Beth Gibbs is a certified yoga therapist, through the International Association of Yoga Therapists, and a faculty member at the Kripalu School of Integrative Yoga Therapy. She holds a masters’ degree in Yoga Therapy and Mind/Body Health from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is an award-winning author and writes for several health and wellness blogs. She has published a personal growth book, Enlighten Up! Finding Clarity, Contentment and Resilience in a Complicated World, and a children’s book, Ogi Bogi, The Elephant Yogi. Her personal blog, and additional info can be found at https://www.bethgibbs.com
You have over 20 years of experience in Yoga practice. How did you get initiated into yoga?
I have always loved movement. I took dance classes, and long walks in the woods. I’ve hiked and backpacked but I didn’t discover yoga until six months after the birth of my son. I was on maternity leave, and feeling overwhelmed by new mom responsibilities. I started looking for help in one of my favorite places, a brick and mortar bookstore.
I scoured the self-help sections, picked up a yoga book by the late Richard Hittleman, took it home and started to practice on my own in true introverted fashion until a friend encouraged me to try a group class. I did and was hooked. A few years later, I discovered Integrative Yoga Therapy and my main teacher Joseph Le Page. I took the training, and earned a masters degree in yoga therapy and mind/body health from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA., and have been teaching in the program since the 1990’s. Joseph wrote the foreword to my book, Enlighten Up! Finding Clarity, Contentment and Resilience in a Complicated World.
It is frequently said of music therapy, especially with respect to Indian music that it is therapeutic in itself and doesn't need to be offered separately as therapy. Many yoga practitioners believe that about yoga too. What are your thoughts about this?
Practicing any type and style of yoga is therapeutic in many ways but I’ve found some differences between practicing alone, attending traditional group classes and the growing field of yoga therapy.
Most yoga classes I’ve taken are billed as beginner, gentle, intermediate, advanced etc., and tend to be focused on the postures, correct physical alignment, developing flexibility and performing them correctly according to the school or type of program being taught. Most westerners join yoga classes for that reason. I know I did. Those classes helped me feel more calm, content and resilient to stress but none of my teachers presented information on the deeper aspects of yoga. It wasn’t until a few years later that I had a personal experience that changed me, and the way I viewed and practiced yoga.
Cars, for me, are a means for transportation, period. Having a car problem was an invitation to anxiety, anger, panic and feeling all my shadow fears about being abandoned, stranded, rejected and uncared for. But one night I came out of a yoga class, reached into my bag for my car keys. They weren’t there. I looked into the car and saw them in the ignition. I walked back to the class and one of the students drove me to the police station. An officer followed us back and unlocked the car. I thanked them, got into my car, started it up and was halfway out of the parking lot when I realized with a jolt: “I didn’t panic!” I was totally calm and focused throughout the whole experience. I realized then that there is more to yoga than physical movement and I wanted to know what that was. That led to getting certified and teaching classes myself. Because of that experience and my training, I make sure to include information and education about the deeper aspects and benefits of yoga in all of my classes.
Key differences between traditional groups classes/private sessions, and those offering yoga therapy start with a methodology and an assessment of clients/students who experience a health condition or life issue. The intake/assessment information creates an experience using the methodology to fit the specific needs of the student/client. There are no beginner, intermediate or advanced classes/sessions. The goal is self-awareness, optimal health and well-being. Yoga therapy recognizes that relief of symptoms is just one facet of the healing process and that not all illness and disease can be cured. Yoga therapy recognizes that the healing journey is unique to each individual and so selects, adopts and modifies all practices appropriately for the individual and/or group depending upon age, health condition, ability, religion and culture.
You have adapted an ancient yogic model of looking at humans as being more than body-mind constructs to having consciousness into your kosha model. Could you tell us more about how important this is to lead more integrated lives?
The first known mention of the koshas (the five-layers of self-awareness), that I’m aware of, comes from the Taittiriya Upanishad, the 3,000 year old spiritual text from India.
Each layer operates moment to moment in our daily lives. If we move through our lives on autopilot with no awareness of our body, how we’re breathing, or our habits, routines, beliefs, emotions, impulses, and reactions, we lose power. When we succeed in understanding how our layers work and how they are connected, we gain a better understanding of how and why we react, or respond, the way we do to what life presents. Then the choices we make are conscious. Our responses are healthier, balanced and more productive. This requires attention and effort but the result will be more clarity, contentment and resilience on the everyday, material world level and may, according to the individual, lead to greater spiritual development.
The process of paying attention is often influenced by the past, how we think about it, how often we mis-remember it and by how it affects our feelings about ourselves in the present. It’s important to understand that the road to self-awareness is not a sprint; it’s a lifelong marathon that requires intention, skill, and practice.
Developing self-awareness on all levels can help us:
- Find better solutions for your problems
- Make better lifestyle choices
- Manage stress
- Improve relationships that can be improved
- End toxic relationships that cannot be improved
- Reduce worry, fear and anger
- Lessen the tendency to judge yourself and others
- Understand what you can and cannot control
- Learn how to relax
Research shows that people with self-awareness skills tend to have better psychological health, a positive outlook on life and are likely to be more compassionate to themselves and others. This larger sense of self results in the ability to navigate life from a calm center no matter the swirls, whirls and storms that will inevitably surround us.
Most of us choose to begin this journey with the body because it is readily observable through our five-senses. Although the body may be the first focus, it’s important to know that all five layers are inseparable, interrelated and will be affected as well.
Do you think that different systems of health should work with yoga for more effective healing? For instance you talk about yoga nidra and its use in psychiatry and mental health. Is this being done in the US?
I absolutely think that health systems would greatly benefit their clients if they worked with yoga teachers, yoga therapists and yoga schools. Yoga Nidra is already being used with veterans experiencing PTSD. One of the best known programs is Richard Miller’s iRest program. It’s currently used in military hospitals across the US, as well as in correctional facilities, hospices, clinics, schools, and organizations supporting personal growth and well-being. iRest has been endorsed by the US Army Surgeon General and Defense Centers of Excellence as a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). I’m sure there are others but here is the link to the iRest website: https://www.irest.org/publications/The-iRest-Program-for-Healing-PTSD-by-Richard-Miller
Do you think that yoga in the US is largely a physical practice and doesn't usually extend to the other requirements that are prescribed for healthy living including yama/niyamas?
In general, yes. That has been my experience. But because of the growth of yoga and yoga therapy as complementary additions to western medicine, that is slowly changing. The creation of the International Association of Yoga Therapists in 1989 has helped to change that. IAYT has created a scope of practice, along with educational standards, a code of ethics and certification requirements. Yoga Foundations form the first category of the educational standards required.
You have taken yoga to schools. What are the benefits it has offered children during the pandemic both in terms of channeling energy during lockdowns as well as a practice to reduce anxiety?
In 1999 I created a yoga program for after school and the summer camp I worked for. The camp program is still running. It’s called: ‘Wake Up, Relax & Focus.’ It introduces the benefits of yoga to the campers and provides them with specific tools to use to address their needs for self-awareness, self-management, stress reduction and issues like self-confidence, social skills, emotions, peer pressure and academic success. The only change in focus during the pandemic was that the program went virtual. The core curriculum remained the same. It’s to help children improve in their ability to:
- Relax and be calm
- Focus attention
- Understand the meaning of cooperation
The program includes themes, information and practices on:
- Exercises and Postures,
- Better Breathing
- How to Relax
- How to focus and concentrate
- How to be Mindful
Since it’s inception the program has impacted over 4,000 children and youth. The curriculum we developed was the source for my book, Ogi Bogi, The Elephant Yogi, Stories about Yoga for Children. Many of the story ideas and characters have come from the children themselves. Some feedback and comments from the children have been:
- “When I am in a Yoga Club, I feel that I belong to the Universe.” - - - Chris
- “Yoga changed me by helping me relax” - - - Ziya
- “I learned how to calm down when I get mad” - - - Allen
- “It helped my temper” - - - Shay
Recently I wrote a blog post about kids, covid and stress. You can find it here:
As a policy maker, do you encourage the teaching of the origins of Yoga and a little background about its foundations in Indian culture?
Absolutely! Crediting and referencing the source of information and the wisdom traditions from which they come is an important part of professional ethics and standards. I learned this in my yoga training with Integrative Yoga Therapy. My teachers were diligent in crediting their sources and giving us a long list of recommended translations to read.
Finally, how has yoga changed your life and helped you be in the driver's seat as you advocate for others?
Like everyone else, my life has had its ups and downs, difficulties and successes. Since practicing yoga, I am simply more aware of how I respond (or react) to whatever it is I’m facing. I have a wheel analogy to explain this. It goes something like this:
I picture myself, and my life as a wheel that steadily turns. Half of the wheel rim is coated with sugar and is all that makes me happy, excited, upbeat and feeling good - the ups. The other half is coated with negativity and is everything that leaves me feeling, scared, empty, sad and suffering - the downs. The wheel of life is constantly turning, if I stay on the rim, I have no choice but to go round and round from sugar to negativity and back again over and over and over consumed by the ride with no real understanding.
The wheel has five spokes – the koshas. Using them I am able to keep a measure of sanity and my sense of humor to increase moment-to-moment self-awareness, I can travel to the hub – the center of the wheel. From that space I can view the turning wheel with a measure of clarity. The highs are still wonderful, but I know they are temporary. The lows are still painful, but I know they are temporary. Yoga from asana to meditation has gotten me through, divorce, illness, widowhood, self-esteem issues, work problems, prejudice (sexism and racism), financial and relationship issues and continues to do so.
I know that in any situation, I always have three ways to consciously respond; choose to make changes, remain unchanged with full awareness of the consequences or find acceptance and peace of mind if change is not possible.