Essays with Allan Ajaya

Yoga Psychology: Where East Meets West

An Interview with Swami Ajaya, Ph.D.

As published in Integral Yoga Magazine

Swami Ajaya, Ph.D., has the unique distinction of being both a licensed clinical psychologist and a Swami initiated by Swami Rama (Himalayan Institute). Swami Ajaya has spent over forty years studying and teaching Yoga and meditation. He also researched the effectiveness of entheogens in releasing dysfunctional patterns in the body-mind. He is currently writing a book that demonstrates how entheogens, self-inquiry and psychotherapy complement one another in releasing identification with the constricted self and opening to being awareness. In this article, he shares his understanding of how Yoga and Western psychotherapy can be joined to release us from identification with a contracted sense of self so we may experience the more expansive Self.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): What is Yoga psychology?
Swami Ajaya (SA): Yoga psychology is quite complex because it derives from several groups of the sacred teachings from India includingthe Upanishads, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Yoga Vashista and Tantra. These teachings don’t always agree with one another anymore than one school of Western psychology agrees with another. What is common to most of these traditions, in contrast to most Western psychologies, is the understanding that Spirit, God, Universal Consciousness or whatever you call the unnamable, manifests itself as everything that exists, including ourselves. All of our struggles, our fears, defensiveness, depression, anxiety and so on come from not recognizing this in our moment-by-moment experience. All of the teachings of Yoga are to open to all pervading awareness. Anything short of this recognition leaves us mired in distress.

IYM: What is Yoga psychology’s relationship with Raja Yoga, and how would you compare it with Western psychology?
SA: Raja Yoga, which was not systematized until the 5th century A.D., is a very orderly series of practices for climbing the ladder of self-mastery. This systemization of yogic techniques was compiled during the early phase in the development of the rational consciousness. It’s an attempt to establish an inner science comparable to our Western sciences, which concern themselves with the outer or material world and which bloomed more than a thousand years later. Raja Yoga is often referred to as the science of Yoga. It focuses on attaining a series of objectives to reach one’s final goal, non-dual consciousness. This systematic approach is characteristic of the rational consciousness, thus it’s not surprising that this form of awakening of one’s true nature has had the most appeal in contemporary society.

The shift from a focus on self-improvement and self-mastery, from achieving one’s objective to becoming aware of what is already here, is just beginning to gain prominence in contemporary society. In contrast to Raja Yoga, this way of exploring doesn’t employ any techniques in order to perfect oneself. There is no interest in achieving anything. In what has been called the “direct way,” one ceases to move away from the truth of what is, in order to arrive at what is more favored as one’s ego ideal. If you live from the ego, or contracted self, you consider yourself to be a separate individual, living within the confines of your physical body. Your attention is focused on your personal history, and the future: what you expect, hope for or fear. Your world revolves around “I,” “me” and “mine.” You are focused on maintaining an image of yourself that is related to your ego ideal. You experience yourself as the subject who relates to what is not you (objects). You know about these objects, through perception and conception, and you act upon them, using them for your benefit. You have definite beliefs about who you are and about what is distinct from or external to you. You defend these beliefs.

Most of your efforts are directed at shoring up, expanding the influence of and attaining the goals of the “I” that you take yourself to be. You live from a sense of scarcity. You are concerned about procuring what you believe you need to feel secure, pleasured or successful. This is the way of the contemporary world. It functions from the experience of separation, alienation, need and scarcity. The contracted self is a dreamed-up or imagined deprivation that exists within all encompassing awareness. Beyond it there exists a life of inclusion rather than exclusion, abundance rather than scarcity. There is freedom from identification with a personal self and its concerns, allowing for an immediate way of knowing and being.

IYM: What are some of the fundamental aspects of Yoga psychology?
SA: Psychotherapy based on Yoga principles incorporates the yamas delineated by Patanjali. For example, living from what is true rather than lying to oneself and living in the illusion of how we would like or expect circumstances to be; non-injury-opening to the unconditional acceptance that suffuses us and all that exits, thus being kind to ourselves rather than preoccupied with self doubt, guilt, and self criticism. Any one of the yamas is sufficient for living a fully awakened life. These are not prescriptions. They guide us to realize when we are being duplicitous and to discover that ongoing recognition of what is, is sufficient to allow presence to shine forth. 

One of the most fundamental and integrative teachings of Yoga psychology is theBhagavad Gita. Krishna says to Arjuna, “Do your work but not for a reward.” Most of us act for the result, to earn money, to have more prominent biceps or perhaps to become enlightened. Krishna is saying that instead of being concerned about the consequences, simply be fully present in what you are doing. Living in the present moment is where we experience life infused with spirit. Nevertheless, Yoga is often taught and practiced with results in mind. I call this self-improvement Yoga in contrast to self-revealing Yoga.

IYM: How are these different?
SA: Self-improvement Yoga arises from the dualistic Sankya philosophy upon which the Yoga Sutras is founded, along with our goal-oriented culture, which takes to self-improvement as a way of orienting our lives. Much of the way that Yoga is practiced in our culture is goal-oriented. Many people take up Yoga and meditation with a noble ambition: becoming peaceful, enlightened, healthier, pain free and so on. I am interested in how Yoga brings participatory awareness to the exploration of what is.

IYM: Why did you feel it was important to integrate Yoga and psychotherapy?
SA: Eastern practices can lead to transcendent states of consciousness; we
westerners naively assumed that having transcendent experiences releases a person from their character flaws. Yoga psychology gives us a philosophical foundation, but not necessarily the means to work with people individually as they struggle with their imagined limitations. I use Yoga psychology and I draw on anything that will help us release into and spontaneously experience what is: Hakomi, myofascial therapy, metaphor therapy, paradoxical therapy, the inquiry process taught by Byron Katie, among others. These western approaches have all been greatly influenced by Eastern teachings. I blend Western psychology and Yoga psychology to help discover living in kindness to oneself and others, moment by moment, revering each experience as revealing the way into an integrated expression of the truth of what is.

IYM: Are there other principles or systems you integrate?
SA: We also need practices that have evolved in Western psychology to integrate spiritual recognition with how we live among our fellow humans. Simply encouraging students to practice loving kindness, ahimsa and so on usually leads us to maintain false images and creates a shadow self in the unconscious. Real mental health only exists when we are free of all forms of duplicity including the attempt to maintain a false image of one’s self in order to gain acceptance, status, privilege or power. 
Another system from Yoga psychology that can be incredibly useful is found in the teachings of Tantra, with its understanding of the chakras, the fundamental archetypes of human existence. To the extent that someone has been traumatized, he or she lives from the muladhara chakra, preoccupied with survival. Another person may be living primarily at svadhistana chakra, where issues of addiction emerge. Each of the seven primary chakras delineates an archetypal dimension of human existence. This model helps us understand the primary ways that we, as humans, can be alienated from living in full awareness and how to transcend the duality that we can be ensnared in at a particular chakra.

IYM: Do you also integrate Yoga postures in Yoga psychology? 
SA: Absolutely. For example, a person who is subtly aware will experience how each posture releases congealed fascia, as well as emotional and mental contractions that we have been carrying as a consequence of past trauma. This release depends on how the postures are practiced. Today many people practice strenuous forms of Yoga that contract the body-mind. Someone who is extremely knowledgeable about Hatha Yoga can definitely help a person with a particular problem through specific asana orpranayama practices. But to separate Hatha Yoga from the rest of Yoga psychology and call it Yoga therapy is a narrow view that has limited benefit. Yoga therapy practitioners would benefit from further training in how to introduce experiential inquiry, as practiced in both Eastern and Western traditions, into their already beneficial work with clients.

IYM: Did you ever meet Swami Satchidananda and do you have any remembrances you could share?
SA: When I first became interested in teaching Yoga I attended a residential teachers’ training led by Swami Satchidananda. That was in 1970, before there were organizations that established requirements to become a Yoga teacher or Yoga therapist. It was a comprehensive training. I remember arising early each morning to learn and practice kriyas under Swamiji’s guidance. Ten years later, I got to know him as an elder Swami, when I would introduce him at workshops or read questions from the attendees for him to answer. I felt that he was incredibly humble and gentle. He explained things in such a clear gentle way, instead of adding unneeded complexity. His teachers training program was the foundation that enabled me to begin teaching Hatha Yoga. Later my understanding evolved and I incorporated what I was discovering for myself.

IYM: Do you think modern day education—whether K-12, higher education or Yoga education—is reflective of honoring self-discovery?
SA: In most areas of education, including those you mentioned, we are instructed on what to believe, what to do and how to do it rather than how to discover for ourselves. We learn to become technicians rather than explorers. You can recognize when this is occurring by the boredom quotient in you and in the room. The more you know the more valued and respected you are. However, to the degree that you are filled with your knowledge or beliefs, you are not open to explore what lies beyond these. Most forms of education do not value not knowing. We don’t teach the value of letting go of what we know and simply opening to what is being revealed in the present moment. Settling into this wonder leads to revelation and creativity, it unveils the unexpected and allows us to see the world around us in remarkably new and profoundly helpful ways. This is where the creative geniuses live.

IYM: Would you give us an idea of how you work with clients to help foster self-discovery? 
SA: I’ve always been interested in psychological approaches that are experiential and seek to bring awareness to and honor what is occurring in the moment, rather than trying to control it—perhaps because I have such a hard time with that. Various modes of experiential enquiry enable us to become aware of ourselves creating our experience. That is all that is needed for that endeavor to fall away; anything more would be just another way of trying to manipulate our experience. Is it possible to keep your hands off and experience what is?

When I work with someone, that is what we explore. We participate in an encounter that leads us to experience our belief systems, our expectations and their existence in a more encompassing matrix of unconditional acceptance. The therapists and spiritual guides from whom I have learned provide ways of experiential inquiry that bring our limiting patterns before the light of unconditional acceptance allowing us to experience the patterns that that inhibit us from simply opening to what is. 

IYM: For so long, it was a part of one’s spiritual path to have a teacher, a Guru. Today, it seems like that tradition, or sometimes any tradition, isn’t really being followed. What are your thoughts?
SA: We learn a great deal from those who preceded us, whether through books or personal guidance. Our culture is transitioning from an approach to life that believed in knowing about and relying on authority, to knowing directly. There is increasing recognition that we can discover for ourselves through direct experience. Hierarchies are giving way to an ever-increasing egalitarian way of relating and sharing, albeit with desperate reactionary attempts to maintain the status quo. I’ve always had an aversion to trying to mimic a set of procedures that someone else established. I enjoy it to a point and then it seems artificial. Sometimes, when I have observed Yoga teacher training, it seems that they are producing people who simply parrot what they are taught and everyone is required to teach in exactly the same way. We need to develop new approaches that encourage people to explore and discover for themselves.

Most traditions whether in Yoga or in any other endeavor, began with discoveries made by a single person. Of course these discoveries evolved out of previous knowledge or ways of doing things. There is always a dynamic tension between what has been established and what is being born from that. The tradition usually resists the new discovery with all its might. We find this occurring in science, religion and in all areas of our life. Copernicus, Einstein, Buddha and Jesus all shared knowledge that challenged existing beliefs and threatened believers. I call these individuals revolutionaries; they are capable of allowing what lies just beyond their knowledge and beliefs to reveal itself. We all have this capacity.

Eventually, what is revealed becomes the next well-defended belief system and this system becomes rigid and an obstacle new revelation. What was alive becomes ossified. We develop superstitions. We may worship the circumstances around which the revelations occurred, for example the places where Jesus or Buddha lived. They show us a way of not clinging to old beliefs, a way of living in continual wondrousness and ironically most of us create rigidly defended beliefs out of their teachings. We make war over their teachings of unconditional love. Tradition is the foundation from which we give birth to what is revelatory.

Swami Ajaya or Dr. Allan Ajaya, as he is also known, was initiated in 1973 as a Swami in the Himalayan tradition by Swami Rama. Swami Ajaya received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley and was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Department of Psychiatry. He has served on the graduate faculties of the University of Wisconsin and the Himalayan Institute. He has studied with leading innovators of experiential psychotherapy including Carl Whitaker, Ron Kurtz (the developer of Hakomi therapy), Arnold Mindell and David Grove. He is the author of many texts that integrate Yoga psychology with the insights of Western psychology including: Yoga and Psychotherapy: The Evolution of Consciousness; Yoga Psychology: A Practical Guide to Meditation; Emotion to Enlightenment; Psychotherapy East and West: A Unifying Paradigm, and Healing the Whole Person. For more information please visit,