Building Emotional Strength with Yoga

Srinivasan
In this article, Srinivasan, a senior disciple of Sri Swami Vishnu-devananda (who was a brother monk of Sri Swami Satchidananda), gives us a beautiful overview of the subject matter of our special section from the yogic perspective. Through our study and sincere practice of Raja Yoga we gradually gain liberation from the afflictions which cause suffering.

Emotions are the motivating force in our lives. This motivation can be productive, empowering and creative or it can be addictive, negative and abusive. Whether we are happy or sad, healthy or diseased, liberated or imprisoned in our own mentally created hell depends upon our ability to manage our emotions. Our emotions are constantly manipulated by advertising, politics and popular art forms trying to sell their wares and sway public opinion. Rather than practical training to control the mind, we have a culture that medicates everyone from preschool children to seniors because we lack the tools to adapt to emotional pressure. Millions are prescribed tranquilizers, anti-depressants and other mood modifying drugs, or they self-medicate with alcohol, recreational drugs, and countless other addictions.

Consider the depression epidemic as one example of emotional imbalance:

•    Depressive disorders affect approximately 18.8 million American adults or about 9.5% of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year. This includes major depressive disorder, dysthymic disorder and bipolar disorder.

•    Everyone will at some time in their life be affected by depression—their own or someone else’s, according to Australian Government statistics. (Depression statistics in Australia are comparable to those of the US and UK.)

•    Preschoolers are the fastest-growing market for antidepressants. At least four percent of preschoolers—over a million—are clinically depressed.1

Alcoholism, bipolar disorders, obesity and other addictive disorders are equally serious problems.

Swami Vishnu-devananda recognized that with our entire Western technological know-how and industriousness, we have very little understanding or control of our emotions. He stated half jokingly that his mission in the West was to teach people to “stand on their own heads.”

The ancient science of Yoga shows the way to reclaim mastery of our emotions. By recognizing painful conditions of alienation, guilt, self-hatred, addiction, fear and the destructive habits associated with these perceptions and by developing new healthy habits, negative emotions can be gradually thinned out and replaced with positive ones. Some indications of “emotional strength” addressed by the Yoga discipline are: the ability to concentrate and remove distractions from the mind; to express compassion by listening and seeing the Divine in all; to be a witness of our thoughts and choose the thoughts we want to nourish and those we want to transform; to act from awareness, rather than to emotionally react; to be established in contentment and gratitude for gifts in this life; to not allow our happiness to depend on external conditions; to maintain nonviolence, truth, control of senses; to restrain from habits of stealing and greed and to constantly remember God.

Hatha and Raja Yogas are designed to bring balance and integrity to both body and mind as a basis for higher spiritual realization. Both recognize the same eight steps to gain self-mastery. The first five steps are external, or accessories, to the direct control of the mind—and are more emphasized in Hatha Yoga. The three “internal” practices of concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and the super-conscious absorption (samadhi), directly focus and quiet the mind. However, to practice true one-pointed concentration (dharana) there must be an extraordinary mental strength. Most people’s minds are too distracted with worries, anxieties, desires, fantasies or just dullness and disassociation to perform one-pointed concentration.

Raja Yoga pinpoints the root disturbances that give rise to these distractions and categorizes them into five afflictions (kleshas). Removing the kleshas is the key to liberating ourselves from the human condition of mental suffering.

1.    Avidya: the primordial ignorance that takes the “non-eternal, impure, painful, and non-self as the eternal, pure, happy Self or Atma.” The other afflictions arise only to compensate for this deep alienation from our immortal, blissful, ever-pure Self of all life, or God.

2.    Asmita: egoism or the false “I” created by pure consciousness, which identifies with the mind and the body and then divides the world into objects to be consumed or possessed, objects to be avoided, and objects of no interest.

3.    Raga: the power of the mind to dwell on the objects the false ego associates with pleasure.

4.    Dwesha: the opposite power of the mind to generate emotions of hatred and disgust for objects that the false ego associates with pain. Raga and dwesha feed each other.

5.    Abhinivesha: the instinctual fear of death that haunts all people, even the learned.

These five kleshas (afflictions) generate insatiable desires and the consequent demons of fear, anxiety and low self-esteem at the root of all negative emotions. Further they agitate the mind, blinding the untrained mind from perceiving the true unchanging Self.

Because the ego provides a consistent perspective in a constantly changing world, it resists change. Concepts, attitudes, feelings, likes and dislikes, as well as name, titles, and relationships with individuals, communities and material objects are all ingredients of the ego’s false identity. By seeking the pure Self, which is the source of light for the mind, Yoga helps the intellect to detach from the ego’s habitual wrong understandings of the self, gradually thinning out the kleshas.

Patanjali, the compiler of the Yoga Sutras defined Yoga as “Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah,” which means “Yoga is the suppression of the modifications of the mind.” These modifications (vrittis) are emotionally charged “whirlpools” of thought that disturb our peace of mind (chitta). The mind without vrittis is pure understanding, a mirror reflecting the Divine nature of the Self. It is the emotional charge of the kleshas that generates the disturbing thought waves (vrittis). The root klesha, ignorance, is maintained by a vast network of roots of unconscious desires (vasanas) imbedded in the depths of our minds (chitta). We only recognize them when they swirl up in our consciousness, manifesting as disturbing emotions such as arrogance, lust, greed, fear, jealousy, anger, hatred and prejudice. The emotionally charged vasanas sit like land “mines” waiting to explode into our conscious minds when they come into contact with corresponding sense objects defined by the ego as objects of raga or dwesha.

To use Swami Vishnu-devananda’s example, if we have a vasana for French pastry we may go for weeks without it bothering us until we pass a certain pastry shop and catch a glimpse of a familiar pastry in the window. Then either we rush in and make an impulsive purchase, or we are disturbed for the rest of the day with frustration or even anger as the imagination dwells on thoughts of the tempting pastries. If we manage to repeat the pleasure of consuming the pastry again, the impression of raga or attachment becomes stronger and we may find our daily route soon altered to regularly pass by the pastry shop. If we are not mindful, the pastry attachment can become an addiction. The pastry itself does not bring happiness or unhappiness, but the mind through the delusion of attachment becomes convinced that happiness lies hidden in the pastry.

The potent antidote for all of the kleshas is unbroken discriminative knowledge (viveka khyati). With awareness, we can catch the mind from falling into negative habit energy of attachment and fear. With awareness, even if we slip into the pain generating habits, we learn to practice vairagya or letting go, and the whole afflictive drama is nipped in the bud. However, to maintain unbroken discrimination requires purity of mind and one-pointed concentration. These skills are extremely difficult for the untrained mind and must be developed step by step.

The five first steps, or angas of Patanjali’s eight-limbed (ashtanga)Yoga provide a foundation of emotional strength to become the master of our mind rather than a slave to negative emotions. The scattered and dulled rays of the mind are gathered back into the concentrated state. The higher practices of Yoga then refine the concentration into meditation and finally to the highest states of samadhi. Yoga is not just doing attractive postures and temporarily feeling more healthy and relaxed; it is a precise formula for transforming our entire lives “from ignorance to truth, from darkness to light, and from a life identified with the impermanent material objects to spiritual immortality.”

These five steps are:

1.    Yama: ethical restrictions including non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satyam), non-stealing (asteya), continence (brahmacharya), and abstinence from greed (aparigraha).

2.    Niyama: practices to develop internal purity including cleanliness or purity (saucha), contentment (santosha), austerity (tapas), study of scriptures (swadhyaya), and self-surrender (ishwara pranidhana).

3.    Asana: posture

4.    Pranayama: breath control

5.    Pratyahara: abstraction of the senses. Each of these accessories to concentration and meditation give Yoga practitioners not only survival techniques for emotional crises, but tools to permanently transform negative emotions into their positive potential of pure joy, discriminative knowledge and freedom (pratipaksha bhavana).

Each of these practices is simple, but essential to bringing about physical and emotional health. Yama or ethical discipline is the base. In Raja Yoga, it is called the Great Vow (Maha Vrata). Starting with ahimsa (nonviolence), the brutal habits of the mind are curbed. Knowledge of the unity of life is cultivated. The goal of ahimsa is to disarm all hostilities in one’s life by becoming a friend to all beings. By mastering the vow of truth (satya), the practitioner’s will becomes harmonized with the Divine or collective will, and whatever he or she thinks or speaks turns out to be true. By mastering non-stealing (asteya), one becomes a benefactor to the world, and the world naturally supports its benefactor. Renouncing the tendency to objectify and exploit the world one becomes thankful for the countless gifts of life. Gratitude attracts wealth. By the establishment of celibacy (brahmacharya) life is empowered with inner strength and vigor. By abstinence from greed (aparigraha), the mind quiets down and an understanding of the purpose of birth is obtained.

Niyama is the practice of purity, contentment, self-discipline, scriptural study and worship of God or self-surrender. They are basic practices for the purification of body, mind and spirit. It is the cultivation of purity, light and wisdom. While Yama reduces the impurities of rajas (desire and agitation) and tamas (darkness and negativity), Niyama increases mental clarity and discernment (sattva). Patanjali writes in the Yoga Sutras, “On the purity of sattwa, arise cheerfulness of mind, conquest of the senses and their organs and fitness for Self-realization.”

What we normally consider as Hatha Yoga, the practice of asana and pranayama, also plays an important role in the eight step system of Raja Yoga. Awareness of where we hold tension in the body and breath, and self-regulating those imbalances with asana and pranayama is an amazing first aid when the mind becomes overpowered by the forces of rajas and tamas. When asanas are practiced regularly body and mind are made strong and steady and one is free from the disturbance of the pairs of opposites (likes and dislikes). Then the mind’s darkness is removed by the regular practice of pranayama so that it can become fit for concentration. The body and breath provide a tangible field for our emotional imbalances. By thus purifying the body and breath, we open the space for the deep mental transformations. This is a major step to reclaiming our emotions.

Abstraction of the senses (pratyahara) is the bridge between the external practices and the internal practices and ultimately leads to the supreme mastery of the senses. Only by establishing pratyahara can we be free from the distraction of the senses. Raja Yoga unravels layers of dysfunctional emotional training by transforming physical, emotional and conceptual habits. This work demands continued practice and a willingness to let go of afflictive habits. The effort can be mild, moderate or intense. Each person is welcomed to practice at his or her own level and pace, realizing that the practice will eventually lead to liberation from ignorance and suffering.

Both Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnu-devananda were masters of Hatha and Raja Yoga. Practicing in this tradition, we experience the empowerment of emotional transformation in our lives. With will, faith and practice, thousands of Yoga practitioners have overcome huge obstacles to lead strong, healthy and productive lives.

1 These and other statistics on depression can be found here.

About the Author:
Srinivasan is a senior disciple of Swami Vishnu-devananda and the director of the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch in Woodbourne, in upstate New York. He is the acharya (senior teacher) for the East Coast Sivananda Centers and a member of the executive board of the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers. Like all Sivananda acharyas, he trains Yoga teachers and lectures widely on Yoga practice and teachings.

Reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, Winter 2008 issue

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