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Whole-Body Mental Health

By Emily Goodykoontz  The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Psychologist Dr. Lori Allen has integrated yoga and mindfulness into her therapy practice. She eventually founded a mindfulness-based mental health center, the Oregon Mind Body Institute.


A patient sits on an overstuffed couch in a small, pleasant office. Opposite to him sits a therapist, who scribbles notes on a pad and nods as the patient speaks.

It's an image that the idea of mental health counseling, or talk therapy, often conjures. Eugene psychologist Dr. Lori Allen used to practice similar traditional psychotherapy -- a talk-based mental health treatment that can focus on thought patterns, emotional regulation and past experiences, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

"Yet for my own health and well-being, I practiced yoga," Allen said. "I realized that the things that I did for my mental and emotional health often included the body."

Allen also teaches yoga, a physical discipline that uses breath control, meditation and specific body postures. While leading a class at Monte Nido RainRock, a residential treatment clinic in Eugene for people with eating disorders, Allen was struck with a realization that transformed her work as a psychologist.

"As I was doing yoga with the women, I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is exactly where we should be talking about what's going on with our thoughts and emotions and blend the two,'" Allen said.

So she integrated yoga and mindfulness into her therapy practice, eventually founding a mindfulness-based mental health center, the Oregon Mind Body Institute, in 2017.

Allen isn't alone. She is one of many health practitioners in Eugene who are adopting evidence-based approaches to mental and physical wellness -- using a whole-person approach that recognize the visceral connections between the mind and body.

As researchers gather more data on complementary therapeutic practices like yoga -- research has surged in the last few years -- Eugene mental health professionals are embracing a wider array of mental health practices.

"This has been a beautiful convergence of both science and traditional practices because what we've learned over the last few decades about stress and its impact on the body, we've been able to illuminate this circular dialogue between stress, its subsequent impact on inflammation and how that impacts our mental and emotional experience," Dr. Cynthia Healey, a Eugene-based integrative psychologist, said.

When Eugene-based author and business owner Wendy Strgar's adult son died of an overdose, she turned to yoga as a way to process and experience her grief.

"People think that grief and all that is in the head, but it's not -- it's actually in the body," Strgar said. "And so in order to digest that experience, you have to do it through the body."

Strgar, a certified yoga and meditation instructor, speaks strictly from her own experience. But many others are turning to the Eastern tradition to improve not just their physical health, but their mental and emotional well-being.

"In our culture, we have this idea that the mind and body are working separately, but it's truly a closed circuit," Arielle Bertelone, a Eugene-based yoga instructor, said. "Working with your body is very obvious to me a way to work with your mind."

Centers that explore healing methods are popping up around Eugene.

Last year, Strgar opened the Anahata Heart Center of Eugene, a yoga and grief healing center that offers movement classes and peer-led grief support groups. The Trauma Healing Project helps local trauma survivors explore various modalities of healing through expression, including yoga, dance, art and writing. And Vista Counseling, a mental health service center in Eugene and Portland, opened a wellness center last year that offers yoga, meditation, acupuncture and massage -- the perfect adjunct to mental health care, said Ryan Scott, psychologist and director of Vista Counseling. Science shows that these local health practitioners and healing centers are on to something.

"Neuroscience is really leading the way there," Dr. Shin Shin Tang, a Eugene psychologist with the Oregon Mind Body Institute, said.

Multiple studies have found evidence that practicing yoga can calm a person's nervous system.

The vagus nerve, which spreads like the roots of a tree from the brain to the body's vital organs, affects how people feel and deal with stress, Tang said.

"It's like the brake system of the body," she said. "So if we can find ways that help, for example, help activate the vagus nerve, like through certain breathing exercises or yoga, then we're affecting our mood and our physical health at the same time."

According to the Center for Disease Control, studies have found that adverse childhood experiences such as trauma, violence and chronic stress -- or ACEs -- are directly linked to physical problems later in life. This includes chronic diseases and leading causes of death such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and suicide.

"We know that being ultimately well, having maximum quality of life predicated that we attend to our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health," Healy said. "What's showing up emotionally is showing up physically."

Anahata Heart Center of Eugene While Strgar was facing her greatest loss -- her son's death -- she found that spaces in the community for healing were limited. PeaceHealth had stopped funding its grief support group for bereaved parents in 2018. And most yoga classes focused on intensive, exercise-based workouts.

So Strgar founded Anahata Heart Center as a space for grief and healing work, she said. The yoga classes offered there are gentle, with supportive instructors experienced in trauma or grief-informed movement.

Eugene native Molly Mae Culligan helps run three peer-led support groups at Anahata, each for its own type of grief: estrangement from family, infancy and pregnancy loss and bereaved parents.

"When you face loss, whether it's a disease or the loss of somebody you deeply love, I think that you have an opportunity to transform your life into something that you couldn't imagine before," Strgar said.

It's not that people who undergo the experience would say it's worth it, she said. But somewhere along the way, they can find a second chance.

"So I feel like really creative grief is another education and resilience," Strgar said. "It's something that people sometimes have naturally, but it's also something that can really be cultivated."

Oregon Mind Body Institute Allen and Tang have created the Oregon Mind Body Institute as a space for community members to explore preventative mental health care and learn evidence-based skills that decrease stress. The institute doesn't offer one-on-one therapy. Instead, they provide group classes to teens and adults on mindfulness.

Tang said that a spate of teen suicides in Eugene prompted the institute to create mindfulness classes for teens. And Allen works with some Oregon public schools to implement a mindfulness curriculum in physical education classes. She also trains administrators and faculty on their own mindfulness -- a top-down approach meant to bring more patience and empathy into classrooms.

But what does mindfulness even mean? "Part of what mindfulness does is it shows us that moment to moment or our feelings are constantly changing," Tang said.

"Another way people put it is one-pointed attention," Allen said. "It's sort of a relief to have your mind on one thing, because it isn't caught up in the stories that your mind tells you, which is often anxiety-provoking."

A person practicing mindfulness through physical movement -- not just yoga, but any type of exercise can work -- is pulled out of the chaos of the mind, Allen said. They focus instead on their breath, body and its movement.

"And you can see how that gives you control," Allen said. "It gives you a sense that everything isn't so important and that you can come in and out of it with your own volition rather than having your thoughts and emotions always pull you in."

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