Psychoanalytic Benefits of Hatha Yoga
By Lynn Anjali Somerstein, Ph.D. RYT
(published in the Summer 2008 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine)
Psychoanalyst and Yoga teacher, Lynn Anjali Somerstein takes us through an Integral Yoga Hatha class showing the parallels between therapeutic aspects of Yoga and psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis and its theory of attachment address the positive and the negative effects of parenting on the individual. Dr. Somerstein explains that early rejection of the developing individual can cause difficulties in cognition and relationships with the self and with others, but analysis of the self can replace psychotic or neurotic functioning with what in Yoga psychology is called “skillful means.” She shows how Yoga can be therapeutic in helping locate the small self and the big Self.
Psychoanalysis and Yoga are two places where my deep self belongs. The synergy of Yoga and psychoanalysis helped me find and value the big world and myself. Yoga helps forge awareness of the original connectedness with all, awareness of the primordial integration of one person’s soul with all other souls passing through the world. Yogis try to integrate personal self and Universal Self—the Sanskrit word for Universal Self is Satchidanand. People often yearn to devote themselves, all of
their heart and soul, b’kol nafsheha, in Hebrew, and to feel the connectedness of all, uniting body, emotions and spirit.
Sri Swami Satchidananda describes Integral Yoga as follows: “It is a flexible combination of specific methods designed to develop every aspect of the individual: physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. It is a scientific system which integrates the various branches of Yoga in order to bring about a complete and harmonious development of the individual.” With those words in mind, let’s examine the Integral Yoga Hatha I protocol, especially Yoga Nidra.
Our practice begins with the teacher’s centering; when I set my sankalpa, my resolution, and concentrate on the breath, inviting students to join in chanting OM and Hari OM, to tune into the now. After a brief warm up period, the asanas introduce students to the body. Psychoanalysts also say that the body comes first. The body is stretched, strengthened and opened in a series of postures. On the physical level these postures put pressure on various organs and parts of the body, oxygenating the body and releasing hormones, such as thyroxin, during the shoulder stand. In Integral Yoga sequencing,
savaasana is interspersed between groups of asanas so students can assimilate the effects of the poses.
On the emotional level, holding these postures introduces us to the feelings associated with them, such as receptiveness, in forward bends, or courage in the warrior poses, or both, in dhanuraasana, which encourages strength and sensitivity.
Analysts agree that emotions are imprinted in the body. Character traits are revealed in muscular tension, body posture, voiceand movement. The postures are “enactments of archetypal modes of being,” states Swami Ajaya, Ph.D. in his book, Psychotherapy East and West.
As a child, I fell in love with dhanuraasana. I called it the “rocking horse,” because of the gentle back and forth motion induced by the breath. Maybe, also, I was used to “bending over backwards” to get along with people in my family. A pose I didn’t like was balaasana, child’s pose—meant to be a resting pose; it was hard work for me. I felt vulnerable and uncomfortable, frightened and angry. There was too much in my life as a child that I could not accept. I preferred tadaasana, the mountain pose, which teaches how to hold fast; it is the basis of all standing poses, and provides the opportunity to work on alignment, balance and timelessness. When I teach, I often invite students to form an intention or a dedication for their practice, when they come to their first mountain pose.
Swami Sivananda Radha, in her book, Hatha Yoga, the Hidden Language, examines the deeper meanings of the postures, which both reveal and reproduce feelings. Holding the asanas in a relaxed state is a moving meditation that reveals the practitioner’s characteristic emotional reactions such as impatience, competitiveness or fear and provides opportunities to acknowledge and work with them. Holding the asana, we can surrender and have a physical and emotional experience of
non-violence in the moment, or we can submit, treating ourselves with violence. “In surrender there is an absence of domination and control; the reverse is true in the case of submission”—a psychoanalytic description of non-violence according to Dr. Emmanuel Ghent. The body’s physical structure does not respond well to force; muscles that are willed to stretch stiffen up and may become injured, for example; but a deep honest and compassionate asana practice is as nourishing as an infant’s good feed.
After the body has been moved in all directions—forward, backwards and sideways, with inversions and twists—the asana portion of the practice is completed with Yoga mudra, the yogic seal, which balances the nervous system, and the focus is brought further within, as also happens in psychoanalysis. Dr. D. J. Siegel wrote in the 2006 Psychiatric Annals that, “By focusing awareness on the input from the body, our affective states and our range of thoughts and ideas, the therapist can encourage the first steps towards…integration.” The therapist’s understanding of her or his own feelings contributes to the conversation.
After Yoga Mudra, the Yoga practitioner lies down in savaasana. Lying in the corpse pose is similar to the posture assumed in formal psychoanalysis, when the person lies down on a couch in a slightly darkened room and turns the attention inward. In Yoga Nidra the body is gradually relaxed by a system of tension and release. Starting with the physical body, the senses are withdrawn through different levels, from gross to fine, until a state called yogic sleep is attained—the body sleeps, the mind is aware and one feels increasingly peaceful; stillness promotes the creative ability to relate to self and other. Silently enunciating a sankalpa during Yoga Nidra is a powerful force for emotional development, according to Swami Shankardevananda (in an article, “Sankalpa and Yoga Therapy”). Finally, awareness of deep, changeless Being is attained. Savaasana reproduces the flow of life—we die into corpse pose and are reborn endlessly.
On his CD, “Yoga Nidra: The Meditative Heart of Yoga,“ Richard Miller explains, “Yoga Nidra teaches us not to be afraid of feeling afraid, not to be insecure about feeling insecure and not to resist feeling joyous, open and vulnerable. Fearlessness pervades your life when you are no longer afraid of feeling fear or joy.” When the small self is at ease, it can feel the big Self.
Some of the teachers at Integral Yoga say, during Yoga Nidra, “Feel the peace. This is your own true nature. This is your birthright.” Yoga Nidra gives the individual the opportunity to rework early parent-child interactions. The teacher tends the student and so the student learns to tend self and other. The teacher is careful to protect individual experience.
In the safety of Yoga Nidra, the false self can melt away as the experience of surrender liberates the true Self. Without inhibitions from within or impingements from without, we can return to our own breath and feel who we are, giving us the space to experience the effect deep relaxation can have on ingrained infant-parent attachment patterns. On the physical level, our history is written on our muscles, bones and nerve fibers. When we can safely feel vulnerable, we achieve what attachment
theory calls “earned secure attachment.” Many of us have experienced the sudden spillover of spontaneous gratitude, grief or joy—strong feelings, seemingly from nowhere, while lying in savaasana. The safety of Yoga Nidra nurtures the heart. “Real Love is possible only when you see everything as yourself,” Sri Swami Satchidananda said.
Yoga is a mindfulness practice—as I stand in trikonaasana, I make sure that my breathing is relaxed, that my quadriceps are engaged to avoid hyperextending my knees—an embodied consciousness that I carry off the mat into everyday life, treating objects with respect, not slamming the door or letting it slam. Everydayness and constancy are powerful. I try not to let the door slam; the slamming door is a loud reminder that I forgot to remember, a small awakening.
When Yoga Nidra draws to a close, the teacher gently wakens the student, perhaps with a quiet repetition of the sound, OM. Mindfully the students stretch and gently begin to sit up in comfortable cross-legged positions, careful not to lose their centers, maintaining a tender and vulnerable state that is hard to achieve and easy to drop, if they are not careful.
Now begins pranayama. The breath is part of the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, both controlled and automatic, the bridge between mind and body. Deergha swaasam, deep breathing is the basis of all pranayama. The ability to breathe slowly and deeply, using belly, ribs and chest, comes naturally to babies, but adults forget. Keeping the belly sucked in means not taking in enough oxygen—a state that causes the body discomfort and anxiety—breathing only with the upper part of the chest is part of the mechanism that automatically readies the body for fight or flight—so chest breathers are
always in a state of tension. Emotional and cognitive processing is affected. Deergha swaasam calms the mind naturally—it’s impossible to breathe slow deep breaths and feel anxious. Longer exhalations reduce activity in the amygdala, which quiets the body and the brain.
Integral Yoga Hatha I flows from pranayama to meditation and then the closing peace chants. The full practice lasts about 90 minutes and provides a deep emotional, physical and spiritual experience that can leave one feeling peaceful and happy. The Integral Yoga Hatha I protocol can induce feelings in the individual that are reminiscent of early attachment behavior and, from there, the individual can rework mental, emotional, cognitive and spiritual abilities and find the true Self. This feeling of happiness inspired me to take Yoga teacher training and to study Integral Yoga from many perspectives. I want to
understand how come I feel so good and help others do likewise!