Yoga Psychology Today

Adapted from Integral Yoga Magazine (2012)


Foundations of Yoga Psychology

The philosophical approach to Yoga psychology is grounded in the teaching of Samkhya philosophy, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Upanishads and other sacred texts. This perspective takes into account that we are a meaning making species. This philosophical approach enables us to find hope in the face of tragedy. 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. The difficulty in this approach 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 imbalance (called a doshic imbalance) and that there is much we can do in terms of diet and lifestyle that will 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 and 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 see, “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 quite 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.

Applications of Yoga Psychology

There is often a prescriptive approach in Yoga psychology for specific psychological effects. For example, if someone suffers from anxiety, the Yoga therapist may assign them a specific series of restorative Yoga poses and breathing practices. This approach is incredibly valuable as a way to begin the individual’s commitment to the important role of discipline in healing. This practical perspective is imperative to the success of Yoga psychology, but reifies the idea that we are solely our bodies; that if we manipulate the body in the “right way” we will find peace and happiness.

The practices of Yoga help us to regulate our energy level. If our energy level is too low (a tamasic, hypo-aroused state in which we feel dull, heavy, lethargic and tend to dissociate), we may engage in a slightly vigorous posture based practice. If our energy level is too high (a rajasic, hyper-aroused state in which we feel anger, anxiety, tension and racing thoughts), we may engage in a slow or restorative posture based practice. Overtime, we begin to learn how to uniquely adapt Yoga asanas, pranayama, meditation, yogic diet, chanting, self-study and exploration of the philosophical texts in ways that help us relate to our emotional landscape.

We may find that despite years of Yoga practice, an excellent ability to self-soothe and an ability to access higher states of consciousness that we are still prone to habits that cause us to suffer. Perhaps our habitual feeling that the world isn’t safe leads us to unhealthy levels of isolation, or we may jump to anger or anxiety in predictable ways. We may find that psychotherapy is an extremely useful tool to help us understand our habits and how we orient toward and away from the present moment.

Yoga and psychotherapy can work together to help us experience “what is,” and sometimes this includes profound grief, depth of longing, fear and desperation. For people who have experienced a lot of trauma, childhood abuse or both, the internalized message is that we are unworthy, bad and deeply disturbed; we often don’t go into the depth of our pain because we believe there is a bottomless pit of despair. There isn’t. Underneath all mental turmoil is something quite predictable: beauty, resilience, strength, joy and contentment. It helps to know we don’t have to do this alone.

It also helps to know that we are spiritual beings, with incredible capacity and strength. This strength can be harnessed to resist the temptation to avoid emotions through addictions, food, exercise, and work. Instead, we allow ourselves to feel; we allow the emotions to emerge from their hiding places and we welcome them in. In my experience, the simple and difficult act of experiencing the intensity of our emotions, allows them to pass. We emerge refreshed, fortified and surprised at the peace and contentment that are an integral part of our being.

The experience of Yoga is quite different from understanding Yoga. Spiritual experiences are not ideas, they are quite literally experiences. They give us the felt and embodied sense of humility, empowerment, trust, order, the ability to stay grounded despite the natural flux and change of the world and the skill to discern the complexities that exist behind simplistic categories of right and wrong. The spiritual component of Yoga is what will ultimately transform us in profound and unexpected ways. Through living the practices of Yoga we come into direct contact with joy, contentment, love and compassion. Our culture is slowly realizing that these are significant qualities, worth developing.

This article was adapted from a special issue of Integral Yoga Magazine on Yoga Psychology. Order Here.

Books on Yoga  Psychology

Ajaya, S. (1984). Healing the Whole Person: Applications of Yoga Psychotherapy.
Honesdale, PA: Himalayan Institute Press.
Ajaya, S., Rama, S., and Ballentine, R. (1976). Yoga & Psychotherapy: The evolution of Consciousness. Honesdale, PA: Himalayan Institute Press.
Aurobindo, S. (1955). A Practical Guide to Integral Yoga. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Press.
Chidbhavananda, S. (2005). The BhagavadGita. Tiruchirappalli: Sri Ramakrishna Tapovanam.
Eliade, M. (1958). Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (W. R. Trask, Trans. 2nd ed.). New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Farhi, D. (2003). Bringing Yoga to Life. New York: Harper Collins Press.
Forbes, B. (2011). Yoga for Emotional Balance. Boston: Shambala Press.
Goleman, D and Lama, D. (2003). Destructive Emotions: How can we Overcome Them: A Scientifc Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. New York :Bantam Books.
Krishnamurti, J. (2001). Commentaries on Living, Vol. 1 (11th ed.). Wheaton, Illinoise: Quest Books.

Satchidananda, S. (2003). The Yoga sutras of Patanjali (9th ed.). Buckingham, Va. : Integral Yoga Publications.

Sivanananda, S. (1994). Mind, its mysteries and control. Himalayas, India: The Divine Life Society.

Shannahoff-Khalsa, D. (2006). Kundalini Yoga Meditation: TEchniques Specific for Psychoatric Disorders, Couples Therapy & Personal Growth. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.


 Favorite Academic Books & Articles on Yoga


Alter, J. (2004). Yoga in Modern India. Princeton University Press.

Alter, J. (2009). Yoga in Asia - Mimetic History: Problems in the Location of Secret Knowledge. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 29(2), 213-229.

Alter, J. S. (2006). Yoga and fetishism: reflections on Marxist social theory./Yoga et fetichisme : reflexions sur la theorie sociale marxiste. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 12, 763(721).

Alter, J. S. (2000). Gandhi's Body: Sex, Diet and the Politics of Nationalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Brockington, J., Carpenter, D., Whicher, I., Pflueger, L., Chapple, C. K., Sundaresan, V., et al. (2003). Yoga: The Indian tradition. New York: Routledge Press.

DeMichelis, E. (2005). A History of Modern Yoga. New York: Continuum.

Douglass, L. (2011). Yoga as counternarrative: American higher education rethinks difference and interdependency Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice(15), 1-35.

Farhi, D. (2003). Bringing Yoga to life. New York: HarperCollins Publishing.

Feurstein, G. (2003). The Deeper Dimension of Yoga. Boston: Shambhala Press.

Hauschild, T. (2007). Yoga between Indo-Aryan Nationalism and Multisited Fieldwork. Current Anthropology, 48(3), 463-465.

Helberg, N., Heyes, C., & Rohel, J. (2009). Thinking through the body: yoga, philosophy,a nd physical education. Teaching Philosophy, 32(3), 263(218).

Hoyez, A.-C. c. (2007). The 'world of yoga': The production and reproduction of therapeutic landscapes. Social Science & Medicine (1982), 65(1), 112-124.

Morley, J. (2008). Embodied Consciousness in Tantric Yoga and the Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty. Religion & the Arts, 12(1-3), 144-163.

Michelis, E. D., Alter, J., Strauss, S., Singleton, M., Liberman, K., Nevrin, K., et al. (2008). Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives. New York: Routledge Press.

Pagis, M. (2009). Embodied self-reflexivity.(Author abstract)(Report). Social Psychology Quarterly, 72(3), 265(219).

Persson, A. (2007). Intimate immensity: Phenomenology of place and space in an Australian yoga community. American Ethnologist, 34(1), 44-56.

Sarukkai, S. (2002). Inside/outside: Merleau-Ponty/Yoga. Philosophy East & West, 52(4), 459-478.

Shusterman, R. (2006). Thinking through the body, educating for the humanities: A pleas for somaesthics. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 40(1), 1-21.

Singelton, M. (2010). Yoga body: The origins of modern posture practice. New York: Oxford Press.

Smith, B. R. (2007). Body, mind and spirit? Towards and analysis of the practice of yoga. Body and Society, 13(2), 25-46.

Strauss, S. (2005). Positioning Yoga. New York: Berg.

Tate, A., & Douglass, L. (2010, October 5-8, 2010). Scholars of the Body: Yoga as a Tool for Teaching and Learning within Higher Education. Paper presented at the The Future of Adult Higher Education: Principles, Contexts and Practices, Proceedings of the annual conference of the Adult Higher Education Alliance, Saratoga, NY.

Zaleski, C. (2007). Christian yoga. Christian Century, 124(9), 57-57.

White, D. G. (1984). Why Gurus Are Heavy. Numen, 31(1), 40-73.

White, D.G. (2009). Sinister Yogis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


Free Online Films 

 Yoga, Inc. (2007). This documentary chronicle the business of yoga, with an emphasis on Bikram's copyright laws. 


 Yoga Performances

Yoga and Break Dancing Video. 

Surya Namaskar (ballet and yoga)

Tripsicore Yoga Performanc



Yoga Psychology Authors


Akhilananda, S. (1951). Mental Health and Hindu Psychology. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Alter, J. (2004). Yoga in Modern India. New Jersey, Princeton University Press.

Aurobindo, S. (1997). Yoga and education. Pondicherry, India, Sri Aurobindo Press.

Chethimattam, J. (1971) Psychology and Personality. In Patterns of Indian Thought. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

Dalal, A. S. (2001). Psychology, mental health and Yoga. Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo Ahram Press.

Eliade, M. (1958). Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. New Jersey, Princeton University Press.

Farhi, D. (2003). Bringing Yoga to Life. New York, Harper Collins Press.

DeMichelis, E. (2005). A History of Modern Yoga. New York, Continuum.

Feurstein, G. (2003). The Deeper Dimensions of Yoga. Boston, Shambala Press.

Frawley, D. (1997). Ayurveda and the Mind: the Healing of Consciousness. Wisconsin: Lotus Press

Frawley, D. (1999). Yoga and Ayurveda: Self-Healing and Self-Realization. Wisconsin: Lotus Press

Frawley, D. and Lad, V. (1988). The Yoga of Herbs. Wisconsin: Lotus Press

Kumar, A. (1997).Ayurvedic Clinical Medicine. Delhi, India: Sri Satguru Publications

Lad, V. (1996). The Secrets of the Pulse. Albuquerque, New Mexico: The Ayurvedic Press

Lad, V. (1984).Ayurveda The Science of Self-Healing. Wilmot, Wi: Lotus Press.

Majumdar, A. (1999). Nervous System in Yoga and Tantra: Implications in Ayurveda. Delhi, India: Nag Publishers.

Svoboda, R. (1992).Ayurveda: Life, Health and Longevity. New York, New York :Penguin Books.

Svoboda, R. (1989). Prakruti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution. Albuquerque, NM: Geocom.

Venkatesananda, S. (1993). Vasistha's Yoga. New York, State University of New York Press.



The Ayurvedic Institute: This web site contains general guidelines, food and nutrition information and Ayurvedic cleansing guidelines. It is a quality resource for information, trainings and Ayurvedic products. Established in 1984 by Dr. Vasant Lad, the Ayurvedic Institute is recognized as one of the leading Ayurveda schools outside of to teach and provide traditional therapy of East Indian Ayurveda including herbs, nutrition, panchakarma cleansing, acupressure massage, Yoga, Sanskrit, and Jyotish (Vedic astrology).

American Institute of Vedic Studies. David Frawley's website offers information on trainings in Ayurvedic medicine as well as in the other Vedic Sciences. There is an excellent selection of books that can be ordered directly from the publisher - all of which are quality. Ayurvedic Physicians,Vaidyas, or Ayurvedic Physicians, are classically trained at an accredited Ayurvedic School of Medicine. This entails five years of rigorous full time study and exams followed by several years of apprenticeship.

International Association of Yoga Therapists. A great resource for yoga teachers and new researchers.Provides a current listing of registered yoga teachers.

Modern Yoga Research. Current academic research on yoga.

Swami Krishnananda. E-books and audio lectures on yoga.

Integral Yoga Magazine. A great collection of articles!

Yoga Research Foundation. To bring together a community of practitioners, scientists, visionaries, mathematicians, philosophers, artists, educators, and other well-trained and deeply thoughtful people to develop yoga science for the common good.

Yoga University. Online classes on yoga by some really great instructors.


Research Studies on Yoga

Boudette, R. (2006). Question & answer: yoga in the treatment of disordered eating and body image disturbance: how can the practice of yoga be helpful in recovery from an eating disorder? Eating Disorders, 14(2), 167-170.

Brown, R. P., & Gerbarg, P. L. (2005). Sudarshan kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: Part II clinical applications and guidelines. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 11(4), 711-717

Dale, L. P., Mattison, A. M., Greening, K., Galen, G., Neace, W. P., & Matacin, M. L. (2009). Yoga Workshop Impacts Psychological Functioning and Mood of Women With Self-Reported History of Eating Disorders. [Article]. Eating Disorders, 17(5), 422-434. doi: 10.1080/10640260903210222

da Silva, T. L., Ravindran, L. N., & Ravindran, A. V. (2009). Yoga in the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders: A review. Asian Journal of Psychiatry, 2(1), 6-16.

Dittmann, K. A., & Freedman, M. R. (2009). Body Awareness, Eating Attitudes, and Spiritual Beliefs of Women Practicing Yoga. [Article]. Eating Disorders, 17(4), 273-292. doi: 10.1080/10640260902991111

Douglass, L. (2009). Yoga as an intervention for eating disorders: Does it help? . Eating Disorders: The journal of treatment and prevention. , 17 (2), 126-139.

Duraiswamy, G., Thirthalli, J., Nagendra, H. R., & Gangadhar, B. N. (2007). Yoga therapy as an add-on treatment in the management of patients with schizophrenia--a randomized controlled trial. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 116(3), 226-232.

Girodo, M. (1974). Yoga meditation and flooding in the treatment of anxiety neurosis. Journal Of Behavior Therapy And Experimental Psychiatry, 5(2), 157-160.

Groessl, E. J., Weingart, K. R., Aschbacher, K., Pada, L., & Baxi, S. (2008). Yoga for Veterans with Chronic Low-Back Pain. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 14(9), 1123-1129.

Javnbakht, M., Hejazi Kenari, R., & Ghasemi, M. (2009). Effects of yoga on depression and anxiety of women. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 15(2), 102-104.

Jella, S. A., & Shannahoff-Khalsa, D. S. (1993). The effects of unilateral forced nostril breathing on cognitive performance. The International Journal Of Neuroscience, 73(1-2), 61-68.

Khalsa, S. B. S., Shorter, S. M., Cope, S., Wyshak, G., & Sklar, E. (2009). Yoga Ameliorates Performance Anxiety and Mood Disturbance in Young Professional Musicians. [Article]. Applied Psychophysiology & Biofeedback, 34(4), 279-289. doi: 10.1007/s10484-009-9103-4

Khalsa, S. B. S., Khalsa, G. S., Khalsa, H. K., & Khalsa, M. K. (2008). Evaluation of a Residential Kundalini Yoga Lifestyle Pilot Program for Addiction in India. Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse, 7(1), 67-79.

Krisanaprakornkit, T., Krisanaprakornkit, W., Piyavhatkul, N., & Laopaiboon, M. (2006). Meditation therapy for anxiety disorders. Cochrane Database Of Systematic Reviews (Online)(1), CD004998.

Lavey, R., Sherman, T., Mueser, K. T., Osborne, D. D., Currier, M., & Wolfe, R. (2005). The effects of yoga on mood in psychiatric inpatients. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 28(4), 399-402.

LU, C. (2009). An Understanding of Body-Mind Relation Based on Eastern Movement Disciplines and Its Implication in Physical Education. Physical & Health Education Academic Journal.

McIver, S., O'Halloran, P., & McGartland, M. (2009). Yoga as a treatment for binge eating disorder: A preliminary study. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 17(4), 196-202.

Pilkington, K., Kirkwood, G., Rampes, H., & Richardson, J. (2005). Yoga for depression: The research evidence. Journal of Affective Disorders, 89(1-3), 13-24.

Platania-Solazzo, A., Field, T. M., Blank, J., Seligman, F., Kuhn, C., Schanberg, S., & Saab, P. (1992). Relaxation therapy reduces anxiety in child and adolescent psychiatric patients. Acta Paedopsychiatrica, 55(2), 115-120.

Telles, S., Singh, N., Joshi, M., & Balkrishna, A. (2010). Post traumatic stress symptoms and heart rate variability in Bihar flood survivors following yoga: a randomized controlled study. BMC Psychiatry, 10, 18-27.

Rawal, A., Enayati, J., Williams, M., & Park, R. (2009). A mindful approach to eating disorders. [Article]. Healthcare Counselling & Psychotherapy Journal, 9(4), 16-20.

Richards, P. S., Hardmen, R., & Berrett, M. (2007). Spiritual approaches in the treatment of women with eating disorders. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Singh, A. N. (2006). Role of yoga therapies in psychosomatic disorders. International Congress Series, 1287, 91-96.

Shapiro, D., Cook, L. A., Davydov, D. M., Ottaviani, C., Leuchter, A. F., & Abrams, M. (2007). Yoga as a Complementary Treatment of Depression: Effects of Traits and Moods on Treatment Outcome. [Article]. Evidence-based Complementary & Alternative Medicine (eCAM), 4(4), 493-502.

Shannahoff-Khalsa, D. S. (2004). An introduction to Kundalini yoga meditation techniques that are specific for the treatment of psychiatric disorders. Journal Of Alternative And Complementary Medicine (New York, N.Y.), 10(1), 91-101.

Sharma, V. K., Das, S., Mondal, S., Goswampi, U., & Gandhi, A. (2005). Effect of Sahaj Yoga on depressive disorders. Indian Journal Of Physiology And Pharmacology, 49(4), 462-468.

Streeter, C. C., Jensen, J. E., Perlmutter, R. M., Cabral, H. J., Tian, H., Terhune, D. B., . . . Renshaw, P. F. (2007). Yoga asana sessions increase brain GABA levels: A pilot study. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 13(4), 419-426

Woolery, A., Myers, H., Stemliebm, B., & Zeltzer, L. (2004). A YOGA INTERVENTION FOR YOUNG ADULTS WITH ELEVATED SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION. Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine, 10(2), 60-63.

Strength Training or Yoga for AN Patients? (2005). Eating Disorders Review, 16(2), 8-8.