Yoga and western thought
by Emilio Servadio
In our convulsed century, says this author-psychoanalyst, modern parapsychology and ancient Yoga might join to expand human self-knowledge.
To an increasing number of people in the West-scholars as well as laymen-Yoga has long ceased to appear as a mysterious Hindu admixture of ascetic beliefs and magic procedures. The philosophy and practice of Yoga have been expounded in many learned treatises and well-informed books. Some of the physiological phenomena and bodily changes induced by Yogic exercises have been investigated by laboratory techniques. Psychologists and psychoanalysts have studied Yogic methods from the view-point of modern conceptions of mental structure. It can be safely said that Western thought has clarified several Eastern contentions on the subject of Yoga-and, conversely, that up-to-date science, especially in the fields of dynamic psychology and psychosomatics, has found much justification and support in this age-old Eastern system of personality-development.
We propose here to leave aside the purely metaphysical aspects of Yoga, and the problem of the ultimate union (“Yoga” actually means “union”) of the individual with the infinite-in which consists its supreme purpose and aim. Yoga, besides being a philosophy, is a discipline of physiological and mental self-control. It can, therefore, be evaluated within these limits, even though it would be quite incorrect to view it simply as a method of gymnastics, or as a mind-improving technique.
In order to approach the subject correctly, we should remember first of all that the main idea underlying Yoga procedures is a non-materialistic conception of the human “self,” and of mind-body relations. Ultimately, according to Yoga, man is made of an essence which cannot be reduced to matter. Man’s actual life takes place at different psycho-physiological levels of being-from the highest mental to the humblest physical. With these levels, however, man should not be identified, or identify himself. As all these levels are, after all, purely phenomenical, their hierarchy and connections can be altered through appropriate techniques. This means that from the Yogic viewpoint, the possibility of extending the midlevel, and its possibilities of control, over this or that bodily function, is a fact, and has, as such, nothing “miraculous,” although it may appear as a miracle to an unprepared onlooker, be he layman or scientist. We might say in this respect, that Yoga has anticipated Western conceptions of psychosomatic influence by more than 2,000 years.
This does not mean that the Yogic approach to mind-body relations and problems should be a “take it or leave it” proposition. Students of Yoga can very well apply their conceptions, and show us their results, without trying to justify the former or the latter in Western terms. Nevertheless, a few of them have painstakingly tried to prove that Western psychological and physiological conceptions can be utilized to explain Yogic views and achievements in terms which make sense to a modern scientific mind, and that those conceptions can, in turn, be applied with the purpose of making the work of Yoga students clearer to us and to themselves.
A fine example of such attempts was offered several years ago by a Hindu physician, Dr. Vasant G. Rele-himself a successful practitioner of Yoga. Dr. Rele tried to show that the conceptions and techniques of Kundalini-Yoga (by which, according to very old Tantric schools, it would be possible to reach full control of one’s physiological and psychological processes, and to acquire “supernormal” powers) could be interpreted in terms of physiological descriptions of neuro-vegetative functions (the autonomous nervous system), and of methods of controlling the activity of the vagus (pneumo-gastric) nerve.
Another Hindu scholar, Dr. Kovoor T. Behanan, who studied Yoga in India before obtaining a Ph.D. degree in psychology at Yale University, tested his own possibilities of Yoga concentration, and control of the mind over the body, in the Yale laboratories, with very encouraging results. Among Western students, we may quote Dr. Thérse Brosse, of Paris, who applied physiological tests to Yoga practitioners in India, and was able to verify the bodily changes they obtained as a consequence of their Yogic exercises.
Another French scholar, Mrs. Maryse Choisy, tested the Swami Satchitananda with electro-cardio-grams. These showed striking differences in relation to diverse physiological conditions (such as voluntary suspension of breathing) or mental states (such as deep Godloving ecstasies). Dr. Frederick Spiegelberg, of Stanford University, applied the Rorschach Test to Swami Sivananda Sarasvati, and was deeply struck by the results, which revealed an exceptionally vigorous, harmonious and highly creative personality.
Slow, Painful Sfeps Western science, in its present study of human personality, is proceeding by slow, minute, and at times quite painful steps, towards some psycho-physiological conceptions and methods of integration which the Yogic masters have envisaged and adopted for centuries and ages. This, however, should not imply any form of disdain or condemnation of Western methods. We cannot contravene our own basic, experimental inductive line of approach in all the realms of what can be humanly known-a line which is our fundamental law or dharma (as the Hindus would call it), and towards which they show plenty of comprehension and respect.
Some of our achievements have a much deeper value insofar as they have been reached through a prolonged and trying work, which has nothing in common with the easy-going ways of some semi-cultivated Western people who claim allegiance to Eastern views-an allegiance which is both unbounded and uncritical. Any Yogic sage would surely have more respect for a competent Western doctor or psychologist, than for many a European or American fan who professes to be an enthusiastic “admirer” or “follower” of Yoga.
Western Research Can Help
Western sciences which ought to keep in closer touch with Yoga are dynamic psychology (comprising psychoanalysis, psycho-physiology and psychosomatic medicine) and-second, but of equal importance-parapsychology. All these Western lines of thought and experimental research can enrich Yoga concepts and benefit from the study of Yoga outlooks and methods.
The whole frame of reference of dynamic psychology has brought in recent years considerable changes in our conceptions of human personality. First of all, there comes its basic contention that the unconscious, in its various degrees or shades, is the determining feature of mental life. Freudian psychoanalysis was able at first to demonstrate the unconscious origin of many mental ailments, character-features and personality-prob lems. A further step was made when it was shown that normal psychological phenomena-such as dreams-also reflected a vast unconscious mental activity.
Far-seeing psychoanalysts anticipated the idea, which is now the basic tenet of psychosomatic medicine, that unconscious drives and conflicts could have a determining influence on bodily processes, to the point of provoking actual organic diseases. Having pointed out the uncontrolled and determining operations of the unconscious, dynamic psychology has also presented humanity with refined techniques, by which it is now possible to intervene in our inner workshop, to know more about its mechanisms, and to change them for the better.
In psychological terms, we may say that the aim of modern psychoanalysis and analytically-inspired psychotherapies is integration of the total personality, i.e., the best possible coordination and harmony of its various functions and levels, involving many psychophysiological relations. Keeping these concepts in mind, and turning again our attention to Yoga, we find that according to the Yoga-Sutram of Patanjali (the highest authority on Yoga), the mind-stuff (citta) is per se unconscious; that all the zones of the unconscious can theoretically be brought under the light of consciousness; and that domination of the unconscious is Yoga’s primary aim.
Dr. Behanan writes that the practice of Yoga “is a long-range plan to get at the unconscious by various methods.” Just as psychoanalysis has evolved from an individualized psycho-therapeutic method into a powerful means by which humanity at large can study and perfect itself, Yoga has been said to be a “cosmic therapeutics,” offering man the possibility of knowing and controlling -to extents which Western science has just started to admit-his own unconscious, and to reach higher levels of existence even without the help of a particular philosophical or religious creed.
With his usual clarity, and ability to grasp distant relations between concepts, Sigmund Freud wrote about twenty-five years ago the following memorable lines:
“One can very well conceive that by certain mystical practices one can succeed in thoroughly modifying the normal connections between the different psychological territories, in such a way, for instance, that perception could be extended to the deep processes of the Ego, or even to those of the Id, which otherwise remain outside its realm. That following those paths one can apprehend the last wisdom and reach the supreme salvation, is open to doubt. But we must admit that the therapeutic efforts of psychoanalysis have chosen a similar angle of attack.”
Yoga and Parapsychology
We may now turn to the mutual relations of Yoga and parapsychology. For a certain time, it was thought that the Western approach to “psychic” occurrences was well-nigh antithetical to Eastern conceptions, such as Yoga, because our attention was too much focussed on the “phenomena,” and on their spectacular strangenessa fact which brought many people to stress, the importance of the phenomena as such, and to entertain vague and enthusiastic ideas about their supernatural origin. All this was and certainly is alien to Yogic teachings, which have always contended that the “powers” acquired and manifested through Yogic training should not be sought for their own sake, and that they are simply accessories-seldom utilized and ultimately unimportant-of what really matters, i.e., self-realization and final perfection.
Nevertheless, the trend of parapsychology has very much changed in recent times. In my opinion, only superficial people could turn nowadays to parapsychology with the hope of seeing or becoming able to perform “wonders,” or, in general, of appeasing emotional needs. The importance of parapsychology lies mainly in the well founded expectation that it will considerably enrich, even beyond the sign-posts which dynamic psychology has so much displaced, our vistas and conceptions about human personality.
To any serious student of parapsychology, the most well-tested telepathic occurrence, or the most satisfactory series of experiments in extra-sensory perception and psycho-kinesis, can hardly arouse “enthusiasm,” until further phenomena or experiences are taking place. If we had, by now, a satisfactory understanding of the subtle laws which preside at any given ESP occurrence, and if we were in a position to evaluate them with the same amount of exactitude with which we evaluate personality factors in a mental test or a psychoanalytic treatment, ESP itself would have become a psychological factor, and would no longer appear in any way “paranormal” or “supernormal” to our eyes.
This view of parapsychological search has much in common with Yoga, because it implies a certain devaluation of the “phenomenon” as such, and the idea that what ultimately counts is not the phenomenon, but the fact that it opens for us one more possibility of exploring the human mind. In turn, this should make us more and more aware of what happens in our own house, and allow further integration of ourselves within our-selves, as well as with our neighbors.
From a more practical viewpoint, we may expect great results from a cooperation which ought to be twofold. Just as they have agreed to submit themselves to Western mental and physiological tests, Yoga practitioners may agree to be tested by parapsychologists with up-to-date laboratory methods or other tools of parapsychological investigation.
Conversely, Western students of parapsychology should carefully scrutinize Yogic techniques of bodily relaxation, breathing, mental control, etc., with a view to evaluating their importance and characteristics as possible premises of ESP or other “psi” occurrences.
It is not a bold prophecy to state that this mutual aid in a search, which is of paramount significance in our convulsed age, might bring about a tremendous advance of psychological sciences, an invaluable improvement of human self-knowledge, and very great progress in man’s relation to man.