Where psychology meets yoga
Updated: Apr 14, 2020
Many people see psychology as being about the mind, while yoga is seen as being about the body, and we live in a culture which reinforces this split by viewing mind and body as separate entities. I believe this is a very limited view of what we are. I feel in a very privileged position in my work being dual-qualified as a clinical psychologist and yoga teacher. This has given me a broad perspective on mental, physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing and ways to help people through the minefield of life.
The issues that most commonly bring people into contact with a psychologist are distressing or overwhelming emotions, such as anger, grief, sadness, anxiety, guilt and shame. But what are emotions? Unlike thoughts, which are mental phenomena, emotions largely reside in the body. Sure they have thoughts attached to them, but the experience of emotion itself is essentially a bodily experience – the butterflies, the churning stomach, the tightening of the chest, the heavy feeling like a lead weight in the gut. We experience our emotions in the body, and yet when it comes to learning how to manage emotions we often try to do this simply by talking about them as though the body doesn’t exist.
What brings people to yoga is often a desire for more comfort in the body, to release areas of tightness and tension and increase flexibility and ease. What we don’t always recognise is that these areas of tightness and tension are created by the ways in which we live our lives, and the ways in which we live our lives are influenced by our emotional experiences. When we experience negative and traumatic life events these experiences shape how we hold our bodies, causing certain areas to contract and tighten, almost like a form of self-defence. An example would be the rounding of the shoulders and contraction of the chest space that can occur when we are protecting ourselves from being hurt (literally protecting the heart). As yoga begins to unwind these long-held body postures, it also begins to unwind long-held hurts and emotional tension. So it’s not unusual to find that practicing deep postures can be accompanied by an emotional release. You might practice a deep hip opening posture and find a burst of anger being released afterwards, or a feeling of sadness or grief arising as you work with the heart or chest space.
Yoga recognises that there are key energy centres in the body (‘chakras’) which relate to certain aspects of our character and emotional life. When we stimulate these energy centres though yoga practices we notice subtle but distinct effects. Stimulating the navel centre (manipura chakra) increases not just physical strength, but also our sense of personal power and confidence in the world, while stimulating the heart centre (anahata chakra) can expand feelings of openness and compassion for others. So when we bring these energy centres into balance, we are literally bringing our emotional lives back into balance.
Yoga and psychology also share a common interest in the parasympathetic nervous system. Both disciplines work to find ways to calm the body’s ‘fight or flight response’, the automatic physiological response that is triggered when we’re anxious. By activating the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system we allow our bodies to rest, digest, heal and repair. One of the ways psychologists do this is by teaching deep breathing techniques, many of which originate from the practice of yoga. In yoga we call them ‘pranayama’ and these techniques are centuries old.
Psychology has been adopting more and more ideas from Eastern traditions in recent years. Open any recent psychology publication and you will likely see references to practices like mindfulness, self-compassion and radical acceptance. In fact I think you would need to have been living under a rock these last few years to not have stumbled across the concept of mindfulness in some shape or form. Mindfulness is often recognised as having its origins in Buddhism. This is true, however the Buddha himself is said to have learned mindfulness from a yogi. Mindfulness is the practice of calming the endless chatter of the mind by bringing the awareness to a single point of focus in the present moment. This helps us to step out of the traps of ruminating about the past and worrying about the future, clinging to some experiences and rejecting other ones, which cause much of our human suffering. It allows us to step back and observe what is happening from a calm and wise centre.
Whilst many people come to yoga seeking to improve their physical fitness and gain tight abs and toned biceps, the ultimate aims of yoga are actually to calm the mind. The Patanjali Sutras, the ancient text which underpins the philosophy of yoga, sums this up in the second sutra which instructs us that yoga is the practice of restraining the activities of the mind (‘yogaschitta vritti nirodhah’). Ancient yogis practiced asana (postures) to release tension, purify and detoxify the body in order that they were able to then sit in silence and calm the mind. Anyone who has tried to sit in meditation for any period of time will know how challenging this is when the body is tight, tense and restless. In yoga we bring body and mind into harmony in order to bring us closer to the experience of inner peace that most of us are seeking.
So in fact, as I see it, the disciplines of yoga and psychology are ultimately working towards the same ends, to release us from suffering, and help us to find inner peace, contentment and ease in our lives. These two disciplines can weave effortlessly together, helping people develop the capacity to observe their experiences on the physical, mental and emotional level without reacting to these experiences in the habitual ways that cause them problems.