Yoga and Total Health

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Health is a subject which deals not only with the physical body and our perception of it, but extends right up to our spiritual nature. Health has always been the central point of our life. If we look at the history of humanity we will find that major breakthroughs and advances have been made in relation to health and well-being, but that only the physical, material aspect of the human body has been considered, not the total human picture.

The koshas, stress and relaxation

Yoga has a different view. Yoga sees an individual as a composition of five different bodies: the physical body, the body of energy, the body of mind, the body of intelligence and the body of bliss. These different bodies are known as the koshas. The physical body is the annamaya kosha; the pranic body is the pranamaya kosha; the mental body is the manomaya kosha; the body of intelligence is the vijnanamaya kosha, and the body of bliss is the anandamaya kosha. These are the five components of the human body that we must consider when looking into the aspect of health.

At the same time, if we think about human performance and interaction in life, in the world, with other beings, with the environment, with society and with ourselves, we see that our expressions take place in two definite and distinct forms. One expression of our attitude, performance and behaviour is the stressful form. The other expression is the relaxed form. So, in simple terms, a human being is composed of five different layers of expression and experience. That information, understanding and awareness is expressed in either a stressful or a relaxed manner.

Stress has been a most misused word in human society, and relaxation has also been a very misused word. We think of stress as being physical, emotional and mental. We think of relaxation as a process of letting go of the tensions and attentions which are at present directed towards the outside world, withdrawing ourselves and going to sleep. However, according to yoga and other philosophies such as Tantra or Samkhya, this is not the concept of either stress or relaxation. In order to understand how we can direct, divert and channel our energies we need to briefly look at these philosophies.

Harmonizing the five bodies

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the second verse, 'Yogah chitta vritti nirodhah', defines a concept where one is able to stop the dissipation of the mental faculties. When the mental agitations and distractions stop, then one achieves a state of relaxation and harmony. The first sutra defines the process of obtaining this harmony, which is 'Atha yoga anushasanam'. Anushasan means the ability to control one's inner, subtle expressions and manifestations. If you have the ability to control the internal, subtle expressions and manifestations of your personality, nature and mind, then it becomes possible to stop the dissipated mind and to experience harmony. This is the beginning of yoga. Here the Yoga Sutras have dealt with the manomaya kosha, the body of mind.

In the Gherand Samhita, another treatise on yoga, it is stated that the body has to be harmonized first in order to experience harmony of mind and harmony of spirit. The Gherand Samhita defines yoga as ghatastha yoga, management and maintenance of the annamaya kosha, the physical sheath. So, according to this aspect of yoga, removal of tension and stress from the body becomes the basis for advancement in mental and spiritual life.

Samkhya philosophy says that when an imbalance occurs in the level of the elements, when there is incompatibility of one element with another element, then that affects the body, the expressions of mind, the human nature, the performance, attitude and behaviour. Tantra has stated that imbalance in the structure of energy, the pranic dimension within each chakra is the cause of stress. Therefore, yoga has actually tried to deal with all five levels of our personality, to stimulate these five areas of perception, to remove tension and stress and to give us a glimpse of absolute harmony.


Now, how does this absolute harmony relate to our day-to-day life? What do we experience as disharmony? We experience physical illness, disease and infirmity. We experience mental anxiety, depression and frustration. We experience psychic blockages, blocks in the faculties of mind, blocks in the movement of energy. We experience difficulty in understanding our own ideas and beliefs. These factors give birth to the imbalances which do not allow the force and the power of evolution to guide us through the journey of life. There is stagnation. There is a decline in samskaras.

Samskaras are impressions or programs which guide every stage and every condition of our life. A computer works with programs and software, in the absence of which it is useless. In the same way, we function because of our samskaras. These samskaras are the programs which make us tick, which make our body move, which make us desire, aspire for and achieve something. There is a decline in samskaras when illnesses of the body, prana, mind and intelligence increase. So the management of these illnesses – using the word 'illness' in a very broad sense – is the aim of yoga. When we have learnt to manage these illnesses we become healthy, and this health is both physical and spiritual.

Applying the principles of yoga

Therefore, when we think about health and therapy, we have to consider the total human being and not just the physical, material human being. We have to apply certain principles of yoga to give us that understanding of health. There are different processes of yoga: karma yoga, bhakti yoga, jnana yoga, hatha yoga and raja yoga. If, in our own practice, we are able to combine these five yogas with an understanding of the nature of our body, energy and elements, then we have a very powerful tool to obtain wholeness.

However, practice is what is important. I have always maintained that it is not important to learn new things every time a seminar or workshop takes place, but it is important to learn how to apply what we already know. This is the basis of our yogic training, and practice is the most important aspect of yoga. Our grandfather guru, Swami Sivananda, used to say, “An ounce of practice is worth tons of theory.” Practice has to be combined with awareness and understanding in order to achieve and derive the full benefits. In the Yoga Sutras it is stated that practice develops the foundation, and it should be done with conviction, determination and regularity, not as a momentary interest.

In order to become what you are today – engineers, doctors, scientists and so on – you have worked hard. That process of working hard has been to gain experience and to provide you with the opportunity to practise what you know. You try to practise that in every possible way, and you become an adept at what you do. It is this practice of yoga which is important.

Six basic movements of the body

Today scientists tell us that we are not using the full movement of our body in our day-to-day activities. There are different movements that a body can perform in order to maintain health. One of the movements is traction, stretching. The second movement of the body is twisting, squeezing. The third movement is lateral stretching. The fourth movement of the body is bending forward. The fifth is bending backwards, and the sixth movement is inversion. These are the six major movements that you can put your body through, but how many do you try every day?

Imagine our lifestyle. We wake up in the morning, we do our chores and we sit down. Whether we sit on the bed, on a sofa, in our car or go to the office and sit in our office chair, the body is in a bent position. It is actually folded forward. Even now it is folded forward.

What are the normal household exercises? Opening the cupboard, reaching in, getting out the tea, coffee, sugar or honey. If there is something on the top shelf, maybe we stretch a bit more. If a child pulls on our trouser leg, then we may twist and look back. If something falls from our hand, we bend forward to pick it up. This is the extent of our physical movements in a normal daily situation. There are bound to be blockages which are physical, muscular, nervous in nature and which are also in the realm of energy. Where there are blockages, there is going to be suffering: aches, pains, hardening of the muscles, stiffening of the joints.

Mobilizing the body with simple asanas

A good yoga program is essential to maintain the basic health of the body. Such a program consists not of many different practices, but of a few simple techniques which can help to mobilize the body, which can help to stimulate the dormant areas, nerve centres and energy centres of the body. When these practices are performed regularly, you will become free of physical tension.

There are several practices which can help to loosen up the body. The first is tadasana, the palm tree pose, which involves stretching or traction. The entire body is pulled upward and each joint is expanded from the toes right to the tip of the hands. The second practice is tiryaka tadasana, the swaying palm tree pose, which is a lateral stretch. It stimulates the lesser used muscles of the body by stretching the side muscles. There is a complete stretch from the legs right up to the arms.

The third practice is kati chakrasana, the waist rotating pose. This is a twisting exercise which removes stagnant blood located in the different areas of the body and encourages a fresh flow.

Another practice which combines forward and backward movements is surya namaskara, salute to the sun. A practice which involves inversion of the body is sirshasana, the headstand, but I would not recommend that all of you do it. However, you can definitely try sarvangasana, the shoulderstand, or vipareet karani asana, the half shoulderstand, under the guidance and scrutiny of a competent yoga teacher.

These are the five or six simple, basic asanas for the body, which remove blockages from the muscles, improve the circulation and movement of energy, and provide flexibility.

Pranayama and meditation

For the movement and release of prana shakti there are the practices of pranayama. There are breathing techniques, prana nigraha techniques, which can stimulate the force of prana in the body and make one feel light, dynamic, and full of vitality.

To relax the vrittis, the agitations and dissipations of the mind, there are the practices of pratyahara: relaxation, yoga nidra, antar mouna, trataka and ajapa japa. To become aware of the psychic dimension of your personality, learn to meditate. Begin the discovery of your nature through meditation and accept whatever experience you may have there. I do not agree with people who say, “This particular meditation is not right for me because I don't have good experiences.” Meditation is not meant to provide you with happy experiences. Meditation is meant to harmonize your mind, and the mind is full of the three gunas, sattwa, rajas and tamas.

Acceptance of the three gunas

You cannot ignore the tamasic aspect of your mind, the lethargic, negative nature. You cannot ignore the rajasic nature of your mind, which craves power, recognition and stimulation. You have to accept these three states of mind: the sattwic, which is the positive, creative aspect; the rajasic, which is the aspect of domination, and the tamasic state of dullness. Therefore, meditation has to become a process in which you harmonize these three aspects of your nature. In this process it is not necessary to always have mind-boggling experiences; it is not necessary to see angels and lights all the time. If you expect that from meditation, you are hiding from yourself.

Human nature is a combination of these three gunas. The discovery of our psychic dimension begins with an understanding of our sattwic nature, our rajasic nature and our tamasic nature. When they are in harmony, that is psychic growth. Harmony of the gunas represents the development of our psychic nature.

United Nations definition of health

Some few years ago, the United Nations defined health as moral, physical, mental and spiritual well-being. While defining health in this way, they did not realize they were endorsing ashtanga yoga, the eight-fold path, in which the yamas and niyamas deal with the moral aspect, asanas and pranayamas with the physical aspect, pratyahara and dharana with the mental aspect, and dhyana and samadhi with the spiritual aspect. Acceptance of these yogic principles should also be our approach to health, because health is not necessarily the absence of disease, rather it is adjustment with the present state of our body.

We become neurotic and anxious because of a physical problem. We become frustrated and cannot cope with our physiological and psychological states and conditions. That is not knowing how to manage the personality. It is the ability to adjust to illness without being neurotic about it that is the key to health.

Birth, disease, old age and death

There are four aspects of life which are unchangeable: birth, disease, old age and death. Once you are born into this life, you have it whether you like it or not. Once you adopt this body you are bound to have disease at some point. You are going to experience old age. Death is a reality that cannot be avoided. Yet we have been trying to discover a method to avoid these aspects which are the basis of our life. Therefore, it is the yogic view that health and well-being means adjustment with the present, prevailing conditions in life, not the absence of disease.

This entire process begins with the basic practices of yoga, either as a new student or as an old practitioner. You move from annamaya kosha, learning how to manage stress, ill-health, dissipation of the mind, right up to vijnanamaya kosha, the realm of the psyche. When you have managed that, nothing remains but bliss, harmony and equilibrium. Therefore, start by thinking of yourself as a whole and not just as a physical, material body. Once you can do that you have taken your first step into the yogic dimension, and you have many miles to go before you rest.

World Yoga Convention, Australia, October 1996