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Psychoanalysis & Yoga

Yoga and the unconscious

In search of spirituality

Published on: Saturday 1 January 2005

Author : Mireille MARTINI Language for this article: français > Le yoga à l’aune de l’inconscient

Yoga is more and more practiced in the West these days. Why are newcomers attracted to yoga? What does yoga mean to the western practitioner? How does (s)he cope with the traditional/spiritual dimension of yoga? In this article I shall explore what yoga means to me, and how making the connection between yoga and psychoanalysis helped me find some answers.

The yoga tradition

One often hears that the practice of yoga dates several thousand years back, and that we are re-discovering today the virtues of an ancient tradition. However, a closer look will tell us that the modern practice of yoga has little in common with the older forms of practice. In the old times for instance, yoga used to be taught one on one, teacher (or guru) to student. The master was himself an accomplished yogi and was not only a teacher, but also a guide to the student, who in fact shared his life for several years. The knowledge of the art of yoga would thus be passed on, unchanged, from one generation to the next. The master would also be a psychic guide to the student, warning him of the dangers along the path, including threats to his psychic equilibrium and integrity. Nowadays yoga is taught in groups. The teacher is hardly anymore a guide in other areas than yoga. It is interesting however to notice, that people who are in psychotherapy do have a psychic guide. It has been observed that many people wo are doing yoga are also following a form of psychotherapy, and that they feel one helps the other, as in my own experience.

On top of asanas (poses), the yogic tradition included various other techniques such as breathing exercises (pranayama), cleansing practices(kriyas), bandhas, lots of stuff which is hardly ever practiced nowadays. Not only those techniques but the philosophy, iconography, cosmology of yoga are no longer considered as the core of the practice. The modern practice is in essence physical, while one may assume that the traditional practice was in essence spiritual.

I see another important difference between modern and traditional yoga. Yoga is often taught and practiced collectively today, however, we tend to practice with individual aims: to change our body, to improve our mental health. In the old times, yoga was an individual practice, but it had a collective aim: there was a sense of connecting to Nature, to the universe, to the Gods, and also sometimes of living among a community of yogis. The modern experience of yoga is a personal matter. The practice may indeed improve our relationship with the outside world - but it may also become a day-dreaming fantasy, from which there is no longer a personal guru in sight to awaken us.

The physical benefits of yoga

Of course, yoga makes us feel better. Better breath, better food, more exercise, come with regular practice. Yoga is similar in this to other sports like football or swimming. Changes in our body affect our mind, although we do not know exactly how. The Romans used to say "Mens sana in corpore sano", a healthy mind in a healthy body, Nieztsche wrote that "the mind serves only as a hand to the body, in order to give it more power", and BKS Iyengar wrote that "the body is the gateway to the soul".

One of the cornerstones of the yogic practice is the use of the breath to calm the mind and ultimately shut it off completely. This is even the definition of yoga given by Patanjali in the most famous of his yoga sutras: "Yoga citta vritti nirodah", yoga is the suppression of the modifications of the mind. Most meditation techniques also use the focus on the breath, so as to alleviate mental strain.The first step is often to become observer rather than actor of one’s thoughts. Mental activity decreases until it comes to a complete stop, while one remains fully aware (as opposed to what happens during sleep, when mental activity and consciousness are both interrupted). In yoga each pose may ultimately become a meditation pose, the student focuses at first on posture and breath, until he his totally absorbed mentally in the pose. This "mental rest" has been called the breathing of the mind (etymologically, "meditation" means "space in between two thoughts). For me it has proven to be one of the essential benefits of yoga, and yoga can be used as an introduction to meditation. The asana practice prepares the body for long sitting times; if the body has not acquired enough flexibility and strength, meditative sitting is likely to be a hard fight against pain more than anything else.

Such benefits however, can hardly be reaped without a degree of faith. They come with thime, and probably with a certain amount of self-persuasion. I saw some people sitting with a round back and a shallow breath. They strongly believed, however, that the practice would ground them, give them calm and confidence, and so it did, despite technical imperfections. It is written in the Bhagavad Gita that "Man is his sraddha", man is what he has faith in.

The practice of yoga calms the mind, and the asana practice impacts not only our body, but also our mind. Up to where? How far can one’s mind be changed by a physical practice? Some people think that the body governs the mind, some think that the mind is the boss and controls the body. Consider psychoanalysts. They attempt to cure physical disorders by psychic therapy, but you will never see one trying to cure mental illness with a body therapy. As we don’t know, I find it useful to think in terms of synchronicity, ie of one energy manifesting itself at the same time on both planes, the mental and physical planes, rather than a causal link from body to mind or the other way round. In this respect it is also important to mention that yoga greatly improves the perception we have of our own body (proprioception), which is proven to be an important contributor to psychic well-being. All practitioners know the delicious feeling of suddenly activating a new muscle, a muscle that had not worked before or not so much that you would feel it. The practice of yoga helps us connect to our body, feel it, and connect with parts of our body we had lost contact with, possibly for underlying psychic reasons rather than physical ones.

In search of spirituality

However important the physical benefits of the practice, I think most practitioners come to yoga for other reasons. In my opinion, the reason why yoga is preferred to another form of sport, may have to do with the underlying spirituality people perceive in the yoga system. Even in the format of a 50-people class in a modern city, yoga carries an old world with it, a pre-scientific and spiritual world. It seems that the modern world as a system has largely lost religious faith, that our world has become a scientific, rational world rather than a spiritual one. Some people of course believe in God, or in a God, and those people will disagree. Speaking for myself, and perhaps for other non -believers as well, I feel the emptiness of a world without God, its worrying lack of meaning and of direction. Religion explains the world and gives it a meaning; in a world without religion, we crave it, and yoga is there to bring us a little bit of spirituality.

However, (and again, this is not applicable to those perhaps lucky people who believe in God), spirituality has been lost, lost far away. Since Newton discovered gravity, we have been living in a world where the planets are no longer moved by the will of God or the Gods, but by a physical force with a cause and an effect. Let’s take another example; the chakras. Most yoga practitioners have heard about the chakras, those wheels or centers of energy located along the spine. How does this match the vision we have of our body? We have been taught that our body is made of blood, bones, flesh and cells. Not of lotus flowers that may open up and connect to celestial bodies and Gods...So where are the chakras? The first most common answer is that they are so small that no microscope has been able to see them yet. Given the degree of precision reached by microscopy today, this answer does not seem to be a valid one. The other common answer is that the chakras are a form of energy that has not yet been discovered by science. That may well be; however, such a vision of the chakras is a scientific, mechanistic vision. Some people even pretend to tuch your chakras to activate them, as if this energy like gravity was a force with a cause and an effect. Such a vision has lost the symbolic nature of the traditional vision, where every "force" of Nature was linked to a spiritual, divine element.

In summary, people are attracted to yoga because of its spiritual dimension, but our cultural paradigm makes it difficult to access that spirituality. There is danger of misunderstanding and confusion. As Mircea Eliade puts it, the risk exists that the spiritual element in the hindu tradition is eaten up by our materialistic culture, rather than, as we would hope, our material values enlightened by eastern spirituality.

The inner motives: yoga and the Œdipus complex

As is well known, the word yoga means union. Union between body, breath and mind, or perhaps, union with God. Or perhaps, on another plane, the plane of the unconscious psyche as uncovered by Freud, union with an unconscious parental figure. In certain cases, not always, (are there are no hard and fast rules in the psyche), yoga can express the unconscious Œdipian desire of union with Father (or Mother), otherwise only God will be good enough.

Psychoanalysis and yoga may bring a lot to each other. During yoga, we experience strong feelings and emotions. Psychoanalysis may help us understand them. What we experience in yoga is a rich material for our psychoanalysis. Freud wrote that the unconscious cuts through the body, meaning that symptoms of unconscious conflicts often express themselves at the body level. Some people are unable to move a whole leg or a whole arm, for purely psychic motives. The practice of yoga makes us aware of certain body hindrances, which we then can bring to psychotherapy for analysis. It is also a way to resolve the problem, and as our body moves, our mind may be moving too.

The id, the superego and yoga

According to the Freudian theory, and this is of course a gross summary, there are three forces playing in our psyche like on the stage of a theatre: the id, which is pure desire, wild instinct, boundariless, the superego, which is the ruler force, the control guy, and the self, which hesitates between doing what it likes as suggested by the id, or obeying the rules as advised by the superego. If we look at the Hindu trinity, we can draw a parallel: Shiva, the god of creation and destruction, corresponds to the id, Brhama, the Master God, corresponds to the superego, and Vishnu, the God of preservation, corresponds to the self.

Shiva is the God of yoga: it dances (life instinct) in fire (death instinct). Yoga should help us live fully in our bodies, enjoy our senses, our freedom, like Shiva, who has no master. However, in our practice sometimes the reverse occurs. We become obsessed by the rules, by an oustide image of perfection, we just obey and follow without any care for personal freedom. Five breaths, feet parallel, hips square...When we practice this way, we repress ourselves. This is the yoga of the superego, a yoga which dominates you, which makes you forget what you are. This attitude to yoga may well lead to depression rather than bliss.

This being said, it is necessary to learn some rules, before one can practice in liberating way, the yoga of the id. It is important to have learnt how to breathe properly, how to concentrate, to have a certain range of poses and variations at hand so as to be able to choose what you would like to do today, what your body needs, what feels right. Technique is not an obstacle to freedom, it is the path to it. A seasoned pianist can improvise beautifully; a novice, not really.

From the atma to the unconscious, a new meaning for yoga

It is possible and sometimes stunning to read the yogic literature with a psychoanalytical eye.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras for instance (circa 150 AD), mention samadhi, which may be understood as connection to the unconscious, as occurs under hypnosis. The Sutras also mention samskaras, as residue from the past that hinder perception. Freud also mentions that the memory of ancient conflicts, stored into the unconscious, impacts our perception and the way we express ourselves. Patanjali is saying that the mind is not our master: Freud would agree, as for him, it is the unconscious who runs the show.

It is also possible to read the Bhagavad Gita with a reading of the Spirit as the unconscious: 18.61, from Juan Mascaro’s translation: "Thy God dwells in Thy heart, and his powers of wonder move all things, like puppets in a play of shadow."

Another example: in tantrism we have Kundalini, the snake coiled at the bottom of the spine that needs to be awakened to rise along the spine and exit through the skull, sublimated, like a fountain. The Kundalini sits inside the sacrum, the sacred triangle bone, which was indeed offered in sacrifice to the Gods in the ancient times. It is found in Homer that when Agammemnon sacrificed his daugher Iphigenia, he offered her sacrum to Artemis, which resulted in the winds rising and blowing the Greek fleet fast to Troy. The sacrum may be interpreted in Freudian terms: the triangle is Mother-Father-Child, where the libidinal energy (Kundalini) originates and rises from. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan inquired into the psychoanalytical reading of Tantrism, in his RSI (Real, Symbolic, Imaginary) seminar of 1974 which is unfortunately yet to be published.

It is also possible to use borromean circles to represent yoga. For Lacan, the object of our desire, or "a", lies at the intersection of the unconscious, the imaginary and the symbolic, or the self, the superego and the id, like yoga lies at the intersection of body, breath and mind, or perhaps, unconscious, body and mind. Borromean circles are such that if one is cut open, the three fall apart.

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Yoga and the unconscious
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Symbole du Yoga

In conclusion, psychoanalysis may help in finding a meaning to the practice of yoga, different from its traditional spiritual origin. Psychoanalysis may be instrumental in uncovering some of the less well known motives to practice yoga. It may also help understanding our bodies, and the problems with them, better. Finally, rather than the search for modified states of consciousness, which is sometimes a form of escape from reality, yoga and meditation are becoming paths of connection to our unconscious.

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