Yoga and the Power of Suggestion

As a child, I loved going through my parents’ old LP records. They were mostly country and folk, like Nana Mouskouri and Crystal Gail, with some unexpected treats scattered in, like Boney M. But perhaps the most unexpected treat of all was an album called Relax with Reveen: Master the Power of Self-Suggestion.

The man they called Reveen is a legend in Canadian stage hypnosis. His 1978 album featured his deep, monotonous voice providing simple suggestions that, as a child in the 1980s, I found so hypnotic and enjoyable that I listened to that record over and over again.

Thirty years later I find myself sitting at the front of a room with dozens of people lying quietly on the floor as my voice drones out suggestions not unlike those of the man they called Reveen. Only we don’t call it suggestion or hypnosis. We call it savasanacorpse pose.

How Habitual Behaviour Shapes Our Actions

Over one hundred years ago, the Indian philosopher and freedom fighter Aurobindo wrote that yoga and hypnosis work on the same principle. He suggested that, like hypnosis, yoga “teaches passivity of the mind so that the will may act unhampered by…old associations.”

Aurobindo believed that yoga and hypnosis were both effective in softening the influence of habitual patterns of thought and action known as samskaras. A samskara is like a dried up riverbed. It was formed by years of water flowing in a particular pattern. Even when the water dries up and is gone, the riverbed remains. Should the water level rise again in the future, it will return to the old riverbed. In a similar manner, our past thought, speech, and action produces cognitive tendencies that attract, direct, and influence our future actions.

Another meaning of the word samskara is “to make sacred.” Our habits are individualized rituals that create sacred space. Like a basketball player who always spins and dribbles the ball a particular way before shooting free throws, our habits create a psychological safe space. J. Z. Smith, the world’s leading scholar on religion, had this to say on the nature of ritual: “Ritual represents the creation of a controlled environment where the variables (accidents) of ordinary life may be displaced because they are felt to be so overwhelmingly present and powerful.”

Those “variables of everyday life” can feel oppressive. Beyond the usual stresses of work, debt, and finding time for ourselves, we are bombarded with stressful information every day. Our climate is changing, our wilderness is being destroyed, our economies are being plundered, drones are dropping bombs, and all the while we are being spied upon by the governments that we elected to lead us out of this mess. In an unpredictable world, our habits and rituals carve out a small section of order and security.

So many of us retreat into worlds comprised primarily of ritual. We find safety in a world of habitual action that insulates us from the chaos of the world around us. It is the classic “old dogs and new tricks” situation. Unfortunately, the retreat into habit is also a retreat from the present. To observe this in action, notice how and where people set up their mats before a yoga class. You will find a near-religious observation of routine that blurs the distinction between habit and ritual. What starts as a little habit becomes a ritual that determines our thought, speech, and action.

Hypnosis As Habit-Hacking

I remember seeing the world famous hypnotist Anthony Cools perform on stage. I felt uneasy at first. It felt like the people on stage were being exploited: The stage hypnotist and the rest of the audience are the cool kids, having a laugh at the expense of these poor fools making asses of themselves up on stage. Then I watched a little closer and had a shocking realization: They were having fun up there! They wanted to be on stage making people laugh. They were putting on a show for us, not because they were “brainwashed,” but because they enjoyed entertaining.

What prevents us from performing on stage—from acting silly and making people laugh—is nothing but the habit of inhibition, self-doubt, and withdrawal from the world around us.

Stage hypnotism works on a very simple principle. The people up on stage actually want to act silly. They want to make you laugh by clucking like chickens and doing ridiculous things. But normally they would not because of their inhibitions. They have samskaras that inhibit public displays of audacious or lewd behavior. What makes a performer like Anthony Cools so impressive is the speed with which he is able to put people into a deeply relaxed state where the inhibitory power of the samskara is weakened.

Savasana works on the same principle. We really want to relax. But just like the people on stage, we have inhibitory samskaras that prevent us from letting go and being simply open to what is happening now.

The Science of Suggestion

The roots of suggestion as a mode of healing go back to eighteenth century Germany and a doctor named Franz Mesmer. Mesmer came up with a fascinating, if dubious, theory he called “animal magnetism.” The idea was that an invisible force, present in all animals, was capable of affecting physical and psychiatric healing in his patients.

Mesmer believed that there was an invisible fluid that flowed in our bodies. Obstructions or blockages in the flow of that fluid caused all kinds of maladies. He thought that a person with strong animal magnetism would be able to influence the movement of this vital fluid and cure disease. Of course scientists at the time were unable to find this fluid, and for the most part Mesmer was written off as a fraud.

Advances in imaging technology have given us an understanding of hypnosis that far outstrips the eighteenth-century efforts of Dr. Mesmer. We now know that during hypnotic states people have a significant reduction in activity in a part of the prefrontal cortex referred to as the “default mode network.” This default mode network is associated with the typical wandering mind—that part of us that is constantly reviewing past events, preparing for imagined future events, or inventing dramas by speculating on what other people are thinking. In hypnosis this default mode slows down significantly.

This is an enlightening piece of data. Hypnotists do not “put us to sleep” and plant thoughts in our minds. The process actually works the opposite way. Hypnotism makes use of relaxation to induce a state of hyper-awareness, resulting in a heightened focus on what is happening in the present moment. So while Mesmer was incorrect about a vital fluid being influenced in hypnotic states, he intuited that these states have a power to change how we think about ourselves and our world.

When you look at the actual processes involved, the relaxation and the heightening of awareness of the present, hypnotism and savasana start to seem very similar. Perhaps the only real difference is that in yoga, unlike in hypnotism, there is no suggestion. Or is there?

The Power of Suggestion

What does your yoga teacher tell you during savasana? In this relaxation-induced, hyper-present state, we now know that we are more open and susceptible to suggestion. We also know that yoga teachers (like me) are fond of waxing poetic during savasana. Is it possible that millions of yoga students around the world are being hypnotized and given suggestions at the end of every class?

Should yoga teachers be required to take some special training in hypnosis to ensure that we are not incidentally handing out inappropriate or even dangerous suggestions? Yoga teacher training programs may be missing something absolutely crucial to the health and safety of students.

The more I thought about savasana and suggestion, the more I started paying more attention to my language while teaching savasana—especially during that quiet, post-savasana space at the end of class before students sit up and leave the room.

However, in many cases, yoga teachers offer nothing but a little bow and a “Namaste.” Namaste is derived from the words namas, which means “a salutation,” and te, which means “to you.” “Namaste” is just another way of saying “Hello to you.” Of course that doesn’t sound very yogic, so we yoga teachers like to dress it up a little. I like telling my students that namaste is like the greeting in the film Avatar where the blue people would greet each other with “I see you.” It means I recognize who you really are. Behind all the thoughts, memories, imagination, and worry, I see the person you really are.

Namaste is one of many suggestions given during and after relaxation. The possible suggestion implied by namaste is that we can be humble, that we can acknowledge each other’s strength, beauty, and wisdom, and that this feeling is connected with our hearts (anjali mudra—folding your hands at your heart—normally accompanies saying “Namaste”).

Sounds harmless enough, right?

Relaxation, Suggestion, and Student Safety

While the vast majority of churches do not see yoga as a threat, some view the practice as antithetical to Christianity. Some of those are particularly concerned about the suggestibility of their parishioners while under the spell of malevolent yoga teachers.

The specific concern I hear most frequently from my students is that practicing relaxation and meditation techniques makes your soul more vulnerable to demonic spirits. The idea is comparable to the “Idle hands are the devil’s playground” idea. This sentiment is captured nicely by Pastor Mark Driscoll:

Whether they know it or not, Christians who engage in yoga are participating in a religious expression that is antithetical to Christianity. The result is often an unguarded spirit that is susceptible to the many lies of Satan and a slow, almost unperceivable degradation of faith.

While most yogis today would laugh off this critique as either misguided, fear-based, or simply uninformed, we should consider that there is no shortage of Indian folk tales with sinister yogi antagonists who manipulate kings for their own material gain. This view of yogis has been around a long time.

The third chapter of the Yoga Sutra, called the vibhuti pada, mentions the ability to actually possess another person in sutra 3.37: “When the bonds of the mind caused by action have been loosened, one may enter the body of another by knowledge of how the nerve-currents function.”

Perhaps this was an early attempt to understand how yogis are able, using relaxation and suggestion, to “get inside the heads” of their students. Ominous as such a power sounds in the above sutra, more often than not a yoga teacher’s suggestions are actually not sinister at all (as with the example of namaste). They are generally thoughtful, helpful, and constructive suggestions that leave students feeling more peaceful and relaxed after their class is over.

Suggestion in Savasana

While you may have no worries about demonic influences, students of yoga do need to be conscious of their increased suggestibility in deep relaxation. What makes stage hypnosis safe and fun is informed consent. Savasana should be no different. If we are aware that our teachers will be making use of suggestion during and after savasana, then we are free to enjoy its benefits.

In the absence of informed consent there is the potential for abuse. Consider that some students may not desire or be ready for letting go of their body and breath, relaxing into stillness, becoming more open, or any other seemingly innocuous suggestion. The simple addition of language like “if it feels interesting” or “if it is something you would like to explore” gives students a chance to consciously check in before following your suggestion.

In cases of pre-existing abuse or trauma, suggestions could be potentially dangerous and leave a student feeling vulnerable after class. For example, while the idea of dissolving into space or sinking down into the earth might be drool-inducingly good for some students, for others it might induce an extremely unpleasant dissociative experience.

While fear, suspicion, and superstition are neither helpful nor appropriate in yoga today, there is plenty of room for awareness, curiosity, and research.

Teachers of yoga, perhaps more so than students, also need to be conscious of the possibility of suggestion. It is not something to be feared. Used responsibly and mindfully, suggestion is a powerful tool that can be used in many therapeutic contexts. For example, hypnosis has been demonstrated to be a powerful treatment for chronic pain. Yoga classes around the world are already utilizing these techniques, for example with body scans and visualizations of tension melting away, or having an imaginary volume knob being turned down on discomfort.

While fear, suspicion, and superstition are neither helpful nor appropriate in yoga today, there is plenty of room for awareness, curiosity, and research. Suggestibility is only a liability if it exists without responsibility on the part of teachers, and awareness on the part of students.

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Colin Hall

Colin Hall

Lecturer in Religious Studies and Kinesiology at the University of Regina, Colin Hall has been teaching and studying yoga for over a decade. He is the co-director of Bodhi Tree Yoga, where he and his... Read more>>  

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