Yogic Treatment of Mental Illness

Dr Swami Vivekananda Saraswati (Dr Brian Thomson)

In days gone by, the priests treated the illnesses of the body as well as the mind and the spirit. But with the scientific age another group of people took over the treatment of the body and these were called medical practitioners or doctors. In later years the medical practitioners and doctors have branched into the area of the mind as well, taking with them the tools that they used for treating the body. In the beginning these tools were mainly physical ones. From there they moved to psychological tools, some of which I will describe.

Physical treatment

Firstly there are certain illnesses of the emotions and the mental state which are caused by physical factors. These may respond to many treatments such as Ayurveda, acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic and other physical treatments. My training is in allopathy, so I use these treatments in a limited number of cases. The people I am referring to come into four groups.

The first group have some form of epilepsy and require anti-convulsants.. The second group are people with schizophrenia, which is a physical, chemical condition of the central nervous system, and they respond to what we call anti-psychotic medication. The third group have a condition called manic depression or bipolar affective disorder, up and down over long periods of time, and these people respond to a very simple chemical called lithium. The fourth group have a condition called endogenous depression, a type of depression that is chemically caused and a physiological fact.

It is my experience that these people still respond well to yoga practices but, because of the state of mind that they have when they are in the acute phase of illness, they need the chemicals to stabilise them. When they are stabilised, they have the motivation and the presence of mind to do the yoga practices which then ensure that they will get off the drugs quickly, and that is important. There are other physical treatments such as convulsive therapy which is used very little nowadays. In my opinion these are the four conditions in which it is still valid to use physical treatments for a certain period of time. However, yoga should be used in conjunction with them, and patients will accept the yoga practices and go through them very conscientiously.

Treating the emotions

In the second group we treat the emotions. Here we find one of the biggest traps in psychiatry, because if we just treat the emotions with drugs, it is symptomatic treatment rather than therapeutic treatment. In symptomatic treatment, we have the problem of addiction and habituation to those drugs for the following reason. If I am feeling very tense, anxious or depressed, and you pop a pill in my mouth and ten minutes later I start feeling better and twenty minutes after that I am feeling absolutely wonderful, then the next time I am feeling bad, I want you to pop another pill into me.

You have heard of Pavlov's dogs? Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who worked on conditioning and experimented with dogs. He would ring a little bell and give the dogs something to eat. After a while when he rang the little bell, the dogs would salivate because they thought a meal was coming. He had conditioned the dogs to salivate and from then on, every time be rang the little bell, the dogs would salivate. So this idea of swallowing a pill to feel better is a conditioning process and it is habit forming, even in the short term.

The second point about symptomatic treatments is withdrawal. Any substance that is taken into the body which has any effect on the central nervous system will have the opposite effect when it is wearing off. If I feel anxious and I take valium (diazepam), in four or five hours when it is wearing off I will be more anxious than I was before I started. So what do I do? Of course, I go and take another diazepam.

However, then the third problem comes in, which is tolerance. As I take these substances into the body, the enzymes that break them down increase, so that, as I take in the next one, it is broken down quicker and so I have to take in the next one a bit sooner. So, treating emotional symptoms with drugs is an insidious process, in which addiction is very common. We are beginning to find that a lot of people, especially in the western world, are really addicted to diazepam and various other drugs.

Yogic management

For the management of emotional problems, yoga practices are number one. They work. Some of my patients do yoga nidra when they are acutely anxious, ten or fifteen times a day. Every time they feel like popping a diazepam, they put the tape on, lie down, and after a while, they gradually get down to needing it only twice a day. The same applies to the physical balancing practices, especially the pranayamas. Of course, for anxiety, brahmari pranayama is very effective and for depression, bhastrika with moolabandha is very powerful.

In Australia where I practise, and in the USA and South America where I have practised, the people whom we call patients are quite amenable to these practices because they are looking for something. What they are looking for is self-mastery. They want to be the masters of their own therapy. They do not want me to give them a pill, but the power to defeat their own emotional problems and emotional pain. Once they get that power, then it has a positive effect. It gives them confidence and self-esteem. If you have confidence you are not anxious. If you have self-esteem you are not depressed. So this is where the power comes for the person.

Negative thinking

The third group are those with thinking problems. Here all we need is common sense, because patients need to be able to intercept negative thought processes such as, "I have never been able to do so and so, therefore, I will never be able to do it." Many people have a continuous line of negative thinking going on inside their heads. "I can't do it; he is better than I am; no wonder he can do it but I can't."

These thoughts need to be interrupted. Another negative thought that needs to be interrupted is, "I am an idiot." For example, I might push this cup of water over. If they push a cup of water over, some people will say in their minds, "Oh, I'm an idiot, there I go again." This is brain washing, this is a negative samskara that they are giving to themselves. We have to teach them to analyse and realise that thinking process and to disrupt it. You know, if I knock a glass of water over I won't think, "I am an idiot," I'll think, Swami Niranjanananda knocked that glass of water over again!" That is the interruption of the thoughts.

Spiritual guidance

What remains is meaning in life and this is the spiritual journey of the fourth group. If you open a psychiatric textbook and look for the word God, you will not find it. Some textbooks are inches thick. You look in the back, 'God' isn't there, the word 'spiritual' isn't there, the word 'grace' isn't there. As a matter of fact, all of the things that I hold dearest in my life are not there. Back in 1968, I had reached a crossroads in my life. I had spent many years studying psychiatry, thinking I would find the answers. I realised that they were not there. That was a dead end, depression, suicidal ideas in my mind, a crisis of major proportions in my life. At that one moment, I prayed. I had never done it before, I did not believe in it, but the prayer just came popping into my mind.

Two weeks later a yogi came to our country and my wife went along to see him. She came back and she said, "I've found him." I said, Who did you find?" She said, "My guru," and I said, "Oh don't be silly." She said, "You know, you must meet him, he is wonderful," and I said, "Look, I don't want to meet him just forget about it." She said, "No, you must meet him, he is going back to India on Tuesday." I said, "He is Indian, is he? You watch out." Anyway, I won't tell you who that was, but after I met him, my life took a completely different direction and I ultimately headed over to Munger, so something must have been happening!

The people who come along to see me are looking for spiritual guidance. They are looking for relief of their symptoms too, but most of them come along when they are in that same crisis period of their life that I was in when Paramahamsa Satyananda came along. How do we give them the solution if we don't have it? It is not in psychiatry. There are very good things in psychiatry and I am not putting it down, but do not expect too much from it. The spiritual side is not there, unless the psychiatrist or the therapist himself actually has it.

If the therapist does have it, how does he or she convey it to the person? First, verbally, the same sort of things you would get on a piece of paper, exactly the same but spoken by a human being. I am stressing this point because here the second way comes in. There is power in words and there is energy that comes out from the person and, according to the degree of energy and power that person has, the recipient of the words will improve. It's called 'good vibes' in America. So, imagine if the therapists of the world, the psychiatrists, the yoga teachers, the psychologists, the social workers had that spiritual quality. How curative they could be. How well the people would become.

The philosopher's stone

The alchemists of the Middle ages in Europe were said to be able to turn lead into gold. It is said that they used what was called the philosopher's stone, and that it had something to do with sulphur and was very complicated. We know now of course, that was not true. You would need an atomic reaction such as we do not even have nowadays to turn lead into gold. It was only symbolic. It meant that the guru or the spiritual master was turning the gross quality of the aspirant's soul into a higher consciousness.

The point is that the guru turns lead not only into gold but also into philosophers' stones, and these turn more lead into philosophers' stones. What if the therapists of the world, because of what they have received from their guru, also developed the guru quality, which is the quality to channel the energy of God to those persons to produce another guru?