Yogic Lifestyle and Psychological Wellbeing

Dr. L.I. Bhushan (Sannyasi Yogasindhu), Professor and Head, Dept of Yoga Psychology, Bihar Yoga Bharati. S.P. East-West psychology national award lecture delivered at Osmania University, Hyderabad on January 4, 1998.

All normal people wish to live in peace and happiness. The feeling of happiness and satisfaction subjectively experienced by individuals has been termed as psychological wellbeing (Okun and Stock, 1987). A few other terms like subjective wellbeing, quality of life, mental health and life satisfaction have been used as synonyms of psychological wellbeing (PWB). In recent years there has been global interest in the study of PWB and quality of life. This affective reaction of satisfaction is not necessarily related to material gain or the objective conditions of life. One may be dissatisfied with his life inspite of having plenty of wealth and family riches (Lawton, 1983). Psychological or subjective wellbeing is more a question of our attitude and approach to life situations. Freedman (1978) has shown how cognitive processes such as aspiration, social comparison and adaptation level are related to it.

Psychological wellbeing is a multi-dimensional concept. Results of factor analysis done by researchers confirm this and instruments have been produced to measure it. Cheerfulness, optimism, playfulness, self-control, a sense of detachment and freedom from frustration, anxiety and loneliness have been accepted as indications of psychological wellbeing by certain researchers (Tellegen, 1979; Sinha and Verma, 1992). McCulloch (1991) has shown that satisfaction, morale, positive affect, social support etc. constitute PWB. In a recent factor analysis study, Bhogle and Prakash (1995) have found that PWB consists of twelve factors which include both positive and negative components such as meaninglessness, self-esteem, positive affect, life satisfaction, suicidal ideas, personal control, tension etc. and they can be tapped by their scale developed to measure psychological wellbeing. In other words, a person high in PWB not only carries higher levels of life satisfaction, self-esteem, positive feelings and attitudes, but also manages tensions, negative thoughts, ideas and feelings more efficiently. In short, psychological wellbeing is not just a moderator variable to our performance as reported by Sultana (1996), rather it makes life meaningful and purposeful. Rightly therefore, efforts are being made by psychologists to investigate the socio-psychological correlates of PWB (Sinha and Verma, 1992).

Concept of health in yoga

From the yogic perspective, health does not just mean a disease free body. This ancient science believes in a holistic approach to health of which the body, mind and spirit are integral and interdependent parts. Yoga claims to endow perfect physical, mental and social wellbeing even under stressful conditions. Thus the yogic meaning of wellbeing is more than just psychological. It means physical fitness, mental agility and spiritual verve. This psychosomato spiritual approach emphasizes that we cannot think of sound health by only caring for one or two components of body, mind and spirit and ignoring the other. This results in an imbalance due to which harmony of personality is lost and the person suffers from psychological and psychosomatic problems. The rise in mental health problems in developed societies of the world is mainly due to ignoring the spiritual dimension of health and living an individualistic lifestyle.

Yogic lifestyle aims at evolution of mind. It talks of the journey from gross to most subtle. This is conceived in yogic literature as the journey from annamaya kosha to anandamaya kosha. Annamaya kosha consists of our gross body. So long as we are concerned with this only we carry desire and aspirations concerning material objects to meet our sensual requirements to derive pleasure. But instead of happiness and satisfaction, such cravings ultimately cause frustration, conflicts and maladies. On the other hand, when the source of delight is internalized, and one starts receiving internal stimulation in yogic sadhana, life becomes blissful. The experience of ananda is extrasensorial and everlasting. Achieving this is total wellbeing for which yoga provides methods and practices.

Yoga is both a philosophy of life and a science of human personality. When the life philosophy starts manifesting in one's behaviour and interactions, life becomes spiritually oriented and ultimately it results in a healthy and harmonious personality. Since most diseases are psychosomatic, the psycho-somato-spiritual approach of yoga has been found effective in managing stress-related problems like asthma, diabetes and hypertension (Shankardevananda, 1984 a,b), coronary heart disease (Ornish, 1990), diabetes (Divekar, 1982) and gastritis (Karmananda, 1986). Certain findings have shown the beneficial effects of pratyahara (sense withdrawal), meditation and other yogic practices in the management of psychological problems like anxiety (Jangid et al, 1988; Sharma and Agnihotri 1982; Vahia et al, 1972; Suryamani, 1990), tension headache (Sethi et al, 1981), depression and other types of neurotic disorders (Jang, 1975; Nagendra, 1993). According to Selvamurthy (1993), six months of yogic practices conducted on junior officers in Defence “resulted in significant improvement in body flexibility, physical performance at submaximal levels of work and also in cognitive and non-cognitive functions. The psychological profile revealed a reduced anxiety level, improvement in concentration, memory, learning efficiency and psychomotor performance. The biochemical profile showed a relative hypometabolic state and reduced levels of stress hormones. Studies on hypersensitive patients revealed the curative potential of yogic practice by considerable reduction in stress responsiveness as well as restoration of baroreflex sensitivity.” Thus yoga is not only curative but also a preventative and promotive science of health and wellbeing.

Why suffering and distress?

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras may be treated as the most systematic and authentic text book on yoga psychology. As per the first two sutras of Patanjali, the primary objective of yoga is to discipline the mind by controlling the vrittis, or modifications of the mind.

The vrittis have a cognitive basis and thus the modern cognitive approach to behaviour was well conceived in the ancient literature on yogic psychology. As per their nature, vrittis may be klista (painful) or aklista (non-painful). They originate from five cognitive sources: pramana, proof or valid cognition; viparyaya, illusion or invalid cognition; vikalpa, fancy or objectless verbal cognition; nidra, sleep or unconscious cognition; and smriti, memory or mental recollection of past cognition. When these vrittis are related to narrow worldly gains or losses they become sources of afflictions and pain and are called klista vrittis. On the other hand, by making them positively and spiritually oriented, they are aklista in nature. Controlling the vrittis actually aims at transforming the klista vrittis into aklista ones for which yoga recommends abhyasa, practice and vairagya, detachment.

The cognitive mental modifications of the klista nature lead to misery and suffering. Yoga psychology enumerates five such basic distresses known as the pancha kleshas. They are avidya (nescience), asmita (egoism), raga (lust), dwesha (hatred) and abhinivesha (fear of death). Patanjali has given an elaborate discussion of the kleshas and has emphasized that avidya, or false notion, lies at the root of all other suffering. It is this avidya which provides wrong direction to our thoughts and actions due to which many of us consider the material gains, sense pleasures, fame and power as the chief source of happiness, go mad for them and ultimately suffer agony, pain and distress. Yoga holds that real happiness does not lie in having more and more objects for enjoyment, rather it lies in an inner state of silence of mind which one can experience through yogic sadhana.

A model of mental health

Overcoming suffering and distress and developing positive feelings are at the core of mental health and wellbeing. This has been explained in the yogic literature on the basis of the asakti (attachment), anasakti (non-attachment), vairagya (detachment) model (c.f. Bhushan, 1994). Asakti and vairagya are the two extreme points of a continuum with anasakti being in the middle. Asakti literally means narrowing the area of consciousness. Attraction with expectation and ego involvement towards certain individuals or objects is called asakti. This leads to raga, dwesha and ahamkara which often manifest as insecurity, aggression, a high need for recognition, possessiveness and anxiety. As a result, persons high in asakti often suffer from frustration, tension, psychological stress and other neurotic tendencies. On the other hand, vairagya is the height of the nivritti way of life. It means detachment or non-dependence on worldly, material things and personalized relationships. This is very difficult for the average householder to achieve.

Devoted saints and seers who minimize and detach themselves from external sensorial requirements and live with internal stimulation and the feeling of ananda, live a life of vairagya. However, for most people, who live normal social and family lives, anasakti, non-attachment, is the middle path which may be followed in order to improve the quality of life and social wellbeing. This provides lasting happiness and peace without being disturbed by asakti. A person high in anasakti performs all his duties and acts with a sense of responsibility and task involvement without any additional expectation. As such, he performs a task, serves a person or institution, and enjoys it as a karma yogi. His task performance does not carry instrumental value to achieve something else. Similarly, he does not decry any material benefit or support such as a good house, furniture or conveyance, but he is not attached to these conveniences. Living in an air-conditioned house with modern amenities or in a mud house on a mat does not make any difference to him, he feels happy and satisfied in either condition.

Yogic lifestyle

Lifestyle refers to one's way of living. This includes diet, sleep, relaxation, exercise and daily work schedule. Many of our health problems develop on account of adopting a faulty lifestyle. In his famous book, Reversing Heart Disease, Dean Ornish (1990) has shown that coronary heart disease develops because of wrong living habits. So, the real management lies in adopting the correct lifestyle. His findings, obtained from approximately 300 cardiac patients recommended for bypass surgery, indicate that only by living the recommended lifestyle for durations of 24 days to three months, there was a reversal in the magnitude of heart congestion and related problems as indicated by angiographical records and pathological tests. In one study, conducted on 48 heart patients, he found that after they had followed the 'lifestyle' program for just 24 days there was a 91% reduction in chest pain (angina), a 21% improvement in cholesterol levels and significant improvement in BP. They reported improved wellbeing and reduced anxiety and depression. The 'lifestyle' in his studies included living on a simple vegetarian diet, the practice of selected asanas, pranayamas, meditation with respiration and visualization, relaxation, walking and enjoying community living in a fixed daily schedule. In yogic terminology, when a transformation in lifestyle takes place in the desired direction it reduces the magnitude of asakti and brings about psychological and social wellbeing. Yogic lifestyle is an example.

Yogic lifestyle does not mean just adding the practice of a few asanas and/or pranayamas to one's daily schedule of activities. It actually means to live a self-disciplined life of anasakti. For many people yoga means certain asanas and pranayamas, but these are only two of the eight steps of raja yoga. In fact there are different kinds of yoga. Many of the yogas are complementary of each other. In fact, every yoga emphasizes some specific aspect and differs in approach from one another. Hatha yoga emphasizes cleaning of the body and the nadis, whereas kundalini yoga prescribes sadhanas for the awakening of extrasensorial, psychic power through the awakening of the chakras. So when we talk of yogic lifestyle, we do not like to bind our approach to any one yoga. Considering their complementary roles, one may combine elements of more than one yoga to make one's lifestyle more cohesive, purposeful and enjoyable.

Study report

Findings of a recent study conducted on two groups of students admitted to the four month Certificate Course in Yogic Studies at Bihar Yoga Bharati, Munger, is worth quoting here. All the students were in a residential course, living a yogic lifestyle for the full four month period in the Ganga Darshan premises of the BYB Institute. The first group consisted of 78 cases (50 males and 28 females) from the Hindi medium course. The second group contained 24 cases (10 males and 15 females) from the English medium course. All participants in the Hindi medium group were Indian, while the English medium group consisted of international students from countries such as Australia, Austria, Argentina, France, Germany, India, Korea, Nepal, UK and Yugoslavia. Their lifestyle, reflected in their daily schedule, included a one hour asana/pranayama practical class in the early morning (generally between 5.00 and 6.30a.m.), a meditation/relaxation class for one hour in the afternoon, which included the practice of either yoga nidra, antar mouna or ajapa japa (c.f. Swami Satyananda, 1980), morning and evening karma yoga sessions (including cleaning, gardening etc.) and in the evening one hour of kirtan (singing of devotional song and even dancing to the tune and rhythm of the music). They were also trained in the hatha yoga cleansing techniques of neti, kunjal and shankhaprakshalana (c.f. Swami Niranjanananda, 1997). They lived on simple vegetarian diet with breakfast at 6.30a.m. and two main meals at 10.30a.m. and 5.00p.m. Apart from lecture classes, discourses and personal study hours, the students lived a community life, including communal lunch and dinner, and performed all their work themselves. In the morning they arose by 4.30a.m., went to bed by 9.00p.m., and observed mouna (silence) during mealtimes and from 6.00p.m. to 6.00a.m. Thus the yogic lifestyle observed in the campus presented a combination of yogas and was different to the lifestyle generally observed outside.

In order to see the effect of this lifestyle on somatic and psychological health, Spielberger's State Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) and Derogatis's 90 item Symptomatic Check List (SCL-90R) were administered to the students in the beginning and towards the end of their course stay. The difference obtained in their scores in pre and post testings indicated the impact of the yogic lifestyle observed during the 3½ month period of their stay in the campus.

The results on STAI are summarized in Tables 1(A) & 1(B). Table 1(A) consists of the 33% of cases in both medium groups who scored highest in anxiety in the pretest condition. Similarly Table 1(B) consists of the 33% of cases who scored lowest in anxiety in the pretest condition. The results indicate that the highly anxious cases in the two medium groups showed a significant reduction in the state trait of anxiety in the pre and post conditions. In the Hindi medium group, the mean anxiety score of 51.64 came down to 38.55, and in the English medium group it came down from 45.88 to 40.00, both mean differences being statistically significant. In terms of percentage, the anxiety level of the highly anxious subjects was reduced by 25.35% in the Hindi medium group, and by 14.68% in the English medium group, due to yogic lifestyle. However, in the case of subjects who were low in anxiety in the pre-condition, there was no significant reduction in their anxiety level. This means that yogic lifestyle lowers the anxiety level in cases of hyper-anxiety, but has little effect on those who already have a marginal or lower level of anxiety.

The SCL tapped nine negative dimensions related to somatic and psychological problems, including somatization, obsessive-compulsive reaction, intersensitivity, depression, anxiety, hostility, phobic anxiety, paranoid ideation and psychotism. For the purposes of comparison, the subjects were divided into High, Middle and Low groups on the basis of their pre-test score in each of the nine dimensions. Here again it was found that living a yogic lifestyle had a very significant effect in the high Hindi and English medium groups, resulting in a substantial reduction in all the nine areas of somatic and psychological problems. In both linguistic groups, the pre-testing means were highest in Depression (Hindi mean= 23.59, English mean=15.25) and Obsessive-Compulsive reaction (means of high Hindi and English groups being 20.63 and 13.75). In each case the post-testing means were found to be substantially lower (p<.01) and the improvement in mental health in respect of the nine dimensions among the high scoring subjects ranged from 33.33% to 72.40%. The English medium group was heterogeneous, consisting of subjects from eight countries of Asia, Australia and Europe. They were generally practitioners of yoga already and so their pretesting means in all dimensions were consistently lower than those of the Hindi medium subjects. Secondly, it was noticed that subjects having a higher magnitude of problems experienced more benefit in terms of percentage of improvement, due to living a yogic lifestyle, than those belonging to the lower problems group. In the low Hindi and English groups the mean differences in the scores of pre and post testings did not differ significantly.

Table 1(A): Effect of yogic lifestyle on trait anxiety in High scoring groups
Group Testing Condition Mean SD t p % of improvement
Hindi medium
5.62 <.01 25.35
English medium
2.45 <0.5 14.68
Table 1(B): Effect of yogic lifestyle on trait anxiety in Low scoring groups
Group Testing Condition Mean SD t p
Hindi medium
1.37 NS
English medium
0.06 NS

Thus, the findings demonstrate that a yogic lifestyle results in a reduction of negative affects, it has therapeutic value for those who carry somatic or psychological problems, and it can be safely used as an instrument of psychological wellbeing.


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