Yoga can manage many diseases, especially the chronic and functional types. When I started the International Yoga Fellowship Movement in 1964, I had plenty of background with yoga therapy. I had lived from 1943 to 1956 in Rishikesh at the foot of the Himalayas with a very eminent sannyasin, Swami Sivananda, who had been a medical doctor in the earlier period of his life. I used to be his secretary, typist, editor and translator.
My contact with spiritual life was through philosophy - Vedanta - and that developed the desire to discover the higher consciousness within me. But when I lived with my guru and did a lot of work for him, especially typing, I used to read about the yoga postures, pranayama and other hatha yoga practices. I wondered if, when you practise sarvangasana, the thyroid is really stimulated, or when you practise sirshasana, if it really is true that the pituitary is stimulated, or when you practise paschimottanasana the pancreas is stimulated. Frankly speaking, the claims made for yoga did not convince me.
I had my own background of medical studies, not with humans but with animals because my family was preparing me to be a veterinary doctor. To me, these statements made by an ex-medical man were not convincing, but I kept them in my mind, and during the twelve years of my ashram life I was mainly engaged in studying philosophies, eastern and western, as well as other newer philosophies and psychologies.
People used to write to Swami Sivananda for treatment of their problems, and he used to suggest that they practise yoga. I used to witness all that, then in 1956 when I was wandering all over India, Burma, Nepal, Afghanistan, Ceylon, as a mendicant, people used to come to me to ask what yoga they should practise to become free from their diseases. I did not know very much about it, so I retired again and studied yoga thoroughly.
I learned that yoga is not just a series of exercises, the practices are postures or asanas, which produce a great change in the body, sometimes in the main organs, sometimes in the endocrine secretions, and sometimes in the nervous system.
The body is maintained by life force, and mind is maintained by mental force; this means that there are two forms of energy in this organism. One form of energy is responsible for the maintenance of the gross organs of the body, and the other force is responsible for the mental activities.
When you practise yoga postures, particularly the major ones, they exert mild pressure on the six important junctions in the spinal passage. Of these six, four distribute life force and mental force, and a disease is caused by the imbalance of these energy quantums in the body.
Now of course, we talk about viruses, bacteria, vitamin deficiencies and there is no argument about it. However, at the same time you must remember that a disease does not merely originate in the gross body. Even if a disease does appear to originate in the body, it travels straight to the mind, and from there, back to the body again. Such diseases are known as 'somato-psychic' diseases.
Most diseases nowadays originate in the mind, then they travel to the body then from the body to the mind again. This is how every disease originates, spreads and comes back again. Therefore, whatever the origin of a disease, man's body and mind both suffer at the same time. These two forces are functioning just like material forces; you can say for the time being, 'positive' and 'negative' forces. The negative force controls the mind and its functions, while the positive force controls the body, its temperature, mobility etc.
The two forces are distributed throughout the body via the four junctions which are situated in the spinal axis, at the sacral area, solar plexus area, cardiac area and cervical area. These junctions are known as chakras or psychic centres. For proper health, these four energy centres must maintain balance. If the balance is lost, then disease of the particular system originates.
I'll explain this a little more. In yoga we call life force 'prana'. Other translations are vital force and bio-energy (though prana is something more than this as well). In life, there should be harmony between the pranic force and the mental force but usually this doesn't happen.
If the pranic force predominates and the mental force becomes subservient then mental illnesses occur. When the mental force becomes predominant and pranic force becomes subservient, then physical illnesses originate. This is what we study in the modern medical sciences as well. When the parasympathetic nervous system is predominant and sympathetic nervous system is subservient or vice versa, we have either the psychic disorders or the physical disorders. If a harmony could be struck between these two forces, sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, then there would be a perfect harmony in the body.
When there is a total harmony between These two systems, body/mind, life force/mental force, then there are also perfectly balanced secretions in the endocrine glands. These glands are very important and each of them is directly or indirectly controlled by the energy systems. If there is some sort of disharmony in one of these systems, then it directly or indirectly affects that particular gland. This is the case with diabetes, for instance. The pancreas ceases to function, insulin is not produced and thus glucose is not controlled. It means that the nervous system has gone into a state of dysfunction on account of stress and strain. If proper relaxation can be given to the nervous system it will recommence functioning. Consequently, the pancreas will start working and that is the end of the diabetes.
Within this physical body there are also rich sources of life-giving chemicals: antibodies, adrenaline, etc. When we need one of them, we are given it from outside in the form of pills, serums or injections. However, if we can revitalise the particular system that produces these chemicals, then we make them for ourselves. This is what we can accomplish through yoga.
Take the example of adrenaline. The patient who is suffering from asthma can produce his own adrenaline. simply by practising one posture known as shashankasana. The person sits on his feet, bends forward, places his forehead and arms on the floor and relaxes in this position for ten or fifteen minutes. This is the way the Muslims sit during their prayers.
In shashankasana the adrenal glands are reactivated, they secrete more adrenaline. and the attack passes off. This is especially effective if it is practised early in an asthma attack as soon as the person knows that respiratory congestion is beginning to take place. An asthmatic patient can tell very well when he is going to get an attack. The condition begins to accumulate from the morning, and he begins to feel heaviness in the chest. But if he practises this posture he starts to feel better very quickly.
How does shashankasana clear up the respiratory congestion? It increases the secretion of adrenaline. Every person with asthma knows that if he has an attack of asthma and goes to the doctor, the doctor gives him adrenaline. However, with shashankasana, he makes it for himself.
This is an example of how, by practising the specific yoga postures, the different endocrine glands are stimulated. The endocrine glands then, in their turn, influence not only the body, but also the emotions, such as anxiety, fear and anger, which can be also controlled by the yoga practices.
When I started this movement in 1964 I had 24 students and one of them was suffering from peptic ulcer. He was a very brilliant advocate and astute politician. At the beginning his ulcer was very bad and it was hard for me to imagine how yoga could help a condition that was caused by hyperacidity, anxiety, fear and irregular life habits. 'Exercises' for me were only exercises after all, whether they were dynamic or static. However, to my surprise, that man got better in fifteen or twenty days, and he is all right even now.
The experience with the advocate compelled me to follow a series of studies on yoga. I contacted various authorities in my own country, in Europe, America and Australia and inspired them to study these phenomena. I helped one team to thoroughly examine the impact and effect of yoga postures on coronary disease, which was a very important subject for me. I went to the central government in Delhi, and met the ministers and other chief officers as the first endeavour to finance the project. They were very glad to do that, and granted a large sum of money and facilities in a medical college, along with permission to examine and instruct the heart patients. They also gave an office, electro-cardiographic and electroencephalographic facilities, and a yearly subsidy for recurring expenses. Eminent doctors followed these observations during a period of five years and examined more than 950 patients, men and women, with all kinds of coronary diseases including angina, thrombosis and Myocardial infarction. The report was finally compiled and published before the Government of India.
With the report on coronary disease, there was a great awakening in my country. Many doctors began to follow yoga courses and we have formulated a systematic course for the different types of diseases that affect the heart. As a result, in our ashrams all over the world, yoga therapy is one of the most important activities.
Talking about heart patients, it is a well known practice in India, that before a medical expert is called for a heart problem, the patient is made to lie down on the floor with his legs raised. It is common sense, when legs are raised on a pillow, the blood goes back to the heart, and the pressure and strain on the heart is relieved, no matter what complaint it is. Then the heart can function until the medical expert arrives. This is a very simple thing which can be taught to everybody. Wherever I go, if I meet people over forty years, I tell them that this is one practice they have to learn.
Of course in India, heart disease is not a major disease, whereas in the west it is the number one killer. In India, only the people who are following the modern way of life, sitting in a room all day and not going out; suffering from anxiety, insecurity, stress and strain, etc., have heart attacks. In the villages, people do not understand what a heart attack is. They are very simple folk. They go to sleep on time, wake up on time, take proper food and exercise, just as the body requires.
Recently I met an eminent doctor who is a great authority on transplanting the heart, Dr Christian Barnard from South Africa. We started talking about the yoga postures and he said, 'Yes, that is what I tell people to do, because if yoga postures are done correctly, you don't have to worry about heart attack at all.' When I asked him what was the basis of his statement, he replied that, 'In the male body, testosterones are produced, and these hormones attack the heart.'
Testosterone is the hormone secreted by the testes in the masculine body. It is secreted every now and then, consciously and unconsciously during sexual intercourse, sexual fantasies, etc. If there is a nice dish of food, the salivary glands start to work, you know that. Even if I talk to you about something which you like to eat most, the saliva begins to secrete; this is a normal body reflex. In the same way, even if you look at a picture of sexual activity, for instance, it's not just looking, there is a reflex condition set up in the body and testosterone is secreted. I'm not criticising the sexual behaviour of man, I'm only defining testosterone in relation to human activities.
If testosterones attack the heart, how do we control them so that they are not produced in excess? Dr Barnard said that he had one posture in his mind, and the posture he described was siddhasana, the posture in which we sit for meditation. In this posture, the left foot is placed beneath the scrotum, with the right over the genital organ. If this is practised over a period of time, say half an hour maximum each day, it will give you complete control over the secretion of testosterone, a primary cause of heart attack.
This revelation I am making is from a very eminent person in the field of heart treatment. Therefore, there is no reason why siddhasana should be only considered a meditational posture, let us call it the 'coronary posture'.
When you practise siddhasana, what is happening? You are pressing the perineum between the excretory and the urinary organs, with your left heel. And with the right heel you are pressing the lower abdominal viscera at the root of the urinary organ, or above the clitoris. You are pressing these two points, which are very important in controlling the flow of blood through the arteries and veins. The posture of siddhasana helps in the treatment of abnormal blood pressure too. Any time one is suffering from high blood pressure or low blood pressure, if he just sits in this posture for half an hour or if possible one hour, the blood pressure will move towards normal. This is because the pressure exerted on the perineum and the viscera is transmitted to the brain centres which control the blood pressure. High blood pressure is caused by tension and stress reacting through the brain to the blood vessels and heart. There are, of course other ways of controlling high blood pressure, but I'm talking in relation to siddhasana, and how important this posture is for our age.
Here in India, along with heart disease, another important experiment has already been concluded in the management of diabetes. The course; was conducted in one of my ashrams for forty days under the direct observation of doctors. When the course was concluded, the patients went home and the doctors followed up their progress.
To sum up, this experiment enlightened the whole nation that diabetes is no more an incurable disease, and if properly handled, before the complications have set in, the pancreas can be regenerated and the disease can be checked. The sufferer from diabetes has nothing to worry about provided he knows the correct practices to do.
In the same way, in the last 15 years, we have seen studies covering a wide range of diseases being conducted all over the country. Asthma, indigestion (the mother of many diseases), polio, muscular atrophy, multiple sclerosis (one of the widespread diseases in the west) and many other illnesses have been found to respond to yoga therapy.
Today in India, yoga is one of the most important branches in healing. The Medical Association has asked the medical colleges to include the teaching of yoga therapy in the medical studies. Medical doctors come to our ashram in Monghyr from all parts of India in order to get an introductory idea of the major principles of yoga therapy. As well as in India, there is work being done with great speed in Australia, Belgium, America and other places into the effects of yoga therapy.
I don't know much about the condition of the ladies in the west, but in India, many ladies suffer from prolapse of the uterus, where its supports become weak, and it comes down. Of course, we have a system of surgery for this, but in yoga we use only three postures practised over a period of time, which bring the whole genitourinary system into order and make it strong. One practice is called naukasana, 'the boat pose'. You lie down, raise both legs a bit and tense them, then raise the upper part of the body a bit, and tense it. Then stretch the arms in the direction of the feet and make them tense. It has been seen that during this posture the uterus drops back. It may not happen in a few days, it may take a period of time but definitely this posture helps in prolapse.
The other practice for prolapse is uddiyana bandha. Exhale the breath through the mouth, empty the lungs, and contract the abdomen upward and backward. At the same time the kidneys, the bladder and the uterus follow the same contraction. The entire genitourinary and digestive tracts are contracted. When at the same time you block the throat by extending the arms and pressing the knees in jalandhara bandha, the blood circulation is concentrated in the navel region, and we know that wherever the blood concentrates, repair work takes place very fast.
I don't make very tall claims, it is not my habit, but I have seen for myself how cancer can be successfully treated by yoga therapy. For instance, one of my friends brought me a patient, the son-in-law of a multimillionaire, who was himself an eminent medical doctor in India, an F.R.CS. He had been in London and had to be brought back to India because of cancer of the spine.
He came to us and we only recommended one practice, revitalising breathing. He had to do nothing except fold back the tongue and touch the upper palate with it (khechari mudra), then practise a particular pranayama called ujjayi, in which the breath sounds like steam escaping from an engine. This is known as psychic breathing. With his eyes open or closed, he was instructed to breathe this way fifty, a hundred Or a hundred and fifty times.
First of all he was very skeptical. He asked, 'Will it cure me?' I said, 'If there is any other system available which you think can cure you, then take that course.' He was himself a doctor and he had given up all hope of survival. I said, 'Practise it with inspiration and enthusiasm.' He practised for one full year or more, and he is still very much alive today. He no longer has cancer, but unfortunately he is not able to move his head, either to the right or to the left, because of a certain test he had undergone before he met me. I advised him, 'Don't worry, if you persist in practising these other yoga postures, in the course of a year or two, your neck will be able to move again.' I haven't seen him since, but I'm sure that even if he cannot move his head as easily as I can, he can at least look a little from side to side.
He is still the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in a well known University. He tells all his medical students that yoga is important, not only as a philosophy or a spiritual science, but because there are certain physical changes that definitely occur during the practice of yoga.
I will finish this introduction with one more disease. Last month I received a request from the Education Department of my state to train higher secondary school teachers. We wanted to find out what had happened to these government officers. Why had they suddenly become aware of the benefits of teaching yoga in the schools? What was the story behind it? Here's what had happened:
One of the sons of the Chief Secretary of Education was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. He was brought to our ashram, but I was not prepared to accept him because he had to be looked after completely. He could do nothing. He was virtually a dead man enacting life. I was not prepared for him because, although I have a very big ashram, people rush there and consequently we are often hard pressed for accommodation. However, some of my disciples knew the boy and intervened on his behalf. So I kept him and his mother also for three months.
I didn't know whether he experienced any improvement, because I was out on tour during this period. When I returned, he was no longer there, and I forgot the affair completely. A few months later he came back and he could walk. He came in, bowed low, and greeted me in Hindu fashion. This was the first I saw of his improvement. Recently, when I was coming through Patna from an overseas trip, he took leave of me and said, 'Swamiji, next time, I will come to the ashram alone.' He now goes to the bathroom, takes his own bath, washes his own clothes, cleans his own plate, sweeps his own room, and makes his own bed.
The father of the young man never expected this improvement because the medical experts had said 'Nothing can be done, you can go to England or America, they may have a way, but here in India we do not have a cure for rheumatoid arthritis.' The Secretary of Education was thus so obliged that he spoke with his colleagues in the Government. He reasoned that a science that could deal so positively, so successfully, and so immediately with such a condition as rheumatoid arthritis should be taught to the teachers and professors so that they in turn, could teach the children. In this way the next generation would have a better idea about the therapeutic possibilities of yoga.
Yoga can move either side by side with medical science or independently of medical science This is because we have a sound system of aetiology, diagnosis and pathogenesis of diseases. We have a complete system by itself within yoga.
Unfortunately, people of the east and west have understood yoga as a science of occultism, mysticism, black magic, witchcraft, and many have attributed it to the religious side of life. This is why yoga has been outside the area of scientific exploration and investigation. However, we are now doing a lot of work in India, not only my own institution but many others, and in Australia they are working very hard too. Australian doctors write down under their prescription 'Practise Yoga'. They don't know very much about the postures, but they know what yoga can do. The work is also going on in most European countries. I am particularly aware of what is being done in Czechoslovakia and Poland because my disciples there are working in collaboration with the medical authorities.
Throughout the whole world yoga is now becoming recognised as a science in its own right. And I hope that this systematic approach to yoga will reveal greater benedictions and greater benefits for mankind.