The Psychology of Yoga in Practice

By Graham M. Schweig, Ph.D.

Several millennia before Sigmund Freud, in the most important classical texts of Yoga—the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita, we find the world’s first serious presentation of psychology in all history: Yoga psychology. It contains the first significant look at how the human psyche can heal from challenging conditions and reach its greatest potential. In this article, Dr. Schweig explains both the metaphysical background of Yoga psychology and its application.

The focus of Yoga psychology is on how to free ourselves from the conditioned mind so we can gain more choices in life and ideally reach our full potential. Three fundamental, irreducible categories of existence frame the foundation of Yoga psychology: Ishvara (the supreme, ultimate reality as Self), Purusha (soul or spirit), and Prakriti (the physical world). The psyche is located in Purusha, which is where we, as souls, reside. What’s important to appreciate about the three irreducible categories of existence is that we are situated between spirit and matter. Therein lies the tension and the challenge.

Psyche was originally a Greek word meaning “soul.” Even the word, “psychology” originally refers to the study of the pure Self. Yoga not only helps us heal from unhealthy states but provides a process through which a soul can reach its greatest potential. When the Self, which is a pure spiritual entity, becomes wholly identified with the temporary, fleeting conditions of this world, that causes suffering. This was the case with Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. In the first half of Chapter 1, we learn that a battle is about to ensue and Arjuna is facing an irresolvable ethical conflict. The outer conflict and tragedy about to occur on the battlefield becomes Arjuna’s inner conflict and personal struggle. Like Arjuna, we all have our little “battlefields.”

Interestingly, this first chapter of the Gita is titled: “Arjuna Vishada Yoga: The Yoga of Arjuna’s Despair.” Every other chapter has the title of a branch of Yoga, but Chapter 1 is about despair. Yet it’s a despair that is meant to lead us to a state of Yoga. This itself is so instructive. In this chapter, we begin to understand that Yoga isn’t simply for attaining physical and mental strength but, rather, it’s meant for healing the troubles of the mind and pangs of the heart.

The Gita gives us a model for dealing with troubling emotions. Sometimes, in Yoga, we think that the way we feel isn’t important. Ironically, the way we feel is the most important. We are feeling, thinking, and acting creatures. Feelings are found at the seat of the heart. Thinking is part of the cognitive process of the mind, and acting is our capacity to will. One of the innermost parts of ourselves is our feelings. Thinking and acting are things that can be corrected, criticized, appreciated. But, no one can tell you how you feel. Your feelings are your own. Valuing feelings and developing a purity of feeling is a part of Yoga, and this is where Bhakti Yoga comes in—with the cultivation of sattvic, or, pure feelings.

Feelings of despair, amazingly, have an important place in the life of Yoga. On an external level, there was no way for Arjuna to resolve the conflict that led to his feelings of despair. The Gita is saying there will always be irresolvable conflicts and we are here to learn how to deal with conflict. We need to look at the outer world conflicts as opportunities to go deep within our innermost selves. That’s what this world of maya precipitates—not to hurl us into total dissolution. Despair isn’t supposed to end in an absolutely intolerable state or in suicide. Quite the opposite!

In the Gita, Krishna is the ultimate Yoga therapist and Arjuna represents the patient for all of us. While Arjuna is pouring out his heart and communicating the nature of his despair, Krishna doesn’t say a thing. He carefully and patiently listens. Once Arjuna is finished speaking his words of grief, sorrow, and pain, he turns to Krishna—not just as a charioteer but also as a confidante, which is what any good therapist has to become. During this therapeutic conversation, Arjuna asks about thirteen questions. Those questions are very important and enlightening to Krishna, giving him important information so he can know how to apply the therapy. If Krishna hadn’t heard or been enlightened by everything that was going on within Arjuna’s mind and heart, the rest of the teachings of the Gita would never have been spoken. This is essentially a counseling session for all humanity. . .

Read the rest of this article in the Fall 2013 of Integral Yoga Magazine.

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