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Yoga and the Art of Listening

Finding a new way to work with suffering

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of taking a workshop with Tias Little,, a teacher with rare intellect and heart, who integrates yoga with an understanding of depth psychology and the impact of trauma. I was delighted to learn a sequence of slow, restorative movements designed to help us slow down enough to listen to our bodies and re-engage with our dream life. I’d trained for years in both Freudian and Jungian dream work, but the art of working with dreams seems to have fallen off the map in this era of managed care. Who has the time to spend one’s precious 12 sessions (if you get that much) talking about dreams, let alone time to sleep enough to enter the REM state necessary for dreams? The study of dreams, called by Freud the “royal road to the unconscious,” is now a path covered in brush and undergrowth, rarely traveled, and a relic in psychology training programs.

Intrigued, I signed up for Tias’s course on the “fluid body,” organized by Lindsay Gibson, founder of Majestic Yoga. I hadn’t expected yoga to deepen the way I work with patients. In his teaching on the art of listening, Tias began by guiding us in a meditation where we listened to the sounds within our bodies—the breathing, the heartbeat, the pulse, the blood pressure. Rarely are we still enough to actually hear internal sounds; I thought you needed a sonogram.

Many of the newer therapies, such as Sensory Motor Psychotherapy and Internal Family Systems, bring attention to the body. In those models, we often focus on what is “felt” in the body. However, to listen internally seemed like a dramatic shift in perspective. Let me tell you how I have been incorporating this into my clinical work.

Debbie (disguised, of course), is a woman in her 50s, a successful scientist, and has spent most of her life avoiding intimate relationships. Whenever she starts seeing someone, she begins to feel trapped. As we talked about her doubts and dissatisfaction with someone she had just started dating, I asked her to get in touch with her body. She became aware of sensations in her belly. Rather than asking her what she was feeling (my standard question), I experimented with asking her to listen. What emerged surprised both of us. “My father abandoned us when I was 12, and I vowed never to trust any man ever again. It’s like I’ve put up a shield so no one could hurt me again.” She began to cry, something that hadn’t happened before. “What happens if you listen more deeply?” I asked. She paused, then reported, “I notice deep anger and paralyzing fear.” Debbie prided herself on being a rational, in-control researcher who never allowed herself to feel anger, let alone express it. “This feels a bit like an archeological dig,” she said, looking surprised. “I had no idea that this was buried in me.”

I kept experimenting with the art of listening deeply. Sam came into his session feeling overwhelmed and agitated. His father had just had open heart surgery and there had been complications. Sam was about to get married in a month, then move to another state so he could help care for his father. He and his fiancée were fighting about the move, and he felt guilty about uprooting her. After practicing some mindfulness together to help him settle, I asked Sam where he noticed the sense of being agitated. In his jaw, he responded, where he often held tension. It was so bad, in fact, that he cracked a tooth from clenching at night. We had worked together for a while, so this wasn’t news, but talk therapy hadn’t been able to help with this symptom. “Can we try something new?” I asked. He nodded. “See if you can let your jaw drop, separating the upper and lower jaw. Let it soften.” After he was able to do this, I asked him to listen to his jaw. He looked at me with raised eyebrows, but agreed to try. Sam was polite and compliant, almost to a fault. “Keep softening, keep curious, keep listening,” I encouraged. He suddenly blurted out, “I’m tired of stuffing it, I’m sick of always shutting up!” He looked stunned, pleased by his sudden uncharacteristic outburst. “Wow, I feel a lot more relaxed. And clearer. Let’s do more of this.”

Of course, this is just the first step in exploring this new approach. But slowing down enough to listen to our internal rhythms feels like a radical act, maybe as radical as finding the time to sleep, and even to dream…

Susan Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., co-author of the book Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy, (Guilford Press) is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School

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