The Deep Psychology of Yoga

When the word Yoga is mentioned, people mostly think of physical practices for stretching and stress reduction. This is one aspect of the Yogic science, but actually very small one and relatively recent in development. The physical Yoga was primarily designed to facilitate the real practice of Yoga- the understanding and complete mastery over the mind. The omnipresence of yoga classes alongside the contemporary body cults at sports and fitness centers makes it easy to forget that yoga in an ancient spiritual, sacred discipline.

With the current growing interest in mental science and expanding consciousness, it is natural that we turn to the ancient science of Yoga. For centuries, the Yogis have probed the mysteries of the mind and consciousness and we may well discover that some of their findings are applicable to our own search as well. Western psychology talks about the mind, saying: “Unless you understand by your mind, you can’t know something.” At the same time it says, “But you cannot know everything by the mind.” Yoga tells us that we can know something without the mind. To gain some knowledge, we need to transcend the mind; for that, the mind must be silent. As Satchidanda states in his version of Yogasutras, “Unmanifested supreme principle can only be explained by silence, not by words. In not only the physical silence, but in the real mental silence the wisdom dawns”.[i] The Self cannot be known by theory alone. This is where Yoga differs from the most other psychological approaches.

The emergence of depth psychology was historically paralleled by the translation and widespread dissemination of the texts of yoga. Newly arrived gurus and yogis vied with psychotherapists over a similar clientele who sought other counsel than was provided by Western philosophy, religion and medicine. The advent of the new depth psychologies heralded a better, possible comparison of the Eastern and Western thought. The depth psychologies sought to develop maps of inner experience grounded in the transformative potential of therapeutic practices. A similar theory and practice seemed to be embodied in the yogic texts and moreover had developed independently of the binding of Western thought.

C.G. Jung, who valued yoga for its evidence-based experiential approach perceived some important parallels with psychoanalysis. He contrasted psychoanalysis, as depicted in the work of Freud and Jung, with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, delivering multiple lectures over the course of several years focusing on a psychological interpretation of Kundalini Yoga. He asserted that as yoga, being the oldest practical philosophy of India, is the mother of psychology and philosophy (which are one and the same thing in India) and therefore the foundation of everything spiritual.[ii]

Yoga, meaning union in Sanskrit, seeks to create awakening through somatic experience, cultivating states that connect us more wholly with something larger than our ego selves—the ground of being, the web of life, or what Jung termed the “Self”—effecting a transmutation of consciousness that stems from attention to inner experience. The experiential, embodied practice puts us in touch with our physical being and grounds us more fully in the earth, anchoring us to something immutable, even as our breath and movement serve to make us more consciously aware and to shift inherent patterns and blocks we may be experiencing.



While yoga serves to balance and unite opposing forces to create a harmonious being, Jung went as far as to describe the intersection between depth psychology and yoga as the capacity for liberation, for each to lead to a “detachment of consciousness…a freeing from the passions and from the entanglement with the realm of objects…a psychical experience, which in practice is expressed as a feeling of deliverance.”[iii]

The detachment, vairagya, literally means “colorless”. Vi is “without”, raga is “color”; every desire brings its color to the mind. Satchidanda, in his version of Yoga Sutras, explains that the moment we color our minds, a ripple is formed- just as when a stone is thrown into a calm lake, it creates waves in the water. When the mind is tossed by these desires one after the other, there won’t be peace or rest in the mind.[iv] Once the mind ceases to exist and becomes pure, a steady happiness can be achieved. If non-attachment comes even once, even for a second, a true joy can be experienced automatically. Following these teachings, yogis learn to achieve the experience of non-attachment first and then enjoy all the things around. This is the secret of success in life.

Practitioners have long reported the capacity for yoga to evoke the numinous, a term Jung borrowed from psychologist Rudolf Otto to describe something beyond the ordinary, inexpressible or mysterious—something spiritual or sacred that carries us past the ego experience of the everyday self and reveals our divine belonging, our wholeness in potential. Indeed, yoga has been known to lead to the awakening of Kundalini, a force described as primordial energy, Shakti or universal power, which can be constellated a combination of ritual spiritual and somatic practices. When its ascent culminates in topmost chakra in a “blissful union of Shiva and Shakti,” it leads to a “far-reaching transformation of the personality.”[v]



Jung believed that yoga originated as a “natural process of introversion,” and that such introversions characteristically lead to personality changes. The Kundalini is the anima, or soul. “From the standpoint of the gods, this world is less than child’s play; it is a seed in the earth, a mere potentiality,” he wrote. “Our whole world of consciousness is only a seed of the future. And when you succeed in the awakening of Kundalini, so that she beings to move out of her mere potentiality, you necessarily start a world which is a world of eternity, totally different from our world”.[vi]

Yoga, like many eastern or mystical spiritual traditions, is rooted in the idea of non-duality; that is, that all creation, including humans, is an aspect of the divine and is not separate from it. While this kind of transcendent consciousness is potentially available to each of us at any given moment, our ego-identity often stands in the way of that sense of unity. Yoga, in part through enabling us to engage our bodies and to be more in the present moment, allows us to suspend the thoughts, ideas, concerns, and conditioning that typically stand in the way of our sense of the sacred.

Ultimately, yoga, like many of the world’s wisdom traditions, can become a portal to the present moment, to being anchored in our bodies and on the earth through the embodied use of breath and movement. This, in turn, may give rise to a dissolution of boundaries, enabling us to feel more relaxed, connected, and unified with a larger ground of reality—even ultimately awakening us to numinous experiences of the sacred. Depth psychology, with its emphasis on engaging the unconscious in order to achieve greater wholeness, can lead us to similar states.



[i] In Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, S.S. Satchidanda, 1978


[ii] Jung and Eastern Thought by Harold Coward, State University of New York Press, 1985, p. 11


[iii] In The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga, C.G. Jung, p. 83


[iv] In Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, S.S. Satchidanda, 1978


[v] Sonu Shamdasani, in his introduction to Jung’s The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga, p.25


[vi] In The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga, p. 26