Benefits of Yoga in the Psychotherapeutic Situation

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd.)

Perhaps the thing man prizes most in this world is peace of mind. Yet few have found the key to this simple and necessary ingredient in life. Yoga offers us the methods to regain our lost heritage, to find stability and harmony within ourselves, and develop the ability to face our problems, conflicts and anxieties with dynamic equilibrium. The simple solution lies in the practice of meditation and other yogic techniques.

Today the waiting rooms of doctors and psychiatrists have an increasing influx of people suffering from various emotional and mental problems ranging from mild to severe. These people are seeking relief from their inner suffering, however, science is still far from discovering the perfect cure. Because of this doctors are turning to the ancient yogic sciences in an attempt to find better methods. These individual researchers are using different combinations of medical and yogic techniques and are finding that in this synthesis lies the key to success.

Conflict resolution

S. J. Johnson conducted experiments using yoga therapy to determine its effects on conflict resolution, self-concept and emotional adjustment.*1 Using 20 people (aged from 19 to 60 years, average 32 years) he conducted a 12 week yoga course consisting of 12 two hour sessions and including asanas, pranayama, kirtan (singing of mantras) and lectures. The psychological effects were measured on:

  1. The conflict resolution inventory
  2. Tennessee self-concept scale.

The results were compared with a control group of 20 people. The yoga trained group showed that it could better resolve inner conflicts between what we want to do and what we actually do because it loosened the conflicts and brought them to the surface of consciousness where they could be better dealt with. This group also showed increased self-esteem, stronger feelings of their own identity and therefore better stability, increased self-acceptance and satisfaction with their own behaviour.

Yoga enabled the individuals to experience an increased awareness and strengthened moral, ethical and personal evaluation. They felt more able to contact a situation and experience it fully and reported less defensive reactions. They were also less confused and unsettled with regard to their personality, with a decreased tendency for neurosis. There was no change in the total conflict experience and personal integration measurements and some negative results were reported in terms of self-criticism, feelings of their own value and meaning as members of the family unit, and their situation with regard to others.

Test anxiety

In a study of 41 people with test anxiety,*3 A. L. Snyder compared one group practising relaxation, and a second group using systematic desensitization against a third control group. He found that only relaxation gives the power to positively experience and change one's own abilities and to decrease general anxiety. However, both the relaxation and the desensitization groups benefited. This implies that yoga nidra will be of great use for anxiety and that combinations of yoga nidra (systematic relaxation) and antar mouna (systematic desensitization) will perhaps hold the most promise.

Self-induced anxiety

H. B. Puryear and his associates used a form of meditation which included:

  1. Physical and mental preparation
  2. Silent contemplation of a short sentence individually picked and expressing one's ideal for spiritual growth.*4

He conducted his experiment on 152 members of the Association for Research and Enlightenment who were divided into two groups, one which used the above technique and a control. Self-induced anxiety was measured on the IP AT Anxiety Scale and personal problems were measured on the Mooney Problem Check List. The experimental group showed significant improvement on anxiety measurements but no changes on problem list. These results indicate that even though the problems still exist, the individual can better cope with them.

D. H. Shapiro utilized meditation on a woman troubled by anxiety.*5 Her training consisted of recognition of her own actions, functional analysis, and three weeks of formal and informal meditation. She showed significant decreases in the levels of anxiety, stress and tension.

Intelligence /neuroticism ratings

A. S. Tjoa used japa on 139 college students who were divided into three groups: regular meditators, irregular meditators and non-meditators.*6 He measured: intelligence, neuroticism, neurotic-somatic instability, extroversion and the tendency to 'fake good'. Results showed that regular meditators scored higher on tests of intelligence and lower on the neuroticism and neurotic-somatic instability ratings. The irregular meditators showed higher scores for intelligence than the controls who showed no change.

W. P. Van der Burg used japa meditation on 41 people divided into three groups. The first had 1½ years meditative experience, the second nine weeks, and the third were non-meditators.*7 The advanced meditators showed higher levels of self-esteem, satisfaction, ego strength, self-realization, confidence in others and an improved self-image, while being less sensitive to criticism. The short term meditators felt they were more physically and socially adequate and had decreased levels of neuroticism, depression and rigidity.

William A. J. Polowniak showed that a combination of meditation and encounter groups enabled individuals to gain a clearer concept of self.*8

Approaching a more integrated and healthy state

This is only a small sample of the research to date on the benefits of yoga and meditation in the psychotherapeutic situation. The main point to emerge is that yoga allows us to perceive the world in a more relaxed way and thereby handle our problems better, even if they may not decrease in number. It seems that it will not be long before yoga and meditation become a standard method of helping the psychologically handicapped as well as the average person to deal with inner problems and anxieties.

Meditation seems to work in two distinct stages. The first is relaxation and withdrawal of senses from the outside world so as to become more aware of the inner world. The second stage, which only comes after long practice, is concerned with the concentration of the inner faculties, the synthesis of all the various parts into one coherent whole. As most research is performed with people who are only beginning meditation and who are in a tense state of mind, we are probably only seeing the first stage of relaxation in research works being published. The true experience of concentration, termed dharana in yoga, is a rare phenomenon in new meditators. It requires a great deal of effort and perseverance in meditation to make the mind one-pointed. When this state occurs the mind becomes still, peaceful and content. Thus, what we are seeing in the therapeutic situation is the reorganization of the mental stuff, the essence of our consciousness, so as to approach a more integrated and healthy state. This eventually takes us out of the darkness of our confusion into the light of a higher life.


*1. S. J. Johnson, 'Effects of yoga-therapy on conflict resolution, self-concept and emotional adjustment'. 'Diss. Abst. Int., 34(10-A):6385, 1974.

*2. G. Nowakowska et a.l., 'Relaxation/concentration exercises in the treatment of the mentally ill', Psychiatria Polska, II (4):486-7, 1977.

*3. A. L. Snyder, 'A comparison of relaxation as self-control and systematic desensitization in the treatment of test anxiety', Diss. Abst. Int., 35 (12-B):6116, 1975.

*4. H. B. Puryear et al., 'Anxiety reduction associated with meditation: Home study', Perc. & Mot. Skills, 43:527-531, 1976.

*5, D. H.Shapiro, 'Zen meditation and behavioral self-control strategies applied to a case of generalized anxiety', Psychologia: Int. J. Psychol. Orient., 19(3):134-8, 1976.

*6. A. S. Tjoa, 'Meditation, neuroticism and intelligence : A follow up', Gedrag: Tijdschrift door Psychologie, 3(3):167-182, 1975.

*7. W. P. Van der Berg, 'Psychological research on the effects of the TM technique on a number of personality variables', Gedrag: Tijdschrift voor Psychologie, 4(4):206-218, 1976.

*8. W. A. J. Polowniak, 'The meditation-encounter-growth group', Diss. Abst. Int., 34(4-B):1732, 1973.