Yoga and Life Coaching: Why they work together well

Part of the things I had to do as I finished my coaching essentials course with The TLC Solution was a research paper – anything to do with coaching. Of course, mine was on yoga :)

I had an inkling already that yoga and coaching would make a beautiful partnership – otherwise I wouldn’t have been so focused in pursuing it. For the practitioners out there, I’m sure we’ve all said at one point or another, “I’m a completely different person now compared to the me before yoga.” The practice is transformative on its own – what more if you add in life coaching to the mix?

My own experience of going through the workshop and being part of a few coaching conversations as a client showed me that it’s a big fat YES! to yoga and coaching :) My hypothesis was correct!

I’m going to write a bit more about what training was like soon but, in this post I’d like to share my research on why and how yoga and coaching work well together by posting a few excerpts from my research paper — in the hope of enlightening coaches, yoga teachers, and even those interested in coaching.

Disclaimer: the last time I wrote a paper was in college so the citations etc might just suck :)

Screenshot of my presentation. All pictures are from White Space Mind and Body Wellness

How yoga will amplify and help the coaching process

  • Embodied Cognition – On how the experiences of our body influences the way we think

In 1979, Western professors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published a book called Metaphors We Live By, hinting at the significance of physical experience to how we live and understand the world via observing language. Metaphors such as ‘”I have control over him,”’ ‘”I am on top of the situation,”’ ‘”There were sparks’” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1979) all describe mental and relational situations in terms of physical space and sensation.

In the Scientific American, science journalist Samuel McNerney (2011) recently explained it as such: “There are many other examples; we equate up with control and down with being controlled because stronger people and objects tend to control us, and we understand anger metaphorically in terms of heat pressure and loss of physical control because when we are angry our physiology changes e.g., skin temperature increases, heart beat rises and physical control becomes more difficult.”  These observations propose the idea that the experience of being in our bodies has a hand in how we perceive situations. This idea is now known as embodied cognition.

As explained in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“Cognition is embodied when it is deeply dependent upon features of the physical body of an agent, that is, when aspects of the agent’s body beyond the brain play a significant causal or physically constitutive role in cognitive processing…

Embodied cognitive science appeals to the idea that cognition deeply depends on aspects of the agent’s body other than the brain. Without the involvement of the body in both sensing and acting, thoughts would be empty, and mental affairs would not exhibit the characteristics and properties they do.” (Wilson and Foglia, 2016)

In Embodied Cognition’s Embodiment Thesis, our “situated living bodies” have a “feedback-driven role” taking stock and giving meaning to experiences in the physical realm such that cognition becomes “deeply dependent upon characteristics of the physical body of an agent, such that the agent’s beyond-the-brain body plays a significant causal role, or a physically constitutive role, in that agent’s cognitive processing.” (Wilson and Foglia, 2016)

  • Power poses – On letting the body lead the mind

 A study published by Harvard Business School in 2012 discusses how significant striking power poses can be to the success of a high-stakes social evaluation. One part of the study required participants to adopt low-power (“contractive,” “closed” postures) and high-power poses (“expansive open postures”) before speaking about themselves as if they were in a job interview. The results showed that those who assumed the high-power positions “felt significantly more powerful” (Cuddy et al, 2012, p7) The study concluded that, “By nonverbally manipulating power, the high-power posers were effectively imbued with the psychological and physiological perks typically associated with high power, despite being low-power in relation to the evaluators.” (Cuddy et al, 2012, p9).

A study by Riskind and Gotay similar to the one above, yet putting subjects in a low-power, closed posture show that subjects were later seen to ‘”develop helplessness more readily.”’ (Bianchi-Berthouze et al) Going further, they also found that one’s posture had an effect on “verbally reported self-perceptions.” (Bianchi-Berthouze et al) This finding is significant to life coaching since, at its core, coaching is a process of speaking about oneself to gain clarity and adopt and live out a desired worldview.

How yoga can be interweaved in the coaching process

  •  Life coaching and Asana (physical poses)

As discussed in the related literature above, how we hold our bodies has true impact on what we think and feel. Instead of simply being a physical house for our brains, the body plays an active role in the processes of creating and shaping thoughts and emotions.

Yoga takes a slightly reversed view of this. In the Yoga Sutras, the physical poses are described as a means of controlling the monkey mind: “Yoga is the suppression of the variations of the mind. Then the witness abides within its own true identity.” (Patanjali) Here, physical postures don’t necessarily create thought, instead they reveal our true thoughts as spiritual, enlightened beings. Either way, both premises share the understanding that movement and posture bring people power, confidence, and positivity.

Moving towards actual application, yoga asanas have different categories and according to observation and tradition, each creates a different emotional and energetic effect on the practitioner. In terms of embodied cognition, these poses can then be thought of as inviting specific emotions to the yoga and coaching client. The book Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques describes them as the following:

With this in mind, a qualified yoga instructor can tailor the coaching conversation with a short yoga practice before and/or after the conversation to both prime the client for the self-discovery process that they are embarking on and to ground and calm the client after experiencing new, raw emotions and insights.

  • Life coaching and Pranayama (breath work)

Speaking realistically, not all clients who would opt for coaching would opt to embark on a yoga asana practice. To do so would require openness, physical space, and time. An alternative that is equally effective is pranayama, the limb of yoga that has to do with the breath.

. A research centered on the pranayama method Nadi Shodana or alternate nostril breathing found that the practice facilitated the “gradual shift of the autonomic equilibrium” (Deepak et al, 2013) towards parasympathetic activity. The parasympathetic nervous system is also known as the body’s rest and digest system as it slows down the breath and the heart rate, relaxes the body and increases the activities of our intestines and glands. In terms of emotions, pranayama was reported to have “produced beneficial changes in the mood and in the emotional state.” (Deepak et al, 2013)

Speaking in non-science and even non-yoga terms, focusing on the breath allows individuals to enter a space of stillness in which negative thoughts that were not needed are seen for what they are and feelings that serve the body come to the surface. Different pranayamas activate the parasympathetic nervous system and invite the client to arrive in the present moment, disregarding thoughts of the past or the future. Interweaving it into the coaching conversation, just like yoga asana, pranayama can be introduced before and after the coaching conversation. It’s even possible to combine the three together.

The researcher proposes that pranayama can actually prepare the ground well for the positivity needed in Hope Psychology. More closely, it also prepares the ground for the use of the Co-Active Coaching Model. Being fully present through the breath encourages listening, intuition, curiosity and deepening or moving forward. More than that, for both the client and the coach, being present to the breath is also good practice on dancing in the moment and self-management.

  • Life coaching and Yamas and Niyamas

The exact meaning behind each yama (ethical practice towards oneself and others) and niyama (spiritual practice and observance) can vary. (Read more here.)

In actual application, these yamas and niyamas are also practically useful to the coaching conversation and the coaching relationship. The writer of this paper recommends the following:
• As part of the coach’s tool box
These yamas and niyamas can all be included in the coach’s tool box in terms of how they think of the client and how they approach the coaching conversation. It will also help in terms of the coach’s self-care practices, to maintain their own sense of equanimity and well-being.
• To inform the Motivational Interviewing method
The Motivational Interviewing method requires the coach to ask open-ended questions and provide affirmations.

The researcher believes that the yamas and niyamas can be used as a launching point for powerful questions in the conversation. At the same time, they can also be used as affirmations. Some examples would be the following:
o Ahimsa: In this situation, how can you possibly show kindness to yourself/others?
o Asteya: In this situation that brings about feelings of jealousy, can you possibly pinpoint what is the value represented by this thing that you covet?
o Satya: In the next few days, what are some actions you can do which will act out these truths you’ve stated?
o Brahmacharya: In your day, what things could you do less of?
o Aparigraha: What’s a habit you think no longer serves you or this situation?

There you have it. It makes a lot of sense right? I’m excited to pair the two together, especially when I get back from Bali and learn more about holding space there. (READ: How vision boards got me to teaching yoga in Bali ♥)

Thank you for reading!

If you have questions or you’d like to read the whole paper, get in touch with me :)

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