Yoga & Psychotherapy – a book review

The Yoga Therapy program offered at Kripalu Yoga Center for Yoga and Health suggests a number of books as both required and suggested reading in preparation for advanced training in yoga therapy. I poured through the course descriptions and scooped up a list of those reading materials, thinking that I may need a considerable amount of reading time to complete the program. I offer up a summary of one of those books from the list.

Yoga and Psychotherapy: The Evolution of Consciousness is written by Swami Rama, Rudolph Ballentine, MD, and Swami Ajaya, PhD. It was published in 2014 by Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy of the U.S.A.® and weights in at just over 225 pages, with additional pages for Preface, Appendix, and References and Notes.

My copy will be unsuitable for re-sale now because of the excessive underlining of passages throughout the text! I felt compelled to draw little symbols and pictures in the margins and circle the many names of experts mentioned. At several points in the reading, I found myself re-reading several sections while doing a combination of day dreaming, soul searching, and contemplation. The introspection that is prompted by reading any kind of psychology reduces my reading speed to slower than half time. And even more so than in astrology, I find myself looking to see if I can diagnose either my own psychosis or relax in the recognition of normal behavior.

The common theme throughout is the comparison of Western Psychology and Eastern Yogic Psychology. The authors use extensive references to many of the major players in traditional psychology from the west, such as Freud, Maslow, Erikson, James, and most extensively quotes and references to the work of Carl Jung.

The text continues a very light compare and contrast approach that seemed to work hard to provide a balanced discussion. At times the book gives such deference to western psychology that it makes yogic psychology seem less than a serious science.

The second key theme to the book is the idea of the yogic path as being a “growth” process. In western psychology this is usually referred to as a process to “cure” an illness, or address some negative expression of the personality. With exception of true psychosis, eastern psychology looks at the individual’s personality as a work in progress or a move to growing in spiritual awareness. By describing the yogi as either growing or not growing we are able to realize that the path is not always a linear move toward pure consciousness. The psychology of being human can be related as normal, natural and growing toward the constant goal of awareness from the gross to the subtle.

To grow or to move toward consciousness from a yogic perspective, involves following a path that follows what the ancient texts describe as sheaths, or koshas. The book is divided in to chapters that discuss the five sheaths, each describing an aspect of what it means to live within the human existence (the physical body, the energy within the body, the sense organs, the intellect, and the true soul). In the deepest depths of the five sheaths is pure consciousness. The sheaths provide a framework for exploration and discussion of the whole being, and a complete system of therapy.

The “causes of misery,” or the situations in life that prevent growth and cause us mental anguish are the five categories referred to as “kleshas” in the yogic tradition. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras these are the causes of fear, anxiety and depression. The kleshas keep us from realizing our capacity for higher consciousness. They are:

  1. Ignorance
  2. Limited self concept
  3. Attachment
  4. Aversion
  5. Fear of death

After an interesting exploration into the body, breath and energy, the mind (manas, chitta and ahankara), consciousness, sleep (my favorite chapter!), the last sections of the book deal with psychosis, mysticism and the centers of consciousness. In the final analysis the authors are making a very strong case that “yoga offers to modern psychology the possibility of integration.” They explain that modern western psychology has done a superb job of scientific and laboratory study of behavior but that it remains fragmented, and has not pulled together the theories and techniques needed for real health and growth. Calling psychotherapy “uncoordinated and scattered” as compared to the benefits to be learned from a different culture working on the same areas of humanness. The book closes with an analogy as to how Arabic numerals provided a path to Western mathematics in a way that Roman numerals never could have made possible.

Yoga Sutra I.23 – Getting out of your own way

I’ve always been really curious how one can learn to discern the point where “right” becomes “wrong,” where white starts to bleed grey before becoming black. It is not always so clear cut! I want to know – when does mind-centered determination need to give way to surrender?

How do we know when the contentment of santosha is wrong thinking in disguise? Is there a way to discern the right choice and the right direction in life? Who just asked all those questions anyway? Was it my small mind or my big mind? Early Homo sapiens probably pondered their own variation of these thoughts 200,000 years ago and before. Now, here I am with that same old monkey mind!

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras follows a most interesting format by dividing the sutras or threads into four padas (translated as footprint or step from Sanskrit), providing the backstory to enlightenment, steps to practice, the progression of the yogani, and how liberation is achieved.

In the first pada of the Yoga Sutras Patanjali is describing Samadhi and the theories of yoga. At I.22 Patajali states that the speed with which one arrives is based on whether one employs mild, moderate or intense practice. But then he cuts right to the chase with I.23.

Īśvara-pranidhānād va || I.23 ||

Īśvara – pure awareness, the ideal awareness, God, the Supreme Lord, the Almighty
praṇidhānād – surrender all actions, devotion
vā – OR, ALSO

I believe the meaning and the importance of this sutra is more pronounced because of the Sanskrit word OR (va). A true listener will sit up in their seat when an orator says “you can go this way, that way… OR if you want to just arrive at your destination, do this.” Patanjali is saying Isvara can be attained immediately by surrendering the self, the ego, i.e., getting out of your own way.

Chip Hartranft, in his extensive commentary and translation of the Yoga Sutras, discusses I.23 this way:

Realization may ALSO come if one is oriented toward the idea of pure awareness. Ishvara.

B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Life (p. 261) describes the importance of Īśvara-praṇidhānda va and tells us what it is not, :

“[Īśvara-praṇidhāna va] is the most theistic of all aspects of yoga. Īśvara is Divinity in a general and nondenominational sense. What it definitely does not mean is using the ego to second-guess the will of God. It is, on the contrary, the surrender, through meditation (dhyāna) and devotion (bhakti), of the ego itself.”

Iyengar references I.23 in the closing lines of his book, Core of the Yoga Sutras this way:

“From cita-sakti, the yogi has to move from the four established aims towards the realization of the atman, to surrender totally to God. His journey moves him from citta-prasadana to atma-prasadana and from atma-prasadana to Isvara-pranidhana. Here culminates yoga-marga.”

These ideas combined as a line of reasoning and give me several take homes or points of view to ponder in relation to my original inquiry. We cannot second-guess the will of God. That should mean I can now afford to get out of my own way by eliminating doubt, uncertainty or operating from a lack of saucha (purity of thought).

Chip Hartranft’s translation of the Sutras closes with “… the power of pure seeing. That is all.” For me, yoking the concept of the power of pure seeing and “getting out of our own way” resonated as a potential answer to the opening questions and also addresses the inquiry I bring to my own yoga practice.

What remains for me is another question: what tools or concepts do we really have to help us see the moment when “right” starts to turn “wrong” and we begin to see the “white” turning to the proverbial  “black?” I understand the concepts of not second-guessing God, meditating and surrendering the ego – and the difficulty inherent in that path. The problem is made real everyday when we have to confront situations of loss, betrayal, selfishness, thoughtlessness, and dealing with the suffering we cause our selves and others.

The final answer most certainly is found along the yoga path. I still feel that the dividing line between right and wrong may move ahead of me like the mirage of wavy lines on a hot asphalt highway. As I trudge down the long road to freedom and enlightenment, I am expecting (hoping?) that what feels like giving in to someone else’s “wrong feeling” position today will look more like acceptance tomorrow. What feels like my righteous demands will give way to acquiescence. My own mind will still need to try to determine what is right and wrong. And my hand will still need to bravely draw an emotional boundary as a form of personal ahimsa. The load will become lighter, the path more defined. The monkey mind will become still and free from the need to know today what will be tomorrow’s present moment.