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A Survey Of Hindu Indigenous Concepts Of Psychological Embodiment

1.  Introduction

“My heart sank upon hearing about his death”, “what you said went right above my head!”, “I held my breath as he was kneeling down to propose”. These are just some of the expressions we use in our daily lives when expressing how we feel. There are no emotion words in these expressions, but the message comes across quite well. The sadness, the confusion, or the excitement is evident in how one’s body is described in these contexts.

It is this phenomenon that researchers in contemporary or modern Psychology are referring to as “embodiment”. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines embodiment as “the thesis that the human mind is largely determined by the structures of the human body (morphology, sensory and motor systems) and its interactions with the physical environment” [1]. A close term, “embodied cognition” was coined to move away from the brain as the only seat of cognition, to include the physical body too. Embodied Cognition now has recognition as a field of its own standing [2].

Embodiment has been demonstrated empirically. A study by J. Michalak et al. (2014) found that depressed participants who sat in a slumped position recalled more negative words than those who sat upright [3]. A 2008 study found higher levels of anticipatory anxiety in healthy participants while standing v/s when supine when completing a mental arithmetic task [4].

Our emotions are embodied. Using a topographical self-report tool, Nummenmaa et al. (2013) found distinct differentiation in how emotions are experienced in the body. For example, depression was found to show decreased activity in almost the entire body, and happiness was found to be experienced again in almost the entire body but with increased activity. Envy was almost exclusively experienced in the head region [5]. Similar maps were revealed for adult sexuality [6], and in child development [7].

Körner et al (2015) delineate 3 processes for how embodiment happens: (a) Direct state induction (altering one’s thought, feeling, information processing) , (b) Modal priming (readiness of specific information to come to mind), and (c) Simulation (stimulus triggering a reenactment of previous experience within the individual) [8]. Simulation, it is said, could be the process behind embodied cognition [9].

In this paper, we aim to inspire applications of embodiment and draw parallels with similar concepts in text and practise in the Hindu knowledge system.

2.  Psychopathology and Psychotherapy

2.1 Psychopathology

Mental disorders are being studied from an embodiment perspective. Fuchs & Schlimme (2009) take a phenomenological embodied view of psychopathology, and propose describing schizophrenia as a ‘disembodiment’. This constitutes losing an embodied contact with the world, and with oneself, leading to disturbances in perception and attunement to others. Also, melancholic depression according to the authors can be viewed as ‘hyperembodiment’. They say that the depressed person is restricted in the body, unable to transcend it, and hence unable to attune with others [10].

Gjelsvik et al. (2018) help us in understanding depression better. Apart from the cognitive model of depression, in which the content of thinking patterns were held responsible for the disorder, the authors highlight that simulation involves Enactment/Re-enactment Networks (ERNs) of action, bodily states, feeling, and cognition. Some ERNs are evolutionary, while others are learnt in the current life experiences of the individual. The authors reviewed evidence wherein depressed individuals with a history of suicidality tend to activate an ERNs which resulted in significantly poorer problem solving and significantly lesser fluency of generating positive future possibilities (vs. individuals with depression but without a history of suicidality and individuals without depression) when depressed mood was induced in all participants. They go on to say that abstraction is used as a way to avoid disturbing emotion, which then backfires by maintaining the emotional disorder [9]. The last finding helps us understand that embodiment of emotion, and not avoidance of it, is needed for healing.

2.2. Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is defined as “any psychological service provided by a trained professional that primarily uses forms of communication and interaction to assess, diagnose, and treat dysfunctional emotional reactions, ways of thinking, and behavior patterns.” [1] Selvam, developer of Integral Somatic Psychology (a complementary psychotherapy modality that facilitates emotional embodiment), says that, “emotions are at the core of the work in most psychotherapeutic approaches.” [11]

While this has been common knowledge, embodiment of emotions in psychotherapy is a recent focus. Psychotherapy with individuals suffering from depression and schizophrenia are looked at again, when body-based approaches which utilize the embodiment perspective in their theoretical underpinnings are used in psychotherapy sessions.

In a landmark finding, Michalak et al (2009) found specific gait patterns in individuals with depression and sadness. These were: walking slowly, a reduced arm swing, more lateral body sway, a more slumped posture, and reduced vertical head movements [12]. Koch et al (2007) cite Michalak et al (2006) who found that depressed patients showed pronounced lateral movement, and lesser sagittal and vertical movement. The researchers (Koch et al., 2007) used a tool from Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) consisting of jumping rhythms to counter the lack of vertical movements, and found that depression decreased significantly and an increased vitality in individuals in a single session [13]. In an exploratory study, Papadopoulos & Röhricht (2013) utilized a manualized group Body-oriented psychological therapy (BOPT) procedure with depressed individuals, and again found significant reduction of depression symptoms [14].

Coming to psychotherapy for schizophrenia, research has focused on reducing what are called negative symptoms. These include diminished emotional expression or avolition (reduced drive to engage in goal-directed behaviour) [15]. Promising results were reported in randomized controlled trial studies, which demonstrated that body-based psychotherapy was shown to be significantly effective to lessen negative symptoms of schizophrenia [16, 17].

3.  Embodiment of emotions in Saṃskṛta Sāhitya

There are several examples in Saṃskṛta Sāhitya showcasing the embodiment of emotions. The following is only meant to be indicative and meant to pique the interest of researchers interested in this field.

3.1. Bharatamuni’s Nāṭyaśāstra

It is already well known that Bharatamuni in the sixth and seventh chapters of his Nāṭyaśāstra has discussed the popular range of emotions and their associated concepts and bodily behaviours possible in human beings in the form of Rasa[1].

The crux of the theory of Rasa is:

तत्र विभावानुभावव्यभिचारिसंयोगाद्रसनिष्पत्तिः ।

the Sentiment is produced (rasa-nipatti) from a combination (sayoga)] of Determinants (vibhāva), Consequents (anubhāva) and Complementary Psychological States (vyabhicāri-bhāva).” [21]

Rasa (sentiment), according to Bharatamuni, is of eight types. The associated Durable Psychological States (sthāyibhāva), when in conjunction with Consequents (anubhāva)[2] and Complementary Psychological States (vyabhicāri-bhāva), leads to the experience of Rasa. Each rasa and its associated Sthāyibhāva and Anubhāva are shown summarily in a representational table below:

There are Eight Sāttvika[4] States. They are स्तम्भ (Paralysis), स्वेद (Perspiration), रोमाञ्च (Horripilation), स्वरभेद (Change of Voice), वेपथु (Trembling), वैवर्ण्य (Change of Colour), अश्रु (Weeping) and प्रलय (Fainting).

3.2. Nāradabhaktisūtra

The Nāradabhaktisūtras speak of how the emotion associated physical and vocal behaviour of a bhakta –

कण्ठावरोधरोमञ्चाश्रुभिः परस्परं लपमानाः पावयन्ति कुलानि पृथिवीं च । ६८ – ५.०२

Conversing together with a choking voice,with hairs standing on end, and with tears flowing, they purify their families as well as the earth.” (Bhakti Sutras Of Narada And Sandilya Sutram, 1917, 26)

3.3. Valmikiramayana

There are several instances of how emotions are expressed in the Valmikiramayana. Here is a non-exhaustive small list:

  1. When Rāma, Sītā, and Lakṣmaṇa crossed the river Sarayū and the citizens of Ayodhyā were disappointed-

ते तीर्णा इति विज्ञाय बाष्पपूर्णमुखाजनाः |

अहो धिगिति निश्श्वस्य हा राम इति च चुक्रुशुः || २-५७-११ ॥अयोध्याकाण्डे 57॥

“Alas! Rāma! Hearing that Sītā, Rāma and Lakmaa had crossed River Ga, the people with their faces filled with tears sighed, “Oh, fie upon us! And cried aloud, “Alas, Rāma!”[5] 

  1. When Sītā fainted when Rāvaṇa showed the head of Rāma using his maya-

सा सीता तच्चिरो दृष्ट्वा तच्च कार्मुकमुत्तमम् | |

सुग्रीव प्रतिसंसर्गम् आख्यातञ्च हनूमता || ६-३२-१

नयने मुख वर्णञ्च भर्तुस्तत्सदृशम्मुखम् |

केशान्केशान्तदेशञ्च तञ्च चूडामणिं शुभम् || ६-३२-२

एतैः सर्वैरभिज्नानैरभिज्नाय सुदुह्खिता |

विजगर्हे अथ कैकेयीं क्रोशन्ती कुररी यथा || ६-३२-३॥युद्धकाण्डे 32॥

Sītā saw the illusory head and bow. She heard Rāvaa narrating about Rāma’s friendly relationship with Sugrīva, as earlier apprised by Hanumān. Recognizing that head as that of Rāma, with a proof resembling her husband’s eyes, facial complexion, hair, expanse of his forehead and the beautiful jewel worn on the top of his head, she was very much afflicted with sorrow, cried like an osprey and abused Kaikeyi who was the originator of the present calamity (as follows)…[6]

  1. When Rāma crowned Vibhīṣaṇa when the latter switched sides-

तम् प्रसादम् तु रामस्य दृष्ट्वा सद्यः प्लवम् गमाः ।

प्रचुक्रुशुर्महानादान्साधु साध्विति चाब्रुवन् ॥ ६-१९-२७॥ युद्धकाण्डे 19॥

Brāhmaa -sages and celestial sages, stationed in the interior of the sky cried in a loud voices, saying “No farther, no farther” and making a noise “Ah,Oh,Alas![7]

  1. When Rāma threatened Sāgara to give way to Laṅkā –

एवमुक्त्वा धनुष्पाणिः क्रोध विस्फारित ईक्षणः |

बभूव रामो दुर्धर्षो युग अन्त अग्निरिव ज्वलन् || ६-२१-२५॥युद्धकाण्डे 21॥

“Speaking as aforesaid, Rāma with his eyes made larger by anger and wielding a bow with his hand, became dreadful to look at, as a blazing fire at the end of the world.[8]

3.4. Yogāsana and Suffering

In his commentary to the Haṭhayogapradīpikā, Brāhmaṇanda, while commenting on 17th śloka[9], says –

तदासनं स्थैर्य देहस्य मनसश्चाञ्चल्यरूप-रजोधर्म-नाशकत्वेन स्थिरतां कुर्यात्। ‘आसनेन रजो हन्ति’ इति वाक्यात् । आरोग्यं चित्तविक्षेपकरोगाभावः । रोगस्य चित्तविक्षेपकत्वमुक्तं पातञ्जलसूत्रे – ‘व्याधिस्त्यानसंशयप्रमाद-आलस्य अविरतिभ्रान्तिदर्शन-अलब्धभूमिकत्व-अनवस्थितत्वानि चित्तविक्षेपाः तेऽन्तरायाः’ इति (यो.सू. १.३०) । अङ्गानां लाघवं लघुत्वम् । गौरवरूपतमोधर्मनाशकत्वम् अप्येतेनोक्तम् । चकारात् क्षुद्रवृद्ध्यादिकमपि बोध्यम् ।।

Āsana gives steadiness [to the body and mind] by reducing Rajas which causes the unsteadiness in body and mind. It has also been stated that ‘By [practice of] Āsana, Rajas is destroyed. Ārogya refers to the absence of disease which distracts the mind. In the Sutra-s of Patanjali disease is stated as a cause of distraction of the mind -‘Illness, debility, doubt, inadvertence, sloth, sensuality, delusion, stagnation and instability – these mental distractions are impediments” – Yogasūtra 1.30, Lightness of limb is also achieved by Āsana. By this, the capacity of Āsana to reduce Tamas, which causes heaviness in the limbs, is implied. By using the word ‘ca’ other benefits of Āsana-s such as increased appetite should also be understood.” (The Hahayogapradīpikā, Jyotsnayuta, 2016, 85)

4. Discussion

Details shared on rasa and bhāva-s show how some of these anubhāvas and sāttvikabhāvas are observed in real world patients suffering because of incomplete expression and/or embodiment of emotions. Parallels can be drawn between research on embodiment of emotions and the anubhāvas associated with respective rasa and sthāyībhāvas. Depression was shown to manifest as decreased activity in the body [5] and slumped posture [12], and its close equivalent शोक (sorrow) is shown to be characterized by drooping limbs. The commentary of Brāhmaṇanda to the Haṭhayogapradīpikā clearly states that āsanas give aṅgalaghutva (lightness of limbs). This implies that the unhealthy individual does not have aṅgalaghutva. Hence, the heaviness of limbs which is indicated by slumped posture and drooping limbs in those affected by śoka.

In a similar vein, love was shown as an activation in the head, chest, and abdominal region [5], and रति (love) as including clever movement of eyes, eyebrows, glances; soft and delicate movement of limbs; and sweet words. Disgust is shown as increased activation in the throat [5], and जुगुप्सा (disgust) includes narrowing down of the mouth, vomiting and spitting.

Current research in psychology studies has been focused on individual unconnected theoretical perspectives from different fields of human activity. But this paper has currently cited how Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) can reduce depression in patients and also how yoga, through āsana, can reduce the impact of suffering of different kinds. The bodily movements in yogāsanas are observed in their dynamic form accompanied by laya and tāla in Nāṭya. Based on real world experience with individuals suffering from different bodily experiences due to traumatic past, it is the authors’ opinion that yogāsana and Nāṭya, if not in equal methods, eventually lead to healing. Moreover, the authors also suggest that even by being the audience of any Nāṭyapradarśana there is healing because of empathy.[10]

5.  Conclusion

The authors here have tried to showcase how embodiment is an important concept that has already been covered in several texts from Indic literature. This paper is meant to pique the interest of those trained in Western approaches to psychology to consider Indic literature as an ocean of never ending supply of wisdom.


  1. APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved July 16, 2021, from
  2. Wilson, R. A., & Foglia, L. (2011, June 25). Embodied Cognition (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
  3. Michalak, J., Mischnat, J., & Teismann, T. (2014). Sitting Posture Makes a Difference-Embodiment Effects on Depressive Memory Bias. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 21(6), 519–524.
  4. Lipnicki, D. M., & Byrne, D. G. (2008). An Effect Of Posture On Anticipatory Anxiety. International Journal of Neuroscience, 118(2), 227–237.
  5. Nummenmaa, L., Glerean, E., Hari, R., & Hietanen, J. K. (2013). Bodily maps of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(2), 646–651.
  6. Nummenmaa, L., Suvilehto, J. T., Glerean, E., Santtila, P., & Hietanen, J. K. (2016). Topography of Human Erogenous Zones. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45(5), 1207–1216.
  7. Hietanen, J. K., Glerean, E., Hari, R., & Nummenmaa, L. (2016). Bodily maps of emotions across child development. Developmental Science, 19(6), 1111–1118.
  8. Körner, A., Topolinski, S., & Strack, F. (2015). Routes to embodiment. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.
  9. Gjelsvik, B., Lovric, D., & Williams, J. M. G. (2018). Embodied cognition and emotional disorders: Embodiment and abstraction in understanding depression. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, 9(3), 1–4.
  10. Fuchs, T., & Schlimme, J. E. (2009). Embodiment and psychopathology: a phenomenological perspective. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 22(6), 570–575.
  11. Selvam, R. (2018, January 8). Improving Outcomes in All Therapies Through Embodiment of Emotions. ISP.
  12. Michalak, J., Troje, N. F., Fischer, J., Vollmar, P., Heidenreich, T., & Schulte, D. (2009). Embodiment of Sadness and Depression—Gait Patterns Associated With Dysphoric Mood. Psychosomatic Medicine, 71(5), 580–587.
  13. Koch, S. C., Morlinghaus, K., & Fuchs, T. (2007). The joy dance: Specific effects of a single dance intervention on psychiatric patients with depression. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 34(4), 340–349.
  14. Röhricht, F., Papadopoulos, N., & Priebe, S. (2013). An exploratory randomized controlled trial of body psychotherapy for patients with chronic depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 151(1), 85–91.
  15. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed., p. ). American Psychiatric Association.
  16. RÖHRICHT, F., & PRIEBE, S. (2006). Effect of body-oriented psychological therapy on negative symptoms in schizophrenia: a randomized controlled trial. Psychological Medicine, 36(05), 669.
  17. Martin, L. A. L., Koch, S. C., Hirjak, D., & Fuchs, T. (2016). Overcoming Disembodiment: The Effect of Movement Therapy on Negative Symptoms in Schizophrenia—A Multicenter Randomized Controlled Trial. Frontiers in Psychology, 7.
  18. Bhakti Sutras Of Narada And Sandilya Sutram (N. Sinha, Trans.). (1917). Oriental Publishers.
  19. Chaudhury, P. J. (1965). The Theory of Rasa. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 24(1), 145-149. doi:10.2307/428204
  20. The Haṭhayogapradīpikā, Jyotsnayuta (K. Desikachar, Trans.; 1st ed.). (2016). Media Garuda.
  21. Natyasastra: A Treatise Hindu DRāmaturgy and Histrionics Ascribed to Bharatamuni (M. Ghosh, Trans.; 1st ed.). (1951). Asiatic Society of Bengal.

[1] Rasa cannot be translated to “emotion” because it is “regarded as extraordinary or unworldly; the pleasure which accompanies it as transcendental.” (Chaudhury, 1965, 145)

[2] These are bodily changes observed by others. Can be equivalent to body language.

[3] Also loosely translated as Erotic here for the lack of a better translation.

[4] This has no English equivalent translation. This may be understood as the bodily changes felt by the individual experiencing the emotion.





[9] हठस्य प्रथमाङ्गत्वादासनं पूर्वमुच्यते। कुर्यात्तदासनं स्थैर्यमारोग्यं चाङ्गलाघवम्॥ 1.17॥

[10] This has been covered in traditional texts discussing rasa.

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Conference on Hinduism and Modern Psychology

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