Yoga and Self-Esteem

Swami Sivamurti Saraswati, Greece

Yoga is the art and science of living in harmony with one’s nature. The practices of yoga enable us to achieve optimum physical health and a mind free from stress, anxiety and the negative effects of tension. They enable us to improve the quality of our mind so we have greater clarity, concentration and memory. Yogic practices are designed to awaken the dormant potential within, which leads to a more balanced and harmonious life. In this way, yoga becomes a path of self-discovery and self-knowledge. First we become more aware of the physical body. This leads to an understanding of how our mind works and how it influences our body and personality. We observe and understand how we think and learn why we have certain attitudes and reactions by discovering the role that emotions play in our life. We also get in touch with the psychic personality lying dormant in the unconscious mind and come into closer contact with our true Self.

As we understand more about ourselves, we understand more about how we relate to one another. Awareness leads to understanding, which leads to the ability to be more in control of life. We learn to know when it is right to accept something and when to make the effort to change something. This ability comes through an increase in discrimination, viveka, and non-attachment, vairagya. As we acquire these qualities we find we have more confidence and more self-esteem.


Self-esteem is feeling good about ourselves. It is understanding that we are worthwhile, regardless of what people say or do to us, regardless of any criticism, complaint or blame that we may face or any judgement people may pass on us. With self-esteem we understand that everything happens for our own good; nothing is negative. No matter how bleak the situation, there is goodness to be found in it.

One of the main reasons for a lack of self-esteem is a faulty program in the mind. Our minds have been conditioned from childhood. We don’t even remember the experiences we had as children that may be responsible for our losing confidence in ourselves. But somewhere in the past those experiences are locked inside our subconscious mind. We may have heard statements in our growing years such as, “You will never make it.” “Your brother/sister manages so much better than you do.” “You’re too fat, girls won’t like you; you’re too thin, the boys won’t like you.” These rob us of confidence and self-esteem. We may have a belief that our parents won’t love us if we don’t do well at school. This belief programs our mind to always try and prove ourselves. These programs are still with us as adults, even if we are successful in our chosen field. We still don’t feel quite okay inside, because those faulty programs are still running in our minds subconsciously.

The mind is like a computer running a particular program. As long as it gives us the answers we want, we are not interested in how the program works. Only when something doesn’t turn out as we wanted, or when we are beset with inner conflicts or problems, do we look at the program. Just as a computer can be reprogrammed to obtain the desired result, in the same way we can reprogram our minds through yoga.

In yoga we call the higher Self, which is our intrinsic nature, the consciousness or pure intelligence. This consciousness expresses itself through the mind and the mind expresses itself through the brain. The brain is in contact with the different systems of the body, and causes them to function or not function according to the mental programming. Unless there is a functional problem the brain is in good working order. However, we only use about 10% of the brain’s potential. The remaining 90% lies dormant, but can start to be awakened through regular practice of yoga and meditation. We all have a perfect Self, the true Self, and we all have the light within us. Both saint and sinner have the same light inside. The problem lies in the faulty programming of the mind.

The subconscious mind

The subconscious mind controls all the systems of the body. We are usually unaware of its actions. It is the area where our memories and habits are stored. It is said by the yogis that the subconscious mind has a complete record of everything since the time that we were in our mother’s womb, when the early programming starts to take place.

Swami Satyananda has said that it is the mother who makes or breaks the adult life of the child with the type of information, input and conditioning she gives the baby in the womb and then in the first seven years of life. Our character is formed during that period. If there has been faulty input from parents, society, relatives, family, schools, or from the children we used to play with, then we often have a problem with our self-esteem as we grow older. It is that area we have to reach and heal, and we are not often consciously in contact with it.

During the day we are always required to be alert on a conscious level. That does not mean that the subconscious is not functioning. It is always functioning, and it is responsible for our moods and our reactions to different things that happen to us throughout the day. Due to the programming, we feel jealous in certain situations, envious in others, etc. In the subconscious are stored our attitudes, many of which we need to reprogram and work with.


To reprogram the mind we need to create a conducive atmosphere and environment through the practice of yoga. Two of the most effective yoga practices for reprogramming the mind are yoga nidra and the SWAN principle. Both work gently and gradually to transform the negative into the positive, and deepen our self-knowledge and understanding. The mind is non-intelligent; it is just like the plasticine that children play with and mould. It is the Self, the consciousness that is intelligent. The mind has the ability to think and memorise only when that intelligence is operating through it. Just as the mind has been programmed with negative programs, so it can be reprogrammed with positive programs. As we achieve this, we realise that contentment comes from the attitudes our mind has towards situations. Through yoga and meditation we learn to gain control over our mind and our feelings.

Happiness is inside

We start to understand the nature of happiness. When we come into contact with other people or situations that make us feel happy, because of a faulty program we think that it is that person or that situation that is making us happy. But the person is a medium only. Somehow the feeling or state of happiness has been triggered off inside us through that contact or situation. When we understand this, we can start to try and find the lasting happiness inherent in the true Self.

Most of us demand happiness from other people. However, this is not correct. We have to first find the happiness within and then relate it to others. We rely on external things to make us happy. We look for security in money, in relationships, through positions of power or authority, and through love. But real security comes from within, and real love comes from within ourselves. When we rely on our Self, we are really secure. We also discover that when we can love ourselves, then we are in a position to love others.

In certain stages of our growth, it is definitely necessary to be appreciated and recognised. This makes us feel good about ourselves, which strengthens the ego. However, it causes a feeling of separation between ourselves and others through competition, insecurity and power play. Once the ego is strong, it can be trimmed so that this sense of separation is reduced and a feeling of oneness with others develops. This unity is part of the process of yoga, and part of the effect of living an ashram lifestyle. With this sense of oneness we are more content and able to love ourselves more. We have a deeper sense of peace and acceptance of both our strengths and our limitations.

Self-acceptance and SWAN

It is also necessary to accept the present realities of life that relate to our bodies and minds. Do you accept your body? You may want to have blue eyes, but your eyes are brown. You may want to be slim, but you are naturally chubby. You have to accept that. Then you can bring about change. Acceptance does not necessarily mean agreement. We learn to discern which qualities about ourselves we need to accept and which ones we need to change.

The SWAN principle can help us achieve more control over our lives. Symbolically, the swan, hamsa in Sanskrit, means one who can discriminate, one who can separate true from false, one who can see beyond appearances and read between the lines, and one who has right understanding. The SWAN technique teaches us to recognise and to know our strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and needs, and to learn to accept them. It is quite easy to accept our strengths, but it may not be so easy to accept our weaknesses because we don’t want them and we feel vulnerable with them. Swami Satyananda has said that only great men and women know their limitations. Therefore, it is very important to know not only our strengths but also our weaknesses, so that we can accept them and begin to work on ourselves to transform them into strengths.

We also need to know what our ambitions are. We need long term and short term aims. For example, a long term aim might be to experience self-realization. That’s not necessarily going to happen today or tomorrow. We may need it as a long term aim and it may give our life meaning, but we also need short term aims that we can achieve easily. This can give us a certain satisfaction, self-esteem and confidence that we managed to do what we set out to do. Making a list of your ambitions will bring a new awareness and way of looking at things in your mind.

We also need to consider what our needs are - “What do I need to live?” Then look at your strengths and make a list of them. Then investigate your list of limitations and weaknesses to see which could become a strength. Are those limitations blocking the fulfilling of your ambitions? If so, how could you use them to help rather than hinder you? In this way you can begin to work with the components of your personality and remove, change or reprogram them. But the first step must be clear identification of those components.

Understanding ourselves and others

We need to be very sincere with ourselves. Start with the SWAN principle in a small way. Achieve a series of small successes first, rather than aiming for big ones. As our self-esteem includes an acceptance of our qualities and abilities, this understanding of our self forms a confident base upon which to build our life and aims. It gives a greater sense of inner security and self-worth. From such a vantage point we are able to become less attached to nonessentials, and select what is important to focus upon. We therefore expend less energy in stress and tension, and our mind becomes more one-pointed and concentrated. This attitude increases creativity and leads to deeper contentment. Understanding of oneself leads to understanding of others, and this awareness helps us develop more rewarding relationships.