How could yoga enrich the field of positive psychology? Making a case for an integration of spiritual aspects.
Since the early days ofWestern psychology, at the beginning of the 20th century, the science of the soul has been drawn to Eastern traditions (Feuerstein, 2013). Carl Jung, who himself practiced Kundalini Yoga—an occult form ofHindu Tantra—believed “the wisdom and mysticism of the East, have, (...) very much to say to us.” (Jung, 1978, p. 185 as cited in Feuerstein, 2013). Since then, interest in Eastern traditions, especially in yoga, have increased exponentially. Today, over 37 million people practice yoga in the US (Yoga Journal & Yoga Alliance, 2016) and 0.5 million in the UK alone (Hasselle-Newcombe, 2005)—to cultivate aspects of physiological and psychological wellbeing (Singleton, 2010). Within psychology, interest in wellbeing concepts marked the beginnings of positive psychology. The “science and practice of improving wellbeing” (Lomas, Hefferon, & Ivtzan, 2015, p. 1347) has started to investigate the benefits of yoga. This essay explores how yoga could enrich the field of positive psychology, while making a case for a consideration of spiritual aspects in the research.
I will therefore briefly define positive psychology and yoga in the context of this essay and look at their shared aims. The essay will critically discuss recent studies on yoga within psychology, touching on general findings, then investigating further into the distinct benefits of yoga related to positive psychology. I will discuss the continued need for further research to recognise untapped opportunities within the yogic tradition—beyond the benefits of physical postures (asana). I will suggest that spiritual development might indeed be sparked through the present approach to yoga in the west. This tradition however, has more to offer positive psychology, specifically by deepening our understanding of the concept of wellbeing, including the areas of spirituality, meaning, and self-transcendence.
Looking at the definitions and aims of positive psychology and yoga—we see clear, complementary areas of alignment. Positive psychology in the broader sense concerns itself with life’s fundamental questions: what makes a life worth living and how can we improve life for all people? (Wong, 2011b). These questions are not new to yoga philosophy (Feuerstein, 2013). Dating back to ancient times, perhaps as early as 5,000 to 8,000 years ago, yoga combines spiritual values, attitudes, precepts, and techniques (Feuerstein, 2001). It is also the overarching name for a large number oflndian branches of ecstatic self-transcendence (Feuerstein, 2013). Of these different paths, six are especially prominent: Raja, Hatha, Jnana, Bhakti, Karma, and Mantra Yoga. Further relevant forms include Kundalini and Laya Yoga, both associated with Hatha and sometimes subsumed under Tantra-Yoga. These approaches differ in some of their underlying philosophies and practical implications. Some traditions prioritise meditation as a means of self-transcendence (Raja), others are dedicated to devotion and prayer (Bhakti) or simply selfless service (Karma) (Feuerstein, 2001). At their core all seek to increase wellbeing through spirituality and by reaching higher states of consciousness.
Yoga and positive psychology share this strong interest in increased wellbeing. Within positive psychology, this encompasses optimal functioning, self-actualisation, and flourishing, referring to the condition of our existence we wish to experience and the aim of our quest (Ivtzan, Chan, Gardner, & Prashar, 2013; Wong, 2011).In yoga, the idea of cultivating overall psychological wellbeing (Singleton, 2010) is very much in line with the notion of positive psychology 2.0, which vouches for an approach that welcomes all emotions (Wong, 2011).
Yoga invites us to embrace all challenges that come with spiritual development. It can be assumed that wellbeing is a by-product of the ultimate state of samadhi (self-transcendence) and the connected concept of moksha (liberation) (Feuerstein, 2013). These states are pursued through a variety of elements, most prominently the eight-folded path suggested by the sage Patanjali in the early post-Christian era, which includesya^a (ethics when interacting with others); niyama (ethics towards one self), asanas (postures or poses'), pranayama (breath regulation"), pratyahara (detachment from senses), dharana (focused attention), and dhyanna (meditation) (Bhavanani, 2011; Iyengar, 2015; Stone, 2009). It is argued that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras can be considered “practical instructions for attaining certain psychological states" (Ospina et al., 2007, p. 38). Many of these concepts—characterised by self-control, selfdiscipline, and self-awareness, can be seen as related to research areas of positive psychology (Ivtzan & Papantoniou, 2014). At the same time yoga offers maps of consciousness far beyond where most psychology ends, adding enormous depth and valuable tools to be explored (Caplan, 2018).
Patanjali’s Raja Yoga is one of the most popular forms of yoga in the West, along with Hatha. Hatha however, based on tantric philosophy, doesn’t require a life of renunciation. It encourages us to live life fully out of self-realisation, instead of withdrawing from the world for the sake of enlightenment (Feuerstein, 2013). It is therefore in line with positive psychology’s concept of the ‘full life’ (Mongrain, Mongrain, & Anselmo-Matthews, 2014; Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005) and its understanding of wellbeing. Walsh (2001) saw the emergence of positive psychology as a chance to finally incorporate the exceptional insights on psychological health and transpersonal development ofEastern approaches. However, the West interprets yoga primarily as a form of ‘mind-body exercise’(Woodyard, 2011) or even sport (Hasselle- Newcombe, 2005) and is focusing on asana practice (Singleton, 2010).This is a rather recent development as asana were embedded within a spiritual system, playing only a minor role—if at all. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras for example, asana are mentioned in only three of a total of 196 stanza (Desikachar, Bragdon, & Bossart, 2005). Others however believe the Western approach can still bring benefits beyond those found in other physical activities (Gannon & Life, 2011; Ivtzan & Papantoniou, 2014). While overall, it can be said that positive psychology and yoga share similar aims in increasing wellbeing, awareness for the discrepancy between the current understanding of yoga in the West and its original roots is essential for the following critical analysis of the current state of research.
So far, the research has primarily been deficit-oriented—focusing on the therapeutic effects of yoga. Within that, yoga has been successfully employed in the context of trauma— significantly reducing symptomatology of post-traumatic stress disorders (Rhodes, Spinazzola, & van der Kolk, 2016; Van Der Kolk et al., 2014). At large, the body of literature on the pathological side has shown convincing benefits for depression, anxiety, stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other psychological problems (for reviews, see Balasubramaniam, Telles, & Doraiswamy, 2013; Field, 2011; Kuntsevich, Bushell, & Theise, 2010; Li & Goldsmith, 2012). Yet the research on yoga’s spiritual side as well as its benefits on wellbeing, including life satisfaction and happiness (Woodyard, 2011), seem to be rather sparse. This is not surprising given the fact that positive psychology was born as a countermovement to a ‘bias towards the negative’, which Seligman (1998) amongst others saw in classic psychology. Now, yoga researchers too have begun venturing into the positive side of the spectrum.
Throughout these studies, we can see effects on two essential types of wellbeing: hedonia— based on SWB (Subjective Wellbeing) and characterized by satisfaction in life plus high positive and low negative affect—and eudaimonia, concerned with purpose in life and meaning (Straume & Vitterso, 2012). Improvements in hedonic wellbeing in the form of increased SWB have been found in a number of studies, using a variety of approaches. These reach from ten-day interventions—combining various yoga elements (Sharma, Gupta, & Bijlani, 2008) to two- months Anusara Yoga immersion programs (a form ofHatha Yoga) (Jadhav & Havalappanavar, 2009). Results included decreased negative affect and increased body awareness, positive affect, and satisfaction with life (Impett, Daubenmier, & Hirschman, 2006). Ghoncheh and Smith’s (2004) study which focused on relaxation techniques and stretching though yoga, witnessed improved levels ofjoy and energy in yoga students. Existent relationships between yoga and SWB have been found across different populations (Brazier, Mulkins, & Verhoef, 2006; Gard, Noggle, Park, Vago, & Wilson, 2014). However, the differences of the yoga programs, their limitation to a primarily physical practice, and lack of detail in their description, cumber a clear comparison between the different studies on yoga’s effect on hedonic wellbeing.
Studies focusing on the effects of yoga on eudaimonic wellbeing are even harder to find. This might surprise those familiar with yoga, as it strongly emphasises eudaimonic concepts such as virtue, meaning, and purpose (Feuerstein, 2013). Furthermore, some articles that were mentioned in other papers could not be found at all. Howe (2007) for example, cited in Ivtzan and Papantoniou (2014) as well as Ahmadi, Ahmadi and Kheirandish (2016) as having examined the relationship between meaning in life and yoga practice, finding them to be positively correlated. Yet, they were not listed in the references and were not listed in other searched databases. Their reported findings are supposedly in agreement with those oflvtzan and Papantoniou (2014). The latter is of special interest, as it examined the positive influence on both hedonic wellbeing in the form of gratitude and eudaimonic wellbeing in the form of meaning. Even more interesting is their consideration of the factor of intention and its influence on wellbeing: a higher initial interest in the spiritual side of yoga led to significantly higher wellbeing over time, compared to students who took up yoga for purely physical reasons. At the same time, more yoga practice experience increased students’ interest in spirituality. While this indicates positive effects of ‘modern yoga’ (in various forms), beyond those of physical exercise, Ivtzan and Papantoniou (2014) also argue that an increased emphasis on the spiritual side of yoga could leverage wellbeing results and should therefore be an integral part of Western yoga. While more work in this area is needed to understand yoga’s effects on eudaimonic wellbeing, as well as the influence of spirituality and meaning as potential mediators—the general research so far suggests a close interaction between them.
In light of the above findings, it’s clear that a significant number ofbenefits can be gained by practising yoga as physical exercise—this is not surprising as the positive impacts of physical exercise on mental health and wellbeing have been previously observed (Hefferon, 2013; Hefferon & Mutrie, 2012; Penedo & Dahn, 2005). The underlying mechanisms of these effects are however only marginally understood (Hefferon, 2013). Yet, as we have seen some studies suggest that the Western approach to yoga can go beyond the benefits of a purely physical practice (Gannon & Life, 2011; Ivtzan & Papantoniou, 2014). The reasons for this have been investigated even less. While they might be mediated by mindfulness and self-compassion (Baer, Lykins, & Peters, 2012)—both have been studied in the context of positive psychology (Ivtzan & Lomas, 2016; Neff, 2003), Gard et al. (2014) suggest higher self-regulation as a potential mediator. The increased interest in spiritual development over time (Ivtzan & Papantoniou, 2014) points us towards further mediators. I therefore believe spirituality, meaning, and selftranscendence are worth studying and could be incorporated further into positive psychology and its research into yoga. After all, if we consider all that we know about yoga and its different paths, we are led back to its spiritual core. The following section offers some insight on the relationships that could be observed so far.