Yoga Psychology and its Clinical Applications

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Address to Indian Psychiatrists Association, H.N. Hospital, Mumbai

When I was a small boy I remember watching a spider's web. The spider was on one side and a fly was on the other. I saw the fly struggle and become more entangled in the web, while the spider moved very freely without getting stuck to the web. I wondered why one insect was getting stuck and the other one was able to move freely. As I grew up I came to understand that one side of the web has a sticky, gluey material and the other side does not. Today I am reminded of this early childhood experience in relation to human health.

Physical, mental and spiritual health

Human health is physical, mental, emotional and also spiritual. If we look at the history of humanity we find that in ancient times the healer was able to cater for the needs of every individual from a physical as well as a psychological point of view. It was only in this century that the discipline of health was divided into the physical, psychological and spiritual aspects. Therefore, the aspect of physical health is now dependent on medical professionals who deal specifically with the body. The aspect of mental health is now the area of people who have studied, to whatever extent, how the mind functions and how mental imbalances can be treated with the means that are available today. Most of the aspect of spiritual health has been assigned to people who are knowledgeable in that particular field.

As a sannyasin I don't come into any of the three categories. I am not a doctor, nor a psychotherapist, nor a spiritual healer. As a sannyasin I come into the category of a person who thinks that the most appropriate method to attain optimum health is the system and science of yoga. Yoga is not only a series of physical postures or meditative practices. It is a lifestyle which can be lived by everyone, not necessarily those who are sannyasins, sadhus or renunciates. It is a form of understanding, of realizing our interactions in life, trying to improve them, trying to understand the needs of the body, the needs of the mind and also the needs of the spirit. This is the concept of a yogic lifestyle: living according to the laws of the body and the laws of nature.

Pravritti and nivritti

There are two paths in life: one is pravritti and the other is nivritti. Pravritti is generally defined as involvement with the world. Nivritti is defined as not being influenced or affected by the world, making an effort to understand, to realize the universal, the spiritual, the cosmic consciousness. Pravritti and nivritti are different sides of the same coin. Just as the spider's web is sticky on one side and normal on the other, in the same way, pravritti is the sticky side of the spider's web and nivritti is the free side. No matter who we are – even sannyasins are not excluded – when we become involved with the world we undergo the same stresses and tensions. We experience the world of object in its full glory in the form of pain and pleasure, satisfaction and dissatisfaction and it is the natural tendency of the mind to think about those things which it has experienced. Once this thinking pattern is established, it depends on the attitude and also on the intensity of self-awareness as to how one can extricate oneself from the cycle of continuous thoughts.

Stress and tension

There are two words in English: stress and tension. In Hindi stress is pareshani and tension is tanav. When our mind, our faculties, come in contact with a situation, the first thing that happens is that we begin to experience stress. The stress can be due to an emotional connection and disturbance, a rational, intellectual connection and disturbance, a physical connection, a physical isolation, a moral connection, a moral isolation – anything can become the cause of stress. When this contact between the mind and the experience happens, and when the mind is not alert, not aware, then it begins to revolve around that experience, thought, feeling, emotion, event. It begins to think about it continuously. The more you think the more you are bound by the gravity of that particular experience and become stressed.

When that stress intensifies it takes the form of tension, tightness. When that tension is not released and it takes greater hold in the expressions of our mind, then psychological problems are often experienced. This is the beginning of a psychological imbalance and problem, and it keeps on snowballing. When a tiny ball of snow begins to roll down the hill it becomes bigger and bigger.

Managing the mind

Yoga says that there are certain methods to extricate yourself from the sticky side of the mind. In order to again harmonize and balance yourself, you need to develop certain qualities and aspects of your nature, beginning with the ability to release the tensions through the process of relaxation. Relaxation is a systematic approach to letting go of the accumulated blockages, not only in the mind but also in the body. After you are able to relax physically, mentally and emotionally, you are instructed through yoga to develop personal awareness, sajagta, in order to witness yourself interacting with the world, society, family, and with your own limitations, ambitions and aspirations. Awareness is the result of leading a yogic lifestyle. Afterwards, with awareness, you have to develop a sense of positivity towards yourself. When positive expressions are developed through the practices of reflection, concentration and introspection, which in common language is known as meditation, then you are able to harmonize the inner personality.

Yoga and psychotherapy

This has been the yogic approach to mind management. When we combine the concepts of yoga for the management of psychological disorders with existing therapies, whether it be psychotherapy, psychiatry or psychoanalysis, then that becomes a very powerful tool to awaken the faculties of mind. I have known many psychoanalysts, psychotherapists and psychiatrists in Western countries who are actively using the techniques of yoga in their practices. Four years ago, there was a conference on psychology and psychiatry in Vienna, Austria. One of our karma sannyasins, who is a psychologist, participated in that conference and presented a paper on the subject of yoga psychology. While he was talking about yoga and its application in the management of psychological problems, he spoke on the technique of yoga nidra. His lecture, which was supposed to last for only twenty minutes, continued for three hours that day and for one hour every other day. At the end it was decided by the psychiatrists who were participating and who are eminent heads in their fields, to train their patients in the practice of yoga nidra so that they could learn how to let go of their mental tensions. Today yoga nidra has become an integral part, an accepted technique, of psychotherapy in Europe. The same thing has happened in Australia.

So, we are not here to talk about high concepts, but rather to see what the simple things are which we can adopt either in therapy or in our lifestyle to experience harmony in our minds. Yoga offers these different possibilities through its systems of relaxation and concentration, asana and pranayama. I would definitely request you to understand the principles of yoga by practising yoga. After you have understood it, try to apply it in your own practices of psychiatry and psychotherapy. I am sure that both of these sciences combined will provide a very good opportunity for the patients to heal themselves.