Although Yoga is formally a system of liberation, it can be employed to teach skills of emotional regulation. In this article, Dr. Richard 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. Science describes the same whirlpool-like activity and Yoga gives us the technology to deal with it. The technology involves bringing awareness, at an early stage, to these fundamental whirlpools and cascades that occur in the mind so that we can supervise their arising and still and quiet them in the service of nirodaha. At these early stages, this becomes a simple process and with practice (sutra 1.12, effort toward steadiness of mind), more easily accomplished.
The yogic view of health and healing is one that occurs on multiple levels (the five koshas), is based on individual effort and works best if practiced as an intact system. Our fundamental nature is joy, unperturbed, flawless and eternal.
Psychopathology, according to Yoga psychology, is fundamentally a misidentification with our mental events and processes. We have forgotten who we are at an essential level in our effort to live in the mind/body and adapt to the world. This misidentification is the source of suffering (dukkha). The cause of suffering is an unexamined, inertial force driven by the endless cycle of samskara that gives birth to vritti, leading to karmic action that creates new samskara (sutras 2.4, 2.5, 2.12). Yoga psychology also states that suffering is optional (sutras 2.15-2.17, 2.26).
Western & Eastern Concepts: Similarities & Differences
Yogic and western approaches to working with emotions are similarly concerned with harmony between the inner and outer world, with the analysis of mental events in the service of reducing suffering and both include interventions for the revision and reduction of tensions. Yoga takes this one step further to include not only revision and reduction, but non-identification (through svadhyaya and viveka; see sutras 2.1, 2.26, 2.28, 3.53, 3.55, 4.26, 4.29). Both Yoga and western psychologies are technique friendly and assign homework (Yoga asanas, pranayama, pratyahara etc.) in the service of creating nirodaha. Both approaches ask the individual to observe the benefits and consequences of their respective techniques. They empower the individual, creating an internal locus of transformation. They consider suffering (tapas, dukkha) to be part of the lawful order of things and employ it for growth.
There are also distinct differences between Yoga and western psychology, mostly that Yoga psychology is a science of liberation, or freedom, and asks for a non-identification with fundamental self concepts (see sutras 1.2, 1.3). The central yogic technology is nirodaha, cessation of the whirlpool of thoughts (sutras 1.2, 1.12, 1.51, 3.9). Yoga psychology suggests a different map of consciousness (i.e., the kosha system) and is holistic and comprehensive.
The Yogic Technology of Emotional Regulation
So, what is the technology of emotional regulation according to Yoga (and incidentally all the wisdom systems)? It consists of a four-part process: (1) the recognition of thoughts and the emotions tied to them (mindfulness, sutra 1.20), (2) acceptance of these (tapas, sutra 2.1, upeksha, sutra 1.33), (3) inquiry, or svadhyaya (sutra 2.1), toward that which is arising in the mind and (4) non-identification (discriminative discernment, or viveka, sutras 2.15, 2.26, 2.28). Yogic healing is the correction of our misidentification with the ego (asmita, sutras 2.3, 2.6) through practices that radically modify our patterns of attachment (abhyasa and vairagya, sutra 1.12). Healing at the physical level or emotional level is a side effect of practice and non-attachment.
Through regular practice we can gain the skill set to follow this four-part process at the point in which the emotional events are evanescent and weak and can be more effectively modified, or supervised, because they have very little momentum. The basic process brings attention to the kleshas: (1)“forgetting” the real nature of existence, (2) ego identification, (3) wanting, (4) not wanting, (5) clinging—and their arising. Create initial recognition of the early event, bring loving attention (through the locks and keys, sutra 1.33 ), recognize and accept what arises, inquire into its arising in an honest and fully present way, then experience this in the absence of the small self or, perhaps better said, as the witness. In this way the true self is present at the outset of these powerful emotions, supervising the expression of the kleshas and, most importantly, creating samskara of nirodaha, rather than further entanglement with prakriti.
Yogic action has three components: discipline, self-study and orientation toward awareness itself (sutra 2.1). When the components of Yoga are practiced, proliferating emotional phenomena dwindle, and the light of understanding can shine forth, illuminating the way to discriminative awareness (sutra 2.28). Discriminative insight deconstructs all of the phenomenal world’s objects and conditions, setting them apart from pure awareness (sutra 3.53). Consciousness, now oriented to this distinction, can gravitate toward kaivalya (liberation)—the fully integrated experience that awareness is independent of nature (sutra 4.26). This is the goal of Yoga.
The more skilled we become in practicing in this way and understanding how emotional regulation can go awry, the better we will regulate our emotions. This is a component of emotional intelligence—a predictor of how well we will do in the world and in remembering our true nature.
In 1990, Richard Panico, MD began studying classical Yoga and its application to healing. Based on this work, in 2000 he founded the Athens Regional Mind Body Institute which provides services for 800 patients a month and collaborates on research programs at the University of Georgia and other medical schools. He is a principal trainer and teacher for Integral Yoga and teacher trainer for Sivananda Yoga.