Dr. Lakshmi Rajan is a practicing Psychologist, Psychotherapist, Counselor, Educationalist, and a Yogic Scholar. She is also an International Member of the American Psychological Association. She is the founder of Mind Care, India. Mind Care is a Counselling and Psychotherapy center based in Chennai. The center helps to assist individuals to overcome the emotional barriers or psychological problems caused by stress, relationship breakdown, traumas, and a lack of self-confidence.

Recently, I got the opportunity to have a discussion with her about Yoga-based Existential therapy. Here is a brief discussion about the same, where she talks about various aspects of Yoga-based therapy and shares many other interesting insights!

Q: Why do you choose to promote Yoga-based existential therapy?

I started my career with existential therapy, as I was interested in doing my research more about the humanistic perspective. By the time I started with this, I was already a Yoga Practitioner. So, I was able to relate with whatever Freud, Yung, Rogers, etc., talked about. All of these theories are mentioned in our ancient Yoga Scriptures. Hence, this gave me an idea to use Yoga as a tool in curing mental illness, i.e. yoga as a tool for existential therapy. Existential therapy is all about understanding one’s self. This is the basic principle of Yoga too, i.e. to question your existence. The basic inquisitive question of who you are is the first step with which we proceed further in Yoga therapy.

Self-actualization and self-realization is the ultimate goal for Yoga as well, similar to what Abraham Maslow had pointed out in the humanistic theory. Yoga is a time-tested tool, and the results are long-lasting. Inner-peace, calmness, and happiness are some of the long-standing benefits a person will experience, with this therapy.

Q: Can Yoga therapy be used to cure pain and addiction, such as drug and alcohol abuse?

Yes! In the de-addiction process, yoga-based existential therapy is very useful. It works wonders with de-addiction cases. I have worked with the red-cross de-addiction center.

Q: Can Yoga be used with any other form of Psychotherapy other than Existential therapy?

It is easy to use Yoga techniques with existential therapy because the theories of existential therapy and yoga are almost very similar. In both the theories, we talk about self-awareness, self-acceptance, forgiving our self, accepting people and situations as they are, being thankful, giving your hundred percent in whatever, you do, being contended, etc.

When the theories are similar, you can use the yoga techniques to complement the theories of existential therapy. But with Psychodynamic theory or behavior theory, it may not be well combined as these theories do not get along well with the theories of yoga. These theories are completely different, so it may not be possible to associate the two!

Q: What are some of the specific techniques that use in your treatment procedure?

I specifically only use the pranayama part (breathing techniques), i.e. the 4th limb of the Ashtanga Yoga Sutra, and not the other forms. There are over 108 pranayamas given in our yogic scriptures. I use a very basic minimum of these. The theories are the Yamas and Niyamas. Yamas are about social life., i.e. the unwritten rules (something like a manual) for individuals to practice for the betterment of their social self. Niyamas are like a manual to enhance your inner self. This is the main concept and goal of the humanistic perspective., i.e. there should be authenticity and congruence between the social self and inner self.  Yamas and Niyamas can be thought of as techniques to bring authenticity between the social self and inner self. I don’t use Asanas as part of my therapy. The goal of using pranayama as a tool is not self-actualization, but rather to make the client lead an independent and normal life. This is because abnormal behavior is due to a dysfunction in the daily routine. So, the main goal should be to change this dysfunctional routine and help the client to develop a more holistic approach towards life. However, if certain clients have more positive energy, we can use pranayama along with other techniques.

Q: As Yoga dates back to our ancient roots, are there any specific traditional texts or resources that you refer to when using this form of therapy?

Yes, I specifically refer to Patanjali Yoga Sutra and Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Even the Sankhya yoga of philosophy is very useful to understand the Yogic techniques. The original version of Sankhya Yoga is from the Upanishads. A shorter version of the Sankhya Yoga is chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita. Among the Upanishads, Mandukya Upanishad can specifically be referred. Additionally, Yoga Nidra of Swami Satyananda, from the Bihar school of Yoga can also be used. Certain books written by Swami Sivananda from the Rishikesh Ashram are also very insightful! One person that I should quote here is Swami Rama, a Kashmiri Pandit, who practiced Yoga in the Himalayas for many years. He has given more scientific explanations for Yoga. His Himalayan Institute is one of the pioneers in using Yoga. Swami Rama has proved scientifically how Yoga is beneficial in maintaining physical and mental health.

Q: Are there are any disorders that this form of therapy cannot cure? Can it be used for pain and addiction cases?

Well, I don’t think there are any disorders that cannot be cured with this form of therapeutic intervention. However, one of the disorders that I have not worked with is a personality disorder. It might take a long time for the clients to discard various personalities that they have within themselves, but it is not that it cannot be cured with this form of therapy. This therapy can cure Multiple Personality disorder but subject to the condition of the disorder. For any escalated form of a disorder, Yoga therapy is very useful in conjuncture with medications for the initial sessions. However, if the severity of the disorder is in the initial stages, it can be treated with the therapy form alone.

Q: Being trained in the yogic philosophy and being a yogic scholar for so many years, what are some of the lessons that you have learned, and how has it changed your life?

There has been more awareness. Since when I started my journey in Yoga at the age of 25, I can see more clarity of thoughts, more awareness, tranquility of mind, empathetic feelings, and unconditional love. In existential therapy, the therapist’s self is the core of the therapy. Yoga helped me with that. To enhance my self, to go deeper into my self and understand, I considered this lockdown not as a period of isolation, but rather as my Guru tells, ‘solitude’, which is more of being with one’s self.

Q: What would you suggest for individuals who wish to start practicing meditation?

Meditation is a long-term process. Meditation comes in the seventh limb of the Ashtanga yoga. Meditation in today’s scenario is a very generic term that has been popularized in a very wrong sense. Firstly, meditation cannot be taught. Only till Dharana., i.e. the sixth limb of the Ashtanga yoga sutra, it can be taught. There are eight limbs of the Ashtanga Yoga sutra., i.e. Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. The first four limbs are Bahiranga Yoga., i.e. which happen outside the body. Pratyahara is the withdrawal of senses., i.e. moving into the inner self. The last three limbs are called Antharanga Yoga., i.e. something that happens within oneself. Antharanga is nothing but an internal churning of the mind. But Pranayama which is the fourth limb helps Dharana and Dhyana. Any person can teach only till Dharana and make someone practice till Pranayama.  More than that, it is the self-determination of an individual to go deeply into one’s self.

It is also very important to check on your food intake. Even in the Bhagavad Gita, yoga is mentioned for those individuals who have a balance between fasting and excessive eating. So, to start with, focus on your food and water intake. Then focus on correcting your breath. This itself is a form of meditation. When you inhale, your tummy should inflate. As you exhale, your tummy should deflate. This process will take some time. Because of the wrong lifestyle we all are following, as we inhale, our tummies go in, which is wrong. This will come easily when we inhale through our nostrils and exhale through our mouth. For anyone who wants to come in the path of yoga, following these three steps are very important.

What are the benefits it has? It increases metabolism and immunity, supplies more oxygen to your brain, the central nervous system is enhanced, and the individual is more relaxed and happier. It is also very beneficial in asthmatic complaints. By focusing on these three steps, a person’s irrational thoughts are reduced to 10 percent only. All the mental illness, disorder, and abnormal behavior sprouts from irrational thoughts. If there are no irrational thoughts, there are no mental illnesses at all.  But it should be practiced as a lifestyle and not something temporary. When there are no irrational thoughts, there is only basic anxiety that can be accepted as a condition of living. This is one of the propositions of existential therapy. Some amount of anxiety and stress (eustress) is necessary, which increases our performance and productivity. Overthinking decreases performance.

Q: What advice would you give to mental health professionals who are interested in learning and incorporating Yoga as part of their therapy program? 

It is a welcome move for all therapists. To start with, as mentioned before, it is important to focus on the three aspects., i.e. food, water, and breathing. Any therapist who wishes to use Yoga as part of their therapy, irrespective of any therapy, they will get results. This is the need of the hour. Yoga is universal knowledge. There are so many books related to our yogic scripture, like a few mentioned above. Try to understand the Indian way of life. There are so many Masters around the world. Search for the right Master who can exactly teach you what Yoga and its essence is.  A yogic teacher is somebody who wants to give more to the students, and not to get from them. Even if you use any other form of therapy, use these three basic principles. It is assured that you will get good results. Additionally, learn some basic pranayama and asanas to understand more and then work on the therapy.

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