Biofeedback: Electronic Age of Yoga

Dr Swami Karmananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd.)

The idea behind biofeedback is that every mental and emotional event we experience is accompanied by physiological changes in the body. For example, the feeling of anger will cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, respiration and hormonal activity automatically, without conscious awareness. Because we are normally unaware of these physiological changes, we have no control over them. What a biofeedback machine does is to monitor these physiological changes and signal the information about them back to the person who is connected to the machine. He or she is then aware, even if indirectly, of these normally unconscious changes and can therefore begin to learn to control them in much the same way as one learns to control oneself on a bicycle or driving a car. Since these physical events are related to specific psychological changes, one is also learning to control his mental states, especially the emotions. By teaching people to control-physical processes like heart rate, blood pressure or skin temperature, researchers have demonstrated that biofeedback training will be a valuable tool in combating some of our most common health problems.

Research at Menninger Foundation, USA has been done with volunteer university students, hospital and medical patients, and more recently, mental patients. The biofeedback trainee sits in a comfortable chair in one room with monitoring devices connected to various parts of his body. In the next room researchers record and observe the physiological changes occurring as the trainee attempts to relax. There are visual displays and loudspeakers in the trainee's room which tell him how his body is reacting. The trainee can monitor a whole range of physiological processes in his body - blood low, respiration, temperature of the hands, and also his own brain waves measured by electrodes on his scalp.

Biofeedback has been found to be especially useful for learning how to handle stress which produces an increase in activity of the sympathetic nervous system. This is the 'fight or flight' system, and has to do with anger, fear or excitement of any kind. In order control physiological processes in the body, for example, the temperature of the hands, you have to control, to calm down, the sympathetic part of your nervous system. If you can control this you can control the accumulation of stress in the body. The same control can also be gained through practicing yoga techniques, however, biofeedback is very helpful in the initial stages. Biofeedback is a springboard which allows people, especially those major stress problems to learn to control their nervous systems.

Psychologist Robert E. Ornstein compares biofeedback and traditional esoteric training such as yoga in this way:

There are now two major procedures available for contacting the weak signals within. In esoteric traditions such as yoga, one seeks to turn off the competing activity, to turn day into night, so that the subtle signals are perceptible. In the newly developed feedback system, the 'stars' are brought to consciousness by another method. The faint signals themselves are amplified, to make them perceptible even in the brilliance of daylight. Through yoga, the 'noise' is lessened; in biofeedback research the 'signal' is strengthened. In both cases, when these normally unconscious processes enter consciousness, we can receive this subtle information, and can learn to control what was previously an unconscious or autonomic process.*1

Menninger Foundation has carried out much research with a wide variety of psychosomatic diseases. They have reported remarkable able success in subjects suffering from migraine headaches, high blood pressure, peptic ulcer, hyperacidity, arrhythmias (stress induced irregularity of heartbeat) and in several disorders of the vascular system, such as Raynaud's Phenomenon. These diseases resolve rapidly with the removal of stress in the nervous system. Researchers predict that several other diseases known to have large psychosomatic components, including heart disease and cancer, will also prove amenable to therapy. However, these diseases result from long term, chronic stress accumulation in the nervous system and organs and will require daily practice for longer periods of time before improvement is recorded.

At Menninger, biofeedback is used to facilitate learning the techniques of yoga nidra and prana vidya. Once the techniques are mastered it is up to the subject to continue the practices alone. Subjects learn how to pass into relaxed states and visualize the flow of pranic energy in the body, aided by continuous feedback and display of the physiological changes occurring with the practice.

Here is an example of relaxation and pranic visualization therapy used at Menninger on a middle aged woman suffering from chronic arterial insufficiency (lack of blood) in her hands.

The subject knows that as her blood flow increases her hands will become warmer, and as she watches the temperature feedback meter, the needle moves slowly to the left (cold). She feels tense, wondering if she will succeed. She has been instructed that blood flows into the hands with relaxation, and away from the hands towards the body core with tension, So she takes a deep breath and adjusts her position. The needle stops moving. With eyes closed the trainee tries to feel every muscle relaxing and becoming heavy. The meter needle begins to move to the right (warm), so she knows she is beginning to physically relax. After several minutes she visualizes her hands before a bright fire and feels warmth from the fire flowing into her hands. The needle moves steadily to the right. Twenty minutes elapse while the trainee experiments with visualizations and watches the needle, which gives her continuous information about her hand temperature. Gradually she begins to know which internal feelings and particular mental visualizations seem to correspond to increased warmth in her hands. With practice she will not need the biofeedback machine to increase the temperature of her hands at will.*2

The laboratory reports considerable variation in the ability of subjects to learn through biofeedback. It took some students eight weeks of an hour a day in order to learn to warm their hands while others possessed the same ability after one or two sessions.

Menninger researchers have recorded that where a subject was suffering from two separate psychosomatic illnesses, for example, high blood pressure and migraine headache, therapy often resulted in improvement of both conditions simultaneously, even though the particular therapy was directed at lowering the blood pressure alone, without specific reference to migraine. This occurs because inducing relaxation in one part of the sympathetic nervous system automatically swings other elements of the system in the direction of relaxation also, thereby improving other disorders which are part of the same stress syndrome. It seems that different disease entities are only different manifestations of the stress overload in the nervous system.

Yoga, Biofeedback and Medicine

Psychosomatic disease can be described as an undesirable physiological response to psychological stress. Physicians these days readily admit that up to 80% of human ailments are either psychosomatic in origin or have a large psychosomatic component. If this is the case, and the medical profession has come to the conclusion that it is, then it follows that about 80% of our disabilities can be cured or ameliorated by the use of special training programs such as yoga for psychosomatic health. Yoga is the best formulated and most widely practiced science of physical and mental health in the world today. When these techniques are used by doctors and hospitals, we predict that 80% of patients will benefit greatly. Many of their diseases are potentially eatable and many others can be greatly improved. Not only this but the overall outlook of many patients, their approach to their illness, will improve almost immediately. This has been my own experience, and also of the other doctors in the IYFM research centre here in Monghyr. Every doctor knows how important is the state of mind of his patient. The well motivated patient does far better than the patient who has a negative approach to life, is depressed or gives up hope of recovery.

One of the most important aspects of the incorporation of yoga-biofeedback therapy is the reversal of the trend which separates the patient from responsibility for his own health care. Many patients feel frustrated in the face of modern technological medicine. The beauty of yoga-biofeedback therapy is that it puts the patient into a position where he is learning how to treat and heal himself. He receives assistance from his doctor but does the work himself!

The potential benefits of such therapy are immense. The reported success of yoga-biofeedback therapy well warrants the purchase of such equipment by hospitals and clinics, together with the training of doctors in yoga therapy. The cost of simple biofeedback facilities is as low as US$300, hardly excessive when you consider that an operating table costs thousands of dollars, and modern X-ray equipment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the near future the hospital may well have a yoga-biofeedback department, operating as the radiology or physiotherapy departments do today.

The doctor of the 1980's will increasingly adopt a new role, that of therapist. The doctor's job will always be to diagnose disease accurately and efficiently. It is in the field of disease treatment that changes are occurring. The modern doctor all over the world is increasingly dealing with the whole person whose basic problem is one of stress - and who seeks a way to handle his stress problem, rather than use a tranquillizer. In the USA and Australia many doctors are moving away from specialized studies and into family medicine programs. The family doctor is coming back! This is occurring in response to patient dissatisfaction with the doctor who treats him as a bag of organs rather than as a whole person, a total human being. Doctors will teach yoga nidra relaxation techniques and prana vidya to these patients, facilitated by biofeedback equipment. These techniques will allow patients to handle stress in their lives properly and begin to feel truly healthy. The doctor of the 1980's will return to his other 'lost' role - that of teacher and guide - showing people how to achieve health and self-regulation in their lives. This is the beginning of the pathway to perfect health. From this point it is the practice of yoga which leads to progressive control of the different levels of the mind, and enlightenment can be described as the crystallization of yogic awareness into an ever transcending reality.


*1. Robert E. Ornstein, The Psychology of Consciousness, U. K., 1975.

*2. E. and A. Green interviewed in Beyond the Mechanical Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1977.