Concetration and Trance: Key Elements of the Yogic Experience of Wellbeing

By Adriana Maldonado

This text is an edited (brief) version of my dissertation for the MA Traditions of Yoga and Meditation at SOAS University in London. © Adriana Maldonado, N8 Yoga 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Adriana Maldonado with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Introduction. 0
















Different techniques of concentration in yoga can lead to experiences of trance. These experiences, understood as Altered States of Consciousness (ASCs) prove beneficial for wellbeing. This text will explain why this is the case.

What is trance? What are the techniques used to enter trance states within the history of yoga? What techniques of concentration were and are taught by popular teachers and Gurus of Yoga? How could we define the experience of wellbeing after a yoga practice? And are people experiencing trance states in a contemporary studio setting? I explore the answers to all these questions and argue that concentration or Attentional Control -as is commonly used in psychology- whether on external factors and related to perception, or on internal factors -visualization, thoughts, or other mental processes- and on the path of yoga meditation, has remained a constant feature of yoga – from its first definitions as a set of techniques and practices to attain liberation, through to our modern day understanding of yoga to support mental and physical health.

In recent years, several research studies have demonstrated that yoga promotes wellbeing[1]. National Health institutions such as the NHS in the UK use yoga as complementary treatment in healthcare, and scholars, teachers and practitioners seem to agree that yoga has a transformative nature that can support wellbeing. But descriptions and propositions of yoga practices remain diverse – from the beginning of its history to modern day. Particularly, Modern Postural Yoga (MPY[2]) in itself, is a spectrum of propositions that can range from very physical-athletic to relaxing nearly static practices. Nevertheless, mind work through concentration, such as fixation on certain places in the body -e.g., gazing in between the eyebrows- and focus on breath, have been constants in nearly all propositions.

Concentration leads to absorption; this is understood as a state of trance or Altered State of Consciousness (ASC). Meditation and the state of flow are states of trance or ASCs -all these concepts will be discussed below I will demonstrate that while there are differences between absorption in deep states of meditation in seated postures, and absorption induced by āsana and vinyāsa, both are trance experiences and prove beneficial for wellbeing.



Attentional Control (AC) or concentration[3] refers to our ability to choose where we direct our attention and what we ignore. AC is initially driven by stimuli, but as the practitioner acquires more experience it can shift to a goal-directed concentration as distracters disappear. Research demonstrates that AC improves with regular practice; this involves the processes of learning and memory.

According to Tart (2000), attention and awareness conform the ‘major energy of the mind’; he describes this energy as our ability to do work or to make something happen, a ‘psychological energy.’ AC as energy is at the heart of yoga practices, for example concentration on breath awareness and on different parts of the body or on objects of meditation such as mantras, physical sensations, images, and gazing points.

In the context of yoga history and philosophy, the mind must be kept focused without distractions to advance towards the goal of yoga that has to do with understanding the nature of the Self. AC techniques are usually involved whether this goal is related to achieving Samādhī, described as a state of trance in the path of salvation, or to support wellbeing in a modern context.


The Cambridge dictionary defines trance as ‘a temporary mental condition in which someone is not completely conscious of and/or not in control of himself or herself.’ Castillo (1995) notes that trance is a ‘human behaviour’ that can be induced by focusing attention and that is present in all cultures and manifested in different ways. It usually involves processes that bring a person from her ‘everyday consciousness’ into a different mental state and then back to their normal but somehow ‘changed by the experience’ (Harrington 2016).

The study of trance is surrounded by controversy and confusion as it was typically related to shamanism, spirit possession, and often considered a pathology. Although this is true, these are all trance experiences and trance could be a sign of a pathology,

The ability of experiencing trance or Altered States of Consciousness[4] (ASC) is universal but may be shaped by the context and what induces that trance. Trance can be induced by practicing sports, performing music, dancing, or any activity that requires concentration; in addition, external awareness can continue in light trances, occurring alongside ‘ordinary consciousness’ (Inglis 1990).

Trance plays a role in most religions; and it is related to mystic or ecstatic experiences. Tart (2000) argues these ‘mystic experiences have formed the underpinnings of all great religious systems.’

Experiences of ecstatic trance, as Inglis (1990) argues, often give a sensation of ‘the oneness of everything’, people afterwards feel transformed and connected to nature and their surroundings, or as in the above example connected to God.

Many religious traditions, including yoga traditions, had as a goal the cultivation of trance with a view to attaining ecstasy (Inglis 1990). This involves focusing on an object of concentration in a process of emptying the mind except the perception of the object in question (Inglis 1990).

Trance states, as pointed out by Connolly (2014) can be light or deep; and they differ in their orientation, they can be internally focused or externally focused. They can be self-induced, group-induced as part of a collective practice, or induced by another person, for example as in hypnosis. In addition, the environment and atmosphere during practice can induce the sense of calmness, as well as practicing in a social context; as Nevrin (in Singleton and Byrne 2008) argues, practicing in a group can ‘unload the burden of individuality’; in a group, the practitioner could experience the sense of belonging to something larger transcending his own self (Malbon 1999).

Persuading the mind is relevant to access concentration, as well as regular practice and faith, belief or confidence in the practice.

The Yogic Experience is a state of trance, light or deep, and as Connolly (2014) points out has to do with displacing or inhibiting conscious mind processes. The method used to induce this trance affects the experience of trance (Connolly 2014), and the experience of trance states, usually has the effect of feeling ‘joyful’ (Tart 2000).


Because Yoga texts are countless, covering a long history of more than twenty centuries, I will focus on only a few that in my mind are a good example of the sources where many concepts, techniques and principles of yoga were originally presented. I briefly mention the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, the Bhagavadgītā, and a bit more in depth the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and a couple of haṭhayoga treatises.

According to Mallinson and Singleton (2017) the below excerpt of the Kaṭha Upaniṣad is the ‘earliest known definition of yoga’, dated to the 3rd century BCE. Here we find a clear example of the importance of mind control as a root of yoga.

When the five perceptions are stilled

Together with the mind,

And not even reason bestirs itself;

They call it the highest state.

When senses are firmly reined in,

That is Yoga, so people think.

From distractions a man is then free,

For Yoga is the coming-into-being,

As well as the ceasing-to-be.

Kaṭha Upaniṣad 6:10-11 (Olivelle, 1996:246).

Similarly, in the Bhagavadgītā, part of the Mahābhārata dated to the 3rd century CE yoga is very much the bringing of the mind into focus:


when one directs the mind

to a single point,

actions of the senses

and thoughts controlled,

sitting oneself on the seat,

one should join to yoga

in order to purify

the self.


One is firm


holding in balance

the head, neck and body,

looking at the tip

of one’s own nose,

not looking in any direction.

Bhagavadgītā, 6.12-13 (Patton 2008:73)

The above verses suggest a process of concentration through AC techniques, e.g. gazing points, to induce a meditative trance. The verses that follow the above (see Patton 2008) explain that yoga is also about bringing concentration to all aspects of life, allowing the practitioner to experience joy.

Along the history of yoga, focusing on the space between the eyebrows to access concentration, seems the most used AC technique from early CE to current contemporary practices.


Dated circa the 4th century CE (Mallinson and Singleton 2017), the Pātañjalayogaśāstra is understood as the Yoga Sūtra (YS) of Patañjali and Vyāsa’s commentary, known as the Yogabhāṣya.

Patañjali’s system is a progressive path involving concentration and breath work to bypass the ‘turnings of thought’ entirely by restraining bodily actions and stabilising the mind (White 2014). The ultimate goal is the end of suffering, liberation or the realisation of the Self.

Yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ

‘Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.’

Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali I.2(translated by Bryant 2009:10)

Edwin Bryant (2009) argues that if the term yoga here in the above sūtra is to mean ‘yoke’ this ‘entails yoking the mind on an object of concentration without deviation’.Bryant translates cittavṛtti as ‘changing states of the mind’ while Feuerstein (1989:26) translates it as ‘fluctuations of consciousness’. Feuerstein may be touching on the transition from a normal state of consciousness to an ASC through AC techniques, the accessing to a trance state.

AC is presented by Patañjali as Dhāraṇā: ‘the binding of consciousness to a [single] spot’ (Feurstein 1979). Feurstein argues that one-pointedness or Ekāgratā ‘is the underlying process of the technique of concentration.’ This technique allows the practitioner to attain a state of trance.

This yogic trance experience is described as sāttvic, ‘free from pain and luminous’, and ‘free from rajas and tamas’ that are the sources of pain and obscuration (Bryant 2009).

The heavy use of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra in modern discourses of yoga may be linked to later 20th century promoters of the practice such as Kṛṣṇamācārya, whose work I explore later in this text.


Fixation, visualisation and breath control are all AC techniques that lead to absorption or trance and are key for the Gheraṇḍasaṁhitā and for the Vivekamārtaṇḍa. The texts describe complex techniques to bring the practitioner’s mind into focus and access states of yogic trance, both in seated meditation and while performing āsana, prāṇāyāma, and mudrā.  The teaching of the Gheraṇḍasaṁhitā, as of many other yoga texts, is that the deeper the state of trance through the fixation of the mind, the closer the practitioner is to achieving the goal of yoga, i.e., Samādhī.

In chapter 2 (see Mallinson 2004) there is the description of siddhāsana (seated posture): ‘remain motionless with the sense organs restrained while staring between the eyebrows.’ This is similar to the description of Śāmbhavī mudrā, mentioned in chapter 3,which is a goal-oriented meditation, ‘seeing the bindu that consists of Brahman’, and which also involves the gazing point in between the eyebrows. Bindu, although can have different meanings, can refer to a point on the body (Mallinson 2007).

Another method described to induce trance through fixation is the ‘five dhāraṇā’. These are fixations of ‘breath and mind’ (Mallinson 2004), on the different elements and on different areas of the body, as per indicated in the text, for two hours each. Feuerstein (2008:396) points out that these concentration practices are included in the chapter of mudrās. This, he argues, demonstrates ‘the close relationship that exists in Yoga between physical practice and mental focus’.

Similarly, in the Vivekamārtaṇḍa there is extensive description of breathing, gazing practices and specific concentrations or fixations such as focusing on cakras to induce absorption:

(160) Absorption is when the mind and the self of the yogi become one like salt mixing with water.

(162) Absorption is when the individual self and the supreme self become one, and all conceptions are destroyed.

(163) For in this teaching the activity of the mind in the sense organs is a different process. When the vital principle has attained non-duality, there are neither mind nor sense organs.

(164) The yogi in absorption perceives neither smell, nor taste, nor form, nor touch, nor sound, nor self, nor someone else.

(165) The yogi in absorption knows neither cold nor heat, neither sorrow nor pleasure, neither honour nor dishonour.

(166) The yogi in absorption is not troubled by death, nor bound by karma, nor troubled by disease.

(Mallinson, 2021:34)

Absorption is the goal of the practices and is in these states of trance that the yogi achieves the goal of yoga, the experience of oneness and the ability of not being affected by external stimuli (related to not feeling ‘cold or heat’).

In addition, there is an indication of AC techniques while performing postures:

(118) With his face upwards and his tongue inserted into the aperture [above the palate] the yogi should visualise [the nectar] which has been forcefully obtained from Prāṇa and dripped from the sixteen-petalled lotus †to the head†, [and his tongue] as the supreme Śakti. The yogi who drinks the stream of liquid from the surging digits of the moon becomes free from faults, with a body as supple as a lotus-stalk and lives a long time.

In the above verse Mallinson (2021) believes that the yogi is in a shoulder stand pose (called viparīta-karaṇī mudrā). This could be evidence of advanced practice of inverted postures, while concentrating the mind visualising a desired process. The process of ‘drinking the nectar obtained from prāṇa’ could represent a steady focus, a trance state that results in the benefits mentioned -free from faults, supple and that lives a long life.


Key MPY influencers set the foundations of practices since the early 20th century. Understanding their perspectives is therefore essential to understanding the current role of AC (and its importance in supporting wellbeing).

I start here with Kṛṣṇamācārya and continue with his disciples Iyengar and Jois. I will also consider Scaravelli, herself a student of Iyengar and Desikachar (Kṛṣṇamācārya’s son), as she is an example of radical new conceptions to the practice of yoga in the West. 

All these teachers speak of the importance of concentration, emphasise the need for regular practice, breath work, and speak of an element of either devotion or belief in the practices.


A.G. Mohan (2010), a disciple of Kṛṣṇamācārya (1888–1989) and author of the book Kṛṣṇamācārya,  attributes some of yoga’s worldwide popularity to him. White (2014) goes further stating that ‘no person on the planet has had a greater impact on contemporary yoga practice.’

Birch and Singleton (2019:4) argue that Kṛṣṇamācārya may have taken inspiration on the Hathabhyāsapaddhati, a text that describes physical postures placed in sequences.

According to Birch and Singleton (2019:55), the Hathabhyāsapaddhati did not consider philosophical aspects, and only lightly referred to gazing points.  This potentially means that Kṛṣṇamācārya could have been responsible of creating a yoga that brought together a very physical practice, AC techniques, and the use of breath while moving (vinyāsa); all characteristic of MPY. Techniques of AC while in āsana such as dṛṣṭi and breath control; were largely inspired, as we can see in his Yoga Makaranda (1938), by the yoga philosophy of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and Haṭhayoga treatises.

White (2014) points out that Kṛṣṇamācārya’s biographies heavily focus on his ‘mastery of the philosophy of the Yoga Sūtra.’ It was evident that he had the intention to fit Patañjali’s eight limbs of yoga within his methods of āsana, vinyāsa and prāṇāyāma.

Perhaps Kṛṣṇamācārya’s intention was to make his proposal more authentic and ancient, but overall, his focus was on the body through a very physical practice.

Birch and Singleton (2019:57) argue that Kṛṣṇamācārya’s Vinyāsa method, may have also been derived from Indian wrestling traditions and that the yoga he taught ‘was composite, syncretic and constantly evolving’ (2019:63).

There may have been other figures that influenced him -and his students-, such as Bhavanarao Pant Pratinidhi (1868–1951) (see Goldberg 2016) who is said to have promoted and ‘re-invented’ (Alter 2000:83) Sūrya Namaskāra (Sun Salutations) in the 1920s.

Kṛṣṇamācārya remains clear with the ancient goal of Patañjali’s yoga: to bring concentration and stillness to the mind. According to Mohan (2010:31) Kṛṣṇamācārya often said: ‘No mental control, no yoga!’.

Here there is an example of his instructions linking Vinyāsa, breath, and gazing points:

‘Make sure that the navel rests between the hands and do pūraka kumbhaka. Try to push the chest as far forward as possible, lift the face up and keep gazing at the tip of the nose. Make the effort to practise until it becomes possible to remain in this posture for fifteen minutes.’

Excerpt of the instruction of Urdvhamukhasvanāsana (Upward facing dog).

 Kṛṣṇamācārya (1938:65)

In the above Kṛṣṇamācārya describes how a movement is accompanied by a specific way of breathing, a gaze to a point, and suggesting the need of regular practice to become skilful. The complexity of performance requires high levels of concentration in order to remain in posture for longer periods of time.

Referring to sirsana and sarvangāsana (headstand and shoulder stand):

‘It is said with much authority that if these two āsanas are practised regularly and properly, the practitioner will experience the awakening and rise of kundalini. Due to this, they will experience the blessings of Īśvara and will be swallowed in the sea of eternal bliss.’

Kṛṣṇamācārya (1938:146)

We could understand by the above description an ecstatic experience, characteristic of a form of religious trance.

Kṛṣṇamācārya was the teacher of B.K.S Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois who, amongst others, became responsible for spreading this mainly physical form of yoga across the world.


BKS Iyengar

In Light on Yoga, Iyengar (1966) follows Kṛṣṇamācārya’s teachings where the conquest of the Self is heavily dependent on bodily health:

The ‘body is the prime instrument of attainment…physical health is important for mental development…When the body is sick or the nervous system is affected, the mind becomes restless or dull and inert and concentration or meditation become impossible.’’ (Iyengar, 1966).

In Yoga Vṛkṣa he (1988) explores the idea of developing an ability to spread awareness of the whole body as ‘integration of the body, mind and soul’, calling this ‘meditation’ as the practitioner works on āsana. He makes contrast of this with a limited concentration on the posture or an area of the body; this performance he says in not meditation.

In addition, Iyengar (1966) teaches that a state of absorption can be achieved while doing āsana. Āsana is a ‘self-contained object of meditation’ that allows the practitioner to achieve Samādhī (see Bryant 2009).

Iyengar’s intention was to make āsana spiritual and to induce similar meditative trances as in seated meditations. Erich Schiffmann (1996), renown American teacher, describes his experience learning with Iyengar: ‘the whole point of all this physical, hard work -and it was very physical and very demanding- was to get into a deep meditative state. And for me, it worked.’  



In Yoga Mala, Pattabhi Jois (1999) declares that his method of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga brings the mind ‘one-pointed’; and that āsana should be practiced to improve health, to destroy illnesses, and as a ‘remedy for mental illness’.

He highlights the importance of keeping ‘faith in, and showing devotion to, the yogic limbs and the Guru’ for the practice to be effective. For him ‘faith’, can be also understood as a state of mind, the mind focuses on believing and acceptance. Furthermore, he suggests that through Vinyāsa practices such as Sūrya Namaskāra the practitioner can experience happiness and contentment.

Jois’ Aṣṭāṅga Yoga system follows Patañjali’s philosophy, but he emphasises the practice of āsana and vinyāsa as taught by his own teacher Kṛṣṇamācārya. Jois’ system involves sets of sequences of movements and postures using breath and gazing points. The addition of gazing points during the practices, according to Jois Yoga (2013) ‘facilitates dhyāna (meditation)’ but regular practice over time is needed to have results. As the practitioner becomes more skilful, he/she can progress in the sequences; these are repetitive and with time, as the practitioner has learned the sequences by heart, he/she enters of a state of light trance easily.



Vanda Scaravelli was highly influential in the development of MPY. She promoted AC techniques based on physical sensations, changes in the body, and on keeping the mind in the present moment. These are characteristics of MPY: using stimuli-perception as the focal point to maintain concentration. She was taught by Iyengar and Desikachar, among other teachers, but created her own style focused on the spine and alignment. She was perhaps the first to include ‘fun’ as an aspect to the practice of yoga:

‘Why are we doing yoga?…We do it for the fun of it. To twist, stretch, and move around, is pleasant and enjoyable, a body holiday.’

Vanda Scaravelli (1991).

The above notion is a notable departure from the spiritual goals of salvation. Nevertheless, Scaravelli talks about spirituality and transformation through the practice of physical yoga.

‘We have to be completely present and attentive in our minds without any distractions’ (1991).

‘Do not let your mind wander during your practice, but instead be completely there…, focusing your attention on one single action, where body and brain meet at the same point at the same time.’ (1991)

She (1991) emphasises that ‘attention is energy and produces energy when we use it. It is like the battery in a car that recharges itself.’ In her view the practice of physical yoga and breath will bring the individual ‘back to that blessed state of receptivity from which we can start to learn’ (1991:86).

Her ideas help understand how yoga changed to a series of techniques to support wellbeing.


A western individual who sought to understand and found himself immersed in the world of Yoga, more precisely Haṭhayoga, was Theos Bernard (1950). In his book Hatha Yoga: the report of a personal experience, he describes the different practices he learned from his Indian gurus and how these were ‘directed toward the single aim of stilling the mind’ (Bernard, 1950:13). He states in his introduction: ‘There is not a single āsana that is not intended directly or indirectly to quiet the mind’ (Bernard 1950:21).

Sjoman (1999:46) gave to Bernard’s written experience paramount historical importance to understand a yoga system in practice. Āsana is described as instrument not only to calm the mind but also to build up ‘will power or determination’.

The following is Bernard’s (1950) description of a different and deeper meditative state while in sirsāsana:

‘One of the most tiring problems I encountered when building up to the higher time standards was what to do with my mind. The moment I began to feel the slightest fatigue, my mind began to wander. At this point my teacher instructed me to select a spot on a level with my eyes, when standing on my head and direct the attention of my mind to it. Shortly this became a habit, and my mind adapted itself without the least awareness of the passage of time; in fact, I was eventually able to remain on my head for an hour and longer with no more knowledge of time than when I was sleep.’

The attentional technique of gazing towards a specific point is used here to induce the experience of trance (‘no awareness of the passage of time’), and there is also an indication of recurrent practice (‘habit’) as Bernard masters his headstand practice. The effect of ‘timelessness’ appears characteristic of the experience of trance (see Tart 2000). In Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) similar instructions and effects happen as practitioners perform certain postures.

AC techniques in MPY are related largely to bodily sensations, perhaps inspired by previously discussed teachers such as Scaravelli. In contemporary yoga we need, as Nevrin (in Singleton and Byrne 2008) argues, to take into account ‘bodily experience’ particularly if we want to understand the effects of the practice.

Bodily experience and effort are precisely what Shiva Rea, arguably one of the most important influencers of the modern yoga movement called Vinyasa Flow, uses to induce trance states. A type of moving meditation called ‘Prāṇa Flow’ that, according to her, can bring ‘transformation of the body as a vehicle of divine expression’ (Rea 2014).  She uses very dynamic movements based on Sun Salutations; she writes: ‘This is a kind of movement alchemy designed to awaken and transform the mover to realize the source of their meditation.’ A mind process where the practitioner diverts his/her mind from all other thought and fixates his/her mind, in this case on the action of movement to the point he/she experiences an ASC similar to a meditative trance.



A moment of full attentional absorption while practicing yoga can be considered a trance experience (Connolly 2014). In the context of MPY, this fits with the concept develop by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called Flow. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) seems to have found another name for an ASC; but his way of describing the experience of Flow has been adopted by those speaking about an ASC induced by an activity such as sports or MPY.

Presenting his theory of flow, psychologist Csikszentmihalyi (1990) seems to speak of yoga: ‘Everything we experience – joy or pain, interest or boredom – is represented in the mind as information. If we are able to control this information, we can decide what our lives will be like’. While does not refer specifically to a yoga practice, he recognises that Eastern religions provide a guide ‘in how to achieve control over consciousness’ (Csikszentmihalyi 1990:103) and dedicates a section in his book Flow to the practice and philosophy of Yoga:

‘The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact, it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity. Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body.’ (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

Csikszentmihalyi (1990) suggests that individuals benefit from having a goal in order to bring ‘order in consciousness’; as his/her attention fully turns to that specific task, he/she will ‘forget everything else’ in a state of absorption.

This is similar to meditation and also can be fitted to a practitioner’s experience of MPY, where conditioned patterns of perception and behaviour are eradicated (Connolly 2014).

The musician Sting (in Gannon and Life 2002), a practitioner of Jivamukti Yoga, describes what seems a description of flow while practicing sirsāsana on a plane:

‘I feel the vibrations of the engines through the floor from my head up to my feet. It sounds like OM to the power of six thousand horses. I’m vibrating with it upside down with an inverted smile on my face. This is truly flying.


I have now been practicing yoga six days a week for ten years. And I believe that yoga has provided me with energy and focus that I would not have possessed otherwise…Yoga practice has become inextricably bound to every aspect of my life.’

Sting describes a trance experience and the positive effects of yoga on his life. Accounts as the above are easily found among many practitioners of MPY. As yoga travelled the world, meditation, philosophy, and prāṇāyāma became less important for certain groups. Singleton (2010) argues, that in the West yoga is now a synonymous of āsana. But āsana can also be transformative and bring steadiness of mind through flow experiences.

Bhavanarao, Kṛṣṇamācārya and later teachers’ recipe of combining a physical and AC practice has allowed practitioners to change their relationship with experiences by accessing ASC’s, even if they are light as moments of flow. These processes can effectively support the practitioners’ wellbeing.

Csikszentmihalyi (1990:2) argues that individuals can change their ‘inner’ experience ‘to determine the quality of their lives’, which he relates to being close to happiness, or at least moments of happiness.


This paper was an analysis of AC techniques as a common denominator within yoga practices throughout its history, as the inducer of ASC (from light trance to deep meditation), and yogic experiences of wellbeing. The practices themselves are varied and have evolved in time as they have been appropriated by different traditions and key figures and as I have demonstrated they involve techniques while on seated meditation or while on movement.

There were a few important marks in the yogic history of AC:

Pre-medieval: Suggestions of attentional techniques to keep the mind focused to induce meditative trance as a synonym of yoga as per in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad and Bhagavadgītā. No mention of movement, just suggestion of seated postures.

In Patañjali’s eight limb system the aim is to master the mind through the elimination of perception through concentration and breath control. No mention of movement, again just suggestions of seated postures.

Medieval: More complex goal-oriented Haṭhayoga attentional techniques to induce trance and meditative states as for example the five dhāraṇā. Here AC techniques are also introduced while on āsana such as gazing points, visualization, and breath control.

Modern: Goal-oriented attentional techniques inspired by the YS and Haṭhayoga treatises areincorporated in the practice of physical postural yoga since early 20th century. I have identified Kṛṣṇamācārya as a key figure for this incorporation.

Iyengar becomes a promoter of similar to Kṛṣṇamācārya’s yoga practices that spread to the West. The goals of yoga are increasingly focused on wellbeing and have therapeutic value. There is emphasis on physical sensations and on the present moment, gazing points and breath control, in addition to rhythmic and repetitive movement. I used Vanda Scaravelli as an example of an influencer of new techniques within MPY. The techniques no longer involve the suppression of perception but instead perception becomes the object of concentration; AC techniques infuse physical practice and induce a state of trance or flow.

After Vanda Scaravelli and other teachers of the time there is a proliferation of yoga practices in the west that combine ancient and modern practices. If there is trust in the practices, regular practice and use of breath, generally the effect is an ASC, trance or flow experience.

In the practice of MPY, there are a few elements that could help the induction of trance, group practice for example, atmosphere, and keeping the practices challenging to engage students and to keep steady concentration. Finally, another aspect that remains important from the beginning of Yoga as a set of techniques to induce trance is the use of breath. Breath is what connects mind and body, where they ‘unite’ (Wilber 1993:236).

My research demonstrates there are a few determinants needed in the practice of yoga to experience mind and body benefits from AC and trance states. Among these, the most important are: a. the belief or trust that the practices are beneficial, which may or may not be related to faith or devotion; b. constancy and discipline to practice regularly and develop skills to maintain concentration; and c. breath work enhances the effect of āsana practices and helps bringing the individual’s mind into focus.

It is clear that more research is needed to identify and classify AC techniques within yoga practice and history and to determine what forms of ASC are induced and the effects on practitioners. The understanding of the development of these techniques and their therapeutic value I argue can become key for future generations of yoga teachers and practitioners, and also could inform scholarship. As Shearer (2020:5) points out, the effects of yoga are usually an ‘extra’ that each individual discovers on their own, if the techniques were classified and introduced to yoga classes I believe practitioners would be able to access ASCs in an easier way, aware that this would be beneficial for them. In addition, this could help to trace the evolution of the practices and understanding of Yoga in contemporary times. It provides another lens through which to classify different branches of Yoga and indeed a frame to study it.



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[1] See for example Flaherty (2020) that presents several research studies on yoga benefits.

[2] Using Elizabeth De Michelis (2014) terminology.

[3] ‘Attentional Control’ is broadly used as a synonym of Concentration in Psychology.

[4] Scholars such as Tart (2000) discuss Altered States of Consciousness without using the word trance. In this paper I use the terms mostly as synonyms, although it would be appropriate to mention that there are a few ASCs that are not trance states such as for example sleeping.

From practicing yoga to becoming a Yoga teacher: Understanding the change and how it affects people’s physical and mental health


This mini ethnography examines the shift from being a yoga practitioner to becoming a yoga teacher, and its impact on physical and mental wellbeing. The research was primarily through (i) semi-structured Zoom interviews, (ii) participant observation online: Facebook, Instagram, emails and messenger texts, and (iii) reflecting on my own experience as yoga teacher. My participants are yoga teachers at different stages of their careers and mainly based in London. My questions focused on: 1. How the practitioner’s perspective of yoga changes when the practice becomes her job; 2. needing to generate income from teaching while facing competition, and other business’ issues, and 3. her physical and mental health as this shift happens. The research aims to help Yoga Teacher Trainings (YTTs) organisers to inform their programmes and initiate a debate on the need of further regulation on YTTs in the UK.


I never thought that through ethnographic research I would be able to find out so much about my own self. Like pieces of a puzzle that suddenly were found and put in place helping me to understand the bigger picture. Conversations deepen and reinforce understanding. Through participant observation (PO) and interviews, I realised that what I am trying to find out is deeply important for my life. I have chosen to interview three teachers in different stages of their careers; the broad experiences have helped me explore the transition and its implications on their lives and their wellbeing. PO was conducted (i) on Facebook groups, also (ii) via live Instagram videos by Neda and Jasmin, both yoga studio owners, and (iii) through informal conversations with yoga teacher fellows whom which I work. PO helped particularly at finding common threads of experiences.

The context

Yoga has become popular with over 200 million people practicing globally (Newcombe, 2019:1). While a common understanding of yoga is as a form of exercise and a way to relieve stress and linked to wellbeing, for some practitioners, yoga creates a ‘meaning and understanding of themselves in relation to others’ (Newcombe 2019:270) and plays an important role in their lives. As Carrette and King (2005:125, see also Jain, 2015:99) point out, commodifying yoga is big business; this phenomenon and the lack of regulations around the practice and the teaching of yoga have allowed prolific offering of Yoga Teacher Trainings (YTTs). Programmes as short as two weeks are offered, meaning that everyday hundreds of practitioners venture into the world of yoga teaching. Research is needed to inform YTTs to design better programmes for aspiring teachers, including preparing them to confront a now saturated market.

Teachers’ experiences (interviews and participant observation)

“It doesn’t matter how much you love something; work is work.”

Interview excerpt with Tarik

Tarik has been practicing and teaching yoga since the 1990’s. He believes that the two key difficulties were having to make money and learning to face competition. Something that was a “personal process of spiritual transformation, became stressful, not enjoyable, and not financially rewarding”. For Tarik, those struggles continued for roughly 10 years before he found the confidence he needed in his teaching: At that point, “the insecurity goes away and largely depends on how much you teach…you stop feeling so threatened because you become self-accepting”.

Tarik believes it is difficult for yoga lovers to become businesspeople: “those that embrace [the business element], are the ones that are most successful”. Yoga teachers are generally self-employed; and as such, they need to learn skills unrelated to yoga. These difficulties can become mental struggles.  Becoming a yoga teacher and being self-employed according to Tarik “is to face the world, limiting beliefs about money and becoming visible to others”.

Where you live may also have an impact, places like London have thousands of yoga teachers and studios. Here, general yoga group classes are a product hard to sell, Tarik’s advice is to find what your market needs that is not there already. Sometimes this product will be different to what you love to teach, but “if you don’t enjoy what your market needs, then you need to do something else”.

Tarik estimates that about 10% of those he trains end up as full-time yoga teachers. Many students will do the training to deepen their knowledge in yoga with no intention to teaching afterwards. Initially both Olivia and Jill, my other two interviewees, trained with this intention. This was also a common element in PO too.    

It was when Olivia was struggling with mental health issues that yoga became a “common support thread”. Physically, yoga also helped her bad back and stiffness. But after becoming a teacher she finds it hard “to switch off” in a yoga class. In order to achieve the benefits she used to get from yoga, Olivia needs to practice different styles like “restorative yoga”.

The teaching experience can take a different way for supporting their wellbeing and this can be by finding satisfaction through affecting people positively in their yoga classes. In addition, some teachers report change in different aspects of their lives with years of teaching experience, as Nerine, a teacher with five years into the job tells me: “my personal practice tends to focus more on how the tenets influence my day-to-day life, my teaching, my relationships, how I interact with communities, politics, the environment…”. Another teacher, Matt describes how before his teaching training yoga used to be one part of his exercise routine “whereas [now] it has very much become a way of life”.

As well as many benefits, teachers also experience many challenges. Teachers face a saturated market, in the case of Olivia, she initially believed that working in yoga studios was key to success. One PO participant, Chiara, a teacher in Haringey thought similarly: “It got into my head that I had to teach at a studio. Somehow the classes I organised didn’t count.”  In London, the average pay for a 60-minute class in a studio is between £25 to £30[1].  Considering London’s minimum wage[2], a yoga teacher working only in studios would have to teach at least 4 classes per day, 5 days per week (considering some holiday) to earn just above the minimum. Despite being poorly paid, teachers nonetheless seek to work for studios. However, having a studio does not mean necessarily making considerable money. Particularly for small studios is hard to keep classes full because of competition. In places like London cost of rent is high and studios must constantly invest on marketing.

Meanwhile, 20 classes per week is not physically sustainable for a teacher, as Neda, a yoga studio owner and teacher in North London, declares in a chat live via Instagram with Jasmin, another studio owner from Nottingham. “About a year into it [teaching 20 classes per/week], I was falling apart…the practice that is supposed to be healing is pulling me apart, why?”.

Figures 1 and 2: First and second public conversations between (Neda) and @bahiayoga (Jasmin), find them on Instagram.

It was similar for me, when I was teaching about 16 classes per week (not even 20!), I was physically exhausted. When I started organising my own classes, I realised I could make up to four times more money. However, building your own classes requires hours of work on marketing, and it may take months to have full classes – if indeed you ever achieve this. But as Olivia says, these clients are yours, as opposed to the studio’s, you have their emails, and they will be likely to consume other products you sell. But Olivia does not advise becoming a full-time teacher all at once, “it is hard to find enough jobs and it takes time”.

Jill, who teaches yoga also keeps a part-time job in a charity. She is aware that just being a yoga teacher could be a stressful job because “is not financially viable”. On top of being difficult to find jobs, if you rely on studio classes, you do not have employment rights or contracts. Working with no proper contracts puts teachers in vulnerable conditions, there is nowhere to complain and there is a fear of confrontation as bad relationships may impact future job opportunities.

Taking things personally is a common and unavoidable feeling that came up during PO, and reflects my own experience. As Chiara states: “Any rejection or unsuccessful attempt would be a blow to my self-esteem and at times I doubted my own abilities.” In addition, Jill points out how many yoga teachers “will do some things unpaid to support studios. This ultimately means working for free… but there is a fear that by not doing it, you might not have a regular class for long!”.

Yoga teachers also feel the need to be the best they can be for their students, so they also embark on further trainings that can cost lots of money. Jasmin tells in her live Instagram with Neda “…you feel you need to master things in order to share them…” and Neda points out their many trainings. Jill and Chiara are about to start another 300-hour YTT, Jill has just finished a course on breathing. In that line, Rachel, who teaches in North London, tells me: “I found myself feeling like I had to do lots of trainings just to show that I am good enough…”

By scrolling through Facebook I come across the Yoga Teachers Union, a collective of teachers looking to form a Union to fight for teachers’ rights. I find that some of the struggles I have been exploring in my research are widely common, particularly unfairness of payment and employment rights and how this can affect the teacher’s self-steem. See figures below.

Figures 3 and 4: testimonials shared at: 


Through this research, I was surprised to listen and to read accounts of experiences very simliar to my own. Many other PO subjects described a similar pattern of tough experience and poor pay. Nevertheless subjects describe teaching yoga as having profound positive effects and can transform people’s lives. I summarise in the next pragraphs my main findings:

  • Having experienced the benefits of yoga, as the practice supports their wellbeing:  with injury recovery, conditions, stress management, and mental health support; many practitioners are drawn to take YTT to deepen their understanding of yoga and manifest a process of self-discovery and personal transformation.
  • Only a small part of those who finish a YTT will become full time yoga teachers.
  • In order to start teaching, the person needs to have a side income support, this being another job, full or part-time, or by having supporting partners or family.
  • Teachers will typically pursue several further trainings. By facing employment they realise they were not well prepared for teaching. However, more mature students acknoledge that it is only by teaching, and acquiring experience, that one becomes at ease with it.
  • Depending of the type of yoga, many will go through periods of excessive physical strain. As they become more expereinced, they learn to verbally instruct more instead of demonstrating the practices.
  • Early in their careers, studio jobs are appealing to achieve recognition.
  • A teacher will have to confront their mental struggles of confidence and self acceptance as they face competition.
  • What yoga used to be for them (the particular practices that initially offered support to their wellbeing) is transformed. It becomes hard to be a student without judging with the eyes of a teacher, some however experience deep meditation, relaxation and satisfation while teaching. As such, some teachers prefer to do other types of yoga or other activities in order to ‘switch off’ and support their wellbeing.
  • To support their income, many teachers expand beyond teaching yoga exclusively, to other complementary jobs, such as massage, pilates and healing practices.
  • Embracing what is needed to get to their markets -e.g. marketing-, as well as developing other business-related skills, will help ease their way into teaching more comfortably.
  • Maturity in their careers and self acceptance often takes several years of experience.

Although these are broad and diverse results, there are some clear suggestions for where to put emphasis when planning a YTT – in particular training for self-employment and preparation to possible mental and physical struggles.

Further research is needed to help shape YTT and to start a dialogue with authorities in order to set regulations for both YTT and for working conditions for yoga teachers. While there is inevitably much more to be done, exploring these issues could have a material impact on new generations of yoga teachers. It is also clear that supporting initiatives like the Yoga Teachers Union could help establishing regulations to make yoga teaching fair and decently paid.

I would like to thank all the wonderful people that participated in my research. It has been a pleasure to hear about different experiences. I have learned a lot from you all, thank you!

Find more about Tarik:

Find more about Neda:

Find more about Jasmin:

Find more about Olivia:

Find more about Jill:

Find more about Nerine:

Find more about Chiara:

Find more about Rachel:

Find more about Matt:


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2 Lobe, B., Morgan, D. and K. Hoffman 2020. Qualitative Data Collection in an Era of Social Distancing. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. 7/7/2020, Vol. 19, p1-8. [available at

3 DeWalt, K. M. and B. R. DeWalt. 2011. Participant Observation: A Guide for Fieldworkers, Second Edition. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Adams, Tony E.; Holman, Stacey, Ellis, Carolyn. 2015. Autoethnography: Understanding Qualitative Research. New York: Oxford University Press.

Carrette, Jeremy and King, Richard. 2005. Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Gupta, A. and J. Ferguson 1997. Discipline and Practice: ‘The Field’ as Site, Method and Location in Anthropology. In A. Gupta and J. Ferguson (eds) Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science, pp.1-46. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jain, Andrea R. 2015. Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Newcombe, Suzanne. 2019. Yoga in Britain: stretching spirituality and educating yogis. Bristol: Equinox Publishing.

Shah, Alpa, 2017. Ethnography? Participant observation, a potentially revolutionary praxis. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 7(1): 45–59.

Skinner, J. (Ed.). (2012). The Interview: An Ethnographic Approach (Association of Social Anthropologists Monographs). London: Bloomsbury Academic.

[1] Of the three studios where I work in North London, two pay me £30 and one £25 per hour/class. From talking to other teachers in the area other studios in London pay the same.

[2] Currently £10.85/hr or roughly £22,000 per year.

What is Yoga right here right now in London?

3I6A1891-2Last International Yoga Day, I started writing a new Blog Post instead of just posting a picture of myself doing a probably bendy looking posture!

If I say “Instagram Yoga”, what comes to your mind? To mine comes the image of a very good-looking woman wearing quite little and probably doing an inversion at the same time as a massive back bend -hollow back I think they call it- and looking very relaxed and content. I haven’t really tried an inversion like that, and I’m not sure I would find that relaxing. Probably I’d just break my back. But I recognise that to get there they may have worked really hard, and I’m not anyone to say that, it is not Yoga. But to be honest I’m not interested in that at all. I’m not interested in goat yoga either, not beer yoga, nor climbing yoga…but yoga is the base of my current life. It influences my relationships, my self-love and image, it influences my actions, my eating habits, my way of being here in this world. I’m interested in Hatha Yoga, Vinyasa Flow and Hot Yoga, and I’m particularly fascinated with the effect of this later one, Hot Yoga. But for some people Hot Yoga is not “real” yoga, what is yoga then? right now, right here? I know the answer in my heart but probably that won’t be enough for some people, so I’ll do my best to give my humble opinion.

A few days before International Yoga Day I saw a campaign, this time on Facebook, about saving yoga from crazy hybrid practices such as beer yoga and from big businesses. Perhaps they are right, beer yoga is just going too far. But what’s wrong with hot yoga? At least that is what I jumped to, because I love practising it. There were all sorts of comments, some quite offensive around this post, and then I spotted one saying, “Telling what is Not Yoga is not yoga”. It just made me think…To make it very clear, I don’t like Bikram Choudhury, but I believe that he had a great business idea and made a good sequence (It really doesn’t suit my body but it suits other bodies, for me it is similar as with ashtanga yoga (it doesn’t suit my body), at the end of the day Ashtanga Yoga as we know it now was designed by a person, one single person that has been idolised -now I’m in trouble, don’t hate me my ashtangy friends!-: Patthabi Jois), Bikram Yoga has influenced many lives, I know a few people that absolutely love it and they swear the effects of calmness and stillness in their mind after a class are unbeatable, it’s yoga.

What elements should we consider for the practice to be yoga in London? I’m afraid that yoga cannot be only geographically placed in India, it has crossed all borders and it is everywhere now.

I will try to list a few elements, like a brainstorm:

  • Breath work – extension of the breath, and some retention.
  • Meditation element: Seeking the mind to be controlled, calm, still.
  • Physical postures, including forwards folds, side bends, back bends and twists.
  • Physical mindful elements such as strength, flexibility, balance, mobility and stillness.
  • Philosophical principles, and this could be quite tricky to find in a class that is only focused on physical elements but quite possible to find without textual instruction if focused on meditation and breath work. Could be the attitude towards ourselves, towards the others, overcoming fear, expanding the limits of the mind and the body, practising gratitude, contentment, etc.

I strongly believe that if the Yoga practice that you do brings you satisfaction, the sense of contentment, improves the relationships that you have with others and it encourages you to love yourself or at least to resolve and improve the relationship that you have with your own self, then it probably IS Yoga.

Why did I want to mention London…Because I live here and live yoga here in London. I understand that the yoga I practise is mostly physical and that, if we go to the roots of yoga, the traditions and practices are vast, and they largely focus on Meditation. But there are also roots of Modern Yoga traditions and those are very physical, the practices have been evolving and reinterpreted over the last century.

I believe that the more yoga/meditation people do, the better this world will be. And instead of feeling possessive around the practices, and in cases spreading hate/anger with violent comments, particularly on social media, we should think that as long as they spread love and compassion, then it is fine.

Happy everyday Yoga Day 🙂