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Yoga Psychology / Western Psychology

Leslie Kalechman, LCSW,RYT

Yogas Citta Vrtti Nirodhah: The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga. (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translation and commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda, 1978.)

Yoga is defined in the Yoga Sutras (1.2) as the control of the turbulence in the mind. It is a tradition of psychospiritual growth, a technology for the exploration of the inner world, bringing personal growth and eventual Self-realization. Today, in the U.S., Yoga is usually pursued as a discipline for physical fitness and health and is highly effective as such. While Yoga's comprehensive methodology includes many techniques that serve the goals of enhancing or restoring physical fitness and health, its real potency lies in the domain of psychospiritual maturation. This is very similar to the goals of Western Psychology. Patanjali's definition as the control of the thought waves is not meant as censorship or repression, but as a heightened awareness of the modifications/movements of the mind and the use of discernment to distinguish the real from the unreal towards realization of the peace that is our true nature, or Unity. As a practicing psychotherapist for the past 20-plus years and also a 30-plus year student of Yoga, I am fascinated by the similarities of Yoga and psychology, and the ways they complement and are compatible with each other.

The first and second limbs of Patanjali's Ashtanga (8-Limbed) Path, the Yamas and Niyamas, provide a reliable template for right living, forming a foundation for Yoga Psychology. The fourth Niyama, is Svadhyaya: Education of the self; self-inquiry or study of the self/Self; study of spiritual books. I love thinking of the self as a spiritual book! Yoga gives us many wonderful practices towards self-inquiry; as does western psychology. Both disciplines have benefits and areas of limitation; however I have found that when used together as needed a powerful synergy occurs that produces effective results.

Yoga teaches, heals and grows us: physically, energetically, mentally, spiritually. The goal is remembering ourselves and all of the universe as aspects of the Divine. I don't know about you, but for me, this isn't always as easy as it sounds. For example: you are late for an appointment and because of road construction and traffic every route you take to get there is blocked; your high tech company goes under and you find yourself unable to provide for yourself and your family; you are the victim of crime or violence, etc. The manomayakosha (sheath of the lower mind), can easily forget our Divine connection. Painful emotions such as fear, loss, and anger get stirred up. They can disturb your meditation. The Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita speak to ways of healing, and directing the manomayakosha back to this Unity. "Much of the discipline of Yoga and the process of meditation is aimed at transforming awareness through a gradual but persistent reshaping ÉofÉhabits of attention." (Ballentine, Swami Rama and Swami Ajaya,Yoga and Psychotherapy, The Evolution of Consciousness,1976.) But, as pointed out earlier, sometimes your meditation, and your sadhana gets disturbed. Or, you may spend more time in meditation because it feels so good and neglect to deal with the worldly problem. This happened to me just the other day; I really wanted to stay on the cushion rather than leave and attend to some unpleasant duties I had that day. Western psychology works very effectively with the manomayakosha; teaching us about our "thinking errors" (citta vrtti) and learning to challenge them and replace the unreal with what is real. And, Western psychology excels at teaching us how to work compassionately and thoughtfully with our emotions. In fact, Western and Yoga Psychology even employ many of the same techniques: pratipaksha bhavanum (affirmation and reframing); dirgha swasam (diaphragmatic breathing); Yoga Nidra (relaxation and guided imagery).

Psychotherapy teaches, heals and grows us: mentally and emotionally. Western psychology treatment goals are typically about the healthy development of what I refer to as the "little-s" self: the solidification of the sense of individuality; self-esteem; and the healthy relationship of the "little-s" self to other little-s selves (other people). Also referred to as the individual ego, as differentiated from the "Big-S" Self or True Nature or Atman in Yoga. Some say that this is a major difference between Yoga Psychology and Western Psychology: that Yoga is more focused on realizing the Self, considering the self to be less important, because of its ensnarement with maya, or illusion. My belief is that without the strong foundation of the "little-s self" (the self relating to ego), one is unable to authentically move into the transcendent realities and fully realize the "big-S" Self. My experience is that we need to embrace both little-s and big-S selves. We need the energies/foundation of the lower chakras in order to ground us in our lives in the world as well as to provide a strong foundation for the ascent into the higher chakras and higher consciousness. I have seen many (including myself!) try to somehow "by-pass" (deny/repress) the issues of the self believing that this is somehow more "Yogic", and it seldom seems to work. It doesn't work because "that which we hold unaware in our unconscious will eventually come to us as fate"(Carl Jung). By using the powerful techniques of Yoga Psychology and Western Psychology we facilitate our own healing. We learn to acknowledge, accept, experience, and bear all the parts of our lives, and ourselves so that we can be with "The Full Catastrophe" of our life! (Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living).

"In Yoga, as in psychotherapy, the real is discovered within the unreal through a gradual process of discrimination (viveka). In Yoga, as in psychotherapy, only reality is wholly safe." (Cope, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self)

2002. Leslie Kalechman, LCSW, RYT. Embracing Wellness Integral Therapies.
website: embracing-wellness.com
email: leslie@embracing-wellness.com


  • Ballentine, Rudolph; Swami Rama and Swami Ajaya, Yoga and Psychotherapy, The Evolution of Consciousness,1976.
  • Cope, Stephen Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, 1999.
  • Kabat-Zinn, Jon Full Catastrophe Living, Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness, 1990
  • LePage, Joseph, Integrative Yoga Therapy Training Manual 1994.
  • The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali translation and commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda,1978.

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