Yoga and Mental Health

Dr. L. J. Bhusan, Professor of Psychology & Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, Bhagalpur University.

Abstract:

The paper discusses the postulates of Yoga as a science of mind. The yogic practices not only serve as prevention and cure of mental disorders but also result in mental peace and higher psychic and spiritual attainments. In the yogic psycho-physiology of the pranic system, the body, mind and spirit work in an integrated manner. Expansion of consciousness takes place through the awakening of the chakras. The paper reports findings based on scientific data to demonstrate the psycho-therapeutic use of Yoga, and underlines some simple yogic techniques for mental health.

Introduction

Yogic techniques, such as asana and pranayama of Hatha Yoga, and various meditations, have been trailed through clinical and other scientific procedures. The results have established the preventative and therapeutic applications of the yogic practices. The explanation of the underlying physiological and chemical basis of these practices has given them wide appeal and acceptability throughout the world. We have witnessed their success in curing some supposedly incurable common diseases like asthma, diabetes, hypertension, etc., without causing adverse side-effects. However, the world of science is yet to appreciate fully that Yoga is basically a science of the mind.

According to Patanjali, the primary aim of Yoga is to restrict modifications or tendencies of the chitta or mind - ''Yogaschitta vritti nirodhah".*1 Yoga analyses, removes and sublimates different types of samskaras or complexes with the view of restoring equilibrium in the personality and training the mind for higher psychic and spiritual attainments. As expressed by Swami Satyananda, "Yoga is a science of consciousness".*2 Explaining further, he states that Yoga provides mastery over all the stages of consciousness or awareness and makes us spectators of experience. It is revealing to note that Freud's postulate regarding the three levels of mind (conscious, subconscious and unconscious) towards the end of the nineteenth century, was conceived well over two thousand years before by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. He described the different levels, or stages of consciousness and clearly stated that only a small fragment of the mind was conscious, while its larger part was unknown.

Yoga has developed methods of experiencing the different levels of consciousness and encompasses the concept of the super conscious mind. Consciousness may function without the help or medium of the sense organs, beyond sense consciousness which we experience every day. One can see without eyes, think without brain hear without ears and feel without any sensorial medium-ship. This is possible when through yogic practices one succeeds in breaking the barriers between different levels of consciousness. The small area of the conscious mind based on sensory experience is expanded, and the whole mind merges into what is called the super-conscious mind. This state of mind is also known as cosmic consciousness or transcendental awareness. The ultimate aim of Yoga is expansion of this consciousness.

Super consciousness is not a concept limited to the philosophical level. Neuroscientists now promote the inadequacy of the neurological basis of our experiences. Eccles*3 goes to the extent of saying, "since materialist solutions fail to account for our experienced uniqueness, I am constrained to attribute the unique ness of psyche or soul to a supernatural spiritual creation". In an appealing analogy he regards the body and brain as a superb computer, and the soul or psyche as its programmer, without which the computer is not only incomplete but meaningless. This is very close to the Indian view that the mind is merely an instrument of the atman.

Integration

Yoga aims at developing an integrated personality of which the body, mind and spirit are integral components. It does not operate within the old mind/body dualism of Cartesian thought, which separates physical from mental health. Some say happiness depends on physical fitness, mental agility and spiritual verve. Spiritual joys and mental delights are subject to bodily conditions, free from every type of ailment. Yoga is a path to both physical and mental well being and higher spiritual awareness. Thus it presents a wider spectrum than modern viewpoint of psychosomatics which accounts for bodily ailments only on a functional basis.

The real objective of Yoga is to attain peace and tranquillity within. Those who sincerely practise Yoga are not only free from stress and anxiety, rather they remain undisturbed like the ocean. Yoga, therefore, is not only a science of mental diseases but a complete science of mental health. It is both preventative and curative of mental disorders and at the same time capable of producing mental peace and cosmic consciousness. As such, it is both a positive and normative science.

The body/mind interactional approach is strictly observed in the different practices of Yoga. Patanjali's steps of Raja Yoga bears testimony to this. Of the eight steps, the first four : yama, niyama, asana and pranayama, axe exoteric and are considered to be the psycho-physiological preparations for the actual Yoga practices. The practice of Yoga proper, begins with the fifth step, pratyahara, which is withdrawal and control of the senses. Pratyahara, along with the next three steps of Raja Yoga, namely dharana (concentration on one object or idea), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (sublime equanimity) is esoteric and primarily psychological and psychic. Thus in the eight steps of Raja Yoga the practices at the physical and psychological levels are counterbalanced. They present a balanced combination of the physiological Yoga of vitality with the psychical Yoga of meditation. In fact, no asana, however elementary or difficult it may be, is purely a physical exercise. It is done with full awareness, generally with closed eyes and in rhythm with the breath, resulting in a cohesive integrated functioning between the body, mind and prana.

The pranic system

Prana refers to the vital energy without which the body is lifeless. The pranic system provides the psycho-physiological basis of the theoretical model and practices of Yoga. Regular and free flow of prana keeps a person physically fit and mentally sound. The practice of pranayama aims at expansion and regulation of prana which is linked with the breathing process. Prana, through the breathing process provides a link between one's physical body and subtle body.

Prana flows through seventy-two thousand channels called nadis. The major three are known as ida, pingala and sushumna. When the breath is dominant in the left nostril, it indicates the flow of ida nadi. When the breath is dominant in the right nostril it indicates the flow of pingala nadi. When the breath is equal in both the nostrils sushumna is active. In a healthy person the three nadis flow alternatively - ida and pingala for 60-90 minutes each sushumna at the cross-over period for a few minutes, all in a balanced manner.*4 Because various situational and internal reasons, this balance is rarely maintained. Imbalance in the flow of prana between ida and pingala nadis gives rise to various organic and psychological disorders and complications. Excessive flow of ida nadi results in activation of the parasympathetic nervous system and makes the person a psychological case. Similarly, excess flow of pingala nadi stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and makes the person extremely active, and may cause somatic problems. Blockages in the flow of prana result in body toxins. The bulk of psychic energy passes through sushumna, the central channel. The flow of prana through sushumna, called kundalini shakti, is considered best for concentration and meditation. Yogic practices, particularly pranayama, help in establishing a balance between ida pingala, clearing the channels and removing internal toxins, expanding the respiratory cycles, increasing vitality and life span and preparing the body and the mind for higher meditation.

Kundalini Yoga

There are many different methods of meditation. Yoga presents a vivid and sound meditational procedure for attainment of super-consciousness through the awakening of kundalini, one's spiritual energy. In visual imagery, kundalini is depicted as a serpent resting in three and a half coils at the base of the spine. Awakening of kundalini can take place through gradual activation of the seven energy centres or chakras. These chakras are visualised as whirling wheels of energy rotating clockwise on their axis in sushumna.

Chakras Meaning Location (see diagram)
1. Mooladhara Basic centre In the area of the perineum
2. Swadhisthana One's own abode Near the tail bone
3. Manipura City of jewels Behind the navel in the spinal cord
4. Anahata Centre of unbeaten sound Behind the heart in the spinal cord
5. Vishuddh Centre of purification In the neck region of the spinal cord
6. Ajna Command centre In the pineal gland
7. Sahasrara One thousand petalled lotus flower At the top of the head

The diagram indicates the position of the chakras and their related tattwas (frequencies of prana and consciousness).

Psychic energy activates the seven chakras which control our physical, mental and spiritual bodies. As long as sushumna is closed at both ends and kundalini rests at mooladhara, the limited psychic energy of the human organism courses only through ida and pingala, the left and right sides of the body. Over activation of either ida or pingala opens the risk of developing psychopathy and malbehavior. However, Swami Satyananda states, "By using definite yogic methods in which the pranic force or vital energy is injected or circulated in the organ, the psychic, spiritual and occult faculties contained in mooladhara begin to manifest. This particular centre is believed in Yoga to be the basic centre where the vital energy lies coiled and which, when aroused, starts to ascend in the spinal cord to the other psychic centres".*5

When the dormant mooladhara is awakened, shakti can start to flow, and with gradual arousal of the chakras through yogic kriya techniques, the spiritual aspirant succeeds in attaining super-consciousness or cosmic awareness. The literature prescribes several necessary conditions, rules, precautions and methods or sadhana, for stimulating the chakras and awakening kundalini.

Yoga in psychotherapeutic use

Certain scientific findings justify many of the yogic assumptions and demonstrate the psychotherapeutic value of Yoga practices. Vabia et al*6 elaborately dealt with the practice of various techniques of Patanjali and their therapeutic implication in the treatment of psychiatric patients. They found the yogic treatment to be more efficient than psychoanalysis or psychotherapy and behaviour therapy. They later*7 put forth a new approach termed psycho-physiologic therapy based on the concepts and techniques of Patanjali like asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana and dhyana. According to the authors, Patanjali's technique begins with control over the voluntary musculature, subsequently one works over the autonomous nervous system and, still later, over the thought process.

Udupa et al*8, studied the psychological and biochemical responses to the practice of Hatha Yoga in a group of young subjects. On the basis of the findings they pointed out that the practice of Yoga makes an individual psychologically more stable and mentally more alert. Datey et al*9 indicated the usefulness of shavasana in the therapeutic management of hypertension. Champa, Rao and Murthy*10 found shavasana efficacious in relieving anxiety. Patel*11, using Yoga and bio-feedback, found she yogic techniques useful in the treatment of hypertension.

A number of case studies and other findings indicate that neurotic and psychotic patients and cases of neural disorders can be successfully treated by the practice of different forms of meditation. Meditation develops the willpower and frees the mind from the arrest of wrong notions, whims and fears. Transcendental meditation (TM), a mechanical method of indigenous origin, has come under much scientific scrutiny - Bloomfield et al*12, and Wallace,*13. Boudreau*14 reported a case of claustrophobia and another of profuse perspiration which were therapeutically successful under TM and Yoga while systematic desensitisation was only partially successful.

Thus the findings of clinical research confirm the psychotherapeutic usefulness of Yoga practices and suggest their superiority to other popular psychoanalytic and behavioural therapies. Psychoanalysis and Yoga differ not only in method but also in their aims. The aim of psychoanalysis is to resolve the conflicts and strengthen the ego so that the individual is better adjusted to the normal demands of situations, but the aim of Yoga is not only to remove mental strains but also to transcend the ego-consciousness so that spiritual consciousness may dawn.

Some yogic techniques for mental health

In our earlier discussion a number of yogic techniques and their efficiency in relation to mental health were mentioned. In fact, every yogic practice, even physical postures like asanas have psychological implications. Vajrasana, shashankasana, anandamadirasana, garbhasana, as well as pranayama, have been found useful in removing depression. Similarly, vipareeta karani mudra, shalabhasana, yoga mudra and shavasana are helpful in alleviating nervousness and improving memory. Kapalbhati and bhramari pranayama relieve nervous tension. The practice of Karma Yoga, Kriya Yoga and meditation help reduce anger anxiety, stress and mental disturbances, and train the mind for higher psychic attainments. However, special mention must be made of a few such techniques or practices which are simple but have been found to be extremely beneficial from the viewpoint of mental health, and for the treatment of behavioural problems. These include Yoga Nidra, Antar Mouna and Ajapa Japa.

Yoga Nidra, or psychic sleep, is primarily a relaxation technique. Relaxation is useful, not only for mental and cardiac patients, but for all men and women engaged in various work. How to relax is a problem for which Yoga Nidra specifies a standard, systematic and scientific procedure. It is a more efficient and effective form of psychic and physiological rest and rejuvenation than conventional sleep. The practise of Yoga Nidra changes the nature of one's mind, cures diseases, restores creative genius and develops the capacity to penetrate into the depths of the human mind.

On the other hand, the practice of Antar Mouna, inner silence, is a practice of mental relaxation and impartial observation of thoughts and ideas. We know at times conflicting thoughts and desires cause strain and psychosomatic problems. Similarly, when one concentrates and tries to unify the vagrant tendencies of one's mind, one finds it difficult and at times strenuous. The detachment practised in Antar Mouna is useful in bringing about mental peace and quiet. This practice removes any permanent thought that haunts the mind.

Ajapa Japa is the spontaneous mantra of the breath. It is said that the breath goes in with the sound of So' and comes out with the sound of 'Ham'. This is the sound of Ajapa Gayatri which the individual continuously repeats. The practice of Ajapa Japa offers significant benefits for mental disorders and its therapeutic effects can hardly be over-emphasised.

Lastly, pratyahara is a useful technique of Patanjali's Raja Yoga for bringing about transformation of mind, and the experience of peace and concentration. Through the techniques of pratyahara, the wandering and restless mind, usually engaged in perceiving the external stimuli through the senses, is transformed, and one starts looking within. This leads to mental concentration and higher stages of meditation.

These are some of the very simple meditational processes in Yoga which can be practised by both mental patients and normal individuals to improve their mental health.

References

*1. Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Four chapters on freedom: Commentary on the yoga sutras by Patanjali. 3rd edn. Munger : Bihar School of Yoga. 1989: 3-9.
*2. Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Yoga from shore to shore. 3rd edn. Munger: Bihar School of Yoga, 1980.
*3. Eccles JC. The spiritual nature of the self. Dyn. Psychist. (21) 1988: 20-30.
*4. Swami Muktibodhananda Saraswati. Under the guidance of Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Swara Yoga: the tantric science of brain breathing. Munger: Bihar School of Yoga, 1984.
*5. Swami Satyananda Saraswati, op. cit. 1980: 123
*6. Vahia NS. Deshmukh Dk, Vinekar SL, Parakh HC. Kapoor SN. A de-conditioning therapy based upon the concepts of A de-conditioning therapy based upon the concepts of Patanjali. International Journal of Social Psychiatry (18) 1972; 61-66.
*7. Vahia NS, Doongaji DR, Jeste DV, Ravindranath S, Kapoor SN, Ardha Purkar L. Psycho-physiologic therapy based on the concept of Patanjali. American Journal of Psychotherapy (27) 1973; 557-565.
*8. Udupa KN, Singh RH, Yadav RA. Certain studies as psychological and biochemical responses to the practices of Hatha Yoga in young normal volunteers. Indian Journal of Medical Research 1973; 61-62.
*9. Datey KK, Deshmukh SN, Dalbi OL, Vinekar SL. Shavasana: A yogic exercise in management of hypertension. Agiology (20) 1969; 322-325.
*10. Champa, Rao, Murthy HN. Comparison of different techniques of relaxation. Proceedings, Sixth All India Convention of Clinical Psychologists, Banaras. 1975.
*11. Patel Ch. Yoga and biofeedback in management of hypertension. Lancet (10) 1973; 19-23.
*12. Bloomfield HH. Cain MP, Jaffe DT, TM. Discovering inner energy and overcoming stress. 1975 Delacorate Press.
*13. Wallace RK. The physiological effects of transcendental meditation, Doctoral Dissertation. Department of physiology. Los Angeles: University of California, 1970.
*14. Boudreau L. Transcendental meditation and yoga as reciprocal inhibitors Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. 1972; (3) 97-98.

Bibliography

(A useful bibliography to yogic techniques cited, yogic theory and referred scientific research - ed.)
Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Dynamics of yoga. Munger Bihar School of Yoga, 1983.
Dr. Swami Karmananda Saraswati MBBS. Yogic management of common diseases. Munger: Bihar School of Yoga, 1983.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Asana pranayama mudra bandha. 7th ed. Munger: Bihar School of Yoga, 1989.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Yoga nidra. 5th ed. Munger: Bihar School of Yoga, 1984.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Meditations from the tantras. 5th ed. Munger: Bihar School of Yoga, 1983.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Kundalini tantra. Munger: Bihar School of Yoga, 1984.