Brett (my futurist, yogi, social worker husband) and I created a model several years ago to help explain how yoga philosophy adds an important piece to questions that health care theorists (not to mention philosophers) have wrestled with for a long time – What are human beings? How do we heal?
The West is very good at looking outside and understanding how we influence each other (some great examples include the biopsychosocial model, the social ecological model from social work theory (shown in the blue and green oval diagram below), and then studies like the Framingham Heart Study which showed how we (and our health and health related behaviors) are all intimately interconnected, and research on the Social Determinants of health which tell us that where we live, who we are connected to, and what access we have to resources and services greatly influences our health outcomes.
On the other hand, the East has been very good at looking inside and understanding human existence with great depth and nuance. The kosa model from the Taittiriya upanisad is used in yoga therapy to better understand the individual across multiple levels (or “sheaths,” which is a more accurate translation of the Sanskrit) and then address dysfunction from the level that’s relevant.
Other models, like the four yogas of the Bhagavad Gita give us insight into personal differences. In fact, world renowned religious scholar Huston Smith has stated that Carl Jung adapted his four main personality types (on which Myers Briggs is based BTW) on the four types of yoga outlined in the Bhagavad Gita – jnana, bhakti, karma, and raja (reflective, affective, active, and meditative).
So why not use the best of both worlds and develop a more complete model to look into what we are as human beings and how we heal? Brett and I put this together to show that the individual is inextricably woven into a multifaceted interconnected system. (Please note that the left side of the model is meant to be embedded in the red circle of “self” on the right side – I probably need to get this professionally graphic designed at some point rather than relying on my remedial power point skills!)
“Locust of control” here means the degree to which people believe that they have control over their health, as opposed to external forces that are beyond their control being the primary drivers of their health. According to the Robert Wood’s Johnson Foundation, up to 70% of that control may be external to ourselves.
Part of the value of yoga practice lies in helping us progressively internalize that locus of control – not just to a superficial understanding of “self,” but to the deepest parts of ourselves, the parts that are less susceptible to change, the parts of the “self” that may touch upon the impervious and the immutable.
People who survive harrowing experiences often do so as a result of a sort of what could be called “spiritual resilience” – they know that there is something deeper at work, that there is a part of themselves that is plugged into God, the source, or a higher power. That kind of understanding is a very deep sense and experience of a truly internalized locus of control.
Sometimes a backache is just a backache and a structural approach will work. But often chronic pain and other conditions are manifestations of things gone awry in other “sheaths” of the system.
If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem is going to look like a nail. Backaches are not always nails that require hammering, sometimes they are the manifestation of dysfunctional relationships, poor diets, a load of stress from work, grief, anger, a lack of self-actualization. or past traumas. Being able to keep the whole system in mind while addressing particular imbalances at various levels is the key to improving health, and to driving that locus of control deeper and deeper into the kosas.
As yoga professionals, helping people to hold that bigger picture while applying the tools of practice can reduce suffering and help people regain a sense of control. Given that so many people have so many health concerns (to the tune of $3.5T in U.S. health care costs per year) this is some of the most vital and important work that we can do.
A Yoga Influenced Social Ecology model can help us move beyond reductive, mechanistic ideas of what it means to be human and to be healthy. Not all our problems need to be hammered, human beings are more complex and nuanced than that, which means that we need more complex and nuanced ways to think about and to address who we are and how we heal.