Excerpt from Integral Yoga Magazine, Fall 2012
The simple act of meaning making can turn a horrendous tragedy into an opportunity to learn how to tolerate difficult emotions, improve relationships and begin to connect with the nourishing relationships that surround us. That we are a meaning-making species is evident from the philosophical approach to Yoga psychology grounded in the teaching of Samkhya philosophy, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Upanishads and other sacred texts. This philosophical approach enables us to find hope in the face of tragedy. The flip side of this approach, however, is there may be the false sense that what we “do” doesn’t matter, if only we think the right thoughts.
The Ayurvedic approach to mental health is much different. It adheres to an understanding that psychological disturbance has a physiological component (called a doshic imbalance) and that there is much we can do in terms of diet and lifestyle to put us in right relationship with our bodies. Right relationship to the body is seen as the beginning of mental health, for we often treat those around us in much the same way as we treat our bodies. Ayurveda holds Yoga and Samkhya as essential philosophical schools of thought that help us understand the world around us as well as our place within it.
The Charaka Samhita, a textbook on Ayurveda, is the only book that directly addresses psychological disorders. Ayurveda has a lot to offer those who suffer with mental illness. A good Ayurvedic practitioner can help us understand what we need to take in through the five senses to facilitate our development as spiritual beings. We often think of mental illness as something “not spiritual,” but it, too, is a path toward a deeper understanding of ourselves.
The Aitareya Upanishads say that we all have access to the atman, or a state of consciousness that is unperturbed by our mental anguish. In this place we experience ourselves as satchidananda, truth, knowledge and bliss. We all have access to this state of consciousness, regardless of any emotional problems we may have. In my experience, this state of consciousness doesn’t “fix” mental illness, but it does open us to experience the totality of our being. We begin to see ourselves from a higher perspective. We may say, “Oh yes, my mind is prone to anxiety and has difficulty feeling safe.” But we also experience that we are so much more than the body and mind. We experience that our mental suffering is temporary, while our soul is eternal. We see clearly that our mental afflictions are a path, which if followed, will lead us to develop wisdom, compassion and love.
Higher states of consciousness evoked by Yoga have the unique effect of settling the mind, because we are no longer wrestling with mental illness. We no longer push it aside as something unworthy of our attention, or as a bother. We begin to accept the eating disorder, the traumas, the anxiety and the difficulties connecting with others as functional adaptations to extremely traumatic situations. We begin to see the limitations of these strategies, and can consciously choose to replace them with yogic tools that help to keep us safe in ways that are not harmful to us. We begin to accept that we have to engage in self-care, if we are to truly begin healing and recovering our sense of self.