How Do Yoga and Internal Family Systems Therapy Relate?

Three woman mother and daughter having psychology therapy at psychology center

Article At A Glance

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a transformative approach that sees humans as systems of protective and wounded inner parts led by a core Self, which holds inherent healing abilities. Here, learn the benefits of IFS and how to integrate it with your yoga practice.

Yogic philosophy and Internal Family Systems Therapy both state that you are already whole and deeply connected to the world around you. Engaging in these practices does not make you more complete. Rather, they invite you to see past illusions and remove obstacles that prevent you from knowing your true innate nature.

The physical practice of yoga invites you to experiment with energizing movement and breath practices that are enlivening, empowering, playful, and strengthening. Ultimately, the aim of these practices is to cultivate a felt experience of equanimity as a counterpoint to the destabilizing impacts of stress and trauma. From this foundation, you can settle into stillness and allow yourself to be nourished by states of rest and relaxation.

Integrating yoga and Internal Family Systems Therapy gives us tools for working with vulnerable emotions and sensations when they arise on the yoga mat. The conscious use of breath, mindful movement, and meditation help us to find our center, the place within that is untouched by the traumatic events of our lives. This act of centering brings us home to the Self and helps us to access a state of compassion and clarity—now, we can attend to our wounds with wisdom.

The Importance of Centering: Tuning Into the Rhythm of Life

Young yogi attractive woman practicing yoga concept, sitting in Butterfly Pose, Baddha Konasana pose in a yoga practice that draws on Internal Family Systems Therapy.

Centering” is a verb” ~ M.C. Richards

To reside at your center does not constitute a static state of being. Rather, centering represents your capacity to align with nature as it exists within and around you. Within the yogic tradition, the Sanskrit word, Spanda, refers to the pulsation of life that lives within us. Tuning into this rhythm allows you to notice how your emotions and mental states expand and contract.

There may be days when you feel filled to the brim with excitement or creative inspiration. You might feel energetically and physically lighter. In contrast, we all have days when we feel physically heavy, emotionally drained, or mentally fatigued. There is no bad or wrong state of being. Rather, the goal is to adapt our breath and movement in a supportive manner that allows us to access the wisdom that resides within both the expansion and contraction.

Centering can be thought of as an ongoing process that allows you to access an inner source of peace, wisdom, and strength. Centering allows you to know that traumatic events inevitably will shape you; however, they are not all of who you are. Centering doesn’t mean that you ignore your distress. Instead, you cultivate this resource so you can turn toward your distress without feeling swallowed by your pain.

Internal Family Systems: Connecting to the Self

Young Yogi practicing meditation and relaxing in Lotus Pose in a practice that draws on Internal Family Systems Therapy

Centering is closely related to what Richard Schwartz, developer of Internal Family Systems (IFS), refers to as connecting to the Self. The Self is a state of consciousness that exists within every person and is characterized by qualities represented by the eight Cs:

  • Compassion
  • Confidence
  • Creativity
  • Courage
  • Clarity
  • Calmness
  • Connectedness
  • Curiosity

Additionally, Self can be found in the five Ps:

  • Playfulness
  • Patience
  • Presence
  • Perspective
  • Persistence.

As described by Sykes (2016), “In Internal Family Systems, when we speak of the Self, we are referring to a centered state of embodied self-awareness and self-acceptance, combined with a deep sense of how we connect to others.” (pg. 37).

In the Internal Family Systems model, the Self is understood to be untouched and undamaged. As a result, this centered state of being invites you to access your own internal source of wisdom. You access the Self by finding a felt sense of your body in the here and now, cultivating a compassionate witness to our present-moment experience, or amplifying a connection to the heart through a sense of appreciation and gratitude.

Repairing Inner Wounds: Learning to Befriend All Parts of the Self

Two young women doing yoga asana Child’s Pose or Balasana in a yoga practice that draws on Internal Family Systems Therapy

All parts of work therapies, including internal family systems, recognize that it is common to have different self-states that carry memories, sensations, beliefs, and emotions. The human mind is capable of conflicting thoughts, feelings, and needs. At times, competing needs can become polarized, leading to feelings of anxiety, indecision, procrastination, or self-sabotaging behaviors.

Sometimes, inner conflicts also manifest as somatic sensations of pain or symptoms of illness. Our parts tend to reflect our family of origin, and we will carry within us the unresolved wounds from our past until we have an opportunity to revisit those events and find a new sense of repair and resolution.

Most importantly, all parts are essential to our well-being. As Richard Schwartz writes, there are no bad parts. Therapy involves befriending all of our parts and integrating emotions, sensations, or defense strategies held by parts into our overall sense of self. This is especially valuable when healing from trauma. When we integrate yoga and Internal Family Systems therapy, we have ample opportunities to befriend parts of ourselves that carry our wounds. We learn to turn towards these emotions and sensations with compassion and self-acceptance. We can learn to attend to our vulnerable feelings within loving care.

Integrating Yoga and Internal Family Systems Therapy

Image depicts finding and accepting the true self, the spiritual ground that supports the recognition of your own true nature, one that is fluid, responsive to your environment, and ever-changing.

Therapeutic yoga provides you with a spiritual ground that supports the recognition of your own true nature, one that is fluid, responsive to your environment, and ever-changing. Rather than denying the difficulties that you have faced, you can learn to turn toward them for the purpose of transformation. The practice of yoga can ultimately help you work through feelings of terror, rage, shame, and despair and to know that you can ultimately discover a greater sense of freedom, wisdom, strength, and peace.

We all have moments when we become clouded by self-doubt, fear, or faulty beliefs about our worth based on past wounds. These misalignments block access to our inner clarity. In these moments, we might feel as though we are being hijacked by a younger part of ourselves that is seeking our undivided attention. In order to heal, we must attend to these parts and treat each one like an honored guest who has an important message that needs to be heard. Ultimately, the resolution requires that we listen to and take responsibility for each and every part of us.

The integration of yoga and Internal Family Systems invites you to be curious. What does this part of you want you to know? What does this part need from you? From a space of acceptance and love, what would you like to say to this part of you?

Nourishing the Body and Mind: A Practice for Self-Study and Centering

This practice is devoted to the theme of centering. It is an intentional and attentional practice that invites you to turn your awareness to the internal experience of your Self. When our awareness is focused on the outer world for extended periods of time, we can start to feel fatigued. It depletes our resources. The antidote is to nourish your body and mind by turning the lens of your attention inside. This is Pratyahara (the second Niyama, self-study).

From my book, Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery: “From a yogic perspective, you can think of this process as directing your life-force energy toward yourself. Ideally, this provides a respite from the outer world and is a way to nourish yourself with self-awareness.”  ~Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Reprinted with permission from Dr. Arielle Schwartz.
Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. She is also the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology, mindfulness-based therapies, and time-tested relational psychotherapy.

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