Yoga can manage many diseases, especially the chronic and functional types. When I started the International Yoga Fellowship Movement in 1962, I had plenty of background with yoga therapy. I had lived from 1943 to 1956 in Rishikesh at the foot of the Himalayas with a very eminent sannyasin, Swami Sivananda, who had been a medical doctor in the earlier period of his life. I used to be his secretary, typist, editor and translator.
My contact with spiritual life was through philosophy, Vedanta, and that developed the desire to discover the higher consciousness within myself. When I lived with my guru and did a lot of work for him, especially typing, I used to read about the yoga postures, pranayama and other hatha yoga practices. I wondered if, when you practise sarvangasana, the thyroid is really stimulated, or when you practise sirshasana, if it really is true that the pancreas is stimulated. Frankly speaking, the claims made for yoga did not convince me.
I had my own background of medical studies, not with humans but with animals, because my family were preparing me to be a veterinary doctor. To me, these statements made by an ex-medical man were not convincing, but I kept them in my mind, and during the twelve years of my ashram life I was mainly engaged in studying philosophies, eastern and western, as well as the newer philosophies and psychologies.
People used to write to Swami Sivananda for treatment of their problems, and he used to suggest that they practise yoga. I used to witness all that, then in 1956 when I was wandering all over India, Burma, Nepal, Afghanistan, Ceylon as a mendicant, people used to come to me to ask what yoga they should practise to become free from their diseases. I did not know very much about it, so I retired again and studied yoga thoroughly. I learned that yoga is not just a series of exercises. The practices are postures or asanas which produce a great change in the body; sometimes in the main organs, sometimes in the endocrine secretions and sometimes in the nervous system.
The body is maintained by the life force and the mind is maintained by the mental force; this means that there are two forms of energy in this organism. One form of energy is responsible for the maintenance of the gross organs of the body, and the other force is responsible for the mental activities.
When you practise yoga postures, particularly the major ones, they exert mild pressure on the six important junctions in the spinal passage. Of these six, four distribute the life force and mental force; and disease is caused by an imbalance of the energy quantum of the body.
Now of course we talk about bacteria, vitamin deficiencies, and there is no argument about it. However at the same time, you must remember that a disease does not merely originate in the gross body. Even if a disease does appear to originate in the body it travels straight to the mind and from there back to the body again. Such diseases are known as 'somopsychic' diseases. Most diseases nowadays originate in the mind; then they travel to the body, then from the body to the mind again. This is how every disease originates, spreads and comes back again. Therefore whatever the origin of a disease, man's body and mind both suffer at the same time.
These two forces are functioning just like material forces; you can say for the time being, positive and negative forces. The negative force controls the mind and its functions, while the positive force controls the body, its temperature, mobility etc. The two forces are distributed throughout the body via the four junctions which are situated in the spinal axis, at the sacral area, cardiac area and cervical area. These junctions are known as chakras or psychic centres. For proper health these four energy centres must maintain balance; if the balance is lost then disease of that particular system originates.
I'll explain this a little more. In yoga we call life force prana. Other translations are vital force and bio-energy (though prana is something more than this as well). In life there should be harmony between the pranic force and the mental force but usually this doesn't happen. If pranic force dominates and mental force becomes subservient, then mental illness occurs. If the mental force becomes predominant and the pranic force is subservient, then physical disease occurs. In modern medical language we speak of the same thing; when the parasympathetic nervous system is subservient or vice versa, we have either psychic or physical disorders. If a harmony could be struck between these two forces, the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, then there would be perfect health in the body.
When there is total harmony between these two systems then there are also perfectly balanced secretions of the endocrine glands. These glands are either directly or indirectly controlled by the energy systems, so an energy imbalance directly or indirectly affects that particular gland.
For instance, in diabetes the pancreas ceases to function, insulin is not produced and so glucose breakdown is interrupted The nervous system goes into dysfunction on account of stress and strain but if proper rest and relaxation can be given to the nervous system it will recommence functioning, consequently the pancreas will start working and that is the end of diabetes.
Within this physical body there are rich sources of life-giving chemical antibodies, etc. When we need one of them we can take it from outside via pills or injections, but if we revitalize the particular system that produces these requirements we can make them for ourselves. That is what we can accomplish through yoga.
Take the example of adrenalin. The patient who is suffering from asthma can produce adrenalin by simply practising one posture known as shashankasana. The person sits on his feet, bends forward, places his forehead and arms on the floor and relaxes in this position for ten or fifteen minutes. This is the way the Muslims sit during their prayers. In shashankasana the adrenal glands are reactivated, they secrete more adrenalin and the attack passes off. This is especially effective if it is practised as soon as the person knows that the respiratory congestion is beginning to take place. An asthmatic patient can tell very well when an attack is starting. The condition often begins to accumulate from the morning and he begins to feel heaviness in the chest, but if he practises this posture he begins to feel better very quickly, because the secretion of adrenalin is increased. Everyone with asthma knows that if he has an attack and goes to the doctor he is given adrenalin, however with shashankasana he makes it for himself.
This is an example of how a particular endocrine gland is stimulated by the practice of a specific asana. The endocrine glands in their turn then influence not only the body but also the emotions such as anxiety, fear and anger, which can also be controlled by yoga practices.
When I started this movement I had 24 students and one of them was suffering from peptic ulcer. He was a very brilliant advocate and an astute politician. At the beginning his ulcer was very bad and it was hard for me to imagine how yoga could help a condition caused by hyperacidity, anxiety and fear, and irregular lifestyle. 'Exercises' for me were only exercises after all, whether they were dynamic or static. To my surprise however that man got better within fifteen days and he is alright even now.
Recently I met an eminent doctor who is a great authority on transplanting the heart, Dr Christian Barnard from South Africa. We started talking about yoga postures and he said, "Yes, that is what I tell people to do because if yoga postures are done correctly you don't have to worry about heart attacks at all." When I asked him what was the basis of his statement he said, "In the male body testosterones are produced and these hormones attack the heart." Testosterone is the hormone secreted by the testes in the masculine body. It is secreted every now and then, consciously and unconsciously during sexual intercourse, sexual fantasies etc. If there is a nice dish of food the salivary glands start to work, you know that. Even if I talk to you about something which you like to eat most, the saliva begins to flow; this is a normal body reflex. In the same way, if you look at a picture of sexual activity, for instance, it is not just looking – there is a reflex action set up in the body and testosterone is secreted. I'm not criticizing the sexual behaviour of man, I'm only defining testosterone in relation to human activities.
If testosterone attacks the heart how can we be sure it is not produced in excess? Dr Barnard said that he had one posture in mind which he described as siddhasana, the posture in which we sit for meditation. In this posture the left foot is placed under the scrotum with the right over the genital organ. If this is practised for say half an hour maximum each day it will give you complete control over the secretion of testosterone, a primary cause of heart attack. This revelation I am making is from a very respected person in the field of heart treatment, therefore there is no reason why siddhasana should be considered just a meditational posture. Let us call it 'the coronary posture'.
When you are practising siddhasana, what is happening? You are pressing the perineum between the excretory and the urinary organs with your left heel. With the right heel you are pressing the lower abdominal viscera at the root of the urinary organ, or in the female body, just above the clitoris. You are pressing these two points which are very important in controlling the flow of blood through the arteries and veins.
The posture of siddhasana helps in the treatment of abnormal blood pressure too. Anyone who is suffering from high or low blood pressure should just sit in this position for an hour if possible, or for half an hour and the blood pressure will slowly move towards normal. This is because the pressure on the viscera and the perineum is transmitted to the brain centres, which control the blood pressure. High blood pressure is caused by tension and stress reacting through the brain and affecting the blood vessels and the heart. There are of course other ways of controlling high blood pressure but now I want to emphasize how important siddhasana is to our age.
Here in India, along with heart disease, another important experiment has already been concluded in the management of diabetes. The course was conducted in one of my ashrams for forty people, under the direct observation of doctors. When the course was concluded the patients went home and the doctors followed up their progress. To sum up, this experiment enlightened the whole nation by proving that diabetes is no longer an incurable disease, and if properly handled, before complications have set in, the pancreas can be regenerated and the disease can be checked. The sufferer from diabetes has nothing to worry about provided he knows the correct practices to do.
I don't know much about the condition of ladies in the West, but in India many ladies suffer from prolapse of the uterus, where its supports become weak and it comes down. Of course we have a system of surgery for this, but in yoga we use only three postures practised over a period of time, which bring the whole genitourinary system into working order and make it strong.
One practice is called naukasana, the boat pose. You lie down, raise both legs a bit and tense them, then raise the upper part of the body a bit off the floor and tense it, then stretch the arms in the direction of the feet and make them tense. It has been seen that during this pose the uterus drops back. It may not happen in a few days, it may take a period of time, but definitely this posture helps in prolapse.
The other practice for prolapse is uddiyana bandha. Exhale through the month, empty the lungs and contract the abdomen upward and backward. At the same time the kidneys, the bladder and the uterus follow the same contraction. The entire genitourinary and digestive tracts are contracted. When at the same time you block the throat by extending the arms and pressing the knees in jalandhara bandha, the blood circulation is concentrated in the navel region, and we know that wherever the blood concentrates, repair work takes place very fast.
I don't make very tall claims, it is not my habit, but I have seen for myself how cancer can be successfully treated by yoga therapy. For instance one of my friends brought me a patient, the son-in-law of an eminent medical doctor in India, an FRCS. He had been in London and had to be brought back to India because of cancer of the spine.
He came to us and we only recommended one practice, revitalizing the breathing. He had to do nothing but fold back the tongue toward the upper palate (khechari mudra), then practise a particular pranayama called ujjayi, in which the breath sounds like the steam escaping from an engine. This is known as psychic breathing. With his eyes open or closed be was instructed to breathe this way fifty, a hundred or a hundred and fifty times.
First of all he was very skeptical. He asked, "Will it cure me?" I said, "If there is any other system available which you think can cure you then take that course." He was himself a doctor and he had given up all hope of survival. I said, "Practise it with inspiration and enthusiasm." He practised for one full year or more and he is still very much alive today. He no longer has cancer but unfortunately he is not able to move his head either to the right or the left because of a certain test he had undergone before he met me. I advised him, "Don't worry. If you persist in practising these other yoga postures, in the course of a year or two your neck will be able to move again."
He is still the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine in a well-known university. He tells all his medical students that yoga is important, not only as a philosophy or a spiritual science, but because there are certain physical changes that definitely occur.
Yoga can move either side by side with medical science or independently. This is because we have a sound system of aetiology, diagnosis and pathogenesis of diseases. We have a complete system by itself within yoga. Unfortunately, people of the East and West have understood yoga as a science of occultism, mysticism, black magic, witchcraft, and many have attributed it to the religious side of life. This is why yoga has been outside the area of scientific exploration and investigation. However, we are now doing a lot of work within India, not only in our institution but many others. In countries of the West, doctors write down under their prescription: "Practise yoga." They don't know very much about the postures, but they know what yoga can do. Work is also going on in most European countries. I am particularly aware of what is going on in Czechoslovakia and Poland because my disciples there are working in collaboration with the medical authorities. Throughout the whole world, yoga is now becoming recognized as a science in its own right. I hope this systematic approach to yoga will reveal greater benedictions and greater benefits to mankind.