Yoga and social work are compatible like Bert and Ernie; like Simon and Garfunkel; like Mickey and Minnie Mouse. These two practices go together like peanut butter and jelly; like hot cocoa on a winter’s eve; like flowers in the spring.
The more I am learning about the practice of yoga, the more I am coming to realize that the qualities social workers embody are the same qualities that are required in yoga practice.
About 2,500 years ago Pantajali, the compiler of Yoga-Sutras, an ancient text that first describes the subject of yoga, defines yoga as “citta vritti nirodah” which roughly translates into English as stillness or surrender of the mind or mental projections. Noting this, yoga appears to originate from the idea that yoga is a state of mind before it is a physical gesture.
A state of mind that is calm, mindful, accepting, non-judging and intentional.
Are these not the same qualities to those that social workers and helping professionals exemplify and humanize?
Theoretically speaking, social workers understand that people exist in systems and are influenced and affected by these systems. Social workers ask clients to come back to themselves because controlling their systems is not an option. We tell our clients “You have control over your responses and behavior and not the actions of your mother, your boss or your partner.” We side with clients and teach them to come back to themselves, to regulate, to be mindful, to act with intention, to breath. Social workers help clients to develop coping skills that ground them back into the reality of their perceived threat. We guide them to test their reality in DBT, find their trigger points and ingrained assumptions in CBT and recognize their repetitive behaviors that do not serve them. We do this kindly, without judgment, and we ask them to do the same towards themselves.
“Be mindful – follow the breath – feel your body and where it is heavy and where it is open. Experience the moments and watch them pass by. If you find a thought that doesn’t serve, just let it go. Watch your thoughts go by. Choose the thought that best serves you and let the other ones go.”
Being able to recognize thoughts and let them go by allows one to understand how fleeting they are. This idea brings us one step closer to knowing we can choose which thoughts to act upon. One thought will come and go and another one will always come. It is the silence between the thoughts that is considered to awareness in yoga, however as social workers any ability for a person to sit in become aware of their fleeting thoughts with kindness is a good enough awareness for me!
Just as in social work practice, yoga is first a state of mind. In work with clients it is important to get them to recognize that it is not their behavior but the thought guiding their behavior that needs attention. Once the thought is found, an intention can be connected to it and then a behavior can change.
Similarly, in yoga, jumping into a pose (which can be thought of as a client’s reaction) without a thought about alignment (intention) or breath (communication) is not serving. It is important to find the thought (intention) that guides the client into a pose (action) and then change the pose (action) to best serve your body (relationship).
Social workers empower clients in an effort to help them learn to be mindful and aware so they can fold into themselves and introspect to find insights and create change. This change is a greater sense of self; this greater sense of self in the yoga community is referred to as enlightenment.
The parallels that I find in working with clients and practicing yoga help me take care of myself and view my clients in a strengths based way when I remember we are all on the path to enlightenment and to find our true selves, which according to Buddha can take place any of 64,000 ways.