BIOCHEMISTRY OF THE BRAIN

After practicing yoga, people often report many beneficial emotional, psychological, behavioral, and biological effects; an increased feeling of well-being is one important example. People experience beneficial changes to both the mind and body because yoga creates change in the neurophysiology of the body. Yoga is effective because it positively alters brain neurochemistry, and it counteracts stress and reduces autonomic arousal of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), including the sympathetic nervous system.


BREATHING

Practicing yoga breathing techniques for 45 minutes for 4 days was helpful in decreasing battered women’s feelings of depression (Franzblau). Other researchers examined ANS functioning and noted that yoga, especially the breath work, increases heart rate variability, decreases blood pressure levels, and decreases respiratory rates. For people with mild to moderate depression, practicing Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) can improve depressive symptoms. For people with anxiety, practicing Ujjayi breath work as part of SKY can restore a sense of control. Thus, using yoga breath work to counteract the ANS causes the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system to function effectively in response to stress instead of becoming hypo-reactive or hyper-reactive.


PHYSICAL POSTURES

Woolery studied the effects of yoga on reducing symptoms of depression in young adults with mild depression. Researchers over a 5-week period examined a 1-hour Iyengar yoga class that focused on physical postures that are supposed to alleviate depression, particularly back bends, vigorous standing poses, and inversions. As expected, the inversions, standing physical postures of Iyengar yoga, as well as those postures that open and lift the chest, were effective in reducing depression scores by almost one-third and significantly improving mood. The backbends, inversions, and standing postures enhanced feelings of mastery and may have countered the slumped body posture associated with depression.


Iyengar yoga practice with inversions, standing postures, and postures that expand the chest were helpful in diminishing mood-related symptoms of depression. The physical postures positively increased mood state experiences of people with depression and also positively reduced other mental health areas such as anxiety. Participants reported increases in positive mood characteristics (confidence and happiness) and energy levels (attentiveness), as well as decreases in negative mood characteristics (frustration and pessimism).


People anecdotally report feeling more at ease after a yoga practice. Researchers attributed these feelings of relaxation to decreased cortisol levels. Cortisol is referred to as the stress hormone and is released during stress to prepare the body for a stress response. A stress response is a physical or cognitive reaction resulting from various disturbing physical, emotional, or chemical factors.


Lower GABA levels have been found in people with depression and anxiety. The physical postures of yoga increase GABA activity levels in the brain, thus decreasing anxious and depressive symptoms. After the participants in the study completed a 1-hour session of yoga postures, Streeter found that GABA levels increased by approximately one-quarter when compared with baseline measurements, regardless of the type of yoga practiced.


MEDITATION

Participants who received yoga and meditation training experienced the largest remission rate at 77% and did not develop any new depressive episodes regard- less of using medications or receiving psychotherapy. Meditation in yoga “may be used to let go of thoughts that maintain the depressive affect.


Melatonin is believed to regulate mood and sleep patterns. Researchers found that participants had increased melatonin levels after practicing yoga, particularly meditation. Additionally, people with depression who practiced yoga reported feeling more positive about themselves and their health and also reported sleeping better.

Updated: Jun 12, 2019

It is well known that Carl Gustav Jung had a keen interest in mysticism and in Eastern thought and spiritual practices, and that he thought very highly of the ‘wisdom of the East’. The feelings were reciprocated, for instance by Osho, who praised Jung for the discovery of synchronicity, which was received well in other parts of Asia, too.


He could not avoid noticing contradictions between Indian approaches to ‘healing’ through spiritual techniques such as yoga and meditation, and his own convictions after decades of analyzing and healing patients and, above all, himself.


In their recent volume dedicated to the relationship between Jung and India, Al Collins and Elaine Molchanov have addressed the conflict between Jung and Indian approaches to mental health, which he had come to know during his lifetime. After decades of engaging with Eastern philosophies and psycho-spiritual therapeutic techniques, Jung discerned a stark contrast between their understanding of the soul, including the purpose of human existence in this world, and his own:


India wants to annihilate the ego and put in its place a one-sided and inflated ‘self’ that may be no more than the product of a temporary mystical enthusiasm. Jung, to the contrary, seeks reflection and dialogue with the self as archetype of wholeness, a lifelong process of individuation rather than a momentary enlightenment.


Along the same lines, Harold Coward has noted a certain incompatibility between Jung’s understanding of the mystical experience and that of Patañjali:


Jung correctly recognized that there was a fundamental disagreement between himself and Patañjali over the degree of ego loss involved in mystical experience. Whereas in Jung’s view the mystic experience of reality required the continued existence of an ego in order to be known, for Patañjali’s yoga the ego was nothing more than a limiting and distorting emotional obscuration which had to be removed if the real was to be fully known. [. . .] In Jung’s analysis, mystical experience, although it may begin with intuition, necessarily also involves the other psychological processes of feeling, thinking, and sensing. For Patañjali, the processes of emotion and thinking had to be purged until only pure perception remained.




Healing from a Jungian point of view means living in harmony with one’s nature. Regardless of what society expects from us, there is an ‘inner law’ that we need to follow, otherwise we fall ill or become neurotic. This requires a careful observation of the events that occur in our lives, and of our internal processes, which are taken as signs and symbols that need to be interpreted for us to find individual guidance. Jung views the personal unconscious as our inner voice, which is an expression of this inner law. It is that elusive, immaterial organ known as the ‘soul’ through which God is believed to reveal himself (or at least, that mysterious entity we have chosen to call ‘God’ for lack of a better word). This appears to be a rather individualistic understanding of human life that might be difficult to realize in a society that prioritizes family traditions and social duties over individual self-realization.

Experiences of mystics from around the world have been communicated through similar concepts and imagery (Meister Eckhart’s mystical experiences of Seligkeit and Liebeswonne seemed to correspond to the Upanishadic understanding of absolute Brahman, ānanda), confirming the existence of a divine essence that we could tap into, what German Romantics would refer to as Weltseele (world soul). Jung’s project introduces a level of active reflection that is meant to offer meaning and guidance to individuals at a time where traditional social structures are collapsing and dissolved by processes of modernization.


According to Ludendorff, yoga and meditation amounted to ‘self-hypnosis’ leading to stultification, as they made false promises of bliss and salvation whilst avoiding a confrontation with real life. Her idea of spiritual growth revolves around the idea of ‘Selbstschöpfung’ (self-creation), which is somewhat comparable to Jung’s understanding of the development of one’s personality through ‘individuation’, by actively embracing the totality of life with all of its positive and negative aspects, and by increasing our awareness in this world through reflecting and learning from each and every experience, which is unique for every one of us. With this approach, Jung and Ludendorff are firmly placed in the German intellectual tradition that had one of its most powerful spokespersons in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, to whom many early twentieth century innovators such as Jung, Ludendorff and Rudolf Steiner were explicitly indebted. They looked at the world and all life, including human life, as an organic process, as exemplified in Goethe’s famous poem Urworte. Orphisch:


As stood the sun to the salute of planets
Upon the day that gave you to the earth,
You grew forthwith, and prospered, in your growing Heeded the law presiding at your birth.
Sibyls and prophets told it: You must be
None but yourself, from self you cannot flee.
No time there is, no power, can decompose
The minted form that lives and living grows.

Ludendorff ‘s objection was that spiritual practices helped avoid dealing with questions that could actually lead to an increased awareness about the self, the realization of our unique talents and sense of responsibility in the world. Ludendorff expressed the view that different ethnic groups and individuals followed their very own ‘God-song’17 (i.e. creative and cultural expression), each in their own way, depending on the musical harmony in which their souls were tuned according to the myriads of micro-experiences that had given shape to their existence.


According to both Jung and Ludendorff, personal development and creative expression could only be realized if life was experienced and processed fully without ideological or doctrinal blinders. Like Jung, Ludendorff emphasizes individual responsibility and self-reflection. Although she was by no means an atheist, she thought that the majority of spiritual techniques

PROJECTION


In India, the concept of maya captures the fickleness of the human mind and its propensity to deceive us by fabricating illusions, which prevents us from seeing things as they are. As far as I can see, maya has a much wider currency in everyday thinking about the world in India than ‘projection’ in the West. However, despite the much more common acknowledgement of the tricks played by the human mind in India, the spiritual-therapeutic techniques from India which Jung had come across did not seem to go any further, e.g. by encouraging practitioners to inquire into the individual meaning of a particular projection. In Jungian therapy, in contrast, one of the crucial steps during psychological crises – frequently the result of major disappointments and the collapse of illusions, e.g. about partners or careers – is to reflect on our projections and to withdraw them, i.e. to adjust our assessment of reality according to new insights gained after reflection and increased awareness. Understanding why we project what we project is an essential part of the Jungian healing process, leading to deeper self-knowledge and self-awareness, and creating a deeper understanding of our essential needs, desires, emotional programs and convictions imparted to us by our parents, teachers, and the culture we belong to.


SELF-REFLECTION


Although it has not been widely acknowledged as a spiritual and even therapeutic technique in the same way as yoga and meditation, diary-writing as a means of self-examination was an important aspect of Protestant spirituality in various communities throughout Europe from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries – especially among those communities influenced by more radical reformed Christianity.


Diary-writing in the sense of self-scrutiny was never a major influence on Catholic spiritual practice, perhaps because ‘confession’ (in the sense of confessing one’s sins and evil thoughts to a priest) was and still is, of course, one of the key rituals in Catholicism. Even more than diary-writing, this ritual has been acknowledged as an early form of psycho-hygiene, preceding the therapeutic conversation established by Sigmund Freud.


Among cultural theorists, the psychological consequences of different doctrines in Catholicism and Protestantism have been subject to debate, and one could argue that the heightened emphasis on ‘conscience’ in Protestantism must have had a major impact on the way in which people henceforth looked at themselves and their relationship with the world, including the degree to which they were ready to engage in self-scrutiny.


However, the dialogue with the internal self not only focussed on moral transgression and sins, but also on finding out what God wanted from us, which appears to be precisely the concern for Jung as well, when he insists that the whole point of engaging in psycho-spiritual therapies is about ‘looking for what the self wants you to do in the world.

Updated: Jun 12, 2019

Your narrative identity changes with time. As well as your personality traits and your well being. You are not trapped. You decide if you want to be happy and the way you want it to be.

As a teenager you are already able to connect your past events to the present self, especially in the turning points life events. It’s called autobiographical reasoning and is an essential ingredient of a mature life story.


What’s your story? And what would happen if you told it differently?


WHAT IS NARRATIVE IDENTITY?


Narrative identity is the unique aspect of self that is tapped by one’s life story. According to this theory (McAdams), personality comprises three levels: traits, goals, and life experiences that coalesce into a life story. It’s thanks to this third level that we can be unique. No one else has exactly the same collection of life experiences.


First you’re an actor (in early childhood), then an agent (from middle childhood), and finally, beginning in adolescence, you become an author of your life.


There’s one crucial aspect - the causal link between past events and one’s present personality, or perspective on life. It’s called causal coherence (Habermas). It contributes to life story coherence by making the links between events and their importance for self-understanding. It can be also thematic, depending on our focus and topic.


CULTURE AND IDENTITY


Every individual is steeped in a culture or cultures from the moment of birth- and even before, through cultural conceptions of pregnancy- and culture most likely pervades every level and aspect of identity. One prominent dimension along which cultures differ is their orientation toward independence versus interdependence. Parent- child conversations about shared personal experiences are linked to children’s own autobiographical memories and reasoning in adolescence.


“Maori children often grow up experiencing a rich narrative environment through their exposure to these diverse narrative forms, with a particular emphasis on time and internal state references within narratives. Accordingly, Maori adults have earlier autobiographical memories than either New Zealand European or Chinese adults.” (MacDonald)


THE IMPACT ON WELL-BEING


Narrative identity in adults is connected to well-being, with higher levels of narrative coherence linked to lower levels of depression and higher self-esteem and life satisfaction across cultures. For theories of personality, it is clear that both traits and narrative identity are uniquely important for well-being. For example, conscientiousness shows dramatic age-related changes in adolescence, with lower levels in early adolescence followed by much higher levels in late adolescence.


CAN WE INFLUENCE IT?


Making sense of one’s own experiences through autobiographical reasoning to construct a narrative identity may be an important developmental task in adolescence regardless of culture. Life story causal coherence is one avenue toward narrative identity. The development of detailed, resolved, and emotionally laden narratives about one’s own life experiences may also shape narrative identity, even if these narratives do not include explicit references to changes in personality. In other words, you have the power to shape your identity by the way you tell your life story.

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 © Ewa Kampelmann 2019