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
Illness is the outcome of unresolved problems. When we are unable to resolve the problems we face, whether environmental, social, personal or family, the effect manifests in the form of an illness. We can also say that the patient is not the victim of an act of nature, an unhealthy lifestyle or pollution, but is a sufferer because of unresolved problems.
We have to learn how to cope and deal with these problems at various levels of our personality. It is not enough to say, “Okay, I am suffering from ill health, I am suffering from disease and I have to treat it physically or psychologically.” Human beings are all subject to the influence of circumstances, events and the environment and, therefore, we also need to develop an awareness of how we interact with and react to situations.
One important point to consider is that each one of us is continually reacting; there is never a spontaneous or reasonable action. We react to people, to what they say, we react to our pleasure, pain and suffering. Our entire life goes from one stage to another through a process of reaction; there are no original or spontaneous actions in life. These events and conditions have to be interpreted in order to understand their meaning. Only when we can interpret a situation properly will we know the meaning behind it. This is important to remember, because from this point we begin the process of realigning our body with our nature, mind and consciousness. This is the beginning, we can say, of the first step towards the attainment of total health.
Yoga says that there are two things in life – form and content. To give an example: the body is a form but inside the body form there is also a content, or rather many different contents – emotions, rationality, logic, thoughts, ambitions, desires and feelings. These are the contents which we experience in the form of the body, but we see them as experiences, as conditions, as events which continually change and alter our perception, attitude and view.
You have to remember that it is the content of the physical form which has to be harmonized to experience health, happiness and fulfilment. A painter is a good example. A painter uses a canvas on which to create an image or picture. The picture is the final outcome of the inherent concept or image in the painter's mind. The canvas and the paints are only the mediums through which an expression is given to the image already existing in the painter's mind.
Body, mind and consciousness
In the same way there is a link between the body – I am using 'body' here in the broad sense, meaning the human personality which is manifesting at present in our life – and consciousness, which is invisible, unmanifest and subtle. Consciousness is manifesting throughout the body. We can imagine consciousness in the form of radio waves and the body in the form of the radio. When the body is in tune with the consciousness, the projections of consciousness into the body will be harmonious. When the body is not tuned to the consciousness, the signals will never be heard or seen. There has to be a tuning between bodies, the personality that is manifesting, and the consciousness, which is unmanifest.
For example, we have different channels on a television set. If we want to watch one channel, we have to change to that channel; if we want to see another channel, we have to change again. Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if all the channels were seen together on one channel. It would be very difficult to decipher what is appearing on the screen. There would be no tuning and all the images and frequencies would be coming through on one channel. There would be no clarity. There would be a mixture of images with no meaning, a mixture of sounds with no meaning and a mixture of impressions with no meaning. This is similar to what happens when our consciousness interacts with the body in a very disturbed, distracted and dissipated way.
We have to make an effort to tune each frequency properly to a different channel. Once different frequencies are tuned to different channels, the images and sounds will be perfectly clear and sharp, and we can look at, understand and give a meaning to them. So, when consciousness is manifesting in our body and it is not tuned in properly, the body is going to react. This is the beginning of an illness. I am saying this to emphasize that illness is not a physical condition, rather it is a state of disharmony between our subtle nature and our gross nature; it is a state of imbalance between the consciousness and the body.
Therefore, yoga says that if you wish to experience health or well-being, you have to approach your nature from different angles. We work with our body, but at the same time we have to work with our mind as well as with the expressions of consciousness which are filtering down into the mind and the body.
Intellect, emotions and instinct
Consciousness has three major areas of expression: intellectual, emotional, and instinctive. The first expression is intellectual representing the head: understanding, rationality, analysis of a situation, condition or event, and living harmoniously with the intellectual aspect of consciousness. The second expression is emotional: the heart, feelings, emotional sensitivity. When our heart is in disharmony, there is going to be a suppression of emotions and feelings. This suppression is unnatural to the normal state of the body and mind, and when suppression happens we are going to suffer. So the release of blockages from the heart centre leads to health. The third expression is instinctive. We react instinctively to many conditions in life.
The concept of chakras in kundalini yoga gives an indication of how yoga views these three different expressions of consciousness in our lives and bodies. Chakras are centres in our body where consciousness manifests in a particular form and where energy manifests in a particular form. In our body there are seven psychic centres or chakras.
The first is mooladhara at the base of the spinal cord, in the coccygeal plexus; the second is swadhisthana, known as the sacral centre; and the third is manipura, known as the solar plexus, behind the navel in the spinal cord. These first three chakras represent the instinctive dimension of our personality: fear, insecurity, sexuality, vitality, motivation and power. The fourth chakra, anahata, known as the heart centre, and the fifth chakra, vishuddhi, known as the throat centre, represent the emotional aspect of human nature – feeling. The sixth chakra, ajna, known as the eyebrow centre, represents the higher mind.
If you look at this description of the chakras, you will see a very interesting pattern emerging. The first three centres deal with instinct, the two middle ones deal with emotions, and the upper one deals with the higher mind – a total of six centres. The highest centre, sahasrara, on the crown of the head, is the command centre for all these different centres of consciousness and energy.
The heaviest concentration of consciousness altering, changing, directing, guiding and affecting our physical nature is at the lower level where the first three centres are active. In the middle area, where consciousness interacts in the realm of emotions and feelings, we have two centres, and the intensity of consciousness interacting at this level is less. At the higher level we only have one centre and the intensity of consciousness interacting with the higher mind is very little.
Now, this goes slightly against the normal belief that we are intellectuals. We are intellectuals, no doubt. We have developed our sciences and beliefs to a great extent, but even that development of knowledge in society and in the world is not the final indication of knowledge which filters down from the consciousness into our life. Many people say that today we work with our head. We think we have access to information and to many different things through which we can improve our lives. But all our knowledge and understanding, although it may be logical, precise and clear, is associated, connected and linked with the first three psychic centres, which are instinctive. You will also notice that all our achievements in life have been in search of fulfilment, satisfaction and pleasure.
Modern science has manipulated nature to make our lives more comfortable and pleasant, and to give us a sense of satisfaction, joy and happiness. This search for satisfaction and security is the expression of consciousness at the lower centres.
Need for balance
We have ignored the middle aspect of feeling and emotions, thinking that rationality is above feeling and emotion. In early times, thinkers said that every expression in life came from the head, meaning the higher centre. Later thinkers said every expression in life came from the heart centre; that what we feel and believe in determines how we act and live. More recently, with the development of psychotherapy, Freud and other eminent psychoanalysts said that everything that happens to us comes from the lower centres. When Einstein entered the picture, he said that everything is relative. The point to consider here is that we need to find a balance between our instinctive, emotional and intellectual natures. Once a balance is found in these three different natures, then transmissions from the consciousness into the body will be more harmonious, balanced and integrated.
The body is part of the consciousness manifesting externally. It is a unit of the cosmic, universal, all-pervading consciousness. The body does not contain consciousness, rather it is consciousness which expresses itself through the body at these different levels. Therefore, I would say that the body is never ill and never healthy. The body is simply responding to what is filtering down from this higher level, from the consciousness. If something coming down into the head centre is distorted, we go through head trips and have headaches; if what is coming down into the middle centres is distorted, we go through heartaches; and, if what is coming down from the higher to the lower centres is distorted, we go through a lot of frustration, aggression, suppression, anxiety, fear and insecurity. It is these mental states which later alter and influence the performances of the body and manifest in the form of illness and disease.
Pratyahara – consciousness therapy
How does yoga attempt to clear the transmission passage, the transmitters of consciousness into the body? Asana, pranayama and the relaxation techniques are used to induce different states of flexibility, comfort and ease in the physical, muscular, endocrinal and respiratory systems. But therapy does not stop there; therapy also has to continue at the subtle level.
The best form of therapy is consciousness therapy, which clears the transmissions and channels through which consciousness transmits into the physical dimension. An indication of consciousness therapy is seen in the practices of pratyahara. Pratyahara is the fifth stage of raja yoga, and the beginning of introspection, of reflection, of experiencing silence, of going within and finding stability, and of finding the focus. Pratyahara is also divided into different stages.
How do we become aware of something that is happening internally at a subtle dimension, at the level of consciousness? If the fruit is on the highest branch of the tree, you have to start climbing from the lowest level in order to reach it. This climb from the lowest to the highest level begins with awareness of the senses. There is an extension of awareness into the sensory perceptions to know how they are affecting and altering the mind and the consciousness. So, first, there is an extension of consciousness into the senses, and then, after we know exactly what is transpiring at the level of the senses, there is a focusing of the consciousness.
The second stage of pratyahara is an extension of awareness into the mind, to know how our mind is interacting with situations, conditions and events that influence our life, and then there is a focusing of this awareness. The third stage of pratyahara is the extension of awareness into the emotional dimension, to realize and understand the nature of our emotions, feelings and sensitivity, and then focusing of this awareness. The fourth stage of pratyahara is the extension of awareness into the instinctive dimension and then, again, focusing of this awareness. This is how we gradually train ourselves to observe and analyze how we are responding and reacting to different situations that create an imbalance in our personality.
After we have observed the interplay and interaction of our consciousness with the senses, with the intellectual aspect, the emotional aspect and the instinctive aspect, we move on to the next stage of introspection, which is known as dharana. Dharana is holding the consciousness stable and identifying with the tranquil consciousness. When we are able to identify with the tranquil consciousness, then meditation, dhyana, begins.
Towards total health
So, this process of self-observation, or 'self-understanding', leads to the experience of optimum health and well-being. Yoga therapy does not aim for removal of the symptoms of which we have become aware; yoga therapy is not a method of treating an illness or a disease. Rather it is a method of treating the person who is suffering from a condition by making him or her aware of their personality and how the personality is interacting in the world, at the external level, and with the consciousness, at the subtle level.
When we are able to do this, we find that our habits change and our lifestyle changes. We also find that our attitudes, perspective and vision change and there is a feeling of completeness and wholeness. With this sense of wholeness, the journey into yoga begins. It is with this sense of wholeness that we move forward to experience our life unfolding, growing and evolving.
Yoga gives us many hints and ideas on how we can manage our lives. It is up to us to apply these ideas and to become aware of these hints in order to improve the quality of our body, mind and interactions. Once we can improve the quality of the body and mind, that is total health.
Aix-les-Bains, France, April 1997
~ Swami Niranjanananda