the moving principles of yoga: Farhi, D. (2000). Yoga mind, body & spirit: A return to wholeness. Macmillan.

Embodied Social Change

The Science of Yoga and Social Change; Is Yoga linked to Social Change: the science says yes! 

Can we use the teachings of yoga to improve our culture, our society, the way we interact with each other and our planet?

If we embody the essence of our practice does this embodiment support social change? ie. can practicing yoga support the climate change movement? Science suggests that it can, and provides us with an explanation about how the world could be a better place if we all just took the time to engage in yoga practices.

Social change is that way that human interactions and relationships transform cultural and social institutions over time. Neuroscience tells us that mirror neurons are important in imitation and learning and understanding intentions behind human interaction. 

Mirror neurons are neurons in our human brains that fire/activate not only when we are engaging in an action but also when we are watching another engage in an action. For me this happens when I watch movement, in particular dance, my body reacts and engages to what I am observing. Subtly, I almost feel like I need to move alongside the dancers, sometimes I even notice my leg or foot twitch and inch or so.Similarly, mirror neurons play a role in emotional processing. For example,  when I am sitting with someone that is sad and down I also experience this emotion. 

Why? Because when I see someone that looks sad, neural pathways in my brain are activated to provide me with me information about this observation. I too then feel this emotion and understand that the other person is sad. This is where empathy comes from. 

This process can provide us with understanding about how yoga practices can support us to encourage social change. 

When using yoga practices to unite, breath, mind and body we are essentially connecting with self and others. This results in increased awareness and the development of higher consciousness which sits in a place of empathy, compassion, love, and the deep-felt truth that we are all interconnected. This, in turn, may be experienced by others through the process of mirror neurons. 

If we embody our practice in all areas of our life surely this flows on to help others, causing a ripple effect. 

Like a ripple in a pond throwing in one small stone grows and grows. If we impact one other person and they improve their ability to connect, be with self, be with others in a place of compassion then this ripple can continue further. 

All it takes is for us to slow down, use the bodily senses that we were given to anchor this experience, which allows us to bridge the divide between each other. 

Science tells us that this process provides a neurochemical change in our brains which in turn is mirrored by the persons’ brain that we are with. This powerful exchange of energies has been known about by yogis for years and now western science is simply catching up. 

Therefore regular yoga practice helps us to mindfully engage with the world, experience a higher awareness and consciousness that can be passed on to others through our senses. Our sensory experiences of touch, sight, sound, smell, are an anchor to embody and enact conscious, mindful connected presence.

How to Embody Social Change:

  • When using our ears we can encourage ourselves to stop and engage in ‘deep listening’, slowing down our automatic thoughts that go along with taking in information and purely allow ourselves to hear and feel what the other is saying.
  • We can we use our eyes to look at situations with kindness. Using a gaze that sees the best in every situation and beauty in all forms and sizes.
  • We can use our touch to connect and sit with others. Slowing down and physically ensuring that we are present when with people in our lives. Connecting our hands to each other and holding each other for (and if only) a moment. The connection this provides lasts for much longer as we can return to this memory when we need some comfort.
  • Using our eyes we can look at each other and truly witness each other’s experiences. When we do this the message that we send the other person is that they are ‘seen’ and that essentially they are whole ‘just as they are’. 

Ultimately the power of these simple practices may improve the quality of the broader communities we live in, enhance social connectedness and quite possibly create social change. 

Therefore next time you are on your yoga mat remember that you are there not only to improve your connection with self, improve your health, but to engage and connect with your larger community and perhaps with all humankind.