Yoga-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Sample from the Fall 2008 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.

An Interview with Boris Bhagavan Pisman, MS, NCC

Based on his personal experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic attacks and anxiety, Boris developed a Yoga-based approach to recovery. He talks about his journey and how he integrates the best of Yoga psychology and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) into a holistic treatment model.

Integral Yoga Magazine: Is it true that panic attacks led you to Yoga?

Boris Pisman: Yes, I was 22 years-old and I was looking for an alternative to medication. Someone suggested Yoga, and I tried different types and what appealed to me most was Integral Yoga. I liked the system, the simplicity and the relaxation part of the class. I practiced pranayama, relaxation and meditation very seriously and regularly and, after about a year, the panic attacks finally went away. Then, I took all three levels of Integral Yoga Hatha teacher training (TT) and meditation TT.

I was able to relax, and I was doing a lot of pranayama and asanas. I was teaching Hatha Yoga and meditation, but I still felt an underlying anxiety. I was kind of desperate because I wanted to be anxiety-free. I would follow Sri Gurudev around as much as possible. When he would come to New York, I would have the opportunity to drive him around and I would ask him questions about my anxiety. He said, “Some people have screws too loose, and you have screws too tight. You are not your thoughts, not your emotions.” His guidance led me to delve deep into the study of Jnana Yoga. I visited Ramana Maharshi’s ashram, studied Krishnamurti, Andrew Cohen and others who teach the Advaita Vedanta and Jnana Yoga approaches.

IYM: Did Jnana Yoga help?

BP: Yes, it helped me refuse to engage my thoughts. That was the first step. The second step was that I decided to stop judging my thoughts. It’s not so simple because on the spiritual path we try and have good thoughts. But, I tried to change the relationship with my thoughts. Instead of reacting to them, I’d do nothing about them; I would just let the thoughts exist. The difficult part was not to make a big deal about it when I would react with anxiety to the thoughts. Usually, I felt there was something wrong since I felt anxious, but, I’d decide to let the emotion exist and not so much watch it as just to do nothing about it. This is the heart of Advaita, as Gurudev said: I am not my thoughts, not my emotions—and I embraced that. Yoga says we are divine; we are perfect. The divine person is not affected by thoughts and emotions. I kept practicing not to be involved with my thoughts, not to add more stories.

When I truly started to not engage my thoughts and emotions, I was able to quiet the mind because there was no conflict. Conflict was created when I added to the anxious, intrusive thoughts. If I didn’t add, they went back to where they came from and with time, as Gurudev said, if you don’t give them energy they slowly dry out. It’s a serious and challenging work because we are so conditioned, so it’s difficult to not engage the thoughts. My diseased, anxious ego began to settle down as I stopped responding to the thoughts. When I left them alone, I could be more peaceful about the intrusive ones. I stopped getting the “me” involved. When the ego wants to be involved, it’s hard work, but when I let go of my will and just paid attention to what was happening, I found I got stronger and stronger and less anxious.

IYM: At what point did you decide to get a degree in counseling?

BP: Since I was finding relief through Yoga, I wanted to share what had helped me. But to work with others, I needed the “credentials.” In graduate school, I found that the cognitive therapies were very beneficial in working with anxiety because they helped me identify my thoughts and deeply ingrained beliefs. Once I was able to identify them, I was able to let go of them through meditation and Jnana Yoga. I realized that combining Yoga with CBT gave me about 95 percent relief…

Read the rest of this article in the Fall 2008 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.

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