Reassessing the Psychology of Yoga

  • By Dr. Subhasis Chattopadhyay
  • June 1, 2023
  • Article provides preliminary considerations on Reassessing the Psychology of Yoga.

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Psychologist of Spiritual Direction and Formation

The psychology of yoga and, separately, the relationship between psychology and yoga have been thoroughly studied by the late Georg Feuerstein (1947-2012).


Feuerstein’s works engage with both yoga and psychology in its many branches. Therefore, this brief essay refers the inquisitive reader to Feuerstein’s The Psychology of Yoga: Integrating Eastern and Western Approaches for Understanding the Mind. This is essential reading for any serious scholar of the behavioural sciences as well as of Yoga. This essay picks up from where Feuerstein left off and begins anew the interrogation of our psyches through the eternal call of the Brihadaranyak Upanishad. Sage Yajnavalkya says in this Upanishad:


atha hainamūṣastaścākrāyaṇaḥ papraccha; yājñavalkyeti hovāca, yatsākśādaparokśādbrahma, ya ātmā sarvāntaraḥ, taṃ me vyācakśva iti; eṣa ta ātmā sarvāntaraḥ; katamo yājñavalkya sarvāntaro ? yaḥ prāṇena prāṇiti sa ta ātmā sarvāntaraḥ, yo'pānenāpāniti sa ta ātmā sarvāntaraḥ, yo vyānena vyāniti sa ta ātmā sarvāntaraḥ, ya udānenodāniti sa ta ātmā sarvāntaraḥ, eṣa ta ātmā sarvāntaraḥ || 1 ||


Then Uṣasta, the son of Cakra, asked him. ‘Yājñavalkya,’ said he, ‘explain to me the Brahman that is immediate and direct—the self that is within all.’ ‘This is your self that is within all.’ ‘Which is within all, Yājñavalkya?’ ‘That which breathes through the Prāṇa is yourself that is within all. That which moves downwards through the Apāna is your, self that is within all. That which pervades through the Vyāna is yourself that is within all. That which goes out through the Udāna is yourself that is within all. This is yourself that is within all.’ (The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.4.1)


To know that the Self is all-pervading; everything is That Brahman and the telos (end/goal) of life is to realize that nothing but Ishwara alone matters, is the aim of every human being. Whether one agrees to this or not does not make any difference to this supreme telos. Further our sages say:


In man dwells the almighty God. We are part of God; we are His children. How can we be weak? ...we can never be weak. So the greatest sin is to think oneself weak and sinful…There is none except Him in the entire universe. (Swami Saradananda quoted by Thorne, p. 127). 


So differing from Feuerstein we must emphasize that the Indian worldview does not admit guilt, but admits restorative justice. The Indian worldview sees the अन्तःकरण as essentially regulated by the inner self-effulgent Purusha:


vedāham etaṃ puruṣaṃ mahāntam ādityavarṇaṃ tamasaḥ parastāt /

tam eva viditvāti mṛtyum eti nānyaḥ panthā vidyate 'yanāya // 


I have realised this great Being who is effulgent like the sun and beyond all darkness. Knowing Him alone one transcends death and there exists no other way. (The Svetasvatara Upanishad p.100)


So the aim of the human person in the here and the now is only to know that Supreme Purusha. Everything else is dross. Western psychology is fixated with the material world and the sarx; it does not agree with the aim of Yoga which is to solely realise the truths propounded by Sage Yajnavalkya and the truth inherent in the quote from the Svetasvatara Upanishad. Neither does Western psychology including the various talk-therapies agree with the ‘Vibhuti Pada’ and ‘Kaivalya Pada’ of sage Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra. Mainstream psychologists like Elizabeth F. Loftus (1944-) will not agree that the purpose of human life has anything to do with the realization of the Atman within right now in this very life. 


Psychologists and psychology as we know them now are rooted in Western Enlightenment polemics.


The meta-narrative of Continental and American linguistics is based on the assumptions that the mind is structured like a language and the relationship between a sign and (the qualia) signified is arbitrary. These two narratives arise out of the analytic discourse of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) who imagined our psychic apparatus as being constructed either vertically or horizontally.


So following Freud, for the last two decades and a century the human mind has been thought of as essentially modernist in so far it has been conceived as a structurally scrutable monad whose existence is illustrated most notably by empirically verifiable aberrations. Following this line of logic, we know that the mind exists because of the diseases of the mind listed in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) – 5. This is where Yoga’s insights come to use. 


The mind is not known to exist because of its diseases but through a method of apophatic reasoning. That is; through the classical Vedantin’s ‘this is not that’ or neti, neti; we become aware of the chimeral nature of what is known as psychology within academia. 


Yoga as found in even such a recent texts as Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā by Svātmārāma (circa 15th Century AD) and Gheranda Samhita (circa 17th century) teaches us not about the sarx, but about the various channels through which Kundalini can be awakened.


Our psychic apparatus is not structurally transparent; nor is it, therefore, opaque. It is just not what one would expect studying the behavioural sciences. Through a process of bhutashuddhi which involves hatha yoga, we have to awaken that power which is within us.


Whereas psychology as a discipline aims at bettering human life; Yoga aims at uniting the jiva with Brahman and through the Shaktipat, Avataras and their direct disciples can instantly cease the modifications of the jiva tossed by grief and love. When such awakened teachers are not around, we have to make a concerted effort in practising devotion to Ishwara and through continuously fixing our minds to the Supreme Lord represented by the Guru, we have to awake the Parashakti latent in us. There is no Id and Superego within us. This narrative about the Id and the superego makes for fantastic reading and is a handy critical tool for textual exegesis but it lacks veracity because it sees the world as either good or bad.


The simplicity of present-day psychology is disconcerting, and its material logic is to be rejected if one sincerely wants to follow any spiritual path whatsoever.


Where Yoga insists that we are intrinsically whole and not creatures who should be ashamed of being human; psychology, as practised, maintains that we are broken in need of getting fixed and glued back to wholeness. Yoga in all its classical forms teaches we are whole in the here and the now. Our purpose in life is not to be happy being high on something or the other; but to be actually self-realised beings. Abraham Maslow (1908-1970 forgot to mention that the first ingredient of a life of Aristotelian eudaimonia is not food and water or even air but it is to abide always in Brahman. Maslow should have at least listened to Jesus Christ when Christ said that if one seeks the Kingdom of God; all other things are added unto the seeker (Matthew 6:33).


Instead, Maslow identifies material experiences and goods as being necessary for survival. In direct contradiction to Maslow, yoga teaches us that with practice we slowly tend to get rid of material possessions. Monier Monier-Williams (1819-1899) has about twelve definitions of Yoga in his dictionary of Sanskrit (1872 & reprint 1899). But Monier-Williams wrote within a certain context where he was a white man transcreating the language of a people who, according to Monier Williams’ peers; were racially inferior. Further, Monier-Williams imputed meanings to Sanskrit words, in a process which cannot be discussed fully here, which are comprehensible to other white people of that era. 


Therefore, while not discarding Williams’ definitions of yoga; we would define yoga here as an effort by the ignorant jivatman to realise that there is no difference between it and Paramatman. This definition is useful since it avoids the Buddhist understanding of nothingness and non-self; it is a rebuttal against Mayavada and instead advocates Brahmavada and finally, it clearly demonstrates the end of Yogic formation or therapy. Whereas the Jewish philosopher Martha Nussbaum (1947) locates The Therapy of Desire (1994) within dry metaphysics; yogic masters including Swami Yatiswarananda (1889-1966) wrote of the effects of meditation qua yoga as the sole remedy for annihilating desire. 


The point here is that Western metaphysics foregrounds desire as the logic for all human activity; Eastern thinkers sought and seek ways to begin commenting on the psychic apparatus after forcefully destroying desires; both good and bad. There can and should be no therapy of desire. Psychology as we know now is about the management of emotions and desires; yoga as classically understood is about the cessation of desires.


The Svetasvatara Upanishad details how during meditation certain perceptual changes indicate the imminence of experiencing Brahman in the here and the now. These sensory and yet, supernatural experiences will not be acceptable to psychologists. Yet Jesuits during the 1960s were fearless enough to reject Freudian constructions of the mind and invent the discipline of formative spirituality, which acknowledges the reality of the numinous anthropologically calling the individual jiva by name in the jiva’s hridaya. This effectively made a case for God within psychology.


It is an irony that even India’s accreditation body for counsellors will not accept the insights of formative spirituality; forget Yoga. The goal of Yoga is Dharma; the goal of present-day psychology is not removing kleshas like clinging to, and desiring a long life but is, in fact, a misplaced desire to prolong life to no known purpose. The present obsession with positive psychology which pays lip service to Hatha Yoga and with the likes of Julia Kristeva (1941) and Slavoj Žižek (1949) is a detritus of misreading Karl Marx (1818-1883). Here misreading is used in the sense that the late Harold Bloom (1930-2019) used it in his criticism of poets and their poetry.  


When the inventor of the PERMA method of positive psychology, Martin Seligman (1942) writes in his books; he reacts to either Freud or to earlier versions of the DSM. In short, contemporary psychology in all its various branches insists on the normal (the normative). Even a branch of psychology like the psychology of perception; depends on pre-determined scales of normative perception ratified by aural miscognition leading to misguided synaesthetic experiences which are held to be empirically real.


So, within this paradigm there is always a subject who spatiotemporally creates itself in the here and the now with no consideration of the past or the future. This is a hermeneutically untenable coming into being. Because we know that we have existed even before time was created; we will exist even after time as we know it no longer exists. We are essentially divine beings searching for ourselves in a world where we are just pilgrims. This is not the memento mori refrain; we are not here today and gone tomorrow. We have always been and will always be. Neither the psychologist Erich Fromm (1900-1980), nor his heir, Rollo May (1909–1994) realised this. That Tejomaya Purusha mentioned in the Mandukya Upanishad, without knowing whom there is no way to escaping the pulls of the three ‘gunas’. 


Our sages directly understood this looking inward and not outward and instead of muck, they found bliss eternal. There is no Conradian heart of darkness in us: we have to each be a god to worship Brahman/Ishwara (Rig Veda). It is in passing we note that there are no Sanskrit cognates to the textual register God.


Yogic psychology is a process-psychology whereas the psychology taught in higher educational institutes today, is a static iterative psychology having its base in ancient Greek philosophy.


Plato (428 BC–347 BC) and Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC) tried to understand the psychic apparatus leading on to St. Augustine of Hippo (345 AD – 430 AD) to St. Thomas Aquinas (1255-1274), to Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) and then, Josef Breuer (1842-1925) and finally to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). The modernist understanding of the mind can be best grasped visually through The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch (1863-1944). 


On the other hand, the conception of the psychic apparatus is best illustrated by sage Patanjali as being a modifying patina which compels us to act continuously and whose explicitly good modifications too need stilling. The Yoga Sutras insist that cessation of the modifications of the mind is not only possible, but it is absolutely necessary for us to get mukti. This same idea is in the Bhagavad Gita where the Supreme Lord emphasises that we control our senses gradually. Within Shakta, Sri Vidya and Kashmiri Shaivite traditions, this same effort at controlling our minds is stressed. The various Shaiva Agamas and the canonical Tantras too stress on an absolute and all-out effort to exhaust prarabdha karma.


Unlike Western psychology; the human person in the here and the now is not seen as a product of the anxieties between the libido and thanatos. Art is not seen as a sublimation of primal instincts but is seen as a non-mimetic divinely inspired manifestation of all that is noble in us. Contemporary psychology has no techne (upaya) for becoming better human beings.


But the entirety of the Prasthana Traya is a corpus of various techne to rid ourselves of past samskaras. We are not born as clear slates where our environment teaches us new beliefs and, unlike within the Abrahamic religions; we choose our parents or, are rather drawn to them before Vaishnava prana erases our past lives’ memories. 


Contemporary psychology would call this a new age fad but this is the ancient truth proclaimed by the Sanatana Dharma’s holy texts. The choice then is between a firm knowledge and belief in the Upanishads and other canonical texts or, between the dogmas of the Abrahamic religions. 


One has to choose between the facticity of the Yoga Sutras as expounded by Swami Vivekananda or, the discourses of the likes of Anna Freud (1895-1982) and Melanie Klein (1882-1960). And, if only one actually practises the eight limbs of Yoga then alone the truth of the Sanatana Dharma will be accessible and comprehensible to us. Otherwise, our base instincts will agree with the consumerism to be found in contemporary psychology which nowhere speaks of the subtle tanmatras which constitute our thoughts and give rise to new tanmatras. Even Martin Seligman in his positive psychology speaks of a superficial happiness which does not address our existential anxieties which can only disappear with a direct or, even indirect encounter with Brahman qua God.


Another hermeneutical assumption is that instead of studying metacognition; contemporary psychologists keep studying the effects of an a priori structurally comprehensible mind without considering whether, to begin with; Freud was wrong. It is in this spirit that other narratives of the mind were constructed. This ranges from Jacques Lacan’s (1901-1981) anti-psychiatric mind which does not need pharmacological interventions since it is just as real as mathematics is real; or, Alain Badiou’s (1937-) Cantor sets are real. There is a glum, narcissistic satisfaction within Western psychologists who are iterative; that they have got a handle on the mind for all time to come. Yet, to date neither Aaron Beck’s (1921-) therapy nor any antipsychotic really helps with the prognosis with say as common a disorder as narcissistic disorder. Cognitive behaviour therapy does not do much for the narcissist; nor does the positive psychology of Martin Seligman help in good outcomes in narcissists. 


On the other hand, Eastern metacognition experts from sage Patanjali to Vijñānabhikṣu to Swami Vivekananda provide more acceptable and realistic critiques of the mind-qualia. We will turn in a moment to their understanding of the mind-qualia. But before doing that we must note that the textual register ‘mind’ has no cognates within Eastern systems of thought. The mind is not chitta; the mind is not like language nor are we Lockean tabula rasas. 


From sages Utpaladeva (900-950 AD) to Avinavagupta (950-1016 AD) to king Kshemaraja (circa 10th/11th century AD); the construction of cognition in the east has been very different from any extant Euro-American narrative.


Broadly speaking; within Buddhism; according to both sages Nagarjuna (circa 150-250 AD) and Chandrakirti (600-650 AD) there is a consensus that there is no such thing as a mind because dependent origination and the Buddhist concept of ‘anatta’ or no being/soul, does not allow for the existence of minds. It is beyond the scope of this essay to interrogate Buddhist theories of metacognition. Eli Franco’s Dharmakīrti on Compassion and Rebirth with a Study of Backward Causation in Buddhism (2021) is an indispensable book for understanding Buddhist theories of cognition. Again, cognition and the perceiving mind are not same. Cognition in the Buddhist Dharmakīrti (circa 6th/7th Century AD) has virtually a crypto-Hindu quality to it, insofar as it travels from lifetime to lifetime. 


We can only in passing note that dharanis are not abstractions which are arbitrarily related to their meanings or are meaningless to begin with. Mark Dyczkowski (1951) in his corpus shows how the Sanskrit alphabet is not arbitrarily related to external realities but in fact signals a hermeneutically inaccessible truth; the process of knowing which is known as the philosophy of recognition within Kashmiri Shaivism or, Trika Shaivism. While Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) gestured long ago towards a revisionary reading of Freud; yet Jung’s theories were not investigated in contemporary India because of insidious scholarship emanating from the Tel Quel group. 


Having now discussed in brief and then discarded Freudian and Neo-Freudian conceptions of the human psyche on which today’s psychology is based; we must now study the nature of psychology itself.


But here again, we pause to re-define Yoga and briefly see whether there have been proper assessments in the past of the relationship between yoga and psychology.


As far as Yoga’s definition is concerned, suffice it to say that the eight-limbed or ashtanga Yoga is a process by which the individual (jiva) seeks union with Brahman; or seeks to realise that it (the jiva) is itself, Brahman. This process of self- realisation or the disparate acts of metacognition can be loosely termed as yoga and the process of finding that one is not a structuralist product of narratives but is to discover the concept of the antahkaranas.


But then this beggars the question what are mental diseases if we do not have minds to begin with?


For instance, catatonic schizophrenia is very real and very debilitating notwithstanding what R.D. Laing (1927-1989) and Lacan thought about non-medicating schizophrenic patients. In Laing’s and Lacan’s time we had the first typical antipsychotics. Now we have the novel atypical antipsychotics which with much lesser side effects restore measurable quality of hitherto lost life-functions. So this proves the field of neuropsychiatry right; it does not prove psychology as a discipline correct. Even the psychology of perception cannot prove whether the perceiver and the perceived object are both real in the sense of us not being a mirrored image of Brahman. 


So then, how should one access and assess the psychic apparatus?


There is only one tenable way. It is through Raja Yoga that one can directly enter into oneself and as it were, see clearly the whatness of being. This is the Pratyabhijna school of philosophy.


This Raja yoga will reveal to us the gunas within us and this gradual awakening of our inherent divinity will lead us to reject the categorical imperatives of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and thus we will understand that all the eight limbs of Yoga when practised sincerely will free us from the dualities of contemporary psychology. Contemporary psychology believes there are past traumas to be overcome and willy-nilly tries to find a kind of peace which is not eternal. Whereas that young seeker, Nachiketa understood that all peace that is created and experienced through our senses is temporary and useless; we hardly understand this truth: that only through meditation and devotion to Ishwara can we find peace.


Without faith or shraddha, Yoga cannot be practised and we can never experience the fact that we are temples of that Atman which is the true telos of any psychology. The telos of psychology cannot be only to heal wounds. Psychology deals with how we perceive the world, or darśana. This darśana is purified and ratified through our experience which if contrary to the shastras is no darśana to begin with.  


Selected Works Cited

1. Badiou, Alain. Being and Event. Translated by Oliver Feltham. Reprinted. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

2. Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: a Theory of Poetry. Reprinted. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997.

3. Brooks, Douglas R. Auspicious Wisdom the Texts and Traditions of Śrīvidyā Śākta Tantrism in South India. New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992.

4. Dyczkowski, Mark. A Journey in the World of Tantras. Varanasi: Indica Books, 2004.

5. Feuerstein, Georg. The Psychology of Yoga: Integrating Eastern and Western Approaches for Understanding the Mind. Shambhala, 2014.

6. Friedrich, Rainer. “The Enlightenment Gone Mad (II): The Dismal Discourse of Postmodernism's Grand Narratives.” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 20, no. 1 (2012): 67–111. 

7. Fromm, Erich. Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud. Translated by Rainer Funk. Reprinted. New York: Bloomsbury Academic USA, 2017.

8. Jajvan, Krisna. Mimamsa Paribhasa. Translated by Swami Madhabananda. Sixth Reprinted. Kolkata, West Bengal: Advaita Ashrama, 2013.

9. Kant, Immanuel. An Answer to the Question, What Is Enlightenment? Penguin Great Ideas. Penguin, 2009.

10. Kramer, Peter D. Listening to Prozac. Reprinted. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

11. Kristeva, Julia. This Incredible Need to Believe. Translated by Beverley Brahic. Reprinted. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

12. Mallinson, James, trans. The Gheranda Samhita: the Original Sanskrit and an English Translation. Woodstock: Yogavidya, 2004.

13. May, Rollo. Love and Will. Reprinted. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007.

14. Mādhavānanda , Swāmī, trans. “Section IV - Yajnavalkya and Ushasta.” Wisdom Library, February 16, 2018. 


This is from The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (with the Commentary of Śaṅkarācārya) by Swāmī Mādhavānanda published in 1950.

15. Nussbaum, Martha Craven. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994.

16. Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. Reprinted. New York: Atria Paperback, 2013.

17. Svātmārāma. Hatha Yoga Pradipika: Classic Guide for the Advanced Practice of Hatha Yoga. Translated by Swami Vishnudevananda. 3Rd Reprinted. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2013.

18. Thorne, Sabina. Precepts for Perfection: Teachings of the Disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. Advaita Ashrama, Publication Dept., 2007.

19. Tigunait, Rajmani. The Power of Mantra and the Mystery of Initiation. Honesdale, Penn.: Himalayan Institute Press, 2000.

20. Vedananda, Swami. The Svetasvatara Upanishad. Translated by Swami Bhakarananda. IIed. Ramakrishna Math, Nagpur, 2002.


The book has been prepared with the notes of Swami Shivatattwananda.


21. Yatiswarananda, Swami. Meditation and Spiritual Life. Kolkata, WB: Advaita Ashrama, 2007.

22. Žižek Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 2009.


Author Subhasis Chattopadhyay is a theologian and a formative psychologist. 

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