It is the aim of every living being to live in peace and harmony, without being thrown out of balance by the ups and downs of life. From a yogic perspective this means to live life fully, to flow with life and to accept whatever life brings, rather than fighting against life and the circumstances we live in. Yoga, as an age-old system, is a very practical science of living which teaches us the tools for a balanced, harmonious life. In fact, yoga has always been a practical science. It is a system which explains the functioning of the human mind and the various levels of consciousness with the aim of unfolding the dormant potential in everyone. It offers practical ways of mastering the mind and evolving the consciousness from the gross to the subtle (or superconsciousness).
Yoga psychology is the oldest and broadest body of knowledge about human psychology. It is as valid today as it was 5,000 years ago, encompassing self-management as well as the management of relationships, and dealing with all issues of life so one may live harmoniously. How can we manage ourselves? How can we overcome conflict, and have peaceful and co-operative relationships with others? How can yoga help? Before trying to answer these questions, let us first examine the yogic understanding of human nature.
According to Swami Satyananda, the true nature of every human being is love and joy (ananda). Happiness is to be found inside. Love knows no boundaries. A child expresses love and feelings freely, uncensored. A child expresses the personality in a natural way.
The developmental model proposes that due to pain and suffering, however, contraction arises and a protective wall is built against further suffering. Every person experiences suffering pain is inevitable in life. But if the share of suffering exceeds the tolerable limit, the protective shield becomes impenetrable. The individual forgets about his/her true nature and feels an emptiness inside. Then people begin to search for happiness outside in people, drugs, media, consumerism, power, money to discover that this happiness is only short-lived. The thirst for happiness and love cannot be stilled outside, and an ever-progressing cycle of addictive behaviour is set in motion in the quest for happiness and peace. As Swami Niranjanananda said during the Sannyasa Festival in 2001, Because there is no peace, no harmony, no stability inside, we search outside. We are afraid to stay at home.
Regular practice of yoga over an extended period of time can interrupt this vicious cycle of increasing alienation. Yoga can help us to get in touch with our inner core. For example, the physical postures (asanas) harmonize the body and balance the nervous system. The breathing practices (pranayama) calm and balance body and mind. The relaxation practices (yoga nidra) release tensions at various levels of the body and mind and lead to an inner sense of harmony.
Other practices to open the protective shield that hides our true nature are: selfless service (karma yoga), truthful self enquiry (swadhyaya), seeking the company of the wise or reading inspiring books (satsang), doing good and developing compassion (seva), chanting sacred sounds (mantra), singing devotional songs (kirtan) and having an intensity of purpose (sankalpa).
It is interesting to note that some schools of modern psychology have a worldview and a view of personality development quite compatible with the yogic perspective. This is demonstrated below with the model of Transactional Analysis (Born to Win, M. James & D. Jongeward. Reading: Addison Wesley, 1971).
To become master of oneself in the sense of disciplining the mind including ones thoughts, actions and speech is an ideal aspired for by schools of philosophy and spiritual traditions alike. As the saying goes: The journey across the world starts with one step. So the first step is to practise mastery of oneself in daily life. This can be a complete practice in itself and lead to perfection.
Self-management relates to the ability to deal with ones emotions, to cope with conflict, pain (physical/psychological), illness, losses/separations, to manage ones needs, desires, ambitions, to fully do ones allotted duties with a stable mind and a strong and healthy body.
Awareness is a key principle underlying all yogic practices and the key to unlocking the door to our true nature. Awareness is also the foundation for managing ones emotions and relationships, for achieving excellence in ones work and activities, and for acceptance of oneself for any skilful action, for that matter. The practice of awareness during the day is an important practice in itself (and an essential part of karma yoga). You may find that practising awareness during the day has multiple benefits, such as: heightened concentration, a relaxed and focused mind, gaining control over ones actions, changing from being driven to setting ones own pace and choosing the most appropriate action.
Take time out at regular intervals or whenever certain signals occur (when the telephone rings, before meals, walking up the stairs, washing your hands, looking at your watch, or whenever you remember).
Watch what is. Witnessing the breath and breathing rhythm, the surroundings (sounds, colours, smells), witnessing ones thoughts and feelings and becoming aware of how you automatically slow down by being aware.
To be able to handle ones emotions is the foundation of inner and outer harmony. Witnessing emotions as they arise, and embracing the emotions with awareness and an attitude of acceptance and kindness, will help to transform unwholesome emotions (e.g. outbursts of anger) into wholesome emotions (e.g. compassion).
If anger arises, witness the fact that anger has arisen and embrace your anger like a loving mother embraces her little child. If you feel depressed, notice that there is depression and witness the feelings with compassion and understanding. It is very important not to criticize, blame or condemn yourself for unwanted feelings, but rather to witness the emotions arising with compassion and understanding.
Remember that feelings, emotions and thoughts for that matter usually come without being asked for. Often, they take us by surprise. With regular practise of awareness, it will become easier to remain stable in any situation that arises and to regain clarity of mind. This gives you the freedom to act as you wish and not as you feel compelled to by your emotions and compulsive thoughts.
It is important to distinguish between being caught up in a feeling and becoming aware that you are being swept away by it. One key is to bring Head, Heart and Hands into harmony. As Swami Niranjanananda puts it: Emotional management means bringing intelligence (head) into the expression (hands) of emotions (heart).
Emotional intelligence, the concept made popular by Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence, New York: Bantam Books, 1995), encompasses the skills of: knowing ones emotions (self-awareness) in contrast to suppression or repression of emotions, managing ones emotions (emotional skills), recognizing emotions in others, and handling relationships (social skills).
As beginners in yoga, we often only realize what happened (witness) after we have shattered the porcelain when things have got out of hand. This gives you the opportunity to practise patience with yourself. Be kind to yourself and give yourself the same chance that a child is given when learning to walk. The child that is learning to keep balance while walking on two feet will stumble and fall many times and we would not chastise the child for every fall.
The only cure for the wounds of the past is the attitude of acceptance and kindness. Suppression, on the other hand, or fighting against the emotions makes sure that they will express themselves at a later time with additional force.
Swami Satyananda has said, Deep inside each of us is a little child sitting in a corner and crying. And no one is there to take care of it. I am the child who suffers and I am the one who takes care of that little child. In addition to kindness and understanding, the fearless attitude of a hero (Swami Satyananda) is required in order to become master of ones emotions. C.G. Jung said, A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has not overcome them.
There is a close connection between breathing patterns and emotions. With some experience in breathing techniques we can influence our emotions in a positive way. For example, in situations of high stress or when fear or anger is aroused (in situations of high emotional arousal) the practice of slow deep breathing (diaphragmatic/abdominal breathing) or breath awareness, particularly alternate nostril breathing (anuloma viloma or nadi shodhana), are very effective in calming down and re-establishing ones balance and clarity of mind in short periods of time.
In addition to regular yoga practice at home, breathing practices can be incorporated into daily life. An example may illustrate this point. A lawyer with very long working hours and two small children to look after, when arriving home, uses the daily subway ride to work to practise yogic breathing techniques (pranayama). He practises the baby-snoring breath (ujjayi pranayama) while gazing into space and alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana pranayama) while hiding his face behind a newspaper.
In addition to abdominal breathing, the practice of alternate nostril breathing (anuloma viloma) has proved to be very effective in re-establishing calmness in a short period of time in any number of psychotherapy sessions and workshops on conflict management (including mobbing), stress management and self-management by the author.
The benefits common to all yogic breathing techniques are the following. They allow one to: slow down; take time out to interrupt conditioned reaction patterns and block the impulse to react; establish full awareness of ones own mental state, ones emotions, the situation, and the needs of others; take self-responsibility for selecting the most appropriate response.
A frequent source of conflict, stress and even illness has its root in our lack of true understanding of situations and of people (avidya) and above all of ourselves. In the course of development we have become self-centred (egocentric), seeing the world only from our perspective (the so-called tunnel vision). When our needs are frustrated, we take personal offence and interpret this as lack of love. We feel hurt and in turn withdraw, sulk and become depressed or we react with anger, criticize, attack and shoot poisonous arrows. Conflict follows and since the other party also feels aggrieved and misunderstood, an escalation of the conflict and verbal or physical abuse and violence may ensue. Management of oneself is the basis of good relationships. Only if I am completely with myself can I be completely there for others. The greatest gift of Love is to give your full presence, says Thich Nhat Hanh.
As I meet myself so I meet others, as I see myself so I see others. If I am very critical of myself, I tend to find fault with others. First there must be love for ourselves, then love can be expressed outside. First there must be the fostering and developing of our own inner goodness and then expressing that goodness in society.
This can be a practice for a group, in which case let the participants form pairs. It is also a very beneficial practice with your next of kin, and can heal many wounds.
The rules of the game are:
To handle relationships well, it is important to learn to deal with conflicts. Conflict is a part of life and as inevitable as change. Conflict indicates that there are different perspectives, that there are a variety of interests and that something may need to be changed or given up altogether. Conflict is a chance to re-examine oneself, to re-examine the situation and to practise putting oneself in the shoes of the other person.
One way of dealing with conflict is learning some of the principles of fair fighting, summarized below:
Stating ones point of view.
Considerate non-harmful speech (ahimsa): learn to speak truthfully and honestly when it is appropriate, otherwise be still.
Skill of active listening, which implies trying to understand the message behind the words.
Gaining control over ones speech is one of the hardest practices and it is the most essential for harmony in relationships. Wisdom and discrimination (viveka) are required to know: what to say, when, to whom, in what tone of voice, and with what expression of emotion.
Living in harmony with oneself and ones inner nature, and with others, are high goals as well as the secret wishes of most people. Yoga provides a system of practices that help approach that goal. Yoga can help develop the inherent goodness in people which can then be expressed externally. If we achieve that, we will undoubtedly contribute to a better world and live happier lives.
Love and laughter, compassion and a sense of humour are important ingredients in the delicious meal of a happy life. This is the greatest of all yogas. As Swami Niranjanananda puts it: Learn to love, learn to laugh, learn to live . . . We are all cosmic jokes. We do not recognize that we are cosmic jokes until we realize that we are all sacred human beings.