Repressed memories of old experiences can influence our lives very powerfully. The practices of yoga can allow those memories to surface, be discharged and improve our lives. The following three stories illustrate this.
Swami Shankardevananda came to yoga as an asthma patient. The practices of yoga had helped him, but the asthma didn't ever go away. Then, one day in Munger, while he was doing meditation he had an amazing experience. When we do meditation we often have a question in our mind; it mightn't be explicit, but it is there. His question, obviously, was, "Where did this asthma come from?" and he soon found out. He was watching chidakasha, the screen behind the closed eyes at the eyebrow centre, when he saw a big woman with a great big spoon full of pumpkin. He experienced her shoving it down his throat and choking him. Then the repressed memory flooded back to him. When he was a small child, he had a baby sitter who had decided that he needed his pumpkin, even though he didn't want it. The baby sitter won and forced the pumpkin down his throat. That choking sensation was exactly repeated with the asthma attacks. After that meditation experience they slowly died down. He hasn't experienced an asthma attack now for decades.
Swami Nishchalananda came to yoga to try to help his claustrophobia, the fear of being in enclosed spaces. One morning he was doing meditation, when suddenly he got a screen memory of the time when, as a small child, he had collected a jar full of maggots to take fishing. However, he couldn't go fishing that day, and when he opened the jar a couple of days later out flew a whole lot of blowflies, straight into his face. They were everywhere, crawling up his nose and in his eyes and in his ears. He was terrified. That fright was actually the cause of his claustrophobia, and after he relived the experience in meditation his claustrophobia stopped.
The first time I had a meditation experience like that was about thirty years ago when I was still a general practitioner. One day as I was driving to work I saw a young man and a young woman run across the road and just miss the bus into Sydney. I stopped and asked them if they wanted a lift, which they gratefully accepted. The woman got into the front passenger seat next to me and the man got in the back.
Within seconds the woman started religious proselytizing in the form of, "Have you given your heart to the Lord Jesus Christ or are you still a dreadful sinner?" That was fair enough, as it was her religious belief. But I became intensely angry and I began gripping the steering wheel so hard my knuckles turned white. I was so angry that I was visualizing smashing her face in. I was shocked by my reaction. I couldn't remember feeling violent like that in my whole life. Here I was, a respectable doctor, fantasizing about killing this woman, just because she was talking to me about her religious beliefs. I thought, "This has gone too far," so I stopped the car and said, "You'll have to get out." She said, "Oh, you said you would take us to Sydney." I repeated the order. As she got out she slammed the door of the car and I almost got out myself, but I just gripped the steering wheel tighter and drove to my surgery. I said to my receptionist, "Don't let anybody interrupt me. Even if someone is dying in the waiting room get another doctor, I've got to work something out immediately."
I lay down on the examination table, got into yoga nidra and kept asking the question, "Why did I get so intensely and murderously angry?" Suddenly I got this big screen picture in chidakasha of a man with an intensely angry and enormous red face. He was looking down at me and saying with an Irish accent, "If you don't go to a catholic school you'll burn in hell's fires!" I came out of the yoga nidra in a panic, then I burst out laughing as I realized that it had actually happened to me when I was four and a half years old. But it was totally out of my consciousness, it was nowhere in my accessible memory at all.
My father was a Presbyterian mason from Glasgow and my mother was a Roman Catholic from Edinburgh. Back in the early 1930s that was an explosive combination, but actually they had a very loving relationship. They had an agreement that their children would go to the local Sunday school, which in my case was the Congregational Church over the road, and the local school, which in my case was the Catholic school down the road. Now, in the 1930s, the Catholic Church and school were very different to nowadays. The nuns persecuted me because I went to the Congregational Sunday school. For that reason my parents took me out of that school and sent me to the public school, which was quite a long distance away. One day, as I was walking home, the local parish priest came along and accosted me in the street, and threatened me with burning in hell's fires. I was terrified. I was four and a half years old at the time and to me he was an enormous monster in black. I didn't even know who he was. I thought he was going to kill me, or do something equally unpleasant. I ran home screaming, then totally repressed the incident. I had absolutely no memory of it later, but that experience had a powerful influence on my life for almost three decades.
I had been a total atheist and was especially convinced, apparently without any reason, that the most evil influence on earth was the Catholic Church. Of course I don't believe that now, because that one session of yoga nidra freed up the memory. It opened up my potential for a spiritual life, and it also opened up my potential for associating with priests, which I did for two years in Colombia as a yoga teacher. That one little moment of yoga nidra opened up a whole area of my life, the most important area - the spiritual area. If that hadn't happened, it would have been covered over to this day, poisoning my whole personality and my life's potential. So, even just a little bit of pratyahara, finding out something that's deep down there, can have major positive repercussions in our lives.
Much of psychology is about helping one with the present emotion, it is also about getting the repressed memories up into one's awareness. It is what psychoanalysis and hypno-therapy are about. Yoga psychology is using yoga so that we get a beneficial improvement in our mental functioning, in our emotional functioning, in our relationships with other people and in our attitudes and spiritual realities. It is also a way of realizing the falseness of so many things that we absolutely don't even question. We 'know' they are correct even though they are actually wrong. I was a total atheist. I 'knew' that God did not exist. I didn't just think it, I knew it. But I was wrong, and that conviction paralyzed the most important part of my life. This is where our attitudes and opinions, our bigotries and biases, come from. We have a whole lot of these, which are based on all that stuff buried deep down, but we have no access to them at all, because the memories of the original experiences have been repressed. If we are going to evolve, we have to get in there, uncover them and get rid of them.
Patanjali has classified memory as one of the vrittis. It is one of the things that disturbs our individual consciousness. Memory happens on a number of levels. There is the everyday memory. When I meet someone I know well, there is an immediate recall of their name and many things I know about them. But if I see somebody once then not again for a long time, I can't recall their name, but I can recognize it when prompted. So instead of having the memory level of recall, I go down to the memory level of recognition, which is deeper down. These memories are easily available. All we have to do is go in, and we can either recall something or at least recognize it. Then comes the concrete floor of repression, which is keeping a lot of other stuff buried deep down. Why is it holding this stuff down? Because these memories are loaded with negative emotion such as fear, horror, guilt, etc. The experience I had when I was a little boy was of absolute terror, and it was completely covered over by the repression. How do we get below that?
Yoga practices are designed to bring that material to the surface so we can come to terms with it. Sometimes it is very primitive stuff, it may even be from a previous life, but we still have to access it. If it is at a non-verbal level, such as before we learnt to talk, it is not even attached to words. But still the experience is there and we have to re-experience it. You can talk about it until you are blue in the face, but it will do absolutely no good, because it is experiential. And of course yoga is about experience.
The beauty of the practice of yoga nidra is that it is a step-by-step procedure that takes us into the state of pratyahara. The neurophysiologists would call it the alpha theta state, just on the borderline of sleep. This is also the state that hypnosis brings us down to, but the technique of hypnosis is very different from yoga nidra. On that level, the unconscious mind and all the repressed emotional experiences are accessible to us. Sometimes they are in a combined form. There might have been a repetition of certain stresses early in life, and they will be represented down there as a combination that we can experience. It may not even be what actually happened to us, but there will be an emotional discharge. If we can, as far as possible, maintain our equanimity, our balance and our position as the seer, the witness or the observer of this process that is going on, it will come up, discharge itself and be gone. We will be much better people for it. It will open avenues and opportunities and abilities for relationships that were absolutely impossible before it happened.
The state of pratyahara, the alpha-theta state, gives us access to the unconscious mind so that we can experience these things. If something is happening in your life that is causing you emotional turmoil, you can get into the state of pratyahara and discover what it is. You can go even further into meditation practices if you have that ability - to dharana and dhyana. Then you just practise chidakasha dharana and ask the mind, "What is causing this? Tell me why I behaved like that?" Quite frequently the experience at the bottom of it will come up to the surface and you can deal with it.
You can also put positive affirmations into the mind when you are in the state of pratyahara. This is the role of the sankalpa we use in yoga nidra Many people don't really know how to design their sankalpa. It should be positive and in the present continuous tense, such as, "I am becoming more and more confident, more and more able to deal with other people with love and compassion," etc. You should never say things like, "I will stop being a rotten swine", because the unconscious mind hears the words rotten swine', instead of the word 'stop', and it has a negative effect Always make the sankalpa positive.