Culture Society

Yoga is not just bending the body

Yoga is not just bending the body(D.Atahan-Fabig – The Hindu, 21/12/17) – India’s ancient tradition Yoga has become a multimillion-dollar industry in the past few decades and taking a path of its own, under many different names, brands, meanings; it’s hard not to feel some resentment towards the trends that take yoga out of its origins, and reduce it to a physical discipline. It gets even harder to accept when postural yoga is copy pasted into a distinct faith or idea to gather a small audience around a founder that has fashioned a new yoga brand. This makes me question how far we can expand on the idea of cultural appropriation or if you will, misappropriation. One wonders if the author of Yogasutra Patanjali, who offers the philosophy of yoga in the most concise way and brings yoga as a mental, psychological and spiritual guidebook would have cringed in the face of the trends that are mushrooming all over the world.

While the West’s appreciation of yoga overemphasises the body practice, the true aim of yoga is building self-awareness and a way of health and balance of body, psyche and environment. Patanjali’s 196 verses — perhaps the oldest system of psychotherapy — aimto develop awareness, regulation of body, mind, and emotions. In this system, the physical part of yoga (asana) is considered a preparation where one gets the body out of the way before getting to the main aspects of yoga, that is mental work and introspection. Patanjali teaches a methodical yoga, a systematic approach oriented towards a direct realisation of truth, which at times corresponds to the idea of “self-actualisation” in psychotherapy. If we look at the philosophical and intellectual interactions between the West and India, we see that there is a great deal of yoga philosophy and thought absorbed in today’s psychology, and there are parallels between yoga’s world view and what psychotherapy wants to accomplish.

If we trace back the evolution of modern yoga to India, we see that the arrival of physical yoga to the West was in the 1950s. Two disciples of Madras-based guru Krishnamacharya, BKS Iyengar, and K. Pattabhi Jois brought their individual styles of yoga — the Iyengar and Ashtanga schools were more than a physical exercise with inner dimension. These authentic yoga practices in the West made the core of yoga philosophy available to the practitioners by including chanting, meditation and presenting the teachings of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (Yogasutra).

Krishnamacharya, who had based his practice in Madras after leaving Mysore, mainly drew from the Eight Limbs of Yoga system of the Yogasutra. He developed his yoga into a comprehensive lifestyle, and the Mandiram still teaches yoga in an individualised way by virtue of a holistic health perspective. Krishnamacharya’s system as further developed by his son and disciple T.K.V. Desikachar, who passed away last year, separated itself from other schools with its therapeutic approach to an array of sufferings and inclusive teachings of the sutras from a psychological angle. Today Krishnamacharya’s teachings based on Yogasutra may be revered as a niche where yoga and psychotherapy concepts carry a dialogue of exchange.

When Swami Vivekananda introduced “Raja Yoga”, i.e. his interpretation of Yogasutra, first time to a Western audience, in his historical speech at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago (1893), he talked about philosophy, pranayama, meditation, and religious tolerance and physical part of yoga was not mentioned much. While Vivekananda became an instant success with his oratory skills and unifying teachings on religion, his ideas reached intellectuals such as William James, an American psychologist, aka “father” of psychology, whose most memorable contribution to psychology was the method of “introspection,” eventually sparking depth psychology.

Jung and Kundalini Yoga
Carl G. Jung developing Jungian Analysis as a next layer to depth psychology, connected the dots between eastern mysticism and western psychology, drew parallels between cultures to pinpoint a universal understanding of psyche and left an extensive study of Hinduism in his oeuvre, including “The psychology of Kundalini Yoga.”

Aldous Huxley’s vision, whose outlook found its inspiration in neo-Vedanta, was passed on to American culture through Esalen in California. Decades later, Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt Therapy, would make Esalen his home to teach and develop Gestalt therapy further. In the 1960s, psychotherapy schools like Wilhelm Reich’s “Character Analysis,” later giving birth to Somatic therapy, and Gestalt therapy, that is existential and experimental, would bring the importance of body and emotions to the practical setting of psychotherapy in a cutting-edge approach, as they superseded the body-mind dualism which western scientific thinking takes its roots from.

Gestalt and somatic therapies that handle the disconnect between body and mind, address the incongruities between bodily posture, tension, non-verbal cues, affect, breathing, speech and other somatic cues with the semantic content expressed by patients, and a therapy session usually starts with some form of embodiment exercise. Similarly, in yoga, the sense of awareness, safety, and mastery over the body is increased while building skills to effectively interpret and tolerate the suffering (duhkha), which is also the aim of psychotherapy. Patanjali offers a rich world-view, like existential phenomenologists and emphasises knowledge in the integrity of being and action and providing the integration of the person as a ‘whole’ — certainly a Gestalt perspective.

Interestingly, Patanjali’s definition of yoga in (YS.1.2) — “yogas, citta vrtti nirodha” —as the acknowledgement of the distorted thoughts in the mind and returning to the source is in itself the idea of cognitive work and about the awareness and being in “here and now,” very much on track with modern psychotherapy. Yet again, I wonder if realising these proximities and overlaps between yoga and the very young science of modern psychotherapy would have fazed Patanjali much. But the more yoga gets consumed in the world, the more the need to build bridges for a better understanding and appreciation of yoga, health and psychology. Bridges that would allow access for us to examine and assimilate this 3,000-year-old tradition which touches the essence of humanity and life.

The writer is an American psychologist, yoga practitioner and currently a research scholar at VIT, Chennai

The Hindu, Yoga is not just bending the body