Everyday Psychology

An Interview with Carina Poulsen

I recently sat down with psychologist Carina Poulsen, from Oslo, to talk about Yoga and psychology. Carina was visiting the Brooklyn Yoga Club for the third time, and was staying in the B and B. Her book, Everyday Psychology (Hverdagpspsyk in Norwegian) is the top selling book in Norway on basic psychology, and I was curious to hear her views on how Yoga and psychology complement each other.

Carina travels very light. All of her belongings fit in a carry-on suitcase; she dresses only in black, and designs and makes her own clothes. She travels with a fold-up bike, and bikes around the cities she visits instead of taking public transportation. Though minimalism is her thing, it’s not devoid of style: she had a pair of Y-3 sneakers (all black) that she bought online shipped to the school ahead of her arrival. Perfect for biking to the MET.

EDDIE STERN:
Your book, Everyday Psychology is available only in Norwegian, so I’ve only read the excerpts you’ve translated and sent to me. Can you tell me what the book is about?

CARINA POULSEN:
The intent behind Everyday Psychology was to make information about psychology available for everyone. We don’t learn psychology in elementary or high school. We don’t learn it at our workplace. But it’s everything we are. And we need to know why we think and feel and behave like we do. We include yoga and mindfulness in our book, and also physical activity and nutrition, because we are whole beings, and psychology needs to treat us as such.

ES:
Could you just tell me a little bit about yourself, your educational background and your interests, any hobbies?

CP:
I’m a psychologist, and have my own clinic. I mainly work with adults suffering from anxiety, depression and stress-related struggles. The way I work is based on cognitive therapy and mindfulness.

ES:
What is cognitive therapy?

CP:
Cognitive therapy is a way of working with thoughts and behavior in order to change less constructive patterns. Further, I also use elements from yoga and mindfulness in order to help people calm down and stay present.

ES:
How do you see therapy as a useful tool?

CP:
I view therapy as sort of healing, a way of getting to the core of problem.

ES:
Can you tell me a little bit about the history of psychology?

CP:
The history of psychology goes way back, and during history it has had different kinds of focus. Like behavioral therapy, for example, from which cognitive therapy is rooted. It’s also the Freudian psychoanalytical road, which is slightly different. Either method, psychology is about why we think, behave and feel like we do.

ES:
So in terms of how we look at psychology now in comparison to how it was looked at, at, say, the time of Freud and the different Vienna schools, what are some of the differences that you would see? Or what is, sort of, psychology in modern times now, or in our present times, focusing on differently?

CP:
In our modern world people seek methods for calming down, staying present – a way of managing the high tempo. Further, I experience that many people seek something deeper, meaning, values – and even a spiritual awareness. I think that psychology changes due to changes in the society, the way we live.

ES:
Do you want to tell me a little bit about how you started doing yoga, or what brought you into it? Were you already doing psychology first? Were you doing yoga first?

CP:
I have always, since I was little, been interested in people, I have been told that I always was looking after everyone around me. I remember both being able to sense the atmosphere and other peoples feelings and needs and also spending hours drawing – both being strongly related to a feeling of mindful presence. I started reading psychology very early, and I did meditation several years before entering the world of ashtanga yoga. I was introduced to yoga several years ago, but three years ago, it was presented in a way that caught me. I sort of feel like I’ve always been practicing, but just in my own way or in a different way. But now, practicing Ashtanga yoga, I have a system to rely on and to.

ES:
What was the presentation of it that was so powerful for you?

CP:
It was both the person who presented it, which made me experience and “feel” yoga, but also being a system that involves both the body and the mind.

ES:
Can you tell me a little bit about seeing the human body as a whole, and how taking the whole body into consideration in therapy is important?

CP:
That’s what Ashtanga yoga brought to me. I’ve always been very physical, and this was a system that both included the mental part, the breathing and the physical part by including the body. I believe that psychology needs to include the body more – remember that we are whole – both mind and body.

We experience the world, other people and situations both through our body and our mind – physically and mentally. Further, much of what we experienced can’t be described with words, but they’re something that we experience bodily, as sensations, feelings, and emotions.

We can seek information in the breath, in the body, in our feelings and sensations. And that’s something I also use a lot in therapy by questioning how something feels physically – in the body. That’s a way of using the body to find a way to listening inwards, understand, and “heal”.

Modern psychology is regarding the body as an important part, which can be seen in the third wave of cognitive therapies with mindfulness for example. I also believe that yoga has been approved and now has a more credible role in the world of psychology.

ES:
You say in your book, “In small steps and with the therapist’s support, the patient learns to become aware of his or her conflicts and fears, and can then in turn better cope with them in the future. This normally leads to a significant reduction of inner tension, as well as a greater level of self-awareness and more personal freedom.”

You talk about here this relationship between the therapist and the patient, and what it leads to. And this, of course, sounds very similar to what we find in ancient yoga traditions, such as the Guru-disciple relationship. What is the value of that kind of relationship, and what kind of environment do you feel you want to set up or you are setting up for your patient?

CP:
In most therapies, the relationship between the therapist and the patient are seen as highly important.

In order to dare to look inwards, get insight, to change, you need to feel safe. You can feel safe being with this other person, and reflecting with this other person. Further, many people struggle because of being hurt in relationships. And the only way to heal is also healing through the relation to another person.

ES:
Can you give me an example?

CP:
It could be a person that has been, for example, brought up in a home with a critical mother, and having adapted that critical voice as his or her own inner voice. Through insight, and a safe relation to the therapist, the person can learn to respond differently to oneself – adapt a new and more caring and compassionate inner voice.

ES:
With yoga, we have a system that we can use to stay healthy in body, mind, spirit and emotions. Once we learn the practice, we have it for life. We can always use it, and we can modify it when we need to. For example if we’re tired we can do a little less. So within the type of psychological work you do, is there some kind of a system that you’re giving your patients so they can continue to remain emotionally healthy and mentally healthy after they’ve finished with their course of therapy with you?

CP:
Absolutely. That’s the goal. Making the patient able to get a system they can rely on themselves. I don’t use the word system, but during therapy we talk about what works for them. Some people will rely heavily on their breath and mindfulness practice, for example. Other persons find help in writing, and challenging their thoughts in order to find alternative and more helpful views for them. In this way therapy can be a way of breaking patterns, finding a new system, and getting some insights and tools for future challenges in life.

ES:
I’d like to move on to a question now I’ve already asked you before, but we haven’t spoken about it in depth, and this is about the use of the word ego. I’ve seen different yoga schools where they have signs outside that say, “Leave your shoes and your ego at the door.” Or people say things like, “Oh, I got hurt in a pose because my ego got in the way.”

The word ego is quite often used synonymously as a bad thing, as that part of us that is arrogant, or self important, and that’s ego — which of course is not how Freud used it. I wonder, could you explain to me what ego is, and how he used it, along with id and superego, and why it might have some different connotations than we commonly think it does, for those of us who haven’t studied psychology?

CP:
As I understand it, Freud talked about the id as our basic needs and instincts. The ego is being present with my own needs, but in a more organized way that the basic and immediate id. The superego adds morals, societal morality, like being able to behave appropriately in social situations. I don’t understand ego necessarily as negative, but rather, having a sense of self.

The ego is not this idea of wanting to do everything that I desire, or do things without having concern for anyone. In the yoga world, ego is definitely viewed as something just negative.

ES:
What would be a more positive spin on ego? And what would be a more proper way of using the word?

CP:
This is a big question, but I would say that it’s a way of having a sense of self. And in order to be something for other people, and be something for the group and seeing other people’s needs, you need to have a sense of self as well. I believe that being egocentric is something different than the ego – as the ego being more a sense of self.

ES:
That’s a nice distinction. So the ego, then, could be a healthy sense of self, an integrated sense of self that is integrated with the id and the superego.

CP:
Absolutely.

ES:
And then you would be living as a whole being, or something like that…

CP:
I think that if we look deeply into yoga and psychology, we find that both traditions actually talk about the same things.

ES:
When you get to the mind, there’s only so much we can talk about, because everyone’s having the same universal experience of it.

CP:
Right.

ES:
Let’s talk a little bit about common misunderstandings about yoga. For example, you said earlier that yoga is something that brings you into a state of mind where it’s something that you’re not doing, but something you’re receiving. It is something that enables you to go deeper into yourself, and be an active and responsible part of doing the job. So I’m not too sure exactly what you mean by this. But those were your words. So what were you trying to say there?

CP:
I often hear that, “I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible.” Or, “I’m not able to stay present.” Or, “I can’t make my mind quiet.” People view yoga as something they need to have these strengths or insights to practice. I understand that because of the way yoga often is presented.

ES:
Fancy postures on the beach, etc.

CP:
Exactly. I think that’s the main challenge – yoga being misunderstood. We have a job to do on presenting yoga as a supporting system of being present, calming the senses, looking inwards – as being compassionate towards others, rather than being something egocentric which often is a misapprehension of the concept of yoga.

When you experience stillness inside, in your mind and body, that’s yoga – it’s a way of checking in, and being present with whatever is going on inside you and around you.

Carina’s book, Everyday Psychology, is available here

For more on psychology and Yoga, Freud and Yoga: Two Philosophies of Mind Compared, by T.K.V. Desikachar and Hellfried Krusche is a wonderful resource.

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