What happens when the world’s leading psychologists, cutting-edge trauma researchers, renowned modern yogis, and celebrated neuroscientists, all with a passion for spirituality, engage in insightful dialogue focused about what yoga has to teach psychology and how depth psychology can compliment yoga studies and practice for the Western practitioner?
As a long-term psychotherapist and yoga teacher/practitioner, I have been researching and teaching on the integration of yoga and Western psychology for many years. In 2012, I enlisted the help of nine masters and doctoral students in psychology, who are also dedicated yoga practitioners, in my research and studies. As a result, we have been able to bring considerable time and effort, as well as the benefit of many minds, focused on a shared inquiry and a shared vision of the meeting of two great disciplines.
In our pursuit of this knowledge from the best resources in neuroscience, trauma research, somatic psychotherapy, and yoga, we have collectively combed all the academic and popular literature to see what others had discovered about our topic. We have gone back in time to the scriptures that informed ancient yoga philosophy and traveled into the future of brain research and its findings on yoga and meditation. Although considerable research has been done in related fields, we discovered that, with few exceptions, there was almost nothing scholarly or popular published on our topic. There are papers and books written on the benefits of physical yoga for health, happiness, and psychological issues such as anxiety and depression, but few have published on how these two great and popular traditions — one from the East and the other from the West — can inform and compliment each other, and even blend to create a more comprehensive philosophy and practice for the Western practitioner.
The last step in our research was to interview and dialogue with the world’s leading researchers and most experienced yogis in order to gain additional perspectives and experience from leaders in these fields and to learn from what they had discovered. When I was a young woman just beginning to write books, I would think about the greatest people in the world who knew about what I wanted to know about, and then write to them and beg them for an interview and travel to wherever they were in the world to learn what they knew. Now many of these people are my friends and colleagues, and I decided to conduct these dialogues as a part of a free, online series of conversations. I wanted readers to be able to benefit from these conversations in their original form, and also to create a space where the public could contribute their ideas and perspectives into this living research.
I am now deep in conversation with these visionaries and trailblazers. Among those I have spoken with are: Rick Hanson, author and neuropsychologist, who discussed how neuroscience can be made both understandable and practical in our spiritual studies; yoga teacher Richard Miller, who proposed a way to make the insights of yoga accessible to a mainstream public and how he has placed yoga into the domain of the U.S. government; Tibetan Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray, who brilliantly articulated a Tibetan Buddhist perspective on Tantric philosophy in relationship to the body; and David Emerson, who described studies and methods from The Trauma Center that demonstrate that yoga may be a more effective treatment than talk therapy for trauma treatment. In dialogue with Katchie Ananda, formerly a senior student of John Friend, we engaged a deep discussion of spiritual scandals, the yoga world, and questions of ethics and integrity. Angela Farmer, one of the “grandmothers” of modern yoga and an early disciple of B.K.S Iyengar, shared how her experience and perspective on yoga has changed through over 50 years of teaching and practice. Psychiatrist Roger Walsh, M.D., talked about how psychiatry can benefit spiritual practitioners at certain points in their lives.
These are just a few of the many conversations that are unfolding in this treasure chest of dialogues. Further discussions to come include philosopher Ken Wilber’s perspectives on how and which Eastern perspectives and practices are most beneficial to the Western world. Through the intricacy and perspective offered through these conversations, it becomes pragmatically clear that together we are more intelligent, experienced, and capable, than any one person can be. The integration of psychology and yoga is a process that will be carried out effectively with the contribution of many people spanning various disciplines.
Thus far, our living research is revealing these insights:
To begin with, integrating psychology into spiritual traditions may minimize spiritual scandals. The past year alone has brought about numerous major scandals in the yoga world as well as the wider spiritual field, leaving many intelligent and dedicated spiritual practitioners disillusioned, as well as strengthening the cynicism of the skeptics. Each scandal is flavored by its own unique blend of sex-money-power issues, but the themes are predictable, repetitive through history, and not limited to spiritual traditions. They are they same abuses of sex and power that happen everywhere in the world, and the spiritual field is not exempt, only there are fewer checks and balances for teachers of spirituality and yoga, and fewer repercussions for unethical and inappropriate behavior.
Most often, the scandals are due to psychological blindspots in the teachers and students, and not to a major fault in the beliefs and practices in the tradition. Teachers, and anyone who studies spiritual traditions, need to understand their own psychological makeup, receive feedback on their blindspots, and heal and manage their significant psychological wounds. If they do not, they will definitely, at some point, cause great or small harm to others, as well as get in the way of their spiritual maturation and well-being.
Next, our research has revealed the need to become aware, and understand the implications, of yoga as a practice that was articulated in Asian culture primarily by men, but is practiced by a majority of women in a Western culture and paradigm. The yoga tradition is both timeless in that it has endured over 5,000 years, but is also bound by time in terms of what it means to practice yoga in the 21st century. It is transcultural in that it is effectively practiced and translated into many different cultures, and yet much gets “lost in translation,” and not all of traditional yoga’s viewpoints and approaches necessarily apply to all cultures. It is genderless in the sense that both men and women deeply benefit through its practice, and yet the Western woman’s body has very different needs, cycles, and rhythms, than the Indian male body.
Thirdly, the Indian psyche, or deep psychological makeup, is constructed differently than the Western psyche, and effective yoga practice in the Western world would take into account the differences in the Eastern and Western mind. Psychology is a Western tradition — some even suggest it to be the Western world’s newest spiritual tradition. Furthermore, psychological approaches that work through the body (somatic psychology) are even more recent, and even more compatible with yoga practice. These psychological approaches offer valuable tools to address certain aspects of our lives — including emotions, history, and relationship issues — in ways that yoga practice may not be able to reach.
Finally, on the other end of the spectrum, psychology and its development — now just over 100 years old — will certainly benefit and further develop from the insights of yoga, as well as those of meditation, neuroscience, and the new somatic approaches. Therapy that involves talking alone does not always produce change, and many new studies are revealing that bringing the body into the therapeutic process leads to quicker and more effective transformation. My own experience matches this, having practiced psychotherapy without knowledge of yoga and somatic psychology for 10 years, and then experiencing the significant leap in my clients’ process in the past nine years since understanding and learning to use the benefits of yoga and somatic approaches in therapy.
These are just the initial insights of our inquiry. The great question about the intersection of psychology and yoga has just begun, but I believe that the great questions of life are meant to take a lifetime to unfold, and even to move beyond the scope of our lives. It is often said that Buddhism, or any new tradition, takes at least 500 years to translate into a new culture. Gnostic intermediaries, a term coined by the psychologist Carl Jung, refers to those people who help to translate the essence of spiritual traditions from one culture to another, in the language of the new culture but without sacrificing the fundamental nature of its original source.
As we move toward developing this understanding, I have a vision of fewer spiritual scandals, deeply knowledgeable and educated yoga teachers who can treat the whole person in their classes, psychologists, psychotherapists who appreciate the importance of including the body in therapy and can integrate the insights and practices of yoga into therapy, and highly informed and prepared consumers of spiritual and psychological traditions, who can wisely choose their teachers and sources of support so that they end up nourished and happy.