Visualizing Ourselves Well

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

It is possible to aid the course of recovery from disease as well as to achieve many seemingly impossible things in life if we can harness the enormous, almost volcanic, energies of our subconscious and unconscious mind. It is yoga's ability to lead us systematically to the point where we can utilize our mind that makes it so powerful a healing agent at all levels: physical, emotional, mental, psychic, spiritual.

Learning to direct mental energy is a slow process for most of us as it means that we must first unlearn, or de-condition ourselves from the mass of confusing material and pseudo-facts that we have somehow picked up over the years. Only then can we truly learn and develop knowledge and understanding. It is important that we do this, as we have learned to make ourselves sick, and a major part of the healing process, or of any growth in life, depends on our ability to change and give up the old for the new. Asthma is a disease which exemplifies the above picture. Coming from the Greek word for 'panting', asthma is characterized by an inability to exhale properly because of constriction of the tubes in the lungs, thickened mucus plugs and swollen membranes. The whole process is triggered by emotional distress, allergies, strenuous exercise, pollution, etc. At a psycho-dynamic level, asthma is strangulation of our emotions, the inability to express ourselves from the heart level.

Medical science offers proven and effective means to treat all but the most severe forms of acute asthmatic attacks. However, patients return time and again. It is an accepted fact that asthma therapy requires a new approach. At the Bihar School of Yoga we have combined medical therapy with yoga and have achieved remarkable long term results. The use of asanas, pranayama and hatha yoga shatkarmas (cleansing techniques) for immediate short term as well as long term relief and the use of meditation and visualization in long term management is extremely effective in helping people to become less drug dependent and eventually free from disease.

These results are being repeated by various research groups, confirming our own observations. The use of visualization alone has been studied by several groups. Dr Lounie Zeltzer of the University of Texas Health Science Centre, conducted a pilot study on 6 adolescents with severe asthma. The children were trained to lull themselves into a relaxed 'trance' state. They did this by staring at an object or conjuring up a pleasing mental image. In yogic therapy we use yoga nidra to induce this state.

After learning the method, all the children still suffered asthma attacks but they were shorter, less frequent and resulted in fewer emergency room visits. All the children stopped taking their theophylline medication without experiencing adverse effects. While in the relaxed state they registered no reaction at all to an allergy test. Dr Zeltzer stated that the children 'were drastically improved'.

In follow up tests, the children performed well and repeated the trance state at home by themselves about once per month. It could be expected therefore that the daily practice of yoga nidra would have even more dramatic effects. One youngster pictured himself running along, breathing more and more freely as his lungs cleared out. Eventually this boy won a race at a track event.

Carl Simonton, director of the Cancer Counselling and Research Unit in Fort Worth, Texas, who recently spoke at the 6th Annual Medical Congress in Tasmania, showed how teaching advanced cancer patients to relax through meditation actually prolonged life. He teaches a meditation in which patients focus their attention on their bodies and picture a desired outcome. This counteracts the usual alienation from the body which occurs due to fear and thereby speeds up the disease process. He claims that many people achieve early success but that there is 'a lot more to getting well than picturing yourself well.' His patients have survived twice as long as expected in advanced lung cancer, for example. Simonton also states, 'If you improve their quality of life, then you are also improving the quality of their death.'

Another example of visualization techniques being incorporated into traditional medicine comes from Dr David Bresler at the University of California at Los Angeles Pain Control Unit. He helped a fellow doctor who was suffering from the terrible pain of rectal cancer.

Dr Bresler told the man to picture his pain as concretely as possible. The man soon said he could 'see' a large, vicious dog snapping at his spine. The doctor was asked to make friends with the dog, talking to it and patting it. He soon found that his pain was subsiding and, after a few sessions, it had become manageable.

If we try to visualize the future of medicine based on such reports, there seem to be only better things to come. Yoga's place will be paramount in such a future, guiding man's energies in the direction of health and wholeness.