Yoga and Psyche: The Birth of a Field

09/22/2014 08:21 am ET Updated Nov 22, 2014

"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there," wrote Rumi. In April, 2014, a group of 200 yoga teachers, practitioners, psychologists, neuroscientists, and trauma researchers representing over a dozen countries, gathered together in San Francisco for The Yoga & Psyche Conference - the first academic conference in the Western world on the integration of yoga and Western psychology. From this gathering were sown the seeds of a field of integration that has already begun to emerge, but that is gaining increasing momentum, and invites all those who love, teach, and practice these two great traditions to participate in bringing forth.

In this field, the vast and ancient philosophy, science, and practice of yoga lies intermingled with the relatively new field of Western psychology, and the important innovations of somatics and neuroscience. When these two bedmates bring together each of their gifts, a new creation is born that is greater than either alone, and brings new evolutionary possibilities with it. Yoga needs psychology as much as psychology needs yoga.

Psychology is a field in the making. Whereas yoga has been developing philosophies and methods to address the great questions facing humanity for somewhere between 2,000 - 5,000 years, Western psychology is about 135 years old. Globalization, the increasing interest in Eastern traditions such as yoga and massive amounts of evidence-based research that is being published, and significant developments in neuroscience, trauma research, and somatic psychology, have opened up the doors for a synthesis of Eastern and Western approaches to well-being. Research indicates yoga as an important complementary treatment for many psychological disorders, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, stress, dissociation, attention deficit disorder, eating disorders, and trauma among others, as well as promoting psychological and overall health and thriving.

For many people, even years of deep studies and practice of yoga and other spiritual traditions does not fully penetrate the crevices of their own deep psyche without the support of Western psychology, and somatic psychology in particular. There are images, feelings, and contractions within the psyche that neither yoga nor psychology alone can release. The support of yoga, including its vast variety of meditative practices, combined with the emerging research and innovations in psychology, creates a seamless weave of support and knowledge that can be drawn upon to support human beings through almost any challenge or process of development.

As a psychologist who specializes in working with spiritual teachers, long-term practitioners, and consulting and mediating in spiritual scandals, I have come to believe that it is almost necessary for every teacher of yoga or any other spiritual tradition, to undergo a course of deep psychological inquiry under the guidance of an experienced psychotherapist or therapeutic school. Among the hundreds of yoga teachers, and thousands of yoga students I have spoken with, I have not encountered anybody who does not struggle psychologically. Nobody escapes being human. When people are in functions of spiritual leadership, the importance for psychological inquiry increases, and the stronger the position of spiritual leadership, the greater the importance for psychological work, as the psychological blind spots of teachers always impact students.

The extraordinary thing is that when we do bring together the brilliance of the two streams of knowledge and practices of yoga and psychology, the potentials are endless. Because the knowledge is awakened within one's own body, deep psyche, and spirit, there is no end to the possibilities for one's growth and deepening. Together these two disciplines form a seamless weave of knowledge and practices that are applicable on a minute-to-minute basis, whether in the yoga studio, therapy room, or practiced during the rush of the activities of life.

As we move toward developing this integration between traditions, I have a vision of fewer spiritual scandals, deeply knowledgeable and educated yoga teachers who are psychologically educated and savvy, psychologists, psychotherapists who appreciate the importance of including the body in therapy and can integrate the insights and practices of yoga into their practice, and highly informed and prepared consumers of spiritual and psychological traditions.

It is exciting to live in a globalized society, even as it is demanding. We have at our fingertips access to much of the knowledge that has ever been available on these subjects, both in distant past and immediate present. Yoga and psychology are tremendous complements to each other. If we consider how far psychology has come in the century and a quarter since Freud's pioneering work came into the world, we can only dream about how far it can go in the next century and into the future. We can stay true to deep science and evidence-based research, while partaking of the world's great wisdom traditions, and discover new possibilities not only to heal but also to thrive.

Adapted from Common Ground Magazine, Spring, 2014. I will be offering a Yoga & Psyche retreat at what I believe to be the most beautiful retreat center in the United States, Esalen Institute, in Big Sur, CA on October 3-5. Details are on my website.