Dr. William Kroger, in his landmark book Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis in Medicine, Dentistry, and Psychology, points out that there are similarities between hypnosis and the eight “limbs” of yoga that are set forth in the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali.
There are many definitions and meaning of the word “yoga.” Literally, yoga it means to join, bind, attach, or unite. In popular use “yoga” is defined as “a Hindu philosophy that teaches a person to experience inner peace by controlling the body and mind.” That sure sounds a lot like hypnosis!
There are 196 aphorisms that form the basis of Yoga Yoga Sūtras which date back to approximately 200 BCE, . The sutras are divided into eight “limbs,” sometimes called the “eightfold path” as described by Dr. Kroger.
1st Limb: Yama is restraint, self-control, discipline, ethics, and integrity.
2nd Limb: Niyama is the regular and faithful observance of rules and practices.
These first two limbs of yoga are analogous to the ideal mindset for someone approaching hypnosis. As with most methods of mental healing, success depends partially on the positive expectancy that any person who has a sincere intention and dedication to the process can achieve results.
3rd Limb: Asana is placement of the body in the correct posture and sitting still.
4th Limb: Prānāyāma is control of the breathing.
In hypnosis, posture and breathing exercises facilitate the deep relaxation that is often associated with, though not always necessary for, the induction of hypnosis. In hypnosis, when attention is directed by mental focus on motor movements (like breathing or muscular twitches) or sensations (like tingling or floating), the conscious mind is kept busy and out of the way, allowing beneficial suggestions for healing and imagery to imprint upon the subconscious mind.
5th Limb: Pratyahara is withdrawing thoughts from the outer world.
Pratyahara resembles the “dissociation” that occurs in hypnosis to allow one to experience thoughts, feelings, and actions from a new perspective. Dissociation happens when you feel like you are outside of yourself, or like you are watching yourself act, without control over your actions, like in daydreaming when suddenly feels as if you could not move, even if you tried, though you don’t care to try. Dissociation can be positive. In some situations it brings a burst of insight, a sudden expansion of mental perspective, or an emotional shift that seems to fix the problem automatically and permanently.
Kroger points out that the goal of nirvana, the state of complete liberation, is strikingly similar to the dissociated states that characterize hypnosis.
Hypnosis can be a powerful tool to achieve dissociation when needed, or to stop it when undesirable. Hypnosis influences this aspect of the mind so effectively that many well-known phenomena of stage hypnosis rely on it.
Kroger writes that the first limbs of yoga involve the creation of a favorable mental attitude of expectancy, which is necessary to approach and induce hypnosis:
1. First we take account of our personal motivation (yama) and commit to the process (niyama).
2. Next we focus on postures (asana) and breathing (pranayama), which facilitate the trance state.
3. The redirection of attention resulting from mental focus on posture and breathing facilitates withdrawal from the outer world and focus on inner thoughts and sensations (pratyahara).
6th Limb: Dhāranā is concentration. For example, a person might focus attention on particular parts of the body (kinesthetic), a mantra (auditory), or an image (visual).
7th Limb: Dhyāna is to hold stillness in the mind, without the effort of single-pointed attention that characterizes the previous limb of dhāranā.
During the induction and deepening phases of hypnosis, posture and breathing (like limbs 3 and 4) serve to redirect the attention to facilitate trance. Furthermore, concentration on certain tactile, auditory, or visual stimuli again keeps the conscious mind busy so that positive suggestions can influence the subconscious mind.
Like the single-pointed concentration that characterizes dhāranā, constantly pulling the mind back to focus on a certain thought, image or feeling, repetition is an elementary principle of hypnosis.
When positive information outnumbers negative information (like worries and negative self-talk, for example), it becomes more likely that the positive thought or emotion will become chosen automatically and unconsciously and eventually becomes automatic and effortless (like dhyāna).
8th Limb: Samādhi is a profound state of ecstasy and peace that comes from feeling at one with higher consciousness.
There are different types of yoga, but they all achieve their effects by helping the person to achieve union with a higher state of consciousness. Likewise, the real magic of hypnosis takes place when the mind is lifted from its previous state to a higher plane of thought. When a problem is seen from a new perspective, a paradigm shift from the previous state to a new state is achieved, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Many people approach their problems by struggling against them. For example, the smoker feels engaged in a mortal battle (literally) with cigarettes, or the overeater has a love-hate relationship with sweets (they love the sweets, and hate themselves for giving in to them).
However, the Law of Reversed Effect asserts that the harder you try to do something, the less chance you have of success, because the unconscious mind, because that the thing against which you struggle actually has power over you.
In both Yoga and hypnosis, healing is not achieved by focusing on the suffering, or by empowering one to struggle harder, but instead by raising the mind to a higher plane.
For example, to stop smoking it is usually far more effective to think about how good it feels to have energy, lung capacity, peace of mind, and self control than to focus on the damage caused by smoke and nicotine, or the shame of addiction.
In both hypnosis and yoga, the ultimate goal is achieved when the subject is lifted to a higher state of consciousness.
Kroger, William S. Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1963.