Integrating Yoga into Career Counseling
By Dinorah Meyer
When I started taking yoga classes in 2013, I was seeking a way to get well-rounded physical exercise. I soon learned that there was much more to the discipline. In fact, the physical postures (asana in Sanskrit) make up just one of yoga’s eight “limbs.” Yoga encompasses a holistic, multifaceted approach to living that is rich enough to explore over the course of a lifetime. Its principles mesh well with career counseling in that they encourage, among other worthwhile pursuits, the cultivation of one’s true self (purusha).
Wanting to learn more about the history, culture and philosophy behind the physical practice, I completed a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training Certification in 2015. Inspired by that experience and subsequent trainings focused on yoga’s therapeutic aspects, I have gradually been incorporating yoga concepts and practices into career counseling sessions. While I have always paid attention to nonverbal cues, yoga has given me ways to bring the whole body, as well as imagination and creativity, more actively into the counseling process.
Observing and managing the mind are central to yoga. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, an essential “handbook” for studying and practicing yoga, posits that most human beings suffer from a regular running “chatter” in their heads. We ruminate about the past, worry about the future, and argue with ourselves and internalized or imagined others. The second sutra – or maxim – defines the goal of yoga as “the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff.” It is about quieting the restless ups and downs of our thoughts and feelings, discerning beneficial interpretations from ones that don’t serve us, exercising compassion and non-judgment, and ultimately gaining inner peace. It is both fascinating and comforting that this consciousness of, struggle with, and means of addressing the “mind-stuff” (or “monkey mind”) has been around for more than five centuries, pointing to a connection among human beings across time and cultures.
Here are two tools and practices that counselors can incorporate relatively easily into career development work with clients of all ages.
Yoga Tool #1: Focus on the Breath (Pranayama)
The first way I introduced yoga into career counseling sessions was by offering to help clients who seemed agitated, distracted, or rushed feel more at ease by concentrating on their breathing. Many yoga classes begin with the teacher inviting participants to close their eyes, turn their attention inward, observe each inhale and exhale, and take stock of their physical, emotional and mental state. This sets the stage for each participant to come into the present moment and listen to their own body and its needs as they move through the rest of class. I have found for career clients that one to five minutes of guided breathing, and even a few deep, focused breaths, have consistently brought them to a new, more centered state from which to begin (or resume) a session. This intentional use of the breath can also be helpful when clients are navigating difficult situations, interactions, or transitions in the workplace. Although yoga has many kinds of breathing techniques with different benefits, I have mostly used:
- Natural breath – gaining awareness by observing the breath without trying to control it
- Ujayi (victorious or ocean) breath, which helps with breath control and extension – gently constricting the back of the throat; the sound of the inhale resembles a wave gathering up, the exhale a wave gently crashing on the shore.
- Three-part breath – inhaling deeply into the belly, then ribcage, then chest; exhaling from the top down (chest, ribs, belly), gently pulling in the abdomen at the end to empty the lungs completely.
Because the mind tends to wander away from the breath and back to worrying, processing or planning, I encourage clients, as I would yoga students, to acknowledge any thoughts or feelings that arise, without judging or getting attached to them, and then return their attention to their breath. For example, a client who has been struggling to manage conflict with a supervisor may be in the middle of three-part breath when the memory of a disagreement arises and triggers resentment. The counselor can encourage the client to acknowledge and observe such feelings and then shift the focus back to breathing in three parts.
Yoga Tool #2: Guided Visualization
Once a client has settled into conscious breathing, I may take them on an inner experiential journey of guided visualization, drawing on my understanding of the person’s situation and encouraging the use of their own imagination. I might ask questions to help the client fill in sensory and other details of an experience or lead the person in a more directive way through specific scenarios. Guided visualization can help a client feel more “embodied” (i.e., aware of and connected with their body), contributing to a greater sense of centeredness and personal agency. To help with career exploration or job searching, guided visualization can serve as a means of imagining ideal future work or preparing for interviews.
After an introductory lead-in (e.g., “You are transported to a place where there are no barriers to doing whatever kind of work you want”), questions like these can stimulate a client to fill in the picture:
- Where are you?
- What does this place look like? What colors do you notice?
- How does the air feel?
- What do you hear?
- Who is around you, if anyone?
- What are you doing and fully enjoying?
- What is your purpose?
- How do you feel?
For an upcoming interview, offering positive affirmations about that future experience, in addition to identifying a potential obstacle and visualizing overcoming it, can build a client’s confidence. For example, the counselor may say:
“You are completely prepared, looking and feeling good in your interview outfit. You know where you are going and will arrive 15 minutes early…”
“At the interview, one interviewer doesn’t seem to be listening to you. But then you remember not to take it personally…”
This article scratches the surface of how yoga can augment a career counselor’s toolset. More transferable concepts and methods are available to guide inquiry and facilitate a client’s discovery and manifestation of their true self or purusha. I encourage career practitioners to explore what yoga has to offer.
Satchidananda, Sri Swami. (2012). Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Buckingham, VA: Integral Yoga Publications.
Dinorah Meyer, MS, NCC, has been counseling adults since 1999 in private practice at the Career & Personal Development Institute (San Francisco), students and alumni at UC Berkeley’s Career Center since 2004, and spouses and partners of UC Berkeley postdocs and visiting scholars since 2014. She has an M.S. in Counseling and 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training Certificate, and teaches yoga at Purusha Yoga in San Francisco. She can be reached at email@example.com