The Power of Embodied Presence and Mindfulness in Yoga Therapy

Embodied Presence – Have you noticed how simply taking a deep breath can often change how you feel? Taking a deep breath is an easy way to re-inhabit your body after your mind and feelings have been racing around and not coming home to you.  Among other things, that deep breath, brings focused awareness back to your physical experience in the moment.   It brings you home to yourself for a few moments, and when you land, things sometimes don’t seem as bad as they did.  This describes a very simple form of what we call embodied presence.Embodied Presence

At the recent Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR) held in Austin, TX the notion of “embodied presence” was either directly or indirectly referenced in many of the presentations and research findings discussed. In fact, recent scientific medical research confirms that this particular aspect of the yoga therapy experience is of measurable value in quality of life improvement and recovery rate for people in dealing with trauma, healing from disease, or recovering from an unfortunate event.  Studies show patients’ progress is noticeably improved by engaging in yoga practices that result in deeper presence and awareness.   So what is this “embodied presence” exactly?

Simply defined, embodied presence is “being here now” and “being present to the moment through the body”.  This brings a grounded sense of reality to the individual that is often very different to what one might “imagine” from one’s worst case scenario in thoughts and feelings.  To achieve this state, requires focus and awareness.  There are many levels to which this state of being can be experienced – from the effects of a simple deep breath all the way to “dropping in” to a profound sense of deep self-presence and opening to new awareness.  Just as you focus the lens of a camera, you are invited by your yoga therapist to do something similar with yourself.  To “drop in”, you need to focus on your physical state of being in the moment – like asking the question “What’s happening now?” which is the beginning step of dialogue in the Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy process.  This invites an element of “being” rather than “doing” that can progressively deepen.

Of course there are various ways to tap into the wisdom of our bodies.  Yet, research indicates that physical exercise or stretching alone, while helpful, is not nearly as effective as yoga.  A clinical trial earlier this year conducted by Dr. Lorenzo Cohen and others at the Cancer Treatment Center in Houston, TX looked at the effectiveness of yoga based practices in post breast-cancer surgery treatment.

According to Dr. Cohen:

Combining mind and body practices that are part of yoga clearly have tremendous potential to help patients manage the psychosocial and physical difficulties associated with treatment and life after cancer, beyond the benefits of simple stretching.

His presentation at SYTAR left me feeling deeply inspired and validated our Phoenix Rising style of yoga therapy. The evidence he presented made it clear to me that yoga therapy offers a valuable and effective addition to conventional medical treatment models when practiced in ways that engender embodied presence.

So the question then becomes, how as yoga therapists do we support the creation of embodied presence with our clients?   For me, the starting place is with myself.  If I can be truly present to myself, I can in turn be fully present to my clients, and so invite them to greater self-presence.  After 29 years of teaching and practicing Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, I’ve seen volumes of anecdotal evidence to support the power of embodied presence and now, thanks to Dr. Cohen and others, we have the science to support it.

I invite you to join the conversation and share your thoughts on embodied presence.  Please share your comments below.

Michael Lee,  MA,  Dip.Soc.Sci,  Dip.T., E-RYT 500
Founder, Dean of School and Executive Director of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy

Michael is a master educator with 49 years of teaching experience. He founded Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy in 1986 after many years of deep yoga practice and work in the areas of personal growth and transformation.  Michael is the author of two books Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy: Bridge from Body to Soul and Turn Stress Into Bliss: The Proven 8 Week Program for Health, Relaxation, and Stress Relief. He is also a contributing author to the American Psychological Association published book Beyond Talk therapy: Using movement and expressive techniques in clinical practice.