As a hypnotist, I often teach workshops on self-hypnosis and meditation at yoga centers, and some participants have asked if there are similarities and relationships between hypnosis and yoga. Usually, someone in the group points out that hypnosis seems similar to “yoga nidra,” the deep, trance-like state that yogis experience during meditation. In both yoga nidra and hypnosis, the body is intensely relaxed and the mind highly focused. The comparison doesn’t end there; in his landmark book Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis in Medicine, Dentistry, and Psychology, Dr. William Kroger points out that there are great similarities between hypnosis and the eight “limbs” of yoga that are set forth in the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. This brief comparison explores the relationship between Yoga and hypnosis.
There are many ideas about the precise meaning of the word “yoga.” Literally, it means to join, bind, attach, or unite. In popular use “yoga” has come to mean, as Webster defines it, “a Hindu philosophy that teaches a person to experience inner peace by controlling the body and mind.” That sure sounds a lot like hypnosis! The Yoga Sūtras, dating back to approximately 200 BCE, are 196 aphorisms that form the basis of Yoga. The sutras are divided into eight “limbs,” sometimes called the “eightfold path.” They are summarized here, with their analogies to hypnosis. My interpretations differ somewhat from Dr. Kroger’s, but credit must go to the master for making the initial comparison:
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. Posture and breathing also serve to misdirect the attention. In hypnosis, when attention is diverted by mental focus on automatic motor movements (like breathing or muscular twitches) or automatic sensations (like tingling or floating), the conscious mind is kept busy and out of the way, allowing beneficial suggestions and imagery to imprint upon the subconscious mind.
5th Limb: Pratyahara is withdrawing thoughts from the outer world.
Pratyahara resembles the “depersonalization” that occurs in hypnosis and allows one to experience thoughts, feelings, and actions from a new perspective. Depersonalization takes place to some extent when you feel like you are outside of yourself, or like you are watching yourself act, without control over your actions. It happens to some extent when you are daydreaming and suddenly feel as if you could not move, even if you tried, though you don’t care to try. Depersonalization can be positive. In some situations it brings a burst of insight, a sudden expansion of mental perspective (“Eureka! I never seen it that way before!”), or an emotional shift (“Suddenly I just feel great, and I can’t explain it!”) that seems to fix the problem automatically and permanently. Depersonalization can be spiritual. Kroger points out that the goal of nirvana, the state of complete liberation, is strikingly similar to the depersonalization and other dissociated states that characterize hypnosis.
On the other hand, depersonalization can be negative, as when it is the result of trauma or prolonged stress. To some extent, a person who has automatic bad habits or compulsive worries experiences some degree of depersonalization by not having conscious control of their behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. In such cases, the goal of hypnosis is to orient the person to their own identity in a balanced and positive way.
Hypnosis can be a powerful tool to achieve depersonalization 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. For example, it is the epitome of depersonalization and disassociation when a subject is made to forget his own identity and assume he is another person, or is made to lose control or feeling in part of the body.
Kroger writes that the first five limbs of yoga involve the creation of a favorable mental attitude of expectancy, which is necessary to approach and induce hypnosis. In summary of these five: First we take account of our personal motivation (yama) and commit to the process (niyama). Next we focus on postures (asana) and breathing (pranayama), which facilitate the trance state. The misdirection of attention resulting from mental focus on posture and breathing facilitates withdrawal from the outer world and focus on inner thoughts and sensations (pratyahara).
Kroger compares the last three limbs of yoga (dhāranā, dhyāna, and samādhi) to the responses that occur during hypnosis:
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 willful 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 misdirect the attention and facilitate trance. Now, with the subject in hypnosis, 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. The mind chooses its subjects of thought automatically, and redundancy (repetition) gives it more bits of positive information from which to choose. 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. In hypnosis the positive information that is repeated with concentration and effort at first (like dhāranā) 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.
Yoga is more than stretches, poses, or exercise; it is a path by which an individual may achieve overall physical healing and balance. 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 can be 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 that the thing against which you struggle actually has power. 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. In practical terms this means leading the subject to experience the thoughts and feelings that will accompany the goal once it is achieved. 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. My point is not to equate samādhi to overcoming, but to illustrate that in both hypnosis and yoga, the ultimate goal is achieved when the subject is lifted to a higher state of consciousness.
This is only a summary comparison of two very complicated subjects, but I hope that it can in some way benefit those who are involved in the practices of yoga and hypnosis. When we consider the parallels between ancient systems of healing such as these, it reminds us that we are one human family, all with the same goal of human health and happiness. If we follow these universal prescriptions for balance and healing, we are bound to think, feel, and do better.
Kroger, William S. Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1963.