An Interview with Swami Ajaya, Ph.D.
Swami Ajaya, Ph.D., has the unique distinction of being both a licensed clinical psychologist and a Swami initiated by Swami Rama (Himalayan Institute). Swami Ajaya has spent over forty years studying and teaching Yoga and meditation. He also researched the effectiveness of entheogens in releasing dysfunctional patterns in the body-mind. He is currently writing a book that demonstrates how entheogens, experiential inquiry and psychotherapy complement one another in uncovering and transcending the limitations that we have imposed on ourselves. In this interview, he shares his understanding of how Yoga and Western psychotherapy can be joined to free us from identification with a contracted sense of self so we can live in appreciative wonderment.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): What is Yoga psychology and how would you compare it with Western psychology?
Swami Ajaya (SA): Yoga psychology is multifaceted. It derives from several traditions of sacred wisdom including the Upanishads, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Yoga Vashista, Bhagavad Gita and Tantra. These teachings don’t always agree with one another any more than one school of Western psychology agrees with another. What is unique in some of these traditions, such as Advaita Vedanta, is the understanding that Spirit, God, All Pervading Consciousness or whatever you call the unnamable source of our being, manifests itself as everything that exists, including ourselves. All of our struggles, fears, defensiveness, depression and anxiety come from not recognizing this in our moment-by-moment experience. Yoga psychology leads us to the realization of the All Pervading Consciousness. Anything short of this recognition leaves us mired in distress. Most of Western psychology and psychotherapy focuses on replacing dysfunctional patterns with those that are more functional. We may gain some relief but never transcend our identification with the personality and existential suffering.
IYM: What is Yoga psychology’s relationship with Raja Yoga?
SA: Raja Yoga offers a series of practices for climbing the ladder of self-mastery. Patanjali’s systemization of Samkhya philosophy and yogic techniques is an attempt to establish an inner science comparable to our Western sciences, which concern themselves with the outer or material world. This systematic approach is characteristic of the rational consciousness, thus it’s not surprising that it has had the most appeal in contemporary society. To most Westerners the term “Yoga” refers to such practices as Hatha Yoga, pranayama and meditation, all aspects of Raja Yoga. This is a very circumscribed understanding of Yoga. Devotional practices (Bhakti Yoga), that lead us to recognize that we exist surrounded by and infused with unconditional love, and tantric practices that show us that divinity expresses itself in all forms, are equally significant forms of Yoga.
There is another way that is beginning to gain greater acceptance in our culture as we emerge out of a rational, mechanistic way of experiencing. In contrast to Raja Yoga, this way of exploring doesn’t employ any techniques in order to perfect oneself. This way is non-dualistic. It asserts that separation between yourself and the Ultimate Mystery of Being is an illusion. The Upanishads declare, ”Thou art That.” Striving to get to a heavenly experience, whatever that may mean for each of us, takes us away from what is already being revealed here and now.
IYM: What are some of the fundamental aspects of Yoga psychology?
SA: Psychotherapy based on non-dualism incorporates the yamas delineated by Patanjali. For example: satya, living from what is true rather than lying to oneself and living in the illusion of how we would like circumstances to be; ahimsa, non-injury, which means opening to the unconditional acceptance that suffuses us and all that exists, thus being kind to ourselves rather than preoccupied with self-doubt, guilt and self-criticism. Any one of the yamas is sufficient for living a fully awakened life. These are not prescriptions. They guide us to realize when we are being duplicitous and to discover that ongoing recognition of what is, is sufficient to allow presence to shine forth.
One of the most fundamental and integrative teachings of Yoga psychology is the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna says to Arjuna, “Do your work but not for a reward.” Most of us act for the result, to earn money, to look good or perhaps to become enlightened. Krishna is saying that instead of being concerned about the consequences, simply be fully present in what you are doing. Living in the present moment is where we experience life infused with spirit. Nevertheless, Yoga is often taught and practiced with results in mind. I call this self-improvement Yoga in contrast to self-revealing Yoga…
Read the rest of this article in the Fall 2012 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.