Yoga and Internal Family Systems Therapy

Already Whole

Yogic philosophy states that you are already whole and deeply connected to the world around you. 

To engage in yoga does not make you more complete, rather the practice invites you to see past illusions and remove obstacles that prevent you from knowing your innate true 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.

The integration of 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.


yoga and internal family systems

“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, all of us 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, 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 but that you cultivate this resource so you can turn toward your distress without feeling swallowed by your pain.

Internal Family Systems and the Self

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 characterized by qualities represented by the 8 C’s:

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

Additionally, Self can be found in the 5 Ps:

  • Playfulness
  • Patience
  • Presence
  • Perspective
  • Persistence. 

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

In the IFS model, the Self is understood to be untouched and undamaged and 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.

No Bad Parts

All parts work therapies, including IFS, 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 and at times, competing needs can become polarized lead 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 wellbeing. 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 feeling within loving care.

Yoga and Internal Family Systems Therapy

yoga and internal family systems

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, 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?

Centering as a Practice

This practice is devoted to the theme of centering.

Most importantly, I this 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:

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

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Photo Credit: Jes Kimak

Arielle Schwartz, PhD, is a psychologist, internationally sought-out teacher, yoga instructor, and leading voice in the healing of PTSD and complex trauma. She is the author of five books, including The Complex PTSD WorkbookEMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology, and The Post Traumatic Growth Guidebook.

Dr. Schwartz is an accomplished teacher who guides therapists in the application of EMDR, somatic psychology, parts work therapy, and mindfulness-based interventions for the treatment of trauma and complex PTSD. She guides you through a personal journey of healing in her Sounds True audio program, Trauma Recovery. 

She has a depth of understanding, passion, kindness, compassion, joy, and a succinct way of speaking about very complex topics. She is the founder of the Center for Resilience Informed Therapy in Boulder, Colorado where she maintains a private practice providing psychotherapy, supervision, and consultation. Dr. Schwartz believes that that the journey of trauma recovery is an awakening of the spiritual heart.


Yoga and Internal Family Systems Therapy — 4 Comments

  1. Greetings Dr. Schwartz, I am just finishing up a 6 month IFS course which included video of Richard Schwartz doing therapy. During that same 6 months, I did yoga everyday and many of those sessions were your brilliant and ultimately helpful You Tube yoga workouts, particularly the ones that are about an hour and a half long.
    There are so many insights, changes and remarkable transformations that have happened in my life over that time. At this point, I would just say that everything that you write about in this posting is clear, compassionate, connected… you teach and write from the place where you have personally verified and lived what you teach.
    In my experience, your approach to yoga including the insights of IFS, address a key question for people who have been severely psychologically traumatized in early childhood, and may be missed in many yoga styles. How to understand and heal those dysfunctional muscular contractions that show up (and are the accretions that cover up Self) in one’s life and are illuminated in a yoga session with a teacher who has looked into these depths personally.
    Next in line, for the future, let us look at and use the insights of Dr. McGilchrist and the relevance to yoga and healing of psychological trauma. Hint: the left hemisphere manufactures the parts, the accretions that cover the Self as a matter of adaptation, survival and reproduction…They are a necessary part of the big picture, one of the poles of the magnet, but if they capture all of the attention of the organism, a life of suffering ensues. The “Self” of centering from IFS comes with a balancing of the capacities of the right and left hemispheres but is lead by the wide open, embodied, flowing movement of the right hemispheric way of inhabiting the world. From this point of view, it is all music, dance, flow freed from the static, contracted, sympathetically constrained exiles (and the many defensive protectors surrounding them) and the burdens they carry.
    One last insight: Movement and flow with a loved Friend in the presence of beautiful, natural scenery will open us to “Wholeness”… so does a Bach violin partita played from an immersion in right hemispheric modes of inhabiting the world.

    • Joseph, It is always moving for me to hear how these teachings land for you. Yes, the integration of yoga, parts work are just two examples of the depth of self-realization that lies at the epicenter of many healing modalities. Thank you for this video link…what a powerful example of the healing power of music and creativity.

  2. Dear Arielle, Don’t know if you received my last attempt to comment. I did just want you to know that a 6 month IFS course which included video of Richard Schwartz working with a client; combined with daily yoga practice, mostly doing your You Tube hour and a half sessions, has taken me to the point of being able to use via direct experience the wisdom that you present in this blog. Your insights are lucid, accurate, potent and ultimately usable in a journey of self discovery. Thank you for the teaching and I send you my deep gratitude and love for all you have given me… The resonance has been uncanny but incredibly nourishing. All the best, Joe

  3. Dear Arielle, I have been contemplating your comment on “how these teachings land?” This morning I was up at 5a.m. and practiced with your You Tube session entitled. “Begin Again”. Quoting from the poem you recited by Nikita Gill:

    When will you realize that you can still grow
    forests from the scorched earth of your soul?

    When will you understand that
    those broken parts of you have learned
    how to sing more elegant songs
    than the loveliest of songbirds?

    Your teachings land on me as these questions… the answers are uncovered during the yoga session as awareness of bodily sensations deepens to the point that one can awaken and experience in the present moment, the emergence of the forest from the scorched Earth.

    This afternoon, my wife and I are greeters at the celebration of life of a dear friend who suffered from Alzheimers, slowly deteriorating while her dedicated husband spent all of their remaining resources on keeping her in a nursing home and visiting her every day even though she was rarely cognizant of anything and sometimes randomly violent, and spent her last days sleeping 23 hours a day. I can’t help but see this as an unimaginable violation of these unfortunate, loved friends.

    As a greeter as this social event, I will look to water the forest that will emerge from this patch of scorched Earth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *