New Rays of Hope in the Management of Psychosomatic Disease

Swami Mangalteertham Saraswati, Professor and Head, Dept of Applied Yogic Science, Bihar Yoga Bharati

Let us stop a while at the crossroads of the millennium, look back and review the scenario of health and its management techniques. We have tried to create a sterile, aseptic environment throughout the world. Modern medicine has alleviated pain and saved millions from many widespread diseases, but in spite of extensive research all over the globe, there is a trend towards a diminished quality of life. Health hazards are increasing and over the last two decades social unrest has also been on the increase.

When we look at psychosomatic disorders and psychiatric problems, we face more challenges. We fight these problems with sedatives, tranquillizers and related drugs, but are they really helping to cure these diseases? Throughout the world, scientists are becoming aware that there should be exploration into new and more meaningful dimensions of medicine and psychotherapy.

In the last few decades, much has been added to our scientific knowledge of yoga, a science which gives insight into the nature of mankind. For those wishing to explore the nature of the relationship between body and mind, the work carried out in India and other parts of the world is quite inspiring. These investigations clearly indicate that yoga is not only a health preserver and promoter, but that it also helps to relieve many diseases which are resistant to conventional therapy. In this way, slowly but surely, yoga is being integrated into the mainstream of modern medicine.

Health management course research

Bihar Yoga Bharati, the first Yoga University in the world, was founded by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati in 1994. Under Swamiji's able guidance, and through research into the process of the yoga techniques, we are trying to understand and unravel the mechanisms of complicated neurophysiological phenomena, which evidently yoga influences in the alleviation of psychosomatic diseases.

Some aspects of the effects of yoga are now being understood in the light of recent research carried out in the Department of Applied Yogic Science, with the assistance of colleagues and a dedicated group of post-graduate students. Through this research we have been able to see both subjective and objective changes in many psychosomatic disorders. The purpose of this article is to give meaningful, subjective evidence to show that yoga has helped patients find relief from many psychosomatic ailments as well as altering the course of these diseases.


Bihar School of Yoga, parent organization of Bihar Yoga Bharati, has been running several Health Management courses every year for the last 35 years. Each course is of fifteen days' duration. The present study was carried out with participants of the 1997 and 1998 Health Management courses. Data was collected by means of a questionnaire into selected psychosomatic complaints. Participants were asked to fill out the questionnaire at the beginning of each course, stating the details of their specific problems. A medical examination was also conducted on each participant. During the fifteen days of yoga training at the ashram, the participants practised asanas, pranayama, yoga nidra, meditation, mantra chanting, kirtan and karma yoga, and followed a light vegetarian diet. The specific yoga practices were chosen by an experienced yoga teacher under the expert guidance of Swami Niranjanananda, taking into consideration individual requirements and specific disorders. At the end of each course, the participants again filled out the questionnaire, recording the level of change in their specific health complaint.

First study 1997

In the first study, a wide cross section of participants, numbering 380, was selected from three courses conducted from January to August 1997. The participants were of varying age groups, both male and female. Their complaints consisted of general weakness, constipation, anxiety, headache, gas, lack of appetite, indigestion, tonsillitis, depression, sciatica, arthritis and back pain. The results of the study, tabulated in Table 1, clearly indicate that 95% to 98% of subjects recorded that their condition had improved with the practice of yoga. The degree of improvement was statistically significant in all cases.

Second study 1998

A second study was conducted to establish the effectiveness of yoga as a therapeutic tool in the management of the following psychosomatic diseases and symptoms: stress, tension, constipation, pain in the limbs, migraine/headache, indigestion, coughs and colds, hyperacidity, back pain, sciatica, depression, chest pain, and palpitation. The participants were 1049 patients from the Health Management courses of February to October 1998. Before each course, they graded the severity of their specific symptoms from 0–4, as follows: 0 = none, I = mild, II = moderate, III = severe, IV = very severe. At the end of each course, the participants recorded the changed levels of severity of their symptoms.

Details of the selected psychosomatic disorders and symptoms were tabulated (Tables 2 and 3) and analyzed for the following information: (i) frequency of symptoms; (ii) severity of symptoms – grade I–IV; (iii) percentage of improvement, deterioration, and no change in each grade of severity. When the extent of improvement was evaluated, it was noticed that in almost all disorders, Grade I (mild complaints) showed maximum improvement, while in other grades the percentage of improvement declined relative to the initial level of severity. In Grade IV (very severe complaints) improvement was only slight. The percentage of deterioration was insignificant statistically, in each grade of severity (see Table 3).

The role of yoga

It is evident from this study that yoga can be an answer to many of our psychosomatic disorders. The age-old traditions are beginning to enter the field of modern health care as a means of managing psychosomatic ailments and promoting positive health. In the yogic concept of personality there are five koshas or sheaths: annamaya (physical), pranamaya (pranic), manomaya (mental), vijnanamaya (psychic) and anandamaya (blissful). The integrated approach of yoga not only deals with the physical aspect of our being, but also uses techniques to operate on all the five levels of our existence.

Yoga begins with the yamas (self-restraints) and niyamas (inner disciplines), which are primarily preventive in nature and create a balance between the emotional and other levels of the human being. The large number of yogic practices available in the yogic and Upanishadic texts are adopted to balance and harmonize the disturbances at each of the koshas, thus tackling this set of psychosomatic ailments. Asanas and shatkarmas operate at the level of annamaya kosha to deal with symptoms on the physical level. Asanas activate and revitalize the organs, tone their functions, loosen the joints, stretch and relax the muscles, tone the endocrine glands, release toxins, balance the hormones, develop stamina, distribute prana homogeneously, and develop internal awareness.

Pranayama influences the pranas, the vital energy. By regulating the breath, the techniques of pranayama start operating on pranamaya kosha, energizing and balancing the different pranas. This promotes good health and has a curative effect on ailments.

The practices of yoga nidra and other raja yoga techniques are able to induce progressive physical and mental relaxation. Stress and tension stimulate the klesha vrittis (afflictions) in the mind. These vrittis trigger stress reactions in the body involving the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system. Slowly they percolate deep into the life processes and settle in specific organs, depending on the genetic makeup of an individual, and manifest in the form of organic disease, which is psychosomatic. The possibility of investigating the physiological changes associated with altered states of consciousness is fairly recent in science. The nervous system that automatically regulates the workings of the body also has the capacity to alter the mind and body by an act of conscious will.

Scientific research has shown clearly that this is achieved by increasing the faculty of self-awareness and consciousness through the meditative process. Research at Charing Cross Medical School, London (1988), found that meditation, especially yoga nidra, can alter stress induced EEG patterns and the vrittis (mental fluctuations) created by stress to bring about progressive and systematic relaxation and to generate a high degree of alpha brain wave rhythms. Yoga nidra also has the capacity to induce deep sleep in only twenty minutes.

In recent years, it has become clear that the nervous and endocrine systems actually function as a single interrelated system. The central nervous system, particularly the hypothalamus, plays a crucial role in controlling hormone secretions and, conversely, hormones markedly alter the natural functions and strongly influence and enhance immune activity and many types of behaviour, as well as having a homeostatic effect on our metabolic processes.

Yoga opens up the possibility of consciously altering psychophysiological activity, thereby establishing harmony and balance in all levels of the personality, from physical to subtle. We can see, therefore, that yoga therapy brings new rays of hope on the horizon for psychosomatic illness and its management.

Table 1: Health management course 1997

Improvement due to yoga = 95-98% (N=380)

No. Problem No. of patients Pre Post Difference X2 T P value
1 Weakness 25 1.52 0.76 0.76 32.37 3.30 .01
2 Constipation 22 1.68 1.09 0.59 33.14 2.26 .05
3 Anxiety 38 2.21 1.31 0.89 45.50 4.94 .01
4 Headache 29 1.62 0.58 1.03 28.94 5.72 .01
5 Gas 31 1.38 0.87 0.51 21.74 3.40 .01
6 Poor appetite 32 1.40 0.53 0.87 37.28 4.57 .01
7 Indigestion 38 1.63 0.71 0.92 59.56 4.60 .01
8 Tonsillitis 40 1.92 1.22 0.70 42.40 4.30 .01
9 Depression 31 1.64 1.09 0.55 21.20 3.66 .01
10 Scatia 27 2.03 1.50 0.52 22.35 3.05 .01
11 Arthritis 26 2.04 1.12 0.92 25.94 4.60 .01
12 back pain 31 1.94 0.81 1.13 41.25 5.38 .01

Table 2: Health management course 1998


No. Psychosomatic disorder No. of subjects Improvement % Deterioration % No change %
1 Jont pain & swelling 71 54.92 4.23 40.85
2 Pain in limbs 76 72.37 2.63 25.00
3 Migraine/headache 88 71.59 1.14 27.27
4 Indegestion 99 69.70 4.04 26.26
5 Cough & colds 94 68.09 2.12 29.79
6 Hyperacidity 78 66.67 2.56 30.77
7 Constipation 118 73.73 3.39 22.88
8 Back pain/sciatica 98 63.21 1.02 35.71
9 Depression 110 60.00 4.55 35.45
10 Hyperacidity 78 66.67 2.56 30.77
11 Chest pain/palpitation 90 54.44 5.56 40.00
12 Stress/tension 126 74.61 0.70 24.60

Table 2: Health management course 1998


    Grade of severity
  Disorder Grade I Grade II Grade III Grade IV
N=126 Stress/tension 48.39 44.12 38.24 29.63
N=71 Joint pain 41.67 42.86 25.00 29.42
N=18 Constipation 67.74 56.00 38.88 30.77
N=88 Migraine/headache 65.91 43.75 50.00 50.00
N=76 Pain in limbs 60.61 56.00 81.82 90.00
N=99 Indigestion 54.54 36.84 37.93 38.89
N=94 Coughs & colds 46.67 45.00 38.46 44.44
N=78 Hyperacidity 63.16 46.15 46.67 25.00
N=98 Back pain/sciatica 51.35 40.00 33.33 41.18
N=110 Depression 39.40 35.71 40.74 22.73
N=90 Chest pain/palpitation 44.19 43.48 29.42 42.86