According to Elkins (1995)
The word psychology comes from two
Greek words, psyche and logos. Psyche
means soul, and logos, in this context, means study. Thus, the word psychology literally means
“the study of the soul”…. [and] the
word therapist originally meant servant or attendant. Thus, etymologically, a psychotherapist is a
“servant or attendant of the soul.”
Even the word psychopathology refers to the soul. It comes from the Greek words psyche and pathos
and literally means “the suffering of the soul” (p. 78).
In that case, if we were to hold true to the origins of the
practice, then the concerns of what the soul is, how it affects or is affected
by behavior and beliefs, how to connect with it, how to understand it, how to
recognize it, and how to alleviate its suffering would all be concerns of
psychology. But rather, it seems as if
these are the concerns of shamanism, religion, and spirituality: a separate
world for theologians, philosophers, and mystics to explore. Exactly the territory of Yoga, arguably the
world’s oldest and most detailed form of psychology.
While modern psychology has
emerged as a distinct science in only the last one hundred years, the
systematic study of psychology in India has been evolving over the past few
thousand years. The approaches to
self-transformation that have developed in Yoga and in the philosophical
systems of India were painstakingly filtered and integrated into a systematic
science in the concise and complex text called the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,
written circa 400CE. Here, a
comprehensive paradigm was established that includes many of the methods being
rediscovered in modern psychology today (Ajaya, 1983, p.4).
Patanjali describes Yoga as
the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind, which leads to the individual
being able to see him or herself clearly outside of psychological constructs
and the effects of experience. This is exactly the state that psychology seeks
to achieve through self-examination, bringing about healing through clarity.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Ashtanga
Yoga have some things in common. Both
present that observing one’s thoughts, behaviors, sensations, and emotions from
a detached perspective can help to bring self-awareness and understanding to
the ways in which these experiences govern our energetic and psychological states
and our patterns of behavior. It takes
practice and a change in perspective to bring one’s conscious awareness to an
introspective mode in order to observe oneself but “as soon as we do that, we
become more detached from [our discursive thoughts], allowing us to shift from
being the victims of our thoughts to becoming the masters of our minds”
(Kowalski, 2008, p. 28). Once we become
the masters of our minds and are self-aware enough to see how we are thinking
and behaving and how these patterns may or may not be working, we can begin the
process of changing to something else, something better, something more healthy. Patanjali detailed the steps to achieve this
level of self-awareness in stark and clear language.
The path of Yoga, according to
Patanjali, is a disciplinary path that incorporates ethical and spiritual
guidelines, which are used as a psychospiritual framework to create a perfectly
balanced human being capable of higher states of consciousness and wellness. Ashtanga
Yoga is his eight-limbed path that guides the Yogi through ethical principles
that serve to alleviate conflict in interpersonal dynamics and within the Self;
physical postures and breathing exercises that strengthen, make fit, bring
vital energy to, and balance the body; the practice of sensory withdrawal,
which serves towards mindfulness and physical awareness; concentration to still
the mind; channeling the mind energy through meditation; with the final step
bringing the Yogi to the end goal of Self-realization. Realizing the “Self” is realizing that one is
an individualized manifestation of pure consciousness, separate from material
nature, unscathed by thought, form, time, and experience. Whether or not there is a God is left open to
the practitioner to decide upon. This
“Self,” as a pure state of being, can then be used as an anchor point that a
person experiencing conflict can return to again and again, buoyed by the
discipline of Yoga, when difficult times arise as a source of clarity and
meaning. The dissociation of the “Self”
from the often traumatic experiences of life allows for objectivity to be
found, and in this space, the individual can begin to see things clearly instead
of being overwhelmed, i.e. “I am not my trauma.”
It has already been shown that a
physical Yoga practice has a beneficial effect on anxiety and depression and
provides relief from the symptoms of traumatic stress (Emerson, 2015). There are also extensive positive research
findings concerning the three limbs of sensory-withdrawal, concentration, and meditation
and their effect on anxiety, depression, behavioral disorders, and
acute/chronic/complex stress disorders (Emerson, 2015; Li, PharmD, & Goldsmith,
Part of the ethical practices of
Yoga is a consistent self-study, diving deeper into who and what we are. This
is, as well, the point of modern psychology. The two seamlessly go hand in
hand, with one providing aspects missing to the other. Ashtanga Yoga can serve as a framework
through which an individual may search for meaning in a way that opens doors to
explore ideas about spirituality, the Self, the soul, and what that means to be
alive. Ashtanga Yoga is far more than
stretching and exercise. It was detailed by Patanjali to serve as a completely
holistic system of mental, emotional, and physical wellness and has served its
purpose well for thousands of years. If
we want to return to modern psychology’s roots and consider psychology as the
healing of the soul, it’s worth exploring its relationship with Yoga further.
If you are interested in how Yoga
psychology and modern psychology together can improve your life, consider
attending our upcoming workshop at La Buena Vibra Yoga and Mindfulness School
on Meditation and Yoga Psychology June 8-9 where we will discuss the mind
according to Patanjali and how to explore it and control it via concentration
and mindfulness meditation.
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