The Foundations of the Self, by Dr. Monya Cohen, Psy. D, MSW, RYT-200, Certified PRYT Yoga Therapist
Happy New Year! As we move forward into 2022, we face continued uncertainty regarding the pandemic. Changes in social distancing, masking and vaccines, as well as gradual delays in supply chains and startling climate changes. It is more important than ever to have a strong sense of self and life’s purpose. It’s important to be a stable base for yourself and for your loved ones. Resiliency is an important quality to continue to develop - the ability to bounce back during times of adversity - no matter what comes our way.
If you are a reader and psychologically minded, I recommend a classic text that integrates the best of psychology and yoga - Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, by Stephen Cope. As a psychologist and yoga teacher, I discovered this book to be extremely useful in understanding the building blocks of creating, containing, and maintaining a calm and abiding self. In other words, developing and maintaining resilience and equanimity.
At conception, we are born through relationship and require “good enough” relationships to thrive and grow. It is essential for infants to experience the feeling of safety and security in the arms of primary caregivers. It is from our caregivers that we learn how to be in relationships and how to soothe the self. The ability to self soothe is the basis of equanimity. - the qualities of responding rather than reacting and staying calm and emotionally grounded in the face of adversity.
The capacity to feel safe and secure develops when we have been securely held and soothed by our caregivers. Unfortunately, many of us did not have the opportunity to experience being held and soothed by caregivers who found their calm and abiding center. Often, our caregivers are needy, scared, and insecure. It becomes necessary for their children to meet their needs rather than the other way around.
In his book, Stephen Cope explains the importance of being seen, accepted, and acknowledged by important others. The ideas that we have in our minds about who we are and who we should be were formed early in our lives by our important contacts. This is often referred to as mirroring. To see ourselves clearly, we rely on reflection. The eyes from which we are seen, become the eyes through which we see ourselves. These mental representations of ourselves and others are formed early and continue to guide our relationships with others well into adulthood.
As adolescents and adults, how do we develop and maintain a calm and abiding self? In my experience, equanimity and resilience develop in relationship. In the safety of a calm and grounded spiritual teacher, yoga teacher and/or psychotherapist, students/clients can begin to risk feeling vulnerable and release their uncomfortable emotions and often frightening memories. In psychotherapy training, it is well known that progress in therapy occurs in the container of a strong therapeutic alliance. In the therapy relationship, the therapist becomes the emotional home base for the client through talk therapy. In addition, yoga, breathing, mindfulness, and meditation, as well as acupuncture, are ways to cultivate equanimity or the qualities of staying calm and grounded during difficult situations.
Throughout my training as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist, I have learned that everything we want to change begins with the body. Yoga takes us deeper into the layers of our being or selves, and we learn to become aware of and gradually tolerate sensations and feelings in the physical body. As we become aware of sensations and feelings in the body, we begin to accept whatever is arising with kindness and non-judgment. Awareness and acceptance are the first steps toward change.
From Stephen Cope’s perspective, spiritual practice, yoga, and psychotherapy are about building the foundations of the self. These foundations include the capacity to self sooth, warmly love the self, to value and esteem the self and to experience a satisfyingly cohesive sense of self.
I invite you to begin your journey in 2022 by cultivating your calm and abiding self. Know where you are going and feel confident in your plan of how you’ll get there. Learn to respond rather than react. Live life with intention and purpose. Make decisions for you and your family that are based on your values and priorities. Whether through talk therapy or body work, now is the time to rediscover your true self or best self.
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