Sample from the Summer 2009 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.

Emotional Regulation in the Yoga Sutras

By Richard Panico, MD

Although Yoga is formally a system of liberation, it can be employed to teach skills of emotional regulation. Dr. Panico bridges the gap between Yoga-based psychology and western science that offers a four-part system of emotional regulation, based on the fundamentals of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

The Nature of Emotion

Emotions form the central organizing dynamic of the mind, which seeks to know the phenomenal world. Emotions activate mental activity and shape the formation of events in the mind and important clusters of events that contribute to a sense of self. In addition, emotions create and modify salience, or meaning, in our minds and therefore, by extension, in our lives. They get things moving and keep them moving. And, they are born of attention.

When an event occurs in the mind—triggered either by sensory perceptual input or by thought, memory or the arising of another emotion—we create a negative or positive valence. This valence is an intrinsic attraction or aversion that is what Patanjali describes in the Yoga Sutras as raga (desire) and dvesha (aversion)—two of the kleshas, or obstructions to peace of mind. It is the valence—the raga and dvesha—that initiates an unfolding or cascading of mental events (emotion is this cascading in the scientific sense) that creates meaning. From that attention, proliferative cascade and creation of meaning come the secondary emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, irritation and so on. It is these secondary emotions that we think of as emotion but they are only the tip of the iceberg. This cascade that makes emotion, then loops back and shifts our sense of meaning, of self, and modifies what we pay attention to endlessly. This is a scientific approximation of samskara and vasana formation and maintenance.

One of the things that emotions shape is a sense of self (small “s”). The emotional process gives rise to meaning, shifts attention and generates secondary emotions but, most importantly, the ahamkara, the “I-maker.” Ahamkaram leads to asmita (ego identification). According to western science, emotion is the driver of that process. Current developmental neuroscience says that emotion serves as a central organizing process within the brain. An individual’s ability to process emotion directly shapes the ability of the mind to integrate experience and to adapt to circumstances—in one’s internal world, the external world and interpersonal relations.

Yoga Psychology: Chitta Vritti

In Yoga psychology, emotions correspond most closely to Patanjali’s concept of chitta vritti, “whirlpools” of thought, feeling, sensation and action that seek to know and participate in prakriti, the material world. There are afflictive and non-afflictive emotions. From a standpoint of liberation, afflictive emotions entangle us further in prakriti (sutra 2.13-2.14). Nonafflictive (healing) emotions point us inward toward liberation and foster cessation, or nirodaha (sutra 1.33). These emotions include: kindness (maitri), compassion (karuna) joy, wonder, awe, delight (mudita) and acceptance (upeksha).

Emotions not only make us feel things but also motivate us to do something. They provide metabolic support for action. They can interrupt goal directed behavior, shift attention and force their way into our awareness. Once in our awareness, we create importance out of the data stream—we create meaning and we create a story. Who is the main character in that story? Me. And, that preoccupation with me is a source of suffering. Why? Because the me can be hurt, can be disappointed, can be happy and happiness doesn’t always last. The me experiences all the dissatisfaction of prakriti, the material world. This is the meaning of dukha, or suffering. If there’s no me, that suffering goes away. There’s no one to suffer. Things are just happening and I am just observing them.

Emotional regulation in Yoga is tied to stilling the mind and not identifying with this mental/emotional process. The yogi has developed skills derived from yogic practice and the wisdom that practice engenders. The yogi knows what feelings and emotions are present without being lost in them. This is essentially what Patanjali states as the goal of Yoga in sutra 2: “Yoga chitta vritti nirodhah,” Yoga is the stilling of the whirlpools of the mind…


Read the rest of this article in the Summer 2009 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.