THE BLOG

Breathing in a Healing Relationship

07/06/2013 11:05 pm ET | Updated Sep 05, 2013

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"A healer/client relationship is just that, a relationship; a partnership at best, and like all relationships its success is the responsibility of both parties." Those are the words of Dr. Alexes Hazen.

Those words got me thinking. As a yoga teacher, I am always faced with a student who has a few particular, physical issues they wish to address, and of course, physical therapists and doctors are called upon exclusively to help a patient cure a specific physical malady; therefore, why not take this opportunity to blog about how we three in the healing arts view the healing partnership? I am once again consulting with my colleagues Dr. Alexes Hazen and Tamar Amitay, MSPT to share with you our insights, hopefully resulting in some good healing advice.
First and foremost, we are all in agreement; you need to LIKE your chosen partner and feel that they LIKE you. It seems ridiculously obvious, I know, but I myself have been in relationships with teachers who I knew were masterful at what they did, and I was eager to learn from them, but when I looked back I found myself saying, "I never felt like they really liked me." How terrible that was for me. I never want anyone to have to make that discovery down the line. Without this basic element I was never going to fully benefit. No matter how masterful the teacher, doctor or therapist, genuinely liking each other is essential to a fully functional, healing relationship.

The patient/student must feel that the healer has their best interests in mind from the onset and the healer must feel that the patient is ready to responsibly embark on the course of therapy. Even when we show up for our annual check-up, or when taking a class, we still need to bring our whole selves to the examining table or the mat. We are always, all of us, in process, and we need to show up with an alertness that says, "I have an idea of where I am right now and I'm looking for guidance and help so that I may move forward." It's always a good idea to check in with your intuition. Once you have checked in with your own feelings and have decided to give this particular practitioner a try, then also be ready to keep your side of the rapport active. Questions are an important part of receiving help; it's very self-empowering, it deepens the work and both sides benefit. Again, this seems to be an obvious point, but it has been my experience that many people assume that they don't know enough to ask questions and so they mistakenly allow their role to be passive. This is a big mistake. It is imperative that the patient, client or student continue to participate all through the healing process; the information could be vital to the outcome. If we give too much power to the authority figure we will never experience the self-empowerment that comes from being in a good partnership and the rewarding self-growth that follows. Most of us who have been fortunate enough to benefit from a great healing partnership are grateful for the lessons that the challenge presented to us and are all the wiser for the wear.

Unfortunately, things are not always that easy. Alexes tells me that patients sometimes come to the experience having been burned before; maybe they have had a wrong diagnosis in the past or maybe a loved one has been mistreated by the medical system, and so they don't trust, "and why should they?" she admits. Or conversely, perhaps the doctor is having trouble trusting the patient because she senses non-disclosure of an important factor; for instance, the patient may have a habit they are embarrassed about -- an eating disorder, a drug habit, alcohol abuse. Perhaps they are too ashamed, mistrustful or closed to reveal the whole picture; this can completely stymie the success of the doctor and so in turn the provider can't really help. And we as healers come with our own set of worries and blocks, says Alexes. "Sometimes a healer has failed in the past, so they worry, will they fail again?" Ah, yes, vulnerability. If we lose our ability to be vulnerable we stop growing and we stop being effective as professionals. We are not supposed to be perfect, just honest with our patient/students and ourselves. Or as Tamar so beautifully described it, "nonjudgmental, mutually empowering, authentic and compassionate." I know that my past challenges and failures have afforded me the lessons that I needed to be as good as I am today. If I do not continue to welcome my failures because I fear falling from some commercial success then I will eventually become stagnant and I will no longer be useful. Remember, the practitioner is in process too and although they should have the skills necessary to help you, they must be allowed the space to keep learning or they will be ineffective. Remember we are growing with you; this is one, important way we continue to get better at what we do.

On the subject of pain, Tamar pointed out that the successful management of pain on the path to healing is actually influenced by the quality of communication at the initial encounter. At the first meeting the PT has the opportunity to establish a bond with that patient. That bond will affect their attitude and their willingness to trust, comply and adhere to the treatment. It seems that being supported is unburdening and can reduce pain because it reduces stress. We all agreed that offering a clear plan for correcting and healing the issue is actually the beginning of the healing process. Tamar also made it very clear, however, that even with a good start, a patient who does not follow through with both lifestyle recommendations and prescribed home exercises should also not expect full rehabilitation.

Lastly, both parties need to acknowledge that good therapies and medical interventions are always holistic. Very often the student/patient comes in for one issue only to find that this health issue stems from an imbalance or dysfunction in another area entirely. The holistic aspect of healing is something most people are still surprised to discover and reluctant to accept. It has been my experience that even in today's world where the word holistic is so common, most still struggle with the concept of holistic cure. It could be that when we are in pain and we are suffering we are desperate for a magic bullet that can make a specific problem disappear. The truth is that the body is such a systems of checks and balances that a problem in one area, usually (or in my opinion always) comes from somewhere else. And of course there is always an emotional component to injury and healing. Successful healing is incumbent upon the patient accepting the holistic perspective. Actually, the compartmentalization of our bodies is a trap and a pitfall that often leads to problems. If we are having trouble in our hips and we are not able to embrace the fact that our hips are being affected by the positioning of our walking feet then we will have trouble being a good partner in healing. Conversely, if a doctor is treating only the hip without opening up the patient to the fact that that problem is stemming from some imbalance, then the problem will not have been truly addressed and will reoccur.
The subject of responsibility, when it comes to the healing arts and sciences, is wrought with issues. "It's not a dictatorship; it's a relationship that must be built on trust," says Dr. Hazen. Oh, I love this statement. So many people still walk into yoga classes leaving their own powers of intuition at the door along with their shoes! I wonder sometimes if students even ask themselves if they actually feel safe or if they can trust a particular teacher. It seems that many just walk in, lay the mat down, and assume that they will be taken care of completely. We all have some level of understanding as to the state of our bodies and when we enter the doctor's office, PT or yoga studio we need to bring that understanding with us. I would always advise my students, as would Alexes and Tamar, do NOT negate the importance of what you already know about your own body and the importance of a continuing education. Unfortunately, as much as I cringe at the thought of it, most people still suffer from an authority figure idolatry. I have been in way too many yoga classes where it seems everyone has fallen under the unhealthy spell of a popular teacher, philosophy or trademark. All the great teachers of yoga consistently remind us that "the guru is in you" and yet we still are seeing the disillusionment and suffering that comes from the crash and burn that follows the fallen idol.

Again, at its best, the practitioner/client relationship is like any good partnership -- it must be based on warmth, trust, openness and mutual respect. If the relationship lacks those basic ingredients it is doomed to fail.

My final advice on the subject of course is this: Check in with your breathing. You can always trust your breath, so take the time to notice. Are you breathing easier under the care of this person? If the answer is an unequivocal YES, then you are most definitely involved in a healing relationship.

Carla Melucci Ardito helps people to understand the path of the breath through the body and how their skeletal alignment plays a part in unencumbered respiration. She teaches a breathing workshop at The Integral Yoga Institute in New York City and has created the application Breathing Lessons for the iPhone, iPad and iPod to guide people through the basic principles that comprise healthy breathing patterns.