Yoga - A Psychological Perspective

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

by Shahrean Merican, Instructor, Maya Yoga Samudraa

“Yoga is the composed Mind”
- Vyasa

We live in a world that is undergoing rapid social change. As we develop and become modernized, a growing number of us are experiencing mental disturbances of varying depth and intensity. Mental illness has been on a steady increase in the past 10 years and continues to rise. Since this illness is still perceived as a stigma, most people suffer silently not knowing how to deal with their problem and who to turn to. Although the initial causes of mental disturbances can be unclear, it is often sustained or enhanced by emotional stress, bio-chemical imbalance, deterioration of brain cells, substance abuse, and environmental or social factors. The good news is that more often than not, these mental problems can be cured or reduced in intensity.

So what does Yoga have to do with mental health? I am sure you have heard of the saying –A Healthy Body – A Healthy Mind. This can be applied either way around, as one cannot be fully achieved without the other. The most common understanding on Yoga is that it is a physical exercise that helps to keep a person healthy, flexible and relieve stress. While all of these are true about Yoga, the mental benefits that can be achieved through this ancient art are very rarely explained or practiced. Yoga strives to create a dynamic balance between the body, mind and spirit. While acknowledging the interdependence between the body and mind, Yoga holds that the mind has a greater influence on the body. Hence mental exercises form an integral part of Yoga. Using the 8 fold path as described in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, the following practices can help achieve mental health:

Moral behaviour (Yama and Niyama)

The first mental exercise, Yama and Niyama, make up the moral foundation for the practice of Yoga. They are ethical guidelines on how to behave toward ourselves and our environment. Yama is good social conduct between the individual and their surroundings which consists of harmlessness, truthfulness, abstinence from theft, sense control and non-possessiveness. Niyama, on the other hand, is about how we treat ourselves which are cleanliness, contentment, purity, self-inquiry and surrender. The main purpose of these moral principles is to eliminate all mental and emotional turmoil which characterises the lives of individuals today. The practice of Yama and Niyama improves mental steadiness by creating a positive social and psychological environment within a person and also their surroundings. Although this may seem easy, it takes a lot of self-discipline to constantly act in a positive manner without giving into vices such as jealousy, hatred, anger, etc. It is important to note that the practice of Yoga is not completely fruitful unless a person practices the moral attributes summed up in Yama and Niyama. So be good, do good and you will feel great!

Postures (Asana)

Today the most common illnesses are not caused by physiological or environmental factors but are psychosomatic. Psychosomatic illnesses are disorders that show up as physical symptoms but are actually caused by mental or emotional disturbance. Stress, anxiety and unpleasant emotions can cause great bodily changes and muscular tension such as headaches, back pain, indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome and abdominal pain. Most often, visits to doctors caused by psychosomatic problems are treated with medication that will only help to manage the illness but not completely cure it. Unfortunately, emotional stress is not easily vanquished by common prescriptions.

Yoga, on the other hand, is a holistic system of self-healing. It is simultaneously a curative as well as a preventive system that deals with physiological and psychosomatic disorders. Yoga is perhaps the only form of exercise that massages and stimulates the internal organs in our body causing them to function efficiently. The pressure placed on the organs whilst performing a posture, encourages a natural healing process to occur, which then provides a sense of well being. The gentle stretches in Yoga also releases muscle tension from the body. The most significant benefit is the stimulation provided to the brain as it is supplied with rich amounts of oxygen from the bloodstream. This helps to rejuvenate the mind and increase the level of endorphins, which helps to produce a feeling of euphoria.

Breathing (Pranayama)

“When the breath wonders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the Yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath”
Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga Pradipika

Breath is directly linked to the mind. This is evident from our body’s physiological response to stress and anxiety which almost often, results in increased heart rate and shallow breathing. It is caused by the natural chemical reactions of our body’s nervous system, also known as the “fight or flight” response. While this reaction serves an important function when we are in harmful or dangerous situations, being in a constant state of tension leads to emotional fatigue and depression. As a result, our flow of breath can have an influence on our state of mind.

Pranayama is the art of regulating the breath. It teaches us to take deeper and longer breaths in and out. This provides copious amounts of oxygen to the brain. The brain requires more oxygen than any other organ in the body and lack of this results in mental lethargy, negativity, irritability and depression. Learning to consciously focus on deep breathing relaxes the body and calms the mind making a person less reactive to stressful events. It provides mental and emotional equilibrium by directing the positive flow of energy throughout the body and mind. Therefore, by consciously controlling your breath you are also able to relax the mind. As the saying goes, “When in stress, take a deep breath!”

Withdrawal of the senses (Pratyahara)

Yoga holds that, much of the sorrow in this world is caused by our search for happiness outside, rather than within. We set up goals for ourselves such as to own a big house, drive a fancy car, marry the person of our dreams and live the life of a fairytale. We work so hard to achieve some perfect ending with no end, then feel completely devastated that life doesn’t work the way we had hoped. We then start to feel worried, anxious and discontented due to the enormous discrepancy between our dreams and realities. According to the late psychologist, Carl Rogers, this state of being is called ‘incongruity’, whereby a person’s true ability and their ‘ideal’ self are not harmonious.

We experience life through our senses. The way we develop our sense of touch, sight, smell, hearing and taste are largely influenced by our external environment and social conditioning. Hence the reason why we constantly feel the need to associate our happiness externally - to fulfil the senses. If we can control our senses and turn our focus inwards, we will achieve inner peace and tranquillity. The practice of withdrawing the senses helps you to detach yourself from your surroundings long enough to no longer feel constantly and closely identified with everything that happens around you. You will gain strength within to be your self and when things don’t work the way you had anticipated, you will let it be.

Concentration (Dharana)

The mind loves to wonder and rarely ever knows rest except when in sleep. Couple this with anxiety or tension, and you will find your thoughts to be constantly fluctuating making the mind extremely unsteady. Lack of concentration is one of the effects of suffering from mental stress whether mild or severe. A basic exercise in concentration can help to break the habit of incessant thinking until we have learned to stay with the thought that we have chosen. Concentration is the key to developing deep awareness of yourself as you are able to direct your flow of thoughts to a single activity. Dharana is similar to the saying “being in the now”.
So how does concentration help with mental health? When a person experiences any form of mental pressure, they find themselves hounded with negative thoughts. Feelings of worry, anxiousness or restlessness can become quite intense as our emotions get associated with our thoughts. In concentration, the continuous activity of the mind is restricted. We are able to stop all these unwanted thoughts in our head by focusing on something else. The practice of concentration can include focusing the mind on the breath, a flame, affirmations or even prayer. An established dharana technique will help to free you from the unwanted mental and emotional thoughts, leaving you feeling mentally rejuvenated.

Meditation (Dhyana)

Let’s try to stop our thoughts for a just minute and empty the mind. It is almost impossible! What we can do instead, is observe the mind. When we observe our mind, our thought processes start to slow down. This is meditation; the art of quietening the mind. This method allows us to go into self-inquiry and start to understand the causes that motivate our thoughts, emotions and actions. These thoughts, if negative, can then be replaced with positive ones.

Similarly, psychologists are now using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as a method to help individuals with mental stress. It has been especially proven effective with individuals suffering from depression and is preferred as an alternative to medication. CBT is based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviour and if we are able to change the way we think, we will feel better. Meditation does exactly the same.

Meditation is one of the most researched practices in Yoga due to its healing benefits to the body and mind. If practiced correctly, meditation can produce a deep state of relaxation and a serene mind. It gives you a sense of calm, peace and emotional stability. The effects of meditation don’t just end once you finish the practice. Meditation can have an enduring effect on your emotional and physical well being. The best part about meditation is that it is inexpensive and doesn’t require any special equipment. It can be practiced anywhere with just a few minutes a day to achieve the benefits.


Most of us experience mental disturbances of one type or another in some point of our lives. We have to deal with stress, conflicts and the intensity of modern living which can make us unhappy and depressed. Sometimes, the pressure gets too much to handle and we fall into a spiral of despair. The severity of our mental illness determines if we require medical intervention. Unfortunately, the hardest part of this is admitting that we have a problem and dealing with it appropriately.

The methods discussed above are not exhaustive and is in no way meant to be an alternative for medical treatment. Yoga, being an ancient art, has its own way of dealing with inner turmoil and can compliment medical treatment by reducing the intensity of mental stress and also alleviate unwanted side effects of medication. It is 100% natural and drug free with enduring benefits. However, it is important to note that Yoga has to be learnt under the guidance of a qualified instructor to ensure safe techniques are maintained. If unsure, seek medical advice before starting Yoga.

The benefits of Yoga on mental health:

  1. Reduces the intake of medication and harmful side effects
  2. Releases negative energy from the body
  3. Promotes positive thinking
  4. Strengthens the mind allowing a person more control over their thoughts
  5. Increases concentration
  6. Focus within- detachment of the external
  7. Releases endorphins in the brain that increases feeling of well-being
  8. Relieves stress and relaxes the body
  9. Calms the flow of breath and quiets the mind
  10. Massages organs and glands in the body producing a healing chemical balance
  11. Improves the nervous systems


About This Blog

This blog is dedicated to providing Yoga resources for all our students and anyone interested in well-being. We hope that through our posts, we help spread health and happiness.

Important Notice

While every care is taken to provide you with complete information, it is always advisable to approach your Yoga practice with care. This blog is not a replacement for actual classes and it is important that you are fully aware of this.

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