Yoga the Opportunity for Health

Dr. Swami Vivekananda Saraswati MB, BS (Syd), MANZCP, DPM

From the beginning of man's existence on earth, life has been a struggle, but as we trace the development of the human being, we see the gradual emergence of his ability to master the environment. With his superior intelligence, ingenuity and amazing adaptability to different situations, he has progressively gained power over his external foes. The predators, the prey, the weather, the terrain, all have fallen under his dominance. However, he is still a victim of his internal foes- the illnesses of the mind and body - and as we look around the world today we sometimes wonder if he is really making headway with these problems.

Modern medical science, which has given us community hygiene, nutrition and scientific treatments, has freed a large number of people from the illnesses of old times, but these have been replaced by new problems. The diseases of malnutrition have, in much of the world, been replaced by those of over-nutrition. The injuries of the ancient hunter have been replaced by the hypertension, ulcers, and heart problems of the man who is still a hunter at heart, but whose outlet for his combativeness is blocked. The uncertainty of life in the wide open spaces has been replaced by the soul destroying constriction and pollution of the cities. The unpredictability of life in the wild has been replaced by the dull monotony of the civilized life, the frustrations of life without real challenge, and the host of diseases that result from all those frustrations.

We have gained many benefits from gathering together in 'civilized' communities, but we are also paying a great price. We have been taken away from our natural habitat and are suffering from the depression, frustration, resentment, and general lack of real direction in our lives, which has resulted from this disruption.

Where are we going? What are we here for? Are we really meant for the life we are leading or is there something else? When we become sick, to what extent can we cure ourselves? Can we prevent illness altogether? Can we remain completely healthy, and if so, how do we do it? More basically, do we have another destiny? Are we really fulfilling our true potential and moving in the right direction? Is this all there is, or is there a greater potential within us which has been blocked? If there is, how can we free ourselves of the blockage and release this potential?

For thousands of years, yoga has been addressing itself to these questions and giving guidance to those who are sincerely seeking the answers. Yoga is concerned with unfolding the potential that lies dormant within us, but as a side-effect, it also frees us from the illnesses, both mental and physical, of which we are victims.

Yoga viewpoint of health

Doctors generally agree that the majority of illnesses are due to mental tension. Even the very 'physical' diseases, cancer or infections, now appear to have their origin in the mind. For example, the onset of these illnesses depends on inadequacy of the body's immune - defence system and we now know that this system is very much under the influence of the mind. Over recent decades the doctors have recognized more and more illnesses as being a result of mental tension, but the yogis have always gone a step further. They say that virtually all illnesses are directly caused in the person by mental tension. There are exceptions of course, such as malnutrition and toxic poisons, and we know that cosmic factors such as phases of the moon, activity of the sun, the seasons, the weather etc., can be powerful precipitating factors. However, generally, according to the yogis the roots of our illnesses are implanted in the mind, and that is ultimately where we must look to eliminate them.

How does mental tension cause physical illness?

The mind, acting through the central nervous system affects the body through three channels:

  1. Somatic nervous system - controls the voluntary actions of the body such as walking, talking and using the muscles any time we decide to do so.
  2. Autonomic nervous system - controls the involuntary actions such as digestion, heartbeat and blood pressure.
  3. Endocrine glands- produce hormones which are chemicals that affect the body chemistry and its actions in a wide variety of ways.

It can thus be seen that every cell, organ and system within the body is directly influenced by the mind, through the nervous system and its outlets.

How does yoga therapy work?

Yoga therapy restores all the above systems to their normal state by acting in four areas:

  1. The affected part is restored to its normal function. For example, if a person has a spinal problem due to mental tension, the yoga postures relax the spasm of the muscles in that part of the spine. In this case, yoga acts directly on the part that is affected, without creating an imbalance or disturbance in any other part of the body.
  2. The connections with the central nervous system are balanced and normalized. For example, there are some practices such as kunjal kriya which act directly on the autonomic nerves and plexuses. In the case of asthma, the imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic parts of the system are normalized, the bronchial tubes of the lungs open, and thus the person can breathe freely again.
  3. The, central nervous system itself may be directly affected. Some practices such as brahmari pranayama appear to act on the brain itself, and it is probably through this avenue that they produce a quick and lasting relaxation.
  4. Many yoga practices directly relieve the tensions of the mind. Meditation is the best known, but yoga nidra and many of the physical practices have a positive effect in this area.

The field of yoga is a complete one, all the way from the 'target organ' to the fundamental cause of the problem, in the mind. This integration is very necessary of course, because all parts of the system are so intimately related.

Does yoga replace other treatments?

Obviously, if we have acute appendicitis, we need surgery quickly. This is also the case with a ruptured ulcer and other surgical emergencies. If we have meningitis, pneumonia or any of the other life threatening infections, we should have antibiotics or sulfonamides. For most serious acute illnesses, modern medicine is probably the treatment of choice, although even in these, the correct yoga practices can also help. Similarly, in many conditions, the problem can be cured by yoga in the early stages, but when it has advanced, we need outside treatment.

However, yoga is emerging as the treatment of first choice for emotional and mental illnesses, and their 'cousins' the psychosomatic problems such as high blood pressure, peptic ulcer, asthma, arthritis and many others. This is very fortunate too, because doctors admit that it is just these sicknesses that medical science finds it most difficult to treat.

If a person with acute appendicitis has surgery, the appendix is removed and usually there is no further trouble. However, most doctors have patients with peptic ulcers who have been taking drugs for years and still have their ulcers.

If a person has acute pneumonia, the previously fatal infection of the lung, the doctor gives him antibiotics and he is well within days. However, most doctors have patients with asthma who are totally dependent on pills, inhalers and injections, who live a life in constant fear of an attack, and who gradually become worse and worse.

If a child has meningitis nowadays, he is treated quickly with sulfonamides or antibiotics and the infection goes without leaving a trace. There is no indication for children to be left with deafness, mental retardation and other complications of untreated meningitis.

However, most of the doctors have patients with anxiety neurosis, who take increasing amounts of tranquillizer drugs for years without relieving their problem, and who end up with the added complications of addiction to the drugs.

It is quite obvious that the progress in medical science has been miraculous in relieving mankind of the terrible diseases of old. However, there are whole areas of human suffering in which it is not doing so well. These are often just the types of illnesses which respond well to yoga therapy. Let us now discuss some of these illnesses, and the results that have been obtained from treatment by yoga.

Hypertension (high blood pressure)

This disease is known to shorten a person's life, often by decades. Indeed, there is a form known as 'malignant hypertension' which is often rapidly fatal. It is not surprising, therefore, that much yoga research has been done on hypertension.

A cardiologist named Dr. K. K. Datey, in Bombay, India, has taught the yoga nidra method of deep relaxation to his patients with hypertension and has had very good results. Most of them no longer need drugs or have been able to reduce their intake considerably.

Dr. Chandra Patel, in an article in Lancet, the respected medical journal from Britain, reported on the use of yoga relaxation with bio-feedback in the treatment of hypertension. It was found that a quarter of the people could stop their drugs completely, while most of the others could reduce the medication substantially, or at least had better control of the blood pressure.

Dr. K.N. Udupa, director of the Institute of Medical Sciences, Benares Hindu University, has found that the results are even better if the person performs some easy physical yoga practices before the relaxation or meditation, and we have found the same results. Udupa stated that, "Subjectively all patients report that they feel much better, more sober and calmer." A substantial number could safely stop taking the drugs and many others were still reducing the dosage at the time of reporting. Drs. Stone and De Leo (New England Journal of Medicine, January 1976) even found that the simple yoga practice of being aware of the breath for ten minutes in the morning and evening, reduced hypertension to a significant degree over a six month period.

The benefits of yoga for people with hypertension are so convincing that all people with this illness should be offered yoga training, parallel with medical treatment, if drugs are really necessary.

Heart disease

Despite the best medical treatment, coronary heart disease is the most common cause of death in the technologically advanced countries. In this condition, the arteries which supply the heart muscle with blood become narrow, and starve the heart of oxygen and nourishment. If it happens severely (heart attack), parts of the heart may die, and so may the patient!

For centuries, the yogis have recommended physical yoga techniques and relaxation for the treatment of coronary heart diseases, but it is only recently that the rationale of these practices has been supported by medical science.

Until recently, it was believed that a heart attack was caused by a blood clot lodging in one of the coronary arteries. Now, however, we realize that in most people with a heart attack, there is probably no blood clot and the attack is a functional crisis caused by spasm of the artery. The same applies to angina, a chronic ongoing form of coronary occlusion in which spasm of the artery is an important factor. It appears that in both of these common illnesses, the most important precipitating cause is spasm of the coronary artery, irrespective of the structural changes. It is quite likely, moreover, that the spasm is caused by mental tension acting through the autonomic nerve fibres that supply the arteries.

This latter contention is supported by research that was carried out about twenty years ago. In this investigation a group of people who had been admitted to hospital with a heart attack was compared with another group of people admitted for other reasons. It was found that most of the coronary patients had suffered a deep and significant emotional 'hurt' during the month before the heart attack. In the control group there had been no such emotional crisis.

Dr. Chandra Patel, in other research, demonstrated that yoga relaxation reduces the pain and invalidism in angina. The patients can undergo much more activity before they experience chest pain, they feel subjectively better, and the relaxation in the morning seems to last for the whole day.

It is the experience in the ashrams of the International Yoga Fellowship, that if simple postures are practised before relaxation, the results are even better.

Asthma

The different types of obstructive airways disease, including asthma, have been treated by yoga for millennia; and recent scientific studies have supported their experience over the years.

Asthma is an illness in which the sufferer has recurring episodes of constriction of the breathing passages (bronchi) of the lungs. As a result, he experiences attacks of difficulty of breathing which can be very severe, even fatal.

The mainstay of the treatment of asthma is the shatkarma group of practices, especially kunjal kriya (swallowing warm salty water then regurgitating it), neti kriya (pouring warm water through the alternative nostrils) and sometimes vastra dhauti (swallowing a cloth strip then pulling it out again to stimulate the oesophagus). Other practices such as surya namaskara (performed slowly), shashank-bhujangasana, abdominal respiration exercises, pranayamas and yoga nidra complete the series.

In fact, if kunjal kriya is performed in the early stages of an actual attack of asthma, this alone can stop the attack. This is a very important advantage, because the person with asthma then develops the confidence that he can stop an asthma attack at any time by simply using his own resources. Many asthmatics have said that this mastery was the most important factor leading to their ultimate cure of asthma. Those of us who have taught this practice for years have seen asthma attacks stop in minutes, even in severely addicted people, by just practising kunjal.

Dr. G.B. Gupta, Professor G. C. Sepaha et al., of Raipur Medical College, India, working in conjunction with Satyananda Ashram, Raipur, have shown some interesting results in asthma patients who practised some of the recommended yoga techniques. Two-thirds of twenty seven patients studied, improved as a result of their experience with yoga. In addition to this they showed that it was not just a subjective improvement, by testing the people with spiro meter before, during, and after the course of yoga. (A spiro meter is a medical instrument which, among other things, demonstrates the degree of dilation of the bronchial tubes by measuring the freedom of breathing). The tests on this apparatus showed that 62.5% of the people had definite physical opening of their bronchial tubes as a result of the yoga practices. Not only did they feel that they were breathing more freely, but they actually were, because their bronchial tubes had relaxed.

A large number of other clinical investigations throughout the world have shown similar results. Wilson and Hornsberg (Cli. Res. 1973, 21, 278) showed that simple meditation alone can markedly reduce the frequency of attacks, the amount of drugs needed, the lung function and the skin resistance (a test of anxiety).

In all investigations, however, the results are better for people who start yoga early after the onset of the asthma, before it has developed into the severe chronic stage. Hence, people with asthma are advised to start yoga training as soon as possible following their first attack.

Bronchitis and emphysema

There is another group of conditions in which the bronchial tubes are obstructed and the patient cannot breathe properly. The two main forms are chronic bronchitis (long term inflammation of the bronchial tubes), and emphysema (excessive dilation of the air sacs due to damage to their walls). These two conditions are a real problem, because such patients usually continue to deteriorate despite the best treatment medical science can offer. In 1978, Dr. M. K. Tandon published in the journal Thorax an account of his work with twenty two elderly patients with severe cases of these conditions. Half of these people were given routine physiotherapy treatment, and the other half received yoga training. Tandon found that, "At the end of the nine months the yoga trained subjects reported to have:

  1. Improved exercise tolerance.
  2. Quicker recovery after exertion.
  3. Control over an attack of shortness of breath without the need of medical help.
  4. Definite improvement in their overall chest condition.

The breathing pattern of the yoga trained group was changed to a more efficient one. It was deeper and slower as compared with their original condition before the experiment and as compared with the shallow fast breathing of the physiotherapy group which showed no improvement in the breathing pattern."

We must remember too that these are severe diseases in elderly people who, under ordinary conditions, would have deteriorated during the nine months of the investigation, rather than improving as well as they did with yoga.

Diabetes

This is a condition in which the body is unable to handle glucose, its main fuel. In the most severe form, the body becomes saturated with glucose because of the deficiency of insulin secretion, but at the same time the tissues of the body are starved of the glucose because it can't enter the cells. The complications of diabetes are due to these twin problems and, if the course of the disease is not interrupted, the patient's life may be shortened by decades.

The causes of diabetes are many; the person may have a hereditary tendency, but it seems to be triggered by external factors such as stress, lack of exercise, incorrect diet, and overeating. These come into contact with a certain personality type said to be intelligent, sensitive and brooding.

When diabetes starts early in life - juvenile onset diabetes- it is usually more severe and difficult to control. But even people with this type have been helped considerably by the diligent practice of yoga.

A number of studies have shown that the results of yoga therapy are better, especially juvenile onset diabetes, if the practices are started early in the illness, before the body becomes dependent on outside insulin. In addition to this, if it is treated early, the process is reversed before there is damage to vital tissues such as kidney and pancreas, by the diabetes itself or by the insulin.

The traditional yogic treatment of diabetes is fairly extensive and is best carried out while living in a properly equipped yoga ashram for a month or more. It involves special diet, shankhaprakshalana (compete bowel wash out by drinking sixteen to twenty five glasses of warm salty water, and meanwhile repeating specific exercises), kunjal (the vomiting practice), special postures, breathing practices and a form of mantra meditation known as ajapa japa. The results are very encouraging especially in new cases, though some people with even long standing juvenile diabetes have dramatic success.

Many clinical trials have been performed on the effects of yoga therapy for diabetes, including those of Lavgankar in the Yoga Vidya Dham in Pune, India; those of Varandani, Anandananda and Dharmveer M. D. of the Yoga Treatment Research Center, Bapunagar, Jaipur, India, and those of Professor N. C. Panda in association with Satyananda Ashram, Calcutta. All of these have shown that about a third of the patients with diabetes responded completely to the yoga therapy, about one quarter did not respond and the rest were able to reduce the amount of medication. In the investigations the people who did not respond, were usually from among those with severe juvenile onset diabetes, who had been using insulin injections for years; though even many of these became more stable. It must be remembered also that these trials only extended over a few months. The classical yogic teaching is that for diabetes, the practices must be continued for a long time. If this is done, maybe even the most intractable cases will respond.

We must consider yoga very seriously as an effective treatment for diabetes. Those who have experience with yoga therapy feel sure that the time is not far off when people with this difficult and debilitating disease will be able to successfully treat themselves with yoga practices rather than be dependent on frequent injections of external insulin or the taking of other drugs.

Yoga cures illness

Nowadays, people everywhere are coming to realize that yoga has a lot to offer in the treatment of illness, in fact, yoga cures illness. When I say that yoga cures illness, I am not including all illnesses, but those to which it applies. However, I am using the word cure in its most definite sense. If you are cured, you can stop the treatment, and the disease stays away.

Yoga is definitely making inroads and is having a major influence on modern medical science Not only is yoga accepted as a method of expanding consciousness, but also for expanding our opportunities to maintain good health and to cure disease.