Dr. Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. As a pioneer in the field of “science-help” and former editor of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy (published by the International Association of Yoga Therapists or IAYT), she has been on the cutting edge of the Yoga therapy field. Here, she shares, from her unique vantage point, her views on the field of Yoga therapy, and professional development for Yoga therapists.

IYM: For what kind of training should potential Yoga therapists look?

KM: First, I think they should get a generalist training that includes a deep understanding of Yoga’s philosophy and history. It is also important to be firmly grounded in your own Yoga practice. Then, think about the population you are most drawn to teaching. I just heard Seane Corne speak at a conference, and she said that whatever drew you to Yoga is the place you can be of the most service. I think this is a really good model for thinking about what population you can serve. Once you settle on a population, you can find a program that offers a process and specific knowledge that will help you serve this population.

IYM: And collaborate with other health professionals serving that population?

KM: Yoga therapists absolutely should plan to develop a support structure in other fields. For example, if you are interested in working with people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), look around your community and get to know the psychologists who are doing this and the Veterans Association. You are not going to be doing what the psychologists do, but you need to know how they work and how they think about the experience of PTSD.

IYM: As a psychologist do you think Yoga therapists need to be dually trained in psychology and Yoga to teach people with mental illness?

KM: What is more important is to have a personal practice of Yoga. Your authenticity is part of what makes a relationship healing and empowering. Yoga therapy is not for people who are having a deep psychological crisis that requires medication and hospitalization; nor is it for people who are an immediate danger to themselves and others. But if someone is having the usual experience of suffering, there is nothing better than Yoga practice, meditation and mindfulness-based practices. So many people are suffering; 50 percent of all people will experience a psychological illness in their lifetime. Yoga therapists have the skills to work with ordinary human suffering. Amy Weintraub talks about the importance of having a mentor to speak with when you feel like you are being ineffective with a client—this is invaluable. Yoga teachers could really benefit from understanding the psychological concept of projection and learning how to deal with students who bring up your shadow aspect; it is important that we not let this derail the teacher-student relationship.

IYM: How do you deal with difficult emotions that arise within yourself or your students during a Yoga class?

KM: The practice I’ve been taught is to cultivate a sense of yourself as a caregiver for your emotions, to witness the emotion without feeling like you need to fix it or make it go away, to feel a tremendous sense of compassion for the emotion and for the “you” that feels it (including yourself as a child, if the emotion relates to early experiences or family conflict). When the emotion arises, hold the experience in your heart and body and say to it, “Welcome. You are safe.” Feel the emotion the way you might feel a Yoga pose—as an experience of the body and breath. Maintain a witness consciousness that can observe the experience. Recognize that the emotion is not a permanent state and it is not all of you, or all that you are. Then, practice self-care. Do whatever you need to do in the moment—rest, choose to do something different than the rest of the class, cry and breathe. See if you can hold the spaciousness that allowed the emotion to show up. If you keep the spaciousness, the emotion will soften and run its course. Teachers need to have that same attitude toward their students, and their students’ experiences. If you are comfortable with your own emotions, you will be able to hold the space for your students.

The second thing has to do with finding connection within the community of a Yoga class. One thing I do, as a teacher, is to look at each student lying in savasana and think, “Thank you for being here. May you be happy, may you know peace.” I focus on each student—really seeing that person and feeling my gratitude to them for simply showing up to help hold the space for everyone in the class. As a student, you can cultivate the same sense of gratitude for the people who share the space and practice with you. One of my teachers says that the ideal spiritual community is one that shows up and practices with you—you don’t hang out at each other’s houses, but you just hold the practice space for each other—without having to explain or justify or wear the identity of who you are outside of the practice space. You don’t need to know the people who practice with you, or even ever talk to them, to feel connected and supported by them. Practice playing that role for other students, offer spacious acceptance.

IYM: What do you see as essential to the future of Yoga therapy as a discipline?

KM: The first thing we need to do is to make everyone a generalist before they become a specialist. It would be helpful for the field to have some ethical standards and philosophy, which everyone can pretty much agree on. We have to understand what it is that makes Yoga unique. Yoga is not necessarily a cure for specific diseases. Yogic philosophy grounds us in a way of understanding the world and interacting with other human beings. You don’t necessarily need to know how to fix a rotator cuff problem. You can share the Yogic understanding of the world, and this will change how someone experiences their body and mind.

About Kelly McGonigal:

Dr. Kelly McGonigal is the author of several books, including the international bestseller The Willpower Instinct and the The Upside of Stress. Her 2013 TED talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” is one of the 20 Most Viewed TED talks of all time, with 10 million views. Dr. McGonigal has consulted for a wide range of non-profit organizations and industries to bring evidence-based strategies for well-being into the workplace, healthcare, education, technology, and community outreach. She also currently serves as the psychology consultant to The New York Times’ Education Initiatives, helping educators around the world interpret the news and opinions of the day from the lens of psychological science. For more information: kellymcgonigal.com.