If it is true that 'yoga starts where medicine stops' then why this article? It is precisely because yoga is not only a therapeutic but a discipline, that it deserves interest from the medical profession. Nobody would contest the fact that modern medicine has achieved amazing progress in many fields. Every day new discoveries and medical techniques appear. Surgery undertakes and succeeds in some amazingly daring operations, and antibiotics give more and more control over infectious diseases. Nobody can deny, however, that in the field of degenerative diseases, starting with cardiovascular complaints, medicine is the least equipped. This is because these diseases result from years of all sorts of mistakes in lifestyle and the permanent stress that is produced by civilized life. As long as people happily trespass the most elementary rules of life, medicine will not be able to fully play its part in this particular field. It is true that sports and hygiene are used to palliate the drawbacks of sedentary living. Yoga, however is far more comprehensive, providing solutions which are original and tested over millenniums.
To better understand the principles behind the techniques proposed by yoga, let us examine acupuncture, another oriental discipline which at first glance doesn't show any analogy with yoga. Acupuncture, which is openly a therapeutic, postulates the existence of a polarized energy animating and circulating through the human body, following certain lines or meridians, not reducible to the anatomic structure known in modern medicine. In acupuncture disease is said to result from a disturbance of the energy body. When the energy circulates wrongly, accumulates in excess or is insufficient, disease occurs. The implantation of gold or silver needles in the well known points stimulates or redistributes the energy and health is recovered.
Yoga bases its action on a similar principle. The energy, called chi in acupuncture is called prana in yoga. Prana is a term covering all energy able to act in any being, every kind of energy known or still to be discovered. Yogis have a dynamic concept of the human state in its totality. They conceive it as an energy transformer. Even the mind is considered to be a modality of the energy force manifested in a human being; there is continuity between all levels of existence in man.
In acupuncture the implantation of needles acts on the patient, who doesn't take any active role. In yoga, however, the patient himself modifies and controls all his physical and mental energies with the help of asanas, pranayama and meditation techniques. Every living being is constantly going through energy transformations, but this process is ordinarily not within one's conscious control. Yoga starts when there is deliberate control of this process. This explains the physical achievements of yogis proven by the experiments of such eminent researchers as doctor Therese Brosse.
The yogis were great observers. A physician of the last century would have smiled if he was told that the air we breathe contains subtle energies directly assimilable by our organism, energies which differ from the mixture of gases that constitute air. Nowadays we are aware of the existence and the importance of negative ions. In France there is a medical association that studies ionization of the air and its physiological and therapeutic effects.
The main objective of asanas is to stimulate and harmonize the circulation of energies and increase their absorption. Of course, at the same time they also bend the spine forwards and backwards, or twist it to ensure total flexibility and stimulation of the nerve centres of the spinal cord and the sympathetic system. Asanas are performed in a relaxed way, with breath control and concentration on specific points; the final pose can be held for one or more minutes.
Next we will examine the effects of asanas. Bearing in mind that the same principles are behind practically all the yogic postures, we will use one basic posture called sarvangasana, the shoulder stand, for an example. It is an inverted pose, having important repercussions on the circulation, and one that is often practiced in gymnastics. Holding it for one minute or more results in a series of physiological effects that we wouldn't get if we only held it for a few seconds. The accompanying diagram shows the final position in which the adept relaxes and breathes as slowly and deeply as possible.
This inverted pose has a deep influence on the blood circulation, venous as well as arterial, requiring from the adept only a minimum effort, that of holding the posture once he has assumed it. It is gravity that does the actual work.
The vertical position is exclusive to human beings and from the perspective of evolution, it is a recent adaptation. In quadruped mammals, the torso stays parallel to the ground and consequently gravity acts uniformly. In man, however, the circuit being vertical makes the influence of gravity more powerful. It particularly affects the venous circulation below the level of the heart, especially the lower parts. In fact, for blood to flow up again towards the heart and then back towards the lungs, it must fight against gravity. This process is aided by the contractions of the muscles that compress the veins, whilst walking, for example, but now the civilized person walks less and less. In old times when man still lived in nature, the fight for survival compelled him to exercise enough to ensure this return of venous circulation. Among sedentary civilized people, insufficient muscular contractions due to lack of exercise result in a venous stasis or slowing down of circulation in the legs and abdominal organs. Venous circulation is aided in its return to the heart by the sucking action of the diaphragm and the lungs. Here also, sedentary man is the loser since his breathing is superficial and the role of vacuum pump played by the lungs is reduced to its simplest expression.
In quadruped animals the organs remain in place because they are suspended from the spine like clothes hanging on a line to dry. In civilized man the abdominal wall is often not strong enough to keep the organs in place, which doesn't help the blood circulation. One minute in sarvangasana, however, allows large amounts of stagnant blood to be recycled by the effects of gravity. Along with this we can add the effects of the vacuum pump of the lungs, since the practitioner breathes deeply in the final pose.
In parts of the body situated above the heart level, it is the arterial blood that must fight against gravity. . . and against the necktie and shirt collar that are often too tight. The civilized person is cerebral. In sarvangasana an important flow of blood goes towards the head, giving the brain a good rinse. It is not surprising that after a day of intense mental work, one or two minutes in this posture will completely refresh you.
Research into the physiological effects of postures and yogic exercises has been carried out since 1924 in an Indian laboratory, subsidized by the government, where a team of doctors with modern equipment at their disposal devote their time exclusively to this. Their research published in a magazine Yoga Mimansa has shown that yoga postures act strongly on the endocrine glands. In sarvangasana, the compression of the chin against the sternum acts on the thyroid. This action may be insufficient to provide a major therapeutic reaction in the case of pathological disturbances of this gland, but it is sufficient to stimulate and maintain the thyroid in a state of optimal functioning.
Now let us return to the importance of holding the final pose. It is quite obvious that the above mentioned effects would occur only in a very superficial and short term way if the posture is held for only a few seconds. Holding the pose for a minute or more evidently intensifies these effects, but it is still true that considerable benefits can be achieved which would have been hard to obtain from any ordinary form of exercise, in the same amount of time and especially with so little muscular effort. This last point is particularly important because the blood is circulated without any strain on the heart. Yoga doesn't involve any violent muscular effort. This point is especially important for sedentary people whose muscles are usually weak and untrained.
Another aspect must be approached now, an essential aspect, when all our activities are oriented towards the outside world all day long. Yoga is, by definition, a method of developing inner awareness. While performing the posture the aspirant directs all his attention to what is happening in the inside world. He makes an effort to listen to his body, to become aware of it, to feel it living. He goes inside the particular places where the posture acts with more intensity. For the yogis, this active participation of the conscious mind is one of the essential elements of yoga. It is this that harmonizes the circulation of the subtle energies which we spoke about previously.
Muscular relaxation also plays an important role. The exercises have to be performed and the attitudes maintained with a minimum of muscular effort, using only the muscles that are necessary to hold the posture. This not only creates a feeling of relaxation, in fact real relaxation, but confers to the adept a better control of his muscular system even in his everyday actions.
This muscular relaxation; deeper, slower breathing; activation of the blood circulation, adding to the action on the spine (which we have hardly mentioned but is important in other postures); becoming more aware of the body creating a better psychomotor coordination, are indeed optimally evident during the yoga session. Through regular practice the aspirant gains maximum benefits and efficiency extending little by little to every moment of the day, even when he forgets his yoga. The yoga adept thus has less anxiety, let's say no anxiety at all anymore.
This undoubtedly explains the extraordinary development of yoga in all industrialized countries. We are convinced that we are facing something deeper, and that for an increasing number of modern men, yoga, even westernized and diluted, brings a non-rigid discipline into our life. Yoga also has the advantage of not requiring stadiums or costly equipment to practice. It can be practiced at home on a simple blanket folded in two!
Nevertheless, for most of us, yoga is not an absolute therapeutic. Should an infection occur, medicine still has the first word. When the danger is over, yoga can be usefully employed for the recovery of health. This allows us to conclude that even if yoga 'starts where medicine stops', it constitutes a positive gain to its practitioners.
One of our friends is a surgeon who has big responsibilities and an exhausting life. No matter what time he gets home in the evening, he goes straight into his room for 30 to 40 minutes and does a series of postures, breathing, and relaxation practices. He has been doing this for many years. We can be sure that if yoga didn't give him 'something' he would have stopped long ago. It is definitely not an attraction for the exotic that makes him sacrifice his precious leisure time to the practice of yoga.