Yoga Psychology

lily_pad_lotus_flowerBy Dhanurdhara Swami


“Is there therapy in the Vedas?” I was a bit taken aback by this inquiry from a young and dedicated yoga practitioner. He had been struggling for years with psychological problems. Although he had embraced a traditional path of yogic transformation, he found the help he needed in a more modern self-help process based on contemporary psychology. As I thought about his inquiry, however, the answer seemed obvious. Rich in a tradition of intact family and community support, those born in traditional India did not need to rely on specialists to sort out mental afflictions caused mostly by social dysfunction. Classical Indian philosophy, especially its traditions of yoga, does, however, have detailed information on the nature of the mind.1

Inspired by my young friend’s question and desiring to organize that information in a relevant way to help address the mental challenges so many people face today, I categorized the basic tenets of yoga psychology into five broad principles:

  1. The mind is malleable.
  2. There is a correlation between the form the mind assumes and how one feels.
  3. The mind is swayed by the power of three main factors—karma, environment, and actions.
  4. By controlling the form or mode the mind takes, one can substantially influence how one feels.
  5. Full satisfaction can ultimately only be achieved by transcending the mind and realizing the true self.

The mind, like any mechanism, can be used more effectively when one knows its workings. This is especially important as the proper use of the mind is the basis of self-fulfillment. Yoga psychology thus speaks to the most important of all human aims: true happiness.

The Basic Principles of Yoga Psychology:

One: The mind is malleable.

Subtle things are often described in more concrete ways to help us understand them. In the school of Yoga the mind is thus often described as supple, almost like clay, in that it can be easily molded and that external influences make indelible impressions.

The significance of this description of the mind as supple (principle one) is the correlation between the shape the mind assumes and one’s accompanying moods (principle two) and that by understanding the main factors by which the mind is molded (principle three) one can influence how one feels (principle four). Most important, by this understanding, one can learn to shape the mind as a vehicle for its own transcendence and attain ultimate satisfaction (principle five).

Two: There is a correlation between the form the mind assumes and how one feels.

Like everything in the world, the mind is composed of a combination of three modes of nature—sattva guna (goodness), raja guna (passion) and tamo guna (ignorance)—which are in flux. These subtle strands of matter, which are the elemental substrata of creation, also have specific intrinsic characteristics with particular symptoms and effects. Because there is a direct correlation between the modes of nature and how one feels, by identifying the present form or mode of the mind, one can also comprehensively understand its influence.

Three: The mind is swayed by the power of three main factors—one’s karma, one’s environment, and one’s actions.

The modes of nature are constantly competing within the mind for influence. A particular mode gains prominence by its association with one of three factors: the weight of one’s karma, the nature of one’s environment, and the tenor of one’s actions. How each affects the mind is comprehensively described in classical Indian thought:

  1. The positive effect of karma (destiny) on consciousness is described in three basic ways:A. By understanding the message of destiny: destiny is the language of God. Each event we experience is the divine in the form of time (kala) telling us something essential about ourselves to help us grow.B. By understanding the proper response to destiny: sastra (Indian sacred texts) also describes the appropriate response to each circumstance of destiny to ensure the healthiest development of the mind.C. By understanding how to align oneself with our innate nature born of destiny: our basic nature is composed of latent impressions in the subconscious (samskaras) posited there at birth as a result of karma. Sastra describes the science of living in harmony with one’s nature, which is the foundation of a peaceful mind.
  2. The subtle effects of the diverse forms of the environment on consciousness are described by a thorough classification of the various objects of perception (sights, sounds, and so on) into a gradation of modes that shape the mind according to their influence. For example, music within a specific mode can move the mind accordingly, either towards lethargy (music in the mode of ignorance), restlessness (music in the mode of passion), or peacefulness (music in the mode of goodness). All objects of perceptions can similarly be classified with predictable affects on the consciousness.
  3. Similarly, the subtle effects of the diverse forms of action are classified according to motive and understanding with their corresponding influence on the mind. For example, if one acts for self-purification or just adheres to moral or spiritual principles (actions in the mode of goodness) one’s mind becomes more lucid, increasingly peaceful, and strong in will, the symptoms and effects of goodness.This understanding of how actions influence the mind also leads to a basic understanding of dharma. Dharma is the correct choice in any circumstance to ensure the healthiest affect on the mind. This very subtle science of prescribed action (dharma) is elaborately described in sastra.

Four: By controlling the form or mode of the mind, one can substantially influence one’s desires and feelings.

All forms of therapy and self-help deal with guiding one to a greater self-awareness and personal satisfaction. By offering a system that accurately describes the nature of the mind, including a description of the internal and external factors that influence it, classical Indian philosophy contributes substantially to the science of mental transformation.

Five: Full satisfaction can ultimately be attained only by rising above the mind and experiencing the real self.

As the material mind is not the true self, no matter how much one transforms the mind to conform to higher forms of nature, perfect mental satisfaction will evade one for the following reasons:

  1. The pleasure experienced by the mind is ultimately superficial, a joy experienced by identifying with something external to the self. Seeking such pleasure is akin to a person enjoying the pleasure of a dream.
  2. It is also a form of happiness that is temporary and therefore full of duality. Duality means that alongside this pleasure—which is connected with a false sense of self—there must also be the distress of pleasure lost when the body ends.

In this regard there is a tradition of Sankhya (analysis) that identifies all 24 material elements, including the mind, for the purpose of isolating the eternal or spiritual self for the attainment of happiness that is real, eternal, and non-dual.

Although yoga promotes an integrated, peaceful mind, it is not meant to be an end in itself, but a means to stabilize the mind for its highest purpose—realization of a higher state of consciousness. This is classically achieved through the practice of three core paths—work (karma-yoga), knowledge (jnana-yoga), and devotion (bhakti-yoga).

The Fundamental Nature of the Mind

To understand the mind properly a basic understanding of its function is essential. One therefore has to be familiar with its context or purpose in the cosmos.

In Yoga, Sankhya, and much of Vedanta, this world is described as pure awareness (purusa or soul) entangled or misidentified with matter (prakrti). Although the ultimate beginning of this dilemma is not a major concern for most, the immediate cause of this unwholesome juncture is; out of egotism when the soul rejects its pure state of selfless awareness, its consciousness is projected on a particular field of matter called the body (which includes the mind). As the changes in one’s life that evoke duality and fear, such as disease and death, are happening in the body, not the true self, this unnatural and temporary state of identification is the root of suffering. Awakening from it, or emancipation (moksa), is thus life’s ultimate objective.

In context of this cosmic paradigm, the mind, called the citta, is the first sheath or covering of the soul. It functions as an instrument whereby the soul (purusa) enveloped in matter can either view the world to serve the false self (and suffer) or the pure self (and feel fulfilled). Bhagavad-gita thus aptly describes this function in the simple duality as the mind being either the friend or enemy of the soul.2 Similarly, the Yoga Sutras describe thoughts born of the mind as either unhealthy (klistha) or healthy (aklistha).3

To fulfill this dual role, the mind has different functions of thought. Although different schools ascribe slightly different roles to the different divisions of the mind, there is a basic agreement that the mind has three essential functions of thought:

  1. manas – impulsive synthesis and response (initial categorization of all phenomena received through the senses and one’s spontaneous like or dislike of them)
  2. buddhi – reflective examination (judgment and will)
  3. ahankara – relational response (self-identity and self-conceit)

Any system of transformation, whether to improve basic mental health or to achieve self-realization, is based on an understanding of at least some facsimile of these divisions.

Once the mind categorizes an object through a combination of these three functions of thought—our feelings, judgment, and sense of relationship—an impression of that object is imbedded within the mind. These latent impressions, called samskaras, created both in this life and the past, determine how we view, feel, and respond to the world. They are the single most important factor in over-all well-being.

The first function of any system of self-improvement is thus to help one judge whether one’s present thoughts based on these latent impressions represent the true nature of things. It then helps one create a more accurate perception through the tools available from that system.4

The Healthy and Unhealthy Mind

As mentioned, the nature of the mind is the samskaras imbedded within it. We are born in a basic mental condition due to such samskaras carried from past lives and also face certain conditions and events in life that foster further samskaras.

Our formative years, where buddhi (intelligence) is underdeveloped, especially fashions the basis of one’s mental health. Buddhi functions as a medium between the information coming through the senses and the final impression such data leaves on the consciousness. In other words, intelligence functions to translate our experiences in a reasonable way before they make impulsive and unhealthy samksaras. A child is thus especially susceptible to distorted impressions and even trauma because of this inability to digest his or her experiences by proper analysis into reasonable memories.5

Stable parents, who affectionately monitor their child to protect him or her from such stirring events, and who deal properly with them, instill good samskaras in their child. Good samskaras mean impressions that reflect the true nature of things and produce thoughts that help one grow. Such parents especially provide a nurturing environment. Deep impressions of affection in the mind enable one to see the world with promise and to feel secure even in challenging circumstances. Bereft of such memories, one is prone to depression.

A child also needs reasonable boundaries set by the parents. Without a relatively fixed world set by the protective figure, the child lives in a world of flux determined by his whims and demands. As a result, impressions of anxiousness are imbedded in the child’s mind, making him susceptible to excessive anxiety as he grows up to face a world of challenge and change.

Parents are the most important factor in the development of a strong mind. Thus a culture that is not structured to facilitate appropriating nurturing and reasonable boundaries molded by strong traditions of child rearing and community support will produce in various degrees mental instability, even if not at the level of trauma.

Although the foundations of mental health are set in the formative years, it is important to remember that the mind is malleable. With the proper process of transformation, mental health can be attained at any stage of life.

Attaining Mental Health

Especially in the modern world, people find themselves in societies where the support of community and family has been substantially eroded. Much of modern society thus relies on specialists in therapy and self-transformation to attain good mental health.

Although sound mental health was integral to traditional Indian society and therapy as a specialized field dealing with mental disorders was virtually non-existent, still within the scope of yogic knowledge there is a wealth of in-depth information on the workings of the mind, including knowledge applicable to restoring mental health.6 Some of that knowledge was alluded to in the beginning of this article when the basic principles of yoga psychology were described, especially the three factors by which the mind is swayed—our karma, the environment, and our actions. Each of these will now be discussed in more depth:

Karma and the Mind

Karma is a powerful factor in influencing the mind. What comes to us in our daily lives by destiny is often disconcerting. Powerful mental states may also suddenly arise as a result of past actions. Due to karma we are also born with a set mental nature, which conditions the mind. Our response to these three manifestations of destiny is the main factor in forming our mental state.

Practically all classical Indian schools of thought accept destiny as an eternal moral order, a force to help us grow provided we comprehend the message it bears and respond properly. Sastra, to a large degree, is a compendium of archetypal stories of destiny with lessons on how to understand and respond to various circumstances. That all tribulations of destiny are filled with messages of self-transformation is attested to by the fact that most individuals would not trade the difficulties they underwent if they had to also relinquish the valuable lessons they learned from them. According to yoga psychology, optimum mental health cannot be achieved without some connection to a tradition of knowledge that teaches one to understand and respond to each situation in life in a way that molds one’s mind towards goodness.

Although we can substantially change our nature by guidance and self-discipline, we are still born with a certain basic karmic nature. Part of that nature includes inborn occupational proclivities, for instance the longing to be creative, make money, or become learned. Another part of our psyche carries innate social tendencies such as the degree of our detachment or attachment to worldly life. If unhealthy attachments are pronounced, they cannot be transcended by will power alone, nor is it healthy to do so. Repression causes frustration and anger, which molds the mind towards ignorance, making one susceptible to the result of that mode: inactivity and depression. Sastra thus helps identify one’s occupational and social proclivity and prescribes suitable duties based on those inclinations, such as recommendations for career and marriage. Only by the regulation of strong attachments, and not by the unrestricted indulgence or thoughtless repression of them, both which degrade the mind, can one be elevated to a higher state of mental well-being.

Optimal mental health is thus very hard to achieve without carefully understanding one’s nature and engaging it properly.

Environment and the Mind

Bhagavad-gita confirms the importance of the environment in molding the mind towards goodness when it deems the knowledge found in the fourteenth chapter7, where the modes of nature are comprehensively analyzed, best of all. Traditional Indian culture, ideally ordered in goodness, was itself influenced by this knowledge. Thus just living in such a society, where many aspects of life were carefully guided by this knowledge, from the objects of sound (music) and sight (art) to moral behavior, was therapeutic.

Although today one has little access to such an environment, still everyone has at least some control over his or her immediate surroundings. For example, the parts of the day that are in different modes, are usually within one’s rule. Thus if we simply wake early, just before and around sunrise8, which is the time of the day substantially in the form of sattva guna (goodness), the mind will be given a significant boost towards goodness. Of course, the factors that influence the mind are numerous, but even such a simple adjustment of taking avail of the early morning hours will substantially engender peacefulness and clarity of mind.

All five objects of the senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste) can manifest in different modes and thus everything from our diet to the people we associate with, from the places we frequent to our level of cleanliness9, can be molded in a way to influence the mind to a higher state of well-being.

Those concerned with strong inner well-being, whether to make an unhealthy mind healthy for the purpose of general contentment, or to make the healthy mind more fit to facilitate meditation, must know the science of how the environment affects the consciousness.

Actions and the Mind

There are three groups of action geared for positive transformation: actions with an innate spirit of attachment, but restrained by regulation (karma-yoga), restrained actions (jnana)10, and dedicated actions (bhakti).

For the sake of discussing action in terms of how it affects the supple mind, I have divided action into four categories. The three groups of action above will be explored within those categories11:

I. Dharma
II. Programming
III. Spiritual practice in general
IV. The path of devotion (Bhakti)

How Actions Affect the Mind

Before discussing the four categories of action in relation to the mind, it is helpful to review the mechanics of how information from the senses and one’s response to it create the general tenor of one’s mind:

Information entering the mindSpecifically, sense data enters the mind through the manas, the function of thought dealing with the initial categorization of phenomena.)) through the senses makes latent impressions called samskaras that form one’s basic psychological make-up. Samskaras are imprints in the subconscious that push to be filled or nor filled with the same experiences that caused them. They can also be called attachments, latent desires, or memories of pleasures.12 Based on those samskaras, one responds to future data by ascribing some feeling (like or dislike) towards it. As a result one is impelled to once again act, to have new experiences and thus either create additional samskaras, or strengthen old ones. In either case, the tenor of the mind is altered.

For example, if one drinks alcohol and becomes gladdened, a memory of that particular pleasure, a samskara, is imbedded in the psyche. The desire for intoxication thus becomes part of one’s psychology. Although that imprint may remain latent (in that one may not always feel like drinking) when that samskara is activated by some circumstance, for example going to a party where alcohol is served, one is impelled to drink. In this way, a further imprint for drinking is imbedded in the psyche, increasing one’s desire for alcohol and also the likelihood of drinking in the future.

In other words, a single act and the accompanying experience can entangle the soul in a continual cycle of the creation and fulfillment of impulses. Within this karmic circle the samskara at the root of the initial action is then perpetually strengthened so that a predominant psychological nature is formed.

It can’t be stressed enough how important properly translating the information we receive through the senses is, as the samskara made by sense data is ultimately determined by one’s interpretation of it. In other words, the very same information can produce imprints that foster either enlightening or degrading thoughts (and consequent actions) depending on how such data is computed.13

Pertaining to this subject, the role of buddhi, or intelligence, as the function of the mind with the capacity to properly digest or comprehend information has already been discussed. Properly comprehended or digested sense data means understanding the true nature of things.

This correlation between understanding reality and mental health and the parallel between ignorance and suffering is at the core of yoga psychology. This connection is also not foreign to most schools of psychological therapy where most fears, phobias, anxieties, and mood swings are not considered fundamental conditions of reality, but mistaken conceptions of it, the only difference being the differing methods stressed to bring one to a higher level of cognition. Most schools also recognize the transforming or therapeutic affect of bringing one to a stage of appropriate action based on higher cognition and the positive affect that has on the mind.

In conclusion, actions have a very influential affect on the condition of the mind, and inspire positive mental transformation when they are in response to a solid understanding of the world. All four categories of action are thus based on producing healthy imprints related to an understanding of the true nature of objects and situations.

I. Dharma

As discussed, knowledge of the true nature of things and responding to the world based on that understanding creates the best disposition of mind. The science of doing this is called dharma.

In the introduction dharma was defined as:

“The correct choice in any circumstances to ensure the healthiest affect on the mind is called dharma. This very subtle science of prescribed action (dharma) is elaborately described in sastra.”

Dharma is subtle because it is prescribed according to one’s individual nature, which varies from person to person. In fact, it varies right from birth where a fraction of an almost unlimited stock of a person’s past karma, including strong samskaras, is funneled into one’s particular field of activities (the gross and subtle bodies). Dharma is thus always done in careful consideration of one’s individual nature, although certain actions are obviously more universal prescriptions, such as The Ten Commandments or the yamas (moral restraints) of the Yoga Sutras.

An example of this principle of dharma being prescribed according to one’s nature, and not universally applied, is the appropriate response to the objects of sex desire. Like all potential responses to pleasure, the first consideration is the degree of one’s attachment towards the object of that pleasure. Thus if sexual attraction is at a depth where it cannot be transcended, then dharma is to act on that desire, but under careful regulation, in this case limiting the fulfillment of sex desire at the least to the sphere of marriage, if not solely for procreation. If the depth of one’s attachment is minimal, however, dharma is the opposite, renunciation of those desires. The same paradigm is applicable to all prescriptions of dharma—attachments that cannot be transcended have to be carefully worked through according to prescribed regulation. The result is also the same —the mind is favorably transformed by carefully doing one’s duty.

An especially important application of this model of action is the choice of suitable work. Occupation is an activity that occupies most of our day and thus a key element in how the mind forms itself. When our work is lined up with our inborn nature and done in the proper way, when it is dharma, the mind is positively transformed. When it is not, one is frustrated. Day after day tolerating boredom or frustration due to occupational work against one’s nature can easily activate either a strong desire for unwarranted indulgence in sense pleasure or excessive inactivity. Unfortunately, such desires must be carried home for fulfillment often crimping in mode and time our ability to put our mind towards direct spiritual practice.

Positive mental transformation, for most, cannot be separated from a socio-occupational system designed to provide both meaningful work (varna) and an appropriate and supportive social status (ashram). Such a system, such as the social structure that was an ideal for classical Indian society14, was also best supported by a simple agrarian based economy. Its purpose was not only to supply suitable psychophysical occupational and social engagement, but to free one’s time and energy for spiritual practices geared for direct mental transformation.

Although modern society is not particularly structured to support mental health or spiritual growth, and one often finds oneself in stressful occupational and social situations15, one seeking to maximize mental and spiritual development cannot neglect a holistic approach, one that seeks, as far as possible, to align one’s social and occupational life with one’s psychophysical nature.

In summary, there are two choices for incorrect action (adharma) and two choices for correct action (dharma):

Incorrect action 1: To impulsively indulge one’s unhealthy attachments. Such action is in the mode of ignorance and molds the mind accordingly.

Incorrect action 2: To repress one’s desires whimsically. By doing so one’s mind is occupied further by those attachments leading to frustration, anger, and bewilderment. Repression thus also eventually molds the mind towards ignorance, the worst mode.

Correct action 1: To satisfy one’s attachments by prescribed regulation. Regulation affords one the advantage of both the satisfaction and renunciation of desire. By prescribing conditions to fulfill desire, one not only thinks less of those desires, but avoids the foibles of repression. Regulation also means that beyond the limited prescription for enjoyment, one is renouncing passions, thus ruling them by goodness and gradually moving the mind towards that mode.

Correct action 2: To renounce the object of the senses by one qualified to do so. By renunciation at the level of true indifference, one attains the platform of dispassion, and quickly brings the mind to its most purified state.16

Suitable mentors must thus not only clearly know that one is not the body, but they must help people understand what the body is. If one is not able to reasonably assess a person’s level of attachment, but is only able to highlight the duality between mind and body, action cannot be prescribed in a way that fosters a peaceful and functional mind, either for living in the world or for pursuing transcendence. Such guides must also be qualified to inspire and teach renunciation to gradually move people towards that goal.

II. Programming

Regardless of one’s level of renunciation, one can learn to program or condition the mind to give up bad habits and to develop good ones. This is described in the Yoga Sutras as consciously supplanting bad samskaras with good ones.

To understand how programming works, one should first understand the duality between pleasure and happiness, that samskaras that may give momentary pleasure, such as intoxication and fault-finding, also simultaneously mold the mind towards distress. Understanding this duality, one can then program the mind to supplant the samskaras impelling one to indulge in a bad habit by associating it with ones that highlight the suffering it causes. For example, one may give up smoking by regularly visualizing the distress caused by it, such as lung disease and the lack of character such addictions reflect, so that eventually a healthy samskara of aversion (smoking is bad) supersedes the unhealthy imprint of attachment (smoking is good).

As one can displace the root of a bad habit by creating a distressful imprint in the mind, one can also uproot a bad habit by nurturing another attachment that gives one more pleasure, but sits in opposition to that tendency. For instance, one can be attached to being truthful and then vow to never smoke. Every time one then desires to smoke, the desire for truthfulness is activated, overpowering the craving to smoke. Of course, this is provided that the samskara for honesty is deeper than the samskara for smoking, or whatever bad habit one is trying to overcome.

These are just simple examples to illustrate how the mind can be programmed or conditioned to change one’s nature. They also illustrate the importance of integrity. Integrity means to make one’s thoughts and actions one or integral with one’s principles. A strong taste for honesty makes it so much easier to undergo the discipline required for transformation. Without such integrity, our commitment to overcome bad habits will often be rationalized away. Yoga psychology is thus always accompanied by a culture that diligently programs honesty, by the values it stresses, the exemplars it promotes and the literature it recommends.17

Again, although we may be at a disadvantage in the modern world where good samskaras, such as integrity, are generally not sufficiently cultured, it doesn’t mean that we can’t find practical means to program the mind to be true to our principles. For example, one can still consciously seek exemplars in character. Exemplars in character, those who have strong attachment to principles, are one of the most powerful ways to instill impressions of character, especially if one can develop a relationship of respect and service to such persons. We naturally try to give up habits that are antithetical to the lives of those we admire. One can also hear about such people, especially if they are saints of the past.18

Of course, the ability to subdue passions is also affected by the strength of the habit we are trying to control. When such imprints have become extremely deep by repeated reinforcement, they are called addictions. At that level they forcibly supersede good judgment and take a more concerted effort to overcome.

In that regard, the 12-step program is an apparently successful method of overcoming addictions. An interesting study would be an analysis of exactly how that is accomplished in terms of yoga psychology, especially in terms of programming. From those I have known in the midst of such programs, it is clear to me that it is an ingenuous way of superseding very deep, bad samskaras by strongly reinforcing and creating good ones, such as humility, integrity, the distress of bad habits, the pleasure of good habits, and respect for exemplars of non-addiction. I am especially intrigued by the spiritual aspect of the program. By admitting one’s helplessness (the first step) and petitioning a higher power (the second step) one creates or reinforces the good samskaras of humility and dependence. Such qualities allow one to experience affection, which strikes against the root of all addiction—the lack of memory in the subconscious of nurturing that fosters depression and impels one to mistakenly fill that void of happiness with repeated sensual stimulation.

To transform the mind it must be reconditioned. Yoga psychology, by describing how the mind works, offers a working model of how to positively program the mind.

III. Spiritual Practice (sadhana)

The objective of yoga psychology is not just to stabilize the mind, but to perfect it. This was described in the introduction:

“Yoga psychology deals with the transformation and stabilization of the mind, not as an end in itself, but as means to attain a higher state of consciousness beyond the mind where the purusa, or soul, imbibes in its own pure nature.”

To attain that state, however, the support of the mind is necessary. The mind is called antar-karanam, the internal instrument. Like all instruments, the mind requires tuning or sharpening to function best. To succeed in spiritual life, one must therefore gradually mold the mind to higher forms of cognition.

In terms of transforming the mind, we have already discussed the importance of properly structuring our environment and adhering to moral actions within our day to day lives. To achieve optimum transformation and ultimate transcendence, however, it is of utmost importance to reserve a time and place to exclusively engage with the mind for the purpose of transforming it. Such a prescribed exercise is called sadhana, or spiritual practice. The foundation of sadhana is meditation.

To understand how meditation transforms the mind, one first has to understand its goal — to bring the mind to its pure state. This state can be compared to the original condition of a perfectly tuned instrument where its maximum potential is realized. The mind thus functions best in sattva, the most wholesome state of matter. In other words, in sattva the discriminating ability of the mind is sharpened to the degree where the soul can perfectly distinguish itself from its encasement, the mind and body. In terms of this ability to foster true perception, this optimum state can also be compared to a properly formed and thoroughly cleansed lens.

Spiritual practice is thus the process of cleansing the mirror of the mind of its distortions, called vrttis or thoughts, especially those born of passion and ignorance, which like a distorted lens skew the soul’s vision.19 Meditation accomplishes this by the practice of undeviating concentration on a single object of focus. By such focus for an uninterrupted and prolonged time, all other fluctuations of the mind, which distort the natural lucidity of sattva, are neglected and thus quelled, especially when that practice is accompanied by vairagya, a rigorous cultivation of dispassion towards those impulses.

IV. Bhakti

So far we have discussed transformation based on individual effort. The path of bhakti adds the aspect of grace to our discussion, help beyond individual effort. Grace thus implies the conviction in a unique supremely potent and omniscient soul, a being with total power to direct the laws of nature and thus cleanse one’s mind simply by grace. Bhakti as a process of transformation is thus the act of giving oneself to God in devotion and petitioning that grace.20

Patanjali Muni indirectly alludes to the path of grace in the Yoga Sutras. In the first chapter, he describes isvara pranidhana (surrender to the Lord) as an optional method of meditation and also outlines its main practice—chanting mantras such as aum, which are not only signifiers of the Lord, but non-different from Him and full of spiritual potency. In the chapter that follows, he outlines “surrender to the Lord” in a somewhat different context, as one of the six mandatory moral observances that are prerequisite for meditation. Also listed there are the different benefits of adhering to each of the six classic moral observances including samadhi, the benefit of perfectly practicing isvara pranidhana. Samadhi, full spiritual trance, is the goal of meditation. As “surrender to the Lord” is the lone moral observance paired with a spiritual result21, and also the only object of meditation that is an active transformative agent, it is also logically the inferred choice for meditation.22 Commenting on isvara pranidhana, Vyasa, the main commentator on the Yoga Sutras, directly confirms why “simply by the yogi’s longing, God bestows His grace upon the yogi. When this happens the fruit’s of samadhi becomes quickly available.”23

Bhakti as a process of transformation in relation to grace as described in the Yoga Sutras thus works something as follows:

By repetition of the Lord’s names and thinking of their meaning, which is a call to surrender, devotion naturally arises in the heart. Imbued with devotion, the presence of the Lord is then naturally felt everywhere until thoughts of devotion pervade the mind. The Lord, in reciprocation, naturally bestows His grace upon such a devoted soul by awarding him or her samadhi, but without the same effort usually required to attain such a wholesome state.24

In this sense, the process of bhakti works through the transformation of the material mind as other processes do. Sri Caitanya, certainly one of the most prominent proponents of the Bhakti tradition, thus declares in the first verse of His seminal composition Siksastakam, “ceto darapana marjanam” –that chanting cleanses (marjanam) the mind (ceto), which is like a mirror (darpanam). In ways, this is a classical yogic description of attaining samadhi, where the material mind of the embodied soul regains its pure condition where the soul can be reflected on it without distortion, the stage before one transcends the corporeal sphere altogether.

Of course, how the mind recovers its pure condition on the path of bhakti, and how it does so in other processes, is also quite different. On the path of bhakti, real devotion, selfless devotion, is not just a mental or physical activity, but an expression of the soul.25 Thus unlike other paths, which work, so to speak, from the outside in, that is they deal directly with the transformation of mind as a way to achieve pure inner awareness, bhakti is the opposite. Bhakti is first a rousing of the soul with devotion that then purifies the mind. In other words, as consciousness flows through the sheaths of the conditioned soul to animate it, including the mind, when that consciousness is awakened to its true nature of selfless devotion, the mind is gradually transformed to more and more conducive states for higher realization. This transformation thus happens simultaneously as bhakti imbues the soul with devotion:

“Devotion, direct experience of the Supreme Lord, and detachment from other things—these three occur simultaneously for one who has taken shelter of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, in the same way that pleasure, nourishment, and relief from hunger come simultaneously and increasingly, with each bite, for a person engaged in eating.”26

Obviously, the degree to which bhakti inspires the soul and transforms the mind depends on the purity of our practice and our level of devotion. Real transformative devotion is thus rag bhakti, where attachment (rag) to the Lord, not just obligation and duty, is the motivating force for our action.

Bhakti, action done with pure love for God, is thus a powerful transformative agent as it invokes grace, stirs the soul, and flows naturally away from egoism and exploitation, the core obstacles to yoga. In Bhagavad-gita it is thus deemed the best of transformative paths.27


Yoga psychology gives a practical, workable, and holistic paradigm for transformation, which thoroughly explains the effect of one’s nature, actions, environment and heartfelt devotion on the development of a healthy mind.

This article originally appeared on Dhanurdhara Swami’s personal site,
Dhanurdhara Swami was initiated into the Gaudiya Vaishnava lineage by Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1974. In 1982, He accepted the sannyasa ashram or renounced order of life. Dhanurdhara Swami is the author of three books—Waves of Devotion: A Comprehensive Study of The Nectar of Devotion,Greetings from Vrindavana, a selected collection of his thoughts and realizations from 2000–2004, and Japa Meditations: Contemplations on Entering the Holy Name, a collection of selected personal realizations on japa meditation by Maharaja and others. He is currently working on several writing projects including a contemporary book on bhakti and a book on kirtana.

  1. The prime source for my study of yoga psychology was the recently published The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Dr. Edwin Bryant, North Point Press, which is not only a translation of the Yoga Sutras, but is a translation and commentary on all the major commentators on the Yoga Sutras as well. I began this paper before the book was officially published, so I would like to personally thank Professor Bryant for sharing with me, in advance, some excerpts of his work. The author is not only an established academic, but a long time student and practitioner of yoga as well, which makes for an especially insightful and readable translation and commentary. []
  2. Bhagavad-gita, 6.5 []
  3. Yoga Sutras 1.5 []
  4. Inherent in most systems of Indian yogic thought, and most methods of mental health, is the concept that distress lies not in reality, but in our perception of it,, and thus mentors by carefully freeing us from ignorance also make us more mentally healthy. []
  5. An example would be a young child who has bad experiences with his parents and thus develops a bad impression towards all authority and who then distrust all elders, even kinds ones. []
  6. Problems of restoring mental health were also dealt with in the social structure, including family and priests. Extremely serious mental problems were also dealt with by certain types of tantrics. []
  7. Bhagavad-gita, 14.1 []
  8. In Indian time there are 36 48-minute divisions called muhurtas. The brahma muhurta, the 48 minutes before sunrise, was considered the most conducive for spiritual life. []
  9. Cleanliness is the object of sight in the mode of goodness and will naturally make one more peaceful and clear minded. []
  10. Yoga is generally considered part of the path of jnana. []
  11. These four categories are my own divisions of action based on my study of the texts of the Indian yoga tradition. []
  12. A samskara can also be a memory of an unpleasant experience, an attachment then to avoid a certain object that previously caused pain or discomfort. []
  13. For example, one can even be mistreated by another person and feel deep hate or even compassion for that person depending on how one’s intelligence is trained to digest that particular encounter. []
  14. Traditional Indian social structure was not the caste system fixed at birth, but one based on one’s qualification. See Bhagavad-gita, 4.13 []
  15. By karma one may be stuck in work that is not suitable for one’s nature. Of course, one should seriously seek a change in employment, but if not possible, then one has to respond to one’s work like one responds to any unpleasant karmic situation that is difficult to change, by humbly seeing God’s hand to purify one of attachments. []
  16. There is a third choice for correct action, dedicating one’s activities out of a natural devotion for God. This choice will be discussed separately in the section on bhakti. []
  17. The two most popular books in Indian culture are the Mahabharat and Ramayana, which basically promote integrity. []
  18. In the Yoga Sutras I.37 one recommendation for meditation is to meditate on one who is free from desire. []
  19. Not all Yogic paths consider all thoughts material. Some also ascribe some thought and agency to the soul, although all schools agree that the fluctuations of the material mind (vrttis) ultimately need to be stilled. []
  20. On the path of bhakti there is deep discussion about the origin of grace, to what extent it can come from God and to what extent it must come from His devotee. That discussion is beyond the scope of this paper. []
  21. Except for isvara pranidhana, which is paired with samadhi, all other niyamas (moral observances) are paired with “prakrtic” or material benefits, such as understanding one’s past lives and so on. []
  22. A very strong case can be made from the Yoga Sutras that Pantanjali was a theist and that isvara pranidhana (surrender to the Lord) was his recommended object of meditation, even if still optional. See “Pantanjali’s Theistic Preference”, by Edwin Bryant, Journal of Vaisnava Studies Vol 14, No. 1/Fall 2008, p. 7 []
  23. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” by Dr. Edwin Bryant, North Point Press, p.82 []
  24. The practitioner of bhakti must still arduously practice meditation, but as his practice is a petitioning for the Lord’s grace, the result can be attained much easier by grace. []
  25. There are many verses cited in the Bhakti tradition from various scriptures describing how bhakti is beyond the senses and mind. For example, often quoted from the Padma Purana and cited in the Bhaktirasamrta-sindhu 1.2.34 is “atah sri krishna namadi na bhaved grahyam indriyaih/” –that the soul and God cannot be understood through the material senses. []
  26. Bhag 11.1.42 []
  27. Bhagavad-gita, 6.47 []

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11 Responses to Yoga Psychology

  1. I see here that Dhanurdhara Swami has equated ceto darpana marjanam with citta vritti nirodah. While I think there is room for this comparison, yoga samadhi and a clean heart may also be two different things in that niskama karma yoga leads to a clean enough heart to qualify one for sitting. It speaks of walking such that one can sit properly. In Mahaprabhu’s nama sankirtana cleansing the heart is the first stage one experiences, arguably before attaining nistha, which clearly falls short of samadhi in that it speaks largely of the employment of one’s spiritually fortified intellect in bhakti in a manner that renders one undeterred by unrelated thought. In nistha sadhana one continually brings one’s drifting mind back into spiritual focus, whereas in asakti one’s mind naturally drifts into spiritual focus.

    Nice article though.

    • Gaura-Vijaya das

      Perhaps citta-vitti nirodhah that comes in the beginning of the sutras is different from asamprajnata samadhi, which seems akin to ruci where one experiences higher taste. Some pointers from the Gita commentary by Swami Tripurari: (1) 6.15 purport What must be the direct experience of Krsna be for his devotee? This is asamprajnata samadhi, in which thought is restrained (niayata-manasah), stolen by the charm and beauty of Krsna. It is attained though the constant (yunjam) of fixing one’s mind of krsna in samprajnata samadhi (2)6.20-23 purport
      These verses speak about asamprajnata samadhi. Ceasing all mental activity is accomplished when the mind is taken over by the Absolute.

      I am not sure but perhaps citti-vritti nirodhah is the process of reaching samadhi (stilling the vibrations of the mind).

  2. Very nice article, with good practical insight into how the mind works and how to harness it in a progressive way. I like the ending where Maharaja brings it all the way to raga-bhakti as the most powerful of transformative paths.

    About the ceto darpana marjanam/citta vrtti nirodha equivalence, Patanjali’s definition of yoga as complete cessation of the mind’s incessant movement is clearly the high end of yoga. This being the case I think it’s somewhat of a stretch to equate it with ceto darpana marjanam where the sadhaka’s mind is not yet fully restrained.

    • I second Citta Hari’s appreciations of the article.

      I found the Programming section particularly insightful.

  3. Maharaja refers to Gita 6.47 as a reference to the idea that bhakti is the best of transformative paths. In his commentary on this verse Advaitn Madhusudana Saraswati writes “In my (Krishna’s) estimation, who am the omniscient, supreme God, in relation to all yogis, the best among those whose minds are in samadhi is he who adores me . . .”

  4. Gaura-Vijaya das

    It is interesting to note that either we present: jnana, yoga, bhakti as separate paths or jnana-yoga, astanga yoga and bhakti yoga as different yogas. I like the latter approach that is more consistent with the older text like B.G and S.B( that use bhakti-yogena a lot). It kind of unifies us more closely with perennial tradition and keeps our difference intact.

  5. Gaura-Vijaya das

    It is interesting to note that 6.47 we have best among yogis who are in samadhi. We can say that bhava samadhi is a high end of yoga samadhis and thus most of the sadhakas of the bhakti process are much less advances compared to advanced astanga yogis on their path.

  6. I love your approach. For so long, Western psychology and yoga have been two opposing views. It has only been in the last few decades that scientist have begun becoming more open to spiritual growth. More and more modern day psychologists and scientists are becoming more interested in the benefits of yoga and meditation. I think this trend will continue into a whole new birth for modern day psychology.

  7. It is an interesting article. I don’t care to go through any sort of regimented attempt at yoga through psychology or anything like that anymore. Spiritual growth for me has been from cold hard experience and probably some childhood trauma as well but for those lucky enough to have parents that are sensitive to these sorts of things they probably can do wonder for their kids and help them avoid a lot of the pitfalls of life so I am all for western psychology merging with yoga and meditation but personally I am at the point where instead of going to some psychology yoga class I like to marvel at the wonder and craziness of the avadutas.

    • but personally I am at the point where instead of going to some psychology yoga class I like to marvel at the wonder and craziness of the avadutas

      I think the example of the avadhutas, while inspiring, is difficult to access in a practical way, since they do things that cannot be imitated by less qualified practitioners. Moreover, if we are to ever have any hope of rising above our conditioning we have to deal with it at least to a point where it does not get in the way of serious spiritual practice. I’m not sure marvelling at the wonder and craziness of the avadhutas would help anyone do that in any substantial way.

  8. Good Point, acientmariner, my spiritual growth came to me the same way as you. I chose the path of yoga later on because I find joy and peace in it, but it doesn’t have the same effect on everyone, that I realize.

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