What is Yoga? Why practice? As a Yoga teacher and a recovering academic, I think it is important to define what I think Yoga is and how I see it as a a more effective path to joy and happiness than any pill or any other passing phase or distraction. Yoga has many different definitions and countless texts with thousands, probably millions of interpretations. I am going to draw upon the classical text the Bhagavadgita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the sutras of Pantjali to elaborate on what I view Yoga to be and how it applies to psychology and our life.
Officially Yoga means to Yoke which is why in the Bhagavadgita Yoga is
defined as the
union of the individual atma (soul) with Paramatma (universal self)
There is also lots of room for discussion here about uniting feminine and masculine energies as well as the term Hatha, which split apart means, Sun and Moon. So you could almost call Hatha Yoga, SunMoon Yoga. But as mentioned, I am a recovering academic and these aforementioned definitions are not what made me fall in love with Yoga.
What I love about Yoga is that at its core it is a philosophical science in that not only is it theory about how to live a happy and fulfilling life, it is a theory that that demands observation and experimentation. It is defined as ´philosophy in action´, in practicing it one is promised:
clear discernment that will free one from feeling forced into action
In other words, a consistent practice of Yoga offers the practitioner to be a voluntary participant in life rather than a passive participant simply reacting to circumstances.
– Being able to choose ones life choices is essential to happiness. This is shown with the strong correlation between measurements of Locus of Control (LOC) and levels of depression. As mentioned here, Locus of Control is basically defined as how much control one PERCEIVES they have in their life. People who score high on Internal Locus of Control and low on LOC tend to have a more positive outlook on life and are at lower risk for depression whereas those who score low Internal on the Locus of Control scale and high on the external LOC are at risk or may already be experiencing depression.
All kinds of circumstances can affect ones LOC and include things like economics, family circumstances, traumas, job situation…but the root cause is always perception, and that perception comes from thought and thoughts can come from either the pre-frontal cortex or the limbic system/brain stem aka the lower brain. If the thought is coming from the lower brain than reason is not in control and levels of well-being tend to be low.
In fact, brain scans have shown that people who suffer from depression tend less active pre-frontal cortex than those who don´t, and less activity means less blood flow which means an eventual desinigration of the affected area.
This means that the person suffering from depression is not using the most amazing tool evolution has given us, the cortex, and without using it, they begin to quite literally, lose it. The cortex allows us to see things from a universal perspective and use reason and logic to react accordingly. The lower brain is composed of automatic responses that are essentially learned…either in our past or from the past of our ancestors, and many times, those reactions are outdated or not appropriate to the situation.
So when the lower brain is in control our mind is busy busy busy creating interpretations and reactions based upon past experiences to the physical sensations we receive via our 5 senses. This is fine, but if it isn´t checked by the logic and reason of the pre-frontal cortex, than irrational behavior can ensue and symptoms often associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can manifest. This is because, very simply put, the direction of information and interpretation between the lower brain and cortex move in opposite directions.
Pre-frontal cortex Body vs. Body Lower Brain
Depending who is in control it will either be the instinctual animal brain dictating behavior or the logical cortex directing action. For example, a soldier on the fourth of July, instead of celebrating her return home with family and friends, she may hide out in a dark and quiet basement to avoid being triggered (by loud booming fireworks) and sent back to the past, to the battlefield and the horrors she saw. Another, less extreme and more common example of the animal mind taking control, might be someone who refuses a date with someone they are really interested in because they are afraid of being hurt or disappointed all over again. There is a lack of logic here and consequently a loss of quality of life. The soldier will spend the evening away from the healing social ties she so desperately needs to recover, and the broken hearted person will continue to maintain their solitude and lose the chance to spend a great evening, and maybe many more, with someone who might actually offer them great support and friendship.
From the outside, the soldier and the broken heart might claim that they have made the decision to isolate themselves and therefore are in control of their life. But are they really? If fear is controlling the decision, than I would say they are not. Whether it be possible gun to the head or a possible bad date, the decision is based upon the possibility of a negative outcome and the fear of it.
So there are two things happening here: Negative thoughts and fear of what will be. I would call these negative and unsubstantiated thoughts, ´mind stuff´ and we all know what that is. ´Mind stuff´ are the bothersome worries and fruitless fantasies that take our imagination everywhere but our being, nowhere…and can you guess which one comes first?
If you answered thought…you are correct! Once the body registers that the mind has decided that there is a threat to be avoided, chemicals and muscles patterns are released and action or no-action takes place.
This is why in the Patanjali Sutras it is stated that Yoga is the
´cessation of mind stuff (chitta)´
Once the cessation of ´mind stuff´, or quieting of lower brain is accomplished than there is space and silence for the pre-frontal cortex to take over and offer an objective, logical and reasonable course of action.
WARNING:Do not confuse a quiet and apparently logical mind with dissociation. A quiet and logical Yogi mind is very aware of bodily sensations but does not let them control them, the disassociated individual lives a life of dulled physical and therefore, emotional senses.
This is also why Yoga is a science and not a religion. There is no unwavering faith being asked for in the traditional Hatha Yoga texts. There is constant reference to practicing and experiencing the results of Yoga. Intuited intellect and reason are held up as the highest goal and it is stated in the Bhagavadgita that:
´only through the subtle and purified intellect´´ can ´sensuous joy´ be experienced.
Asking the practitioner to experience for themselves the changes Yoga has to offer, the scenerio presented by Milgram and his experiments on obedience and it´s correlation to the horrors of Nazi Germany, is avoided.
By experimentation and observation of the self, the practitioner is empoweredto observe and make changes accordingly. The world is full of false gurus who like any other religious leader would seek out followers to follow them in blind faith. Nonetheless, if blind faith is asked, I would argue that they are not practicing Yoga because Yoga at it´s very root calls for experimentation, observation and exercises of reason.
Therefore, the entire science of Yoga is built around helping the individual take control of the lower brain…the limbic and reptilian parts…so that the pre-frontal cortex can be in the driver´s seat and allow the individual to live in the present moment and make decisions based upon a universal, objective perspective rather than an emotional or fearful one.
In moving brain activity to the pre-frontal cortex, brain damage and unhappiness correlated with depression/anxiety/PTSD etc…can be healed and prevented as internal levels of Locus of Control are increased via breath/digestive practices (Pranayama/Kriyas), corporeal movement (asana) and positive affirmations (I would put mantras into this category as well as Yoga sutras…). All of these practices remove past stress stored in the body/mind complex, strengthen the will and prepare the mind/body for meditation, which is where all that ´mind stuff´ quiets, leaving room for the ´sensuous joy´ of life to be experienced.
Now with Yoga defined, I will be writing more about how each of the practices of Asana (physical postures), Pranayama (breathwork), Kriya (cleansing practices) and Mantras (Vibration) tie into modern day psychology, new discoveries in neuroscience and the science of Yoga, or what I might call, the science of bliss.