Using the Mind to Conquer Disease

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

Yoga is a science which helps us to develop our potential at all levels. We become more aware of the role of the mind and emotions through the yogic and meditative process. In this way we free ourselves from self-imposed limitations, and as a side effect, free ourselves from disease.

Much research has thus focused on the ability of the mind to affect the body and medical researchers have accumulated evidence that heightened emotions such as grief and joy, and even the less dramatic daily flux of thoughts and feelings, affect our body more than previously thought. According to Dr Robert Ader, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, 'There has been a huge transformation in the way we view the relationship between our mind and good health, our mind and disease. In many ways it is nothing short of a revolution.'

Awareness is the first step

The latest and perhaps most significant contribution to our understanding of the mind-body link has come with the discovery of the endorphins. These chemicals are concentrated in the limbic system - that part of the brain responsible for emotions and feelings. Endorphins are morphine-like chemicals which are involved in the feelings of pain at the various physical, emotional and mental levels. They interact with other chemicals and seem to be triggered by our emotions and behaviour. By changing our usual emotional responses and behaviour, thereby altering the chemical makeup in specific areas of the brain, it may be possible to reduce the pain and diseases which result from disordered personality traits and negative feelings. One of the best methods to achieve this is through yoga. Learning techniques such as yoga nidra can put us directly in touch with the various levels of our being, and as we experience the more subtle parts of ourselves, our awareness grows. We learn about ourselves, what we feel and why we feel as we do. Eventually, through yoga, we can learn to be more aware of and sensitive to our thoughts and feelings.

The development of this ability to think and feel what we want to is a freeing experience and reduces our self-imposed limitations. It is because of our lack of awareness that the stresses of life and our own individual methods of coping with them can lead to diseased states. We are usually unaware of how we feel and how fears and tensions can trigger the adrenal glands to make the heart beat faster or cause the pituitary gland to raise blood pressure. Similarly the effects of stress can stimulate the immune system to attack its own body or again to attack cancer cells. Some people spend their whole lives in a state of tension, caused by competition, anxiety, fear of failure, insecurity and anger with anyone who disagrees with them. Then they wonder why they develop heart disease, cancer or suffer from strokes. By becoming aware of what is happening inside ourselves, we are one step closer to cure, and perhaps this first step is the most important.

Power of the mind over the course of healing

Examples of the use of the mind to cure the body are becoming more common every day. Biofeedback techniques are being used to relieve the paralysis caused by strokes, migraine headaches, chronic pain, muscular tension and to help asthmatic children breathe in a less hurried and anxious way.

At the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, patients are taught to exercise, meditate and gradually change their lifestyle in an attempt to improve general health and relieve specific disorders such as high blood pressure, chronic pain and arthritis. The Psychosomatic Medicine Clinic at Berkeley also emphasises a total lifestyle change ranging from stress reduction to changes in diet and exercise. The director of the clinic, Dr Kenneth Pelletier, states, 'It is a natural evolution of psychosomatics into something loosely called holistic medicine.'

What we are learning today about the power of mind to direct the course of healing is so exciting that many health professionals are now looking to yoga for better ways to deal with stress, personality disorders and psychosomatic ailments. They are also recognising that before they can teach these techniques successfully to their patients, they must first experience their effects for themselves. Thus we find that at the Sixth Annual Medical Congress in Tasmania, members of the conservative Australian Medical Association were taught meditation and chanted the mantra 'Om Namah Shivaya'.

Dr Elmer Cranton, president of the American Holistic Medicine Association, founded in 1978, predicts that traditional medicine and 'fringe methods' will eventually mingle amicably. He states: "The doctor within, as Albert Schweitzer called it, as well as the doctor without, will finally be able to co-operate as equals in the preservation of our most precious possession - our good health."