Yoga the Opportunity for Health

The following article is the second part of a composite report on yoga therapy, presented to the 'XXIII International Yoga Festival on Health' by Dr. Swami Vivekananda Saraswati, MBMS (Syd) MANZCP, DPM.

Yoga is a science of consciousness. It is an integrated system of techniques by which we develop our hidden potentials to the fullest. Our qualities of love, joy, security, confidence, discrimination, intelligence, intuition, higher abilities and awareness, expand as we practise yoga. This is the fundamental aim and use of this ancient system.

However, there is another important aspect to the practices. Along the way to higher consciousness, the basic causes of illness are interrupted and eliminated, almost as a side effect - a bonus. This is because the samskaras which are dulling our awareness, are the same ones which cause our mental and physical illnesses. By uprooting the samskaras, and thus changing the pattern of the mind, the mental conflict that exacerbates illness is removed allowing the body's self-healing functions to operate. Hence, yoga, although never meant as a therapy, is so effective in helping us to attain and maintain abundant good health and well being. People who practise yoga don't need to worry about how to treat illnesses, they remain healthy and energetic, tranquil and balanced. That's the secret of yoga and that's the opportunity for all of us.

Yoga therapy has proved effective in a variety of disorders and is being used today not only by yoga practitioners but by wider circles of medical and paramedical practitioners. In the following disorders we show how yoga therapy along with medical consultation when necessary provides greater healing benefits with less chance of recurring symptoms.

Headache

A common form of headache, which causes widespread distress throughout the world, is migraine. This is caused by swelling of the arteries of the scalp and inside the skull, probably because of instability of the autonomic nervous system in that area.

Migraine is usually treated by drugs containing a derivative of ergot fungus. However, these drugs are toxic; they frequently don't relieve the attack once it has started, and they have no effect on reducing the tendency for the attacks to recur.

Yoga can be incredibly effective in treating migraine. It has been discovered in many yoga centres, including Satyananda Ashrams, that the combination of shatkarmas (kunjal daily, neti twice daily, shankhaprakshalana every three months), with the daily practice of simple yoga postures (pawanmuktasana part 1), brahmari pranayama, and finishing with yoga nidra, completely eliminates migraine in the majority of sufferers.

Tension headaches are related to migraine but manifest through the somatic nervous system instead of through the autonomic nervous system. In fact, the two types of headache often occur in the same person. These also respond very well to the other practices mentioned above.

As in the case of asthma, a person who begins to feel an attack of migraine coming on need only practise kunjal kriya, and there is an excellent chance that the attack will be averted. Needless to say, recurrent headaches in a person who has not had them before, or headache which becomes continuous, must be investigated medically. But when we are sure that the cause of the headache is migraine or tension, then the yoga techniques are far superior to drugs and should be practised in every case.

Cerebral dysrythmia (epilepsy)

In this illness, the person is subject to paroxysmal attacks of explosive action in the brain. In its severest form (grande mal) he loses consciousness, falls to the ground, and the body undergoes spasmodic convulsions. During the attack he may injure himself, and in extreme cases (status epilepticus) he may die.

The usual medical treatment for cerebral dysrhythmia is by drugs, and these generally stop the attacks if the person takes them for the rest of his life. However, their side effects can cause real problems. Many of the drugs have toxic effects on the blood, the gums, and other organs, especially if taken for a long time. Others make the person tired and stupid. Those who have treated cerebral dysrhythmia over the years have seen bright intelligent people functioning as 'zombies' not because of the epilepsy, but because of the drugs, and they would like to find a better treatment. This is a serious problem and if we can find a way to control cerebral dysrhythmia without drugs, or even to reduce the drugs for people who are suffering their side effects, we will be making an important contribution to healing sciences.

For centuries, yoga practices have been used for the treatment of cerebral dysrhythmia and in many cases, it has been found that not only do the attacks stop, but the person's perceptions and abilities expand as well. The patient practises a small group of classical major postures (bhujangasana, shashankasana, shalabhasana, sarvangasana), some breathing exercises (nadi shodhana, ujjayi, bhastrika) and mantra meditation (in this case ajapa japa). If the person has a lot of mental tension, bhramari pranayama, kunjal and neti are practised. On the other hand, if he is of phlegmatic temperament, the practices of kriya yoga are of greater benefit.

With the treatment of cerebral dysrhythmia, much discretion is needed on the part of the yoga therapist, who must be expert in the field. The practices must be designed to suit the individual person, and the anticonvulsant drugs reduced very slowly over months. However, when this is done correctly, the results are most gratifying.

Thyroid diseases

When the thyroid gland loses its balance and becomes overactive, the condition is known as thyrotoxicosis. The person becomes thin, tremulous, overactive, anxious, and experiences widespread symptoms ranging from bulging of the eyes to disruption of the menstrual cycle.

The yogis have always recommended sarvangasana (shoulderstand) and have claimed that if the posture is practised correctly each day, it will balance thyroid function. This means that the overacting thyroid will decrease its activity and become normal, and an under acting thyroid will increase its activity and become normal. Strange as this sounds, there is good evidence and experience to support it.

If yoga can balance the thyroid, it is very important because the usual medical treatment, though effective, leaves a lot to be desired. Thyrotoxicosis is usually treated in one of three ways: surgery, radiation (X-rays or swallowing radioactive iodine) or drugs (which have a toxic effect on the thyroid and thus suppress its action). It is not surprising that many people including the doctors are not happy with these alternatives.

Under acting thyroid is usually treated by hormone tablets. This would seem to be a logical procedure, but actually it has an important disadvantage. The hormone suppresses any remaining ability of the thyroid gland to produce hormone for itself, and ultimately destroys any hormone secreting cells which were still functioning. Obviously, once a person starts taking thyroid hormone he must do so for the rest of his life. The yogis claim that sarvangasana will reactivate the dormant cells in the thyroid and the gland will once again function for itself.

Dr. K.N. Udupa, director of the Institute of Medical Sciences at Benares Hindu University in India, taught yoga postures (including sarvangasana), breathing techniques and relaxation to thirty people with thyrotoxicosis. At the time of reporting, eight people had recovered completely and the rest were still improving and reducing their drugs.

He estimated that the latter, because of the progress they were making, would eventually become normal also. It is possible that they may need to continue with the practices (probably only sarvangasana) for many years. However, this natural therapy seems preferable to taking drugs for life.

Mental problems

The practices of yoga have a profoundly beneficial effect on the mind. All of the mental practices such as meditation, concentration, and relaxation; and the physical practices such as asanas, pranayama, mudras, bandhas etc., have one primary aim. They expand the consciousness through their action on the mind.

It is not surprising, therefore, that yoga practices have been used for millennia in the treatment of mental and emotional problems. It is also not surprising that much of the recent scientific work on meditation and other yoga practices has been in the treatment of psychosis, neurosis, alcoholism, drug addiction etc. As we might expect, the results have been uniformly good in the wide range of psychiatric disorders which are now being treated and investigated.

Generally, the studies show that meditation and relaxation practices help the person to become less anxious, less depressed, less irritable, with less psychosomatic illness. They help the person to have more pleasure in contact with others, more respect for others, more self-confidence, initiative and emotional stability. The intake of alcohol, nicotine and other drugs reduces markedly, and insomnia is relieved.

The practices of physical yoga gave similar benefits in the investigation. They relieved inner conflicts, gave an increased feeling of self-esteem, a stronger feeling of self-identity, more self-acceptance and a more balanced ethical viewpoint. Generally, it was found that with yoga, the person's personality became better integrated, they had far less neurosis, and they were living a more positive, dynamic life.

The application of yoga to the treatment of psychoses such as schizophrenia has not been as widely investigated as with the neuroses and drug addictions. However, the experience in the ashrams of the International Yoga Fellowship Movement has been very positive. Even people with severe psychosis respond to yoga therapy, especially if they can stay for a time in a country yoga ashram and reap the additional benefits of physical work and the harmonious environment.

Other illnesses helped by yoga

The number of illnesses which are helped or cured by yoga is vast. In this article we have only mentioned a few. Many problems of the internal organs respond well, including lung and heart ailments, indigestion, functional bowel disorders, and many troubles with the pelvic organs such as bladder, prostate, and menstrual irregularities.

Illnesses of the ear, nose and throat often resolve with very simple practices such as the shatkarmas and brahmari pranayama, as do many skin troubles. Vascular conditions, metabolic disorders, endocrine dysfunction...... the list is long and the opportunities are vast. In addition to the above, yoga can be used to manage pain, and other symptoms of severe diseases.

As we mentioned before, the interesting thing about yoga therapy is that it is so effective in treating the very conditions in which modern medicine has limited success. To those of us who have experience in both fields, it is obvious that in the years to come, yoga and medicine will work side by side to create another revolution in health care.

When to seek medical advice

In many parts of the world, yoga therapy is quickly becoming a recognized treatment; especially for functional illnesses, obvious psychosomatic disorders and many chronic conditions. This recognition is justified, because yoga can be very effective in these conditions. However, there are illnesses for which medical help is needed. Some examples are:

  1. Severe bacterial infections such as meningitis, lobar pneumonia, severe gastro-enteritis in children and, in fact, any condition where there is high fever, convulsions or sudden debility. But ask the doctor to please not prescribe antibiotics unless he knows that the infection is caused by bacteria and unless they are really necessary to cure the illness. Antibiotics don't cure virus diseases, which usually go away in a few days whether we are taking antibiotics or not. But very often they are prescribed in such cases.
  2. Urinary tract infections, which are usually experienced as pain and frequency of urination, require correct diagnosis and treatment. Sometimes, with inadequate treatment, or even no treatment, they appear to go away, but this usually means that they have gone from the bladder to the kidneys where they create destruction, and eventually damage the kidneys beyond repair.
  3. Venereal infections usually appear as a lesion (an ulcer or blisters) on the genitals, or discharge from there. They require immediate medical diagnosis and treatment. Venereal diseases often appear to go away by themselves, but they never do. They actually go deep into the body and do incredible damage. If you have such a condition, do not accept treatment from natural therapists, diet therapists, yoga therapists or any other sort of 'therapists'! Get medical advice immediately and continue with the treatment until you and the doctor know you are completely cured. In these days, the cure in the early stages with proper treatment is easy, but in the late stages it is impossible.
  4. Acute surgical conditions such as appendicitis, ruptured ulcer, bleeding ulcer, and indeed, any severe internal pain need a diagnosis immediately.
  5. Acute medical conditions such as sudden severe chest pain (may be a heart attack), sudden severe headache, reduced consciousness, paralysis etc. (may be a stroke).
  6. Cancer usually appears as:
  • a.) An unusual lump, slowly growing anywhere in the body, especially in the armpits, neck or groin.
  • b.) A continual symptom such as pain, coughing, headache, diarrhoea, etc., which you have not had before but which is now persistent.
  • c.) A chronic lump or ulcer growing on the skin, especially if it is black or brown.
  • d.) Loss of blood in unusual ways such as radical changes in menstruation; or from unusual places such as bowels, coughing blood, vomiting blood, urinating blood etc.

Early cancer is frequently cured by correct diagnosis and medical treatment. There is no convincing evidence that other therapies are as successful. If you think you have cancer, seek medical treatment immediately and practise yoga at the same time.

One of the fundamental characteristics of yoga is balance, which implies discrimination and common sense. We must apply these qualities in deciding what to do when we are ill. However, even when we are receiving orthodox medical treatment, it is usually better to practise yoga at the same time, with the guidance of a yoga teacher who is proficient in yoga therapy, and with the agreement of the doctor.

Siddhasana and the Heart

Recently, medical scientists have found an important connection between the reproductive metabolism and the heart. Excessive and uncontrolled levels of the male hormone testosterone in the blood are correlated with a preponderance of such traits as over-assertiveness, acquisitiveness and latent or overt aggression which characterize the cardiac personality, the type most prone to a sudden heart attack. Research has revealed the existence of specific receptor sites for this hormone in the Myocardial tissue of the heart, and also in the walls of the larger blood vessels, and it is now felt that Myocardial damage is induced by testosterone accumulation at these sites.

Heart attack is far more frequent in men than in women, up to the age of the menopause, but beyond that, the incidence between both sexes is similar. This strongly suggests that the female hormonal environment bestows a natural protection for the feminine heart whereas the male heart is endangered by excessive circulating levels of male hormones. In order to combat this, the masculine emotional and sexual metabolism has to be controlled. For this purpose we recommend the practice of meditation in siddhasana, where the lower heel exerts pressure in the area of the prostate gland in the region of the perineal floor, and the upper heel is against the pubic bone, above the root of the generative organ.

This posture stabilizes the two lower psychic centres - mooladhara chakra and swadhisthana chakra, redirecting prana upwards towards the higher centres. Blockage of energy within these two centres is responsible for many health problems and also poses a barrier which has to be crossed in spiritual life. Mooladhara is the root centre in which an infinite source of pranic energy lies dormant and asleep, while swadhisthana is the centre responsible for the sexual and emotional metabolism in which our psychic energy most spontaneously manifests itself. When our emotional life does not extend beyond this plane, blood pressure and cardiac function remain unstable and our role and purpose in life remains ill-defined and unclear. There is an 'ache' in the heart which never knows the experience of constancy, beyond the fickle and transitory emotional feelings. But the higher experiences of the human heart and mind remain impenetrable unless the energy can be stabilized and led up into the higher centres of consciousness. In this sense, heart diseases can be considered an evolutionary malady, where we suffer due to our bondage on the emotional plane, while our being aches to experience the constancy of human life which arises when emotional attachments and aversions have been transcended.

Siddhasana is the posture which is recommended by Dr. Christian Barnard, the heart transplant surgeon, to stabilize cardiac function in his patients. We have found that it proves most beneficial when learned during the late teens or early twenties, when the emotional and sexual drives and passions are likely to be unruly. At that time, siddhasana is found to rectify problems such as excessive nocturnal emission. If followed throughout life it bestows protection from emotional ravages and stabilizes the passions, preventing later cardiac demise. The heart is protected when there is neither suppression of, nor anarchical expression of the emotional complexes. The key to preservation of the heart lies in controlled expression of our desires, instincts and drives and this is learned by following the precepts and practices of yoga throughout the different stages of life. By incorporating some asanas, pranayama and meditation into the daily program from an early age, the penalty of an overtaxed heart is avoided in middle age, and the emotions are channelled and expressed in a more creative way throughout life.

The central role of cholesterol should be understood. This fatty substance is the precursor from which the sex hormones are synthesized by the gonads and the adrenal glands. It is also required in the production of the spermatozoa by the testes, along with other fatty protein complexes known as lipoproteins. These are needed to provide the structural requirements of the sperms, and also to provide the machinery which gives every sperm such an enormous energetic and motile capacity.

If the emotional and reproductive metabolism is unruly and uncontrolled then the turnover of new sperms must occur at a rapid rate and an enormous amount of energy must be constantly provided to synthesize these replacement sperms. As a result a high level of cholesterol and protein is necessary, and this usually comes from dietary sources. This necessitates a high protein and fat diet, and demands that the physiological systems of digestion and cell synthesis operate at a very high rate, pushing up the metabolic rate and basal temperature in the process. Strain on the heart, the digestive organs such as the liver, and the eliminatory organs such as kidneys, bowels and sweat glands, is inevitable. Excessive wear and tear on the physiological systems is the end result and cardiac strain is one foremost effect.

Clearly the emotional metabolism must be stabilized if the body is to be preserved. This can be attained by the twin approach of dietary regulation, where a decreased protein and fat intake is recommended, coupled with the growth of self-knowledge, self-expression and self-control, which develops by following the royal path of yoga in the midst of the various worldly confrontations and difficulties. These measures are the best insulators against heart disease in the community as a whole.

In this regard, it is not enough to simply follow the precepts of a traditional religion. While this may provide a degree of mental and emotional security, it is actually suppressive and anti-evolutionary, for it does not allow us to come to terms with the emotional and instinctual factors of our nature directly. Traditional religions offer only precepts and concepts, but yoga offers psycho-physiological practices which channel emotional energy correctly. The key to an enlightened emotional and sexual life, free of mental conflicts and physiological exhaustion lies in the practice of yoga techniques in conjunction with our normal daily life experiences. Yoga does not require renunciation, but leads its practitioner to a fuller enjoyment of every aspect of life. The experiences of life should be enjoyed and understood if we are to progress and evolve. Blind adherence to dogmas only blocks this evolutionary process, leading to mental illness and physical disease, but yoga offers the sublime way to fully appreciate life and complete our evolutionary journey.