Yoga and Self-Esteem

Dr. Rishi Vivekananda Saraswati

As a psychiatrist for thirty years I have found that dealing with low self-esteem is a big problem. People with low self-esteem will not allow themselves to receive treatment because they do not think they are worth it and after a little while, they opt out. If people are very low in self-esteem, it is really difficult for them to access any areas that are going to improve that self-esteem and their life. Yoga goes around it in a different way.

Karma yoga does not require one to have self-esteem, but it is very likely the best self-esteem booster that you can possibly have. Certain things are required. One is simply contributing to others without expecting anything in return. Now that is not difficult. No matter how low a person's self-esteem is, if they have a little bit of guidance as to where to direct their activities, there is a very good likelihood that they will be able to see themselves as making a positive contribution to others. If you are doing karma yoga and not expecting anything in return you can't be disappointed. In fact, if we don't have expectations we can't be disappointed because expectations are ninety percent of the problem.

Karma yoga is contributing to the welfare of others. A person with low self-esteem can do that, whether it is in an ashram setting or at home or in their own job. But the main motivation of karma yoga is doing something to help other people, to help planet Earth, to give. That is not difficult because there is no expectation, so there is no disappointment and no rejection from getting something you do not deserve, because there isn't anything coming anyway. However, along the way there is accomplishment and that boosts self-esteem. Just a little bit at the beginning, because if you have low self-esteem you can't allow yourself to have too much because you're not worth it.

Karma yoga also fills in time and gives the mind two things to do. Firstly, awareness of the job at hand. We pay attention to the job that we are doing and we do our very best. So there is concentration on the job. Secondly, karma yoga develops an awareness of what is going on. Anyone can do that; it is just a matter of watching. But in the past we have not been used to doing it. For example, you're sitting there on the production line thinking about what you're going to do on Saturday night. Saturday night comes and you think about what you're going to do on Sunday.

So firstly we are not keeping our attention on the job and secondly, we are not watching what is going on. What is my attitude to this job? Why? What is my interrelationship with this person over here in the same little part of the ashram or the factory or wherever. How is that person relating to me? Why? Watching with awareness is simply a matter of developing this questioning within the situation all the time. Why is this going on? How am I reacting? What's going on there? Sometimes a big one will come along and then the head starts spinning. There's a lot going on deep down inside; there have been a lot of things done and said to you which are all stacked away inside somewhere in the memory traces. When you get to a difficult situation you can look in there and find the answer.

This brings us to the meditation practices, because yoga nidra or antar mouna or any of the practices will give us access to what is going on in the unconscious mind. They will also lead us to the highest consciousness. Firstly, we have to start on the ground. The vast majority of us are dealing with these everyday, ordinary conflicts that are going on and we can't by-pass them. Swami Niranjanananda has said that we even find it incredibly difficult to make the right kind of relationship with a spiritual master if we have low self-esteem. Maybe we have to pass through a middle stage where we have developed that self-esteem and then we can make a different kind of relationship with the master, which is not a parental dependency transference relationship but a real relationship by a fully adult person, not with a high ego but with a high self-esteem, a real love of oneself. Then a realization dawns that we were worthwhile loving after all because we are part of this universe. We can then say, at a point of low self-esteem, "I am God, I am God, I am God." But there is also a little voice saying, "Bullshit." We all have to deal with that little voice, to go in and find those little voices that subtly lower our self-esteem. The meditation practices allow us to do that.

So the path of karma yoga is the path of unattached work, activity for the benefit of other people with maximum awareness, without expectation. It is a path that can be followed by everybody. It contains all the ingredients to give us a healthy self-esteem. When we run into big barriers or blockages with difficult situations, we can then use the other practices of yoga. We can get into the meditation practices. We can introduce the yoga postures, the pranayamas, the mudras and bandhas. These other practices actually activate the chakra areas which bring up the intra-psychic conflicts or the problems down in the unconscious mind that are associated with those areas of the personality.

If we run headlong into a problem in our karma yoga situation, we can go in and come to understand it. It comes up to the surface and then we realize what happens, we realize why we have this attitude, why we had that opinion about this kind of person, why we had that opinion about ourself, why we had that opinion about the other people around us, where these opinions and preconceived ideas came from. All of these things that we know are true are not true. We know they're true only because they are preconceived ideas so heavily ingrained in us. They started so early in our lives that we just take them for granted. We cannot work out why another person has different opinions and ideas which are obviously wrong because we think ours are the ones that are true.

It is not until we can step back and witness our own thought processes, the products of our own unconscious minds and our relationships with other people in this environment of karma yoga, that we can start to realize that these preconceived ideas and attitudes we have are not true. That is the area in which we have to work. And that is what yoga offers. All the different branches of yoga are beautifully designed to allow us to access the negative aspects of our unconscious mind, to come to realize what the problems are. Self-esteem is central to our spiritual progress, whether we have a spiritual master or not. We really need to develop a positive, healthy self-esteem and then we can go on from there. Then we don't start making disjointed relationships that cause problems rather than creating a beautiful future.