Gandhi's Yoga: Part I

Dr Chanel Prakash Mehra

Mahatma Gandhi was a karma yogi who tried to put into practice various yama and niyama. He tried to follow the path of truth, non-violence, self-restraint, brahmacharya, etc.

The following ten rules*1 guided him through life:

  1. Truth.
  2. Ahimsa (non-violence).
  3. Brahmacharya (chastity).
  4. Restraint of palate, which he elaborated as eating for the mere sustenance of the body, abstaining from intoxicating drinks and drugs such as opium and tobacco.
  5. Abstaining from the possession of things for themselves.
  6. Adherence to life's law that one's bread must be earned by the sweat of one's brow.
  7. Swedeshi, the belief that man's primary duty is to serve.
  8. Belief in the equality of mankind.
  9. Belief in the equality of all the great faiths of the world.
  10. Fearlessness.

He used to introspect if he failed at any time in following yama and niyama. He was attached to "Ram Nam" up till his end- even at the time of his death he uttered, "Hey Ram" which certainly gave him liberation.

Gandhiji kept contact with yogis of his time like Shri Kuvalyananda of Lonavala and Pandit Shri Pad Damodar Satvelekar of Swaddhayay Mandal, and, as advised by them, from time to time, he practised yoga asanas, simple pranayama, massage, drinking water through the nose, etc. to keep his body fit and free from diseases. The late Shri Mahadev Desai used to help him in performing yoga asanas and massage.

In this letter of 4.6.27 (Sabarmati Gandhi Sangrah) to Mahatma Gandhi, Shri Kuvalyananda advised him simple pranayama, shavasana, sarvangasana, massage of abdomen and heart etc. taking more butter and a nourishing diet, and complete rest by reducing brain work for his ailment, which Shri Kuvalyananda had diagnosed as nervous breakdown.

Gandhi used to stop the practice if he had the slightest doubt in the efficacy of any exercise or treatment till he got his doubts cleared. To illustrate the point I quote from the original letters of Shri Kuvalyananda and Gandhiji.

In the letter cited above, Shri Kuvalyananda had written to Gandhiji:

"Shavasana should have a soothing effect upon the nerves. You should come out of it as from sleep quite refreshed. It may be repeated with advantage three times a day.

"Try to avoid all tension on the arteries or veins during the sarvangasana exercise. The pose should leave you in possession of doubled energy."

He further advised Gandhiji to continue massage, taking special care of the spine, abdomen, heart, and head.

Gandhiji wrote back ( Sabarmati Gandhi Sangrah 8.6.27):

"I shall try to increase the quantity of butter."

"The pranayama causes no difficulty and as a rule I take all the deep breaths without a break.

I did not notice the effects you ascribed to shavasana. May it not be that the prescribed period is too short, that is two minutes? I did feel refreshed when I used to lie flat on my back for nearly 15 minutes.

Nor do I notice any positive effect of sarvangasana. Would you advise increasing the angle or increasing the period for the pose at the present angle?

I forgot to mention the massage. It has been continued without interruption. But the abdominal and heart massage has been omitted for some time. The abdominal was omitted for fear that continued massage might weaken the intestinal muscles and may render it a habit always to have that massage for inducing proper motions. The heart massage I left off feeling it unnecessary, arguing to myself perhaps wrongly, that the massage could not possibly reach the heart, which is floating in a solid case of ribs and flesh. Now that you have thought of the massage and specifically mentioned the abdomen and heart, I shall resume the massage. But in your next letter you will please give me your answer to my doubt."

Shri Kuvalyananda replied to Gandhiji via his letter of 14.6.27 (Sabarmati Gandhi Sangrah) which is reproduced below:

"What you say is right. The prescribed time is too short in both the cases. You can now devote fifteen minutes to shavasana, practising it only twice a day and give not more than the same to sarvangasana.

"Your trouble of the circulatory system, though comparatively minor, has to be treated in all possible ways and massage is one of the ways in which we are treating it. Modern anatomy tells us that a portion of the heart is continuous with the chest wall, although this portion is smaller than the one that is detached from the chest wall by the lung and pleurae (Gray's Anatomy p.575).

"Massage of the heart region is able to influence the heart through this small area, as has been personally seen by me in some serious cases of heart irregularities. Massage of the larger area of the heart is effected by the breathing exercises which contract and expand not only the lungs but all the respiratory apparatus within the chest.

"The massage of the abdomen, though principally meant for the digestive organs, has an extensive influence upon the abdominal blood circulation and it is desirable from this point of view also. Your misgivings about the abdominal muscles weakening into the habit of acting only when massaged is, I am afraid, out of place. Scientists have classed a massage as passive exercise and exercise whether passive or active, short or continued, can never weaken any physical parts provided it is rightly done.

"I believe, no one need be afraid of cultivating the habit of taking exercise. The only objection that can be raised against massage, is its passive character and its leading to dependence upon another man. But this need not worry your mind. In every treatment scientifically worked out, massage is always replaced by muscle exercises when the patient feels sufficiently strong to undertake them. In your case also this abdominal massage is to be substituted by exercises which will make you independent of others in this regard."

Gandhiji replied to Shri Kuvalyananda (Sabarmati Gandhi Sangrah) as reproduced below:

Kumar Park
Bangalore, 17th June 1927

Dear Friend,

I now understand all you say about the abdominal massage and massage of the heart. Of course it has been continued ever since I wrote to you. I simply wanted to clear what I did not understand. I have told you that in the physical application of these exercises, I propose to go by faith in you. Whilst I shall present my doubts to you so long as I do not understand your explanation, they shall be final for me.

"I want to give the practice of these yogic exercises a full trial if only because I regard them of all the methods of medical treatment to be the freest from danger.

"After I wrote my letter of the 8th, I took a forward step which I hope you would not consider hasty. On rereading your notes, I saw that you expected me to go up to 30 degrees angle. So after writing to you, I immediately broadened the angle but limited the duration to 5 minutes in accordance with the instruction. But I have my own doubts as to the angle being 30, because I have not yet secured an accurate measuring instrument.

"Not being gratified with the raising of the cot, I looked about for a plank which I have now secured. The cot has a wooden surface. I spread on it not a mattress but a padded rug, and I take the sarvangasana on it with the help of the board. It is now infinitely better than the previous exercises. Mahadev has been measuring the thing and he thinks that the angle at which I take it is nearer to 50 than 30. I am not satisfied that it is anything like 50. Be that as it may. I am feeling no discomfort.

"Today will be the 4th day and the duration is only 5 minutes. Blood pressure is taken every Sunday and if I find that the pressure has at all gone up, I shall ascribe the rising to the angle and drop the exercise till I hear from you in reply to this. And I shall drop it, in any case, if you think that I have gone too far.

"There is another passive exercise which I have been taking, not very regularly but fairly regularly, which I used to take when I was convalescing after dysentery and when I was physically much weaker than I am today. And it is to raise the legs at right angles to the trunk and keep them for two or three minutes there: that is for removing any fatigue there may be after the walk. I have the legs straight, bent as much as can be bent without any strain whatever toward the head, whilst the trunk is lying on the bed. This I take to strengthen the muscular exercises for the abdomen.

"Both these things, keeping the legs straight and the right angles to the trunk and gently bending the legs towards the head, seem to me to do good. There is no fatigue left and there is felt after the bending exercise a forward movement about the bowels.

"I am still not taking tepid water and salt in the morning, for the enema continues and lam now able to retain the water for half an hour. But I do take a tumbler full of water by the nose. Less than half of the quantity is spilt in the process of drinking through the nose. So I think about four ounces of cool water I take in this way just after the mouth wash.

"The walking exercise in the morning and in the evening continue, forty minutes each time. But the distance covered is greater than when I began after coming to Bangalore. It is nothing less than two miles every time.

"I have not yet dared to go beyond two teaspoonfuls of melted butter. Milk has been increased, I think I told you, from thirty to forty ounces, and bhakri or oatmeal (dalia) two ounces remains.

I enclose your original notes which you need not return because I shall remember the contents. You will please send me any further instructions you may think desirable."


*1. Sabarmati Gandhi Sangrah Sr. No. 18437 *2. Sabarmati Gandhi Sangrah, Original Letters.

Courtesy: Yoga Today, a London journal