Brian Thomson was a psychiatrist in Sydney. His wife taught yoga and cured some of her husband's patients of their psychological disorders quicker than he did. Initially her husband dismissed it as mere coincidence. Today both of them are dedicated members of the International Yoga Fellowship Movement and are involved in teaching yoga for physical welfare. While the husband, now Swami Vivekananda Saraswati, is busy popularising yoga in the USA, the wife, now Swami Hridayananda Saraswati, runs a school in Calcutta under the guidance of Swami Satyananda Saraswati, the head of Bihar School of Yoga.
The year old yoga school on the third floor of a high rise building on Shakespeare Sarani is devoid of any religious trappings. The spotless floor, the polished window panes and the heavy curtains give the impression of a hotel lounge. Only the signboard on the door, the swamis in saffron robes and the picture of Swami Satyananda in meditation suggests it is an ashram.
Regular practice of yoga can cure asthma, diabetes, cardiac disorders, kidney ailments, arthritis, amnesia and various other psychosomatic complaints. Until now about 1,600 pupils both from India and abroad have taken part in these courses. The participants, after an interview, undergo a diagnostic test before being grouped. If the ailment is one of an unusual nature, they are treated individually. The treatment is more of a training, comprising the study of yogic principles and physical workshops. Some follow a strict diet of food which is cooked in the ashram itself, and some are advised to stay at the ashram. Tension-free weekends for individuals and families are also encouraged and rooms are available. The instructors are called doctors-cum-sannyasins.
Satyananda Ashram is a non-profit making organisation that operates on public donations and funds provided by the Bihar School of Yoga. The students pay a nominal monthly fee ranging from Rs. 5 to Rs. 30. 'Those who cannot afford to pay are given free treatment', says the swami.
Swami Hridayananda sits in her airy office talking about the misconceptions many people have about yoga. 'We have many patients who had practiced yoga with the help of books and failed. Yoga is not merely a series of exercises. One has to know one's disease and then select the correct exercise. Wrong asanas can cause severe disorders.' She feels that people here stress the spiritual aspect and tend to forget that yoga is primarily a process towards one's mental and physical development.
One participant in the individual course, a business executive, feels much healthier after his 15 day course at the ashram. The case of a relative made him take an interest in yoga. One of his aunts lost her husband and faced financial problems. She had a nervous breakdown and doctors prescribed heavy sedation but with little result. An acquaintance recommended the ashram. The swamis put her on a series of simple asanas and within a month she was her normal self again.
'I had no serious illness', says the executive, 'just ordinary complaints like strain and nervousness after office hours. After a couple of lessons my weight was reduced by four kg, my blood pressure was normal and I felt like working throughout the day.' He has not given up smoking or drinking as his job calls for a lot of socialising. This does not, however, affect his health. 'The ashram people have given me a diet chart which has worked miracles.'
Acute and chronic insomnia brought another Calcuttan to the ashram. After his first lesson, he went back home and slept soundly for eight hours. He narrates his experiences at the ashram/clinic. 'A thought pattern can get your mind jammed. You continue thinking that particular way and get bored. Boredom brings dissatisfaction and that in turn gives you insomnia.' All the swamis did, was help to break that particular thought pattern. They made him do simple breathing exercises, hum softly to himself and chant the mantra Om several times. The exercises are meant to introduce a certain harmony between the brain and the body. 'You attain mental peace and start thinking differently.' The swamis never hold lectures. For them practical work is more important than theory.
A doctor swami of the ashram says, 'Most ailments, including cancer, are caused mainly by prolonged mental suffering'. According to Dr Hans Selye, a pioneer researcher of the 50's, a mammal counteracts stress by flooding its body with stress hormones released from the adrenal glands in response to the stimulation of the nervous system. Excessive flow of these hormones can cause degeneration changes in the tissues and organs throughout the body. The brain, is therefore responsible for the body's health.
The swami says, "It has been discovered in the USA that most cancer patients have suffered from long mental depression". Yoga, through its different asanas (postures), pranayamas (breathing exercises), bandhas (locks), mudras (gestures), kriyas (cleansing techniques), pratyahara (sense withdrawal) and dharana (concentration) can provide mental tranquillity.
A cancer patient who came to the ashram was instructed to do a few simple mudras and bandhas just to help him feel better with no guarantee of a cure. He did them at home and a few months later the X-ray plates revealed a considerable improvement. "I don't know what exactly happened myself," confesses Swami Hridayananda, "the doctors would be a better judge."
A course for diabetics was held at the ashram last year with 15 patients. Those with very high blood sugar continued to take medicines during the course; the others were told to stop. The course included certain yogic postures and a diet supplied by the ashram. One of the participants feels he has got rid of his disease. After three weeks of yoga his blood sugar level fell from 267 to 145 and he has discontinued taking drugs. 'Doctors had told me it was an incurable disease and I was forbidden to eat sweets. Here, they don't worry about sweets as long as the total sugar intake is regulated. Yes, I love sweets and I eat them whenever I feel like it.' The significant point of the course, he feels, is that none of the patients was regarded as abnormal in any way. 'We were told that diabetes is caused by reduced secretion of insulin in the body. That our glands and cells are responsible for not absorbing it and we had to make them function properly.'
Many of the ashram's techniques are based on what is called the 'cleaning process' of jala neti. By tilting the head to pour salt water into one nostril and letting it flow out of the other, a young Calcuttan has been cured of his sinusitis. Another technique is kunjal kriya which involves drinking six glasses of saline water six hours after meals and regurgitating it. The result is a clean stomach and a better digestive faculty. A veteran member of the ashram has cured himself of chronic heartburn through this process. 'Now I know more about my body. I know exactly how much food I can digest.'
The ashram, however, stresses that these and other techniques should only be followed under proper guidance as their incorrect application can cause injurious side effects.
Though she refers to yoga as a therapy, Swami Hridayananda does not rule out the spiritual. But since most people are too preoccupied with their daily routine to be attracted by spiritualism, she offers them practical and tangible benefits. 'Come and get yourself cured', she says, 'that's what we are all about. Only, instead of drugs, surgery or herbs, we offer mental peace through work. Our pupils become their own doctors. Some leave after having been cured. Those who want to go deeper into yogic philosophy are welcome.'