Yoga and Severe Mental Illness

From Hatha Yoga Book 7, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Can mad, out of control states be classified as states of mind? According to yogic belief, the mind has its centres of gravity to which it is spontaneously and naturally attracted in the normal state, but it can come out of those centres. In some cases, when the mind is highly sensitive, it tends to identify with a particular event, situation, thought, emotion or feeling and become obsessed with that. When the obsession becomes so acute that the mind is not able to project its natural state, the result is known as imbalance or madness; it is given labels, depending on the intensity. In respect to yogic therapy, some understanding in this area has been developed.

Activating pingala nadi

The drugs that are generally used are stimulants which create momentary hyperactivity in the brain so that the concentration or the obsession is diverted to another area. When the effect of the drug wears off, one again reverts to the same obsession. In the USA, some yoga therapy work was done with people living in mental institutions and halfway homes.

Yoga therapy was given to catatonic patients and other groups for three months. Catatonics have practically no control over their external physiological expression or movement; if one of their arms is up, it will remain like that for hours – someone else has to bring the hand down. Then again it will go up. It is a depressive nervous state in which there is absolutely no control over the functions of the nervous system, no control over the muscular system, nor any interaction taking place between the brain and various parts of the body. The brain’s commands are not recognized by the body, and the body does not send any stimulation to the brain.

These patients were given their normal medication before doing yoga, so that they would be a bit more externalized and receptive in order to understand the interaction that was happening with the therapist. After medication, pranayama was practised. They could not do asanas.

It was decided to teach them pranayama, but how to teach it? One of the first practices was activation of pingala nadi; breathing in and out only through the right nostril by blocking the left nostril with cotton or wax. Their left nostril was plugged with wax and left like that for a couple of hours so that pingala would begin to flow. Day in and day out this practice was done, where only pingala would flow. Gradually this change stimulated their nervous system and they became more active. Every day the wax was put in place. That was all that could be done, as there was absolutely no way of teaching them anything.

Birth of recognition

After a few days of this the patients began to respond to instructions which were being given to them and became more active. Once they began to respond, other pranayamas were incorporated. The teacher would hold their noses so that they could inhale through the left and exhale through the right. They were then asked to copy. It was like a game which children play, seeing the mirror image. Over a period of time they became used to the practices and would be waiting for the teacher to come. This meant that a certain expectation, a certain improvement had started within them. When the teacher came, they would give a nice smile of recognition as if some friend had come. After about one month we began to see the result of pingala activity and an incredible change came over them later on.

This work continued for three months, then the therapists of the institution were taught the practices so that they could take over the work. In those three months the catatonic patients showed a thirty percent improvement from a chronic depressive catatonic state to being able to recognize, move and be in control of their body. The end result of the practice was that they were eventually able to look after their own needs, relate to the instructions that were being given to them and recognize the situations and environment of the external world. In this way it was discovered that practices which vitalize the pranic system in the body are beneficial in externalizing mental activity.

Month by month

Simultaneously other patients suffering from schizophrenia, neurosis, deep emotional problems, childhood trauma and shock were worked with. The sessions always began with pranayama and after one month asana could gradually be introduced in the form of a game. By teaching pranayama first, their nervous systems were regulated and their brains activated. After that, with the practice of asana, the physical body could be worked on. In the first month, only pranayama was taught; in the second month, asana and pranayama; in the third month, bandha and shatkarma, neti and kunjal. In some cases, even laghoo shankhaprakshalana was taught, so they would be forced to run to the toilet at least eight to ten times in the day. That purging process had an activating and grounding effect, and made them aware of the necessities and realities of life.

The third month was always the most fulfilling. Along with neti, kunjal, and in some cases laghoo shankhaprakshalana, bandhas were introduced, because bandhas act on the three main energy centres: mooladhara, manipura and vishuddhi. These three energy centres are the three areas of blockage in the body which can be felt at any time. For example, when there is tension in the head, the tightening of the neck muscles is felt, closing off or blocking the mid-brain region.

In this way, yoga can definitely help relieve severe mental illness. One has to adopt different methods.