The Moralnet: How Yoga Philosophy Can Help Fight Mental Illness
I reviewed in my previous posts the first two practices suggested in the eight-limbed path of yoga: yama and niyama. These are a set of values believed to bring a yoga practitioner into greater connection with his or her body and the greater world, practiced toward others as well as toward ourselves. For example, yoga teachers often remind students to practice Ahimsa (non-violence) “off the mat,” and “on the mat,” by eliminating harsh judgements, biases, and negative self-talk.
By practicing the yamas and niyamas, our students are reminded of the connection they share with others. They are taught to engage in self-care while simultaneously being considerate of others. There is no “us versus them.” There is no “black OR white.” Instead, we teach our students to consider us AND them, and to live their lives in shades of gray. These values speak to the interconnection of all things taught in yoga.
In yoga, it’s believed that disease arises when this interconnection becomes disconnection. Internally, this can be a disconnect between thoughts and feelings, morals and actions, or body and mind. Externally, this disconnect may exist between ourselves and the greater community network.
Working in a community mental health agency, I see this disconnection regularly in my clients. Take, for example, a client suffering from Major Depressive Disorder. The chemical balance of his brain may tell him that he is a worthless failure. He may function well otherwise and lead a successful life. Yet his thoughts (“I am a failure”) and his behaviors (leading an otherwise successful life) are disconnected.
As these thoughts become more frequent and more powerful, he begins to believe them and his mood decreases. At this point he may begin having more thoughts. Thoughts like, “I want to be happy,” “I wish I wasn’t so depressed all of the time,” or “I SHOULD be able to appreciate how good my life is.” Again, disconnection is experienced. This time between his thoughts (thinking that he wants to be happy) and his feelings (not actually BEING happy). As his depression deepens, he takes less pleasure in things and begins experiencing hopelessness. Eventually his behaviors start to reflect these internal experiences and he spends more time in bed, suffers from sleep disturbances, and starts to withdraw from his support networks, slowly isolating himself from his community.
Disconnection strikes again. Now he isn’t just experiencing an internal disconnect (having thoughts and feelings that conflict with each other), but he has advanced to an external disconnect – he has begun separating himself from society. Thus, the problem becomes not just the client’s own inner experience of depression but the way his depression externally manifests itself. And the manifestation of the depression, via isolation and withdrawal, serves to make the depression worse. As such, the client then reinforces his own negative self-talk (“I am a failure, nobody wants to be around me, I am a loser”) and so begins a vicious cycle of chronic depression.
So how exactly can yoga philosophy help support recovery from a mental illness like depression? In her book, Yoga for Depression (2004) Amy Weintraub answers this exact question. She argues that practicing the yamas and niyamas help alleviate disconnect from society by establishing a moralnet. Moralnets are “family and community connections that tie people together and provide an ethical background to what each individual does” ( defined by Raoul Naroll, a cross-cultural anthropologist cited by Weintraub). They are typically seen in collectivist societies and are almost non-existent in the modern world. This explains why anxiety and depression may be so common in modern Western society. Interestingly enough, one place moralnets can easily be seen are structured community-based support networks like Alcoholics Anonymous. Hence, one reason why 12-Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous are so successful may be because they establish the moralnets often lacking in current society and thus help fight disconnect.
By studying and implementing practice of the yamas and niyamas a person engages in practices that are individually beneficial for their mental health. They learn to take care of themselves physically, emotionally, and mentally but also to be cognizant of others. Thus, yoga philosophy provides fellowship and ethical guidelines that can be comforting during the process of recovering from mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, or addiction (p. 83).
Weintraub, A. (2004). Yoga for depression: A compassionate guide to relieve suffering through yoga. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
You can purchase Amy’s book on Amazon.com.
To review briefly, the yamas and niyamas are:
- Ahimsa: nonviolence
- Satya: truthfulness
- Asteya: nonstealing
- Brahmacharya: chastity/moderation
- Aparigraha: greedlessness
- Saucha/Shauca: purity
- Santosha: contentment
- Svadhyaya: self-study
- Ishvara-pranidhana: surrender