Though doctors in the field are rightly cautious, biofeedback seems to promise a return to a more holistic view of medicine and the role of the healer. The direction the healing profession is moving towards is responsibility for and power over one's own health. The individual will no longer be looked upon as just a defective organ in need of repair but as a person in a context, complete with lifestyle and habits. The most important point is that the role of the mind will begin to be understood and its training will be used to prevent and treat disease. Biofeedback and yogic techniques are a part of this movement.
Through techniques such as biofeedback we can learn to control our autonomic nervous system, our blood pressure, muscle power and so on. We can enhance our health and overcome the influence of our environment and heredity, so that we are no longer at the relentless mercy of forces beyond our conscious awareness and, therefore, control.
Researchers have been extending the use of bio-feedback into disease control as well. In the early 1960's Thomas Budzynski and Johann Stoyva, both at the University of Colorado Medical School, USA began to explore the possibility of using EMG (electromyography) feedback for headache sufferers and insomniacs.*1 This machine picks up electrical activity in muscle which can then be amplified and made audible. In 1969 Budzynski and Stoyva worked with volunteers who had suffered severe tension headaches every day or two over a period of years. These subjects were asked to relax their forehead muscles, thereby keeping a low tone on the EMG. A high, tone indicates tension. They found that after twenty minutes the volunteers had halved their muscle tension. After fourteen sessions and regular daily practice, most were free from headache for the first time in years and no longer needed drugs. Others found they could sense a headache coming and then abort or dilute it through relaxation and letting go of tensions. These people experienced profound changes and deep relaxation, initially with the help of an EMG feedback machine and then later without it. The machine helped them to find out the sources of their tensions and remove them.
More recently, Budzynski and other therapists have utilised biofeedback in psychiatric practice. Budzynski reports liberating a twenty two year old girl from a long list of phobias which included: panic attacks, fear of cars and claustrophobia. She was systematically confronted with her fears and taught to relax, in this way losing her intense feelings about them. This is similar to yogic techniques such as antar mouna, basic awareness and meditation, and the effects they have.
Budzynski has also helped insomniacs to sleep. He first helped them to learn how to relax by using an EMG machine. Later he used an EEG to give feedback until they could generate the slow brainwaves observed in the onset of sleep. In this way, people who had previously taken four hours to fall asleep were dozing off twice in one laboratory experiment lasting twenty minutes. "I think doctors are going to lend patients an EMG machine instead of handing out sleeping pills in the future", Budzynski states.
At the Memiinger Foundation, Topeka, Kansas, USA, Dr Joseph Sargent and his associates, Drs. Elmer and Alyce Greene, are using biofeedback to cure migraine headache.*2 Migraine is thought to be caused by the increased pressure in enlarged blood vessels in the head. The technique used is to learn to reduce the temperature of hand or forehead which is an outward sign that the blood vessels are being constricted. This has an effect throughout the whole body and seems to prevent headaches. The subjects were given the following suggestions: "Your hand will feel very heavy. It will tingle. It feels warm." In this way control over blood vessels is learned. Sargent showed that once control is understood it could be used whenever needed, without equipment. For example, when a subject feels a headache coming on, he can turn it off.
A similar yogic technique, yoga nidra, allows one to drop down into the subconscious mind where autonomic nervous system faculties are controlled and thereby conscious control is gained. Hot and cold, heavy and light, painful and pleasurable sensations can be felt at will. In this way, emotions and thoughts can also be regulated so that the effects of stress are counteracted.
Dr George B. Whatmore of Seattle, USA uses EMG feedback to treat serious psychosomatic illnesses from colitis, backache, depression and circulatory illness to skin eruptions.*3 He claims that these illnesses may ail arise from sustained muscle tension among groups of voluntary muscles. This is in accord with yogic belief that mental tensions are reflected in muscle tension.
Curtis Hardyck, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, USA has claimed to have liberated more than one hundred exceedingly slow readers from their underlying problem of sub vocalisation (the silent mouthing of words).*4 He achieved this by a combination of biofeedback and behaviour modification. The subjects' laryngeal muscles were tested for tension, a sign that they were sub-vocalizing. This would switch on a rasping, irritating noise that was unpleasant enough to help slow reading adults and children abandon their bad habits.
Psychologist, Dr Bernard Engel of Baltimore City Hospital, USA, has been treating dangerous irregularities of heartbeat - PVC, premature ventricular contraction of the left ventricle, with the collaboration of heart specialists.*5 After ten 80 minute sessions of learning how to speed up and slow the heart, four of his first eight arrhythmic patients were able to control their symptoms at home.
The conclusion drawn from Engel's work is that though the training may be more tedious and time consuming than drugs, it gives the patient a sense of mastery over his own body and eventual freedom from drug therapy. One of the women in Dr Engel's group was elated when she reported that she no longer had dizzy spells or thumping in her chest because she could cope with the symptoms as they occurred.
At the Rockerfeller University in New York, Lafayette Clinic in Detroit and the Harvard Medical School, researchers are developing biofeedback techniques to lower blood pressure.*6 This is especially important when we realise that high blood pressure is probably one of the major killers in industrialised society today. Around the world millions of people suffer from hypertension which can lead to strokes, heart attacks and kidney failure. Dr Herbert Benson, at Harvard, has helped five out of seven patients to lower their blood pressure in the laboratory using methods worked out by Dr David Shapiro and Bernard Tursky. Benson states that to keep the blood pressure down at home will probably require some revision of behaviour and re-evaluation of lifestyle. Again we have agreement with yoga. For millennia yogis have spoken about the necessity of combining asanas, pranayama, meditation and other techniques with moderation in lifestyle, and setting down certain basic rules to live by for the maintenance of perfect health of body and mind.
It stands to reason that the combination of yogic techniques, biofeedback and allopathic medicine offers a powerful tool in the treatment of disease, especially psychosomatic and psychological imbalance, as a counter to the stresses and strains of everyday living. Biofeedback techniques are an initial step into the realms of mind, energy and subconscious influence, while yoga is the extension of our awareness into realms of greater freedom, flexibility and health.
*1-3. G. Luce & E. Peper, "Mind Over Body, Mind Over Mind", "New York Times Magazine', 12.9.1971.
*4. C. Hardyck& L. Petrinovich, "Treatment of Subvocal Speech During Reading", 'Journal of Reading', February 1969, 361-8.
*5. T. Weiss & B. Engel, "Operant conditioning of heart rate in patients with premature ventricular contractions", 'Psychosomatic Medicine', 33:319, 1971.
*6. Luce & Peper, p. 136.