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Beyond Asana

By Jo Eckler, Psy.D., RYT


Yoga offers us so many gifts for body and mind. Sometimes we can get caught up in the visible physical changes, whether it’s deepening that forward bend or seeing our muscles grow. Other changes are also just as important, but more difficult to see.

Psychological flexibility is a term coined by Steven Hayes, Ph.D., that describes the ability to experience all the internal thoughts, emotions, and sensations that we as humans go through and still be able to make choices about our behavior in order to live more in alignment with what’s important to us.

That sounds complicated, but it’s as simple (and as difficult) as this. Say you really value being a good friend. You want to go to a big party celebrating your best friend’s recent achievement, but you feel really anxious around crowds and people you don’t know. You have two options. First, anxiety could run the show and you could stay home, leaving your friend an apologetic voicemail and feeling bad about yourself. Or you could find a way to take anxiety along for the ride and go to the party, feeling nervous but also more like the kind of friend you want to be.

The second option sounds better, right? But how on earth do you do it? That’s what so many of us are never taught. We aren’t given an owner’s manual for the human mind and emotions. We aren’t taught how to have a relationship with our internal experiences that still gives us freedom of movement.

That’s the first benefit of psychological flexibility: freedom of movement. Increased psychological flexibility gives us the opportunity to do the things we want to do even if painful thoughts and emotions haven’t gone away. This isn’t a matter of just “sucking it up.” It’s developing an entirely different way of relating to thoughts and emotions.

The second benefit of psychological flexibility is decreased suffering. You’ve probably heard some version of the Haruki Murakami quote, “Pain is unavoidable. Suffering is optional.” When we develop our psychological flexibility, we aren’t numb. We still feel everything. What changes is that we can feel our feelings without being overwhelmed by them, without beating ourselves up for having them. They then move through a little faster and seem a little bit easier to endure.

Finally, we come to our third benefit of psychological flexibility. Although it benefits us deeply, it also helps those around us. If we have more tools to sit with painful thoughts and feelings, we are better able to sit with the thoughts and feelings of others. We can hold space for our loved ones, our students, or our colleagues. We don’t have to guard ourselves as much, meaning we can be more compassionate.

Increased freedom of movement, decreased suffering, and greater compassion? Not a bad deal, right? Especially since these can be yours using simple tools that are easier to learn than you might expect.