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INTEGRATING YOGA THERAPY WITHIN THE MODERN MEDICAL SYSTEM

  • By Yogacharya Dr Ananda Balayogi
  • February 4 2020
  • 1518 views
  • Article seeks to find similarities between Yoga therapy and modern medical systems and build a bridge between the two so that humanity benefits.

Introduction

Modern medicine and Yoga are rational, scientific and universal in outlook and hence are natural allies bound to come together. Their combination has the potential to provide us with a holistic health science that will be a boon for the psychosomatic health of our masses. Improved health of the general population will result in reduction of pressure on our hospitals, which are under-staffed, over-crowded and fund-starved. Yoga and modern medicine are not exclusive, but complementary systems. Their enlightened collaboration will have a significant impact on our health care system. 

Yoga involves a wholistic approach to healing and well being and integrates healing with the culture, diet, environment, and tradition. Modern allopathic medicine that originated from Greco-Roman Medicine and Northern European traditions is built on the science of anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry and the structure-function relationship between cells, tissues and organs. Allopathic medicine focuses on diagnosis, treatment, and cure for acute illnesses via potent pharmaceutical drugs, surgery, radiation and other treatment modalities. 

We are today faced with numerous debilitating chronic illnesses related to aging, environment, and hedonistic lifestyle, such as cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular diseases as well as many incurable diseases such as AIDS. Modern medical advancements provide the rationale for the integration of various traditional healing techniques including Yoga to promote healing, health, and longevity. It is imperative that advances in medicine include the wholistic approach of Yoga to face the current challenges in health care. The antiquity of Yoga must be united with the innovations of modern medicine to improve quality of life throughout the world.

At first glance, allopathic medicine and Yoga may seem to be totally incompatible and in some ways even antagonistic to each other. Practitioners of either system are often found at loggerheads with one another in typical modern one-upmanship. However, it is my humble endeavor as a student of both these life giving, life changing and life saving sciences, to find the similarities that exist between them and build a bridge between these two great sciences of today’s world. 

Though allopathy may not share all concepts with Yoga, it is to be seen that there are a great many ‘meeting points’ for the construction of a healthy bridge between them. Both modern medicine and Yoga understand the need for total health and even the World Health Organization has in recent times included spiritual health in its definition of the “state of health’. Spiritual health is an important element of Yoga and now that the WHO has come around to understanding this point of view, there is hope for a true unification of these two systems. 

Modern medicine has the ultimate aim and goal of producing a state of optimum physical and mental health, thus ultimately leadings to the optimum well being of the individual. Yoga also aims at the attainment of mental and physical well being though the methodology does differ.

While modern medicine has a lot to offer humankind in its treatment and management of acute illness, accidents and communicable diseases, Yoga has a lot to offer in terms of preventive, promotive and rehabilitative methods in addition to many management methods to tackle modern illnesses. While modern science looks outward for the cause of all ills, the Yogi searches the depth of his own self. This two way search can lead us to many answers for the troubles that plague modern man. 

Anatomy and physiology

The study of anatomy and physiology is a great meeting point for modern medicine and Yoga. Yoga therapists and practitioners can benefit from the intricate and detailed ‘break-down study’ of modern medicine where the body is broken down into many systems, then into many organs, many tissues and finally into billions of cells. On the other hand the Yogic “ wholistic” view of the Pancha Kosha (the five sheathed existence) can help modern doctors realise that we are not just, ‘one-body’ organisms but have four more bodies that are equally if not more important. We are a manifestation of the Divine and have, not only the physical body but also an energy body, a mental body, a body of wisdom and a body of eternal bliss. An understanding of the subtle anatomy and physiology of Nadis, Chakras and Bindus when coupled with the practical understanding of the details of the physical body can inspire real knowledge of the self in all health care personnel.

In his excellent book, The Shambala Guide to Yoga, Dr. Georg Feuerstein says, “Long before physicists discovered that matter is energy vibrating at a certain rate, the Yogis of India had treated this body-mind as a playful manifestation of the ultimate power of energy, the dynamic aspect of Reality. They realized that to discover the true Self, one had to harness attention because the energy of the body-mind follows attention. A crude example of this process is the measurable increase of blood flow to our fingers and toes that occurs when we concentrate on them. Yogis are very careful about where they place their attention, for the mind creates patterns of energy, causing habits of thought and behavior that can be detrimental to the pursuit of genuine happiness”. 

Prevention of disease 

Modern medicine has come to realise the importance of prevention only in recent times but the role of preventive medicine is still very limited. The Yogic lifestyle that includes the ethical and moral principles (Yama-Niyama) can help prevent a great many of the modern diseases like Hepatitis B and AIDS. Cleanliness (Soucha) can help prevent and limit the spread of contagious and infectious diseases. Mental peace and right attitudes of Yoga such as Pratipaksha Bhavanam (understanding the contrary perceptive), Samatvam (equanimity of mind) and Vairagya (metacognitive non-attachment) can help prevent many of the psychosomatic ailments running wild in the modern world.

If these Yogic values as well as practices such as postures (Asanas), breath based energy techniques (Pranayamas), mind-body harmonizing practices (Kriyas) and focused concentration (Dhyana) are inculcated in the modern human race, we can prevent virtually all diseases that abound today. Communicable diseases as well as degenerative disorders of the body can be well prevented in a true manifestations of the adage, “A stitch in time saves nine”. However the ‘will’ to do so is also of paramount importance as there is no money or fame in prevention and we don’t know what we have prevented because we have prevented it from happening!

To quote the eminent neurosurgeon Padma Bhushan Dr B Ramamurthi, “The revival of the Science of Yoga bodes well for mankind. All the technological advances in the third millennium will not lead to the happiness of mankind as man has a severe aggressive tendency and is likely to destroy himself because of this aggression. The only way out of this mess is through the Science of Yoga, which transcends all religions and cults. It is a science of the mind and the body and needs to be practised by all human beings to ensure their own future.” 

Promotive health 

Yoga is an excellent tool of promotive health that can enrich modern medicine. The practice of Yoga leads to the efficient functioning of the body with homeostasis through improved functioning of the psycho-immuno-neuro-endocrine system. A balanced equilibrium between the sympathetic and parasympathetic wings of the autonomic nervous system leads to a dynamic state of health.

According to Dr B Ramamurthy, Yoga re-orients the functional hierarchy of the entire nervous system. He has noted that Yoga not only benefits the nervous system but also the cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, endocrine and immune systems in addition to bringing about general biochemistry changes in the Yoga practitioners. He has also said that the Science of Yoga has been India’s greatest contribution to mankind. 

Management of diseases and disorders 

Yoga doesn’t negate the use of drugs and other methods of modern medicine. Patanjali in his Avatar as Charaka didn’t shy away from the need to use medicinal herbs as well as surgical methods when necessary for the benefit of the patient. The system of Ayurveda is more in tune with the Yogic views of healing in this regard but definitely the modern antibiotic treatment of infectious diseases as well as the emergency medical and trauma management techniques of modern medicine must be understood to be life-savers in times of need. No Yoga therapist in his or her right mind should try to treat an acute myocardial infarction or an unconscious accident victim by Yoga alone. 

A symbiotic relationship between the techniques of modern medicine and Yoga can help the patient more than a dogmatic refusal to see the ‘other side’. Yoga has a lot to offer in terms of psychosomatic disorders and in stress related disorders such as diabetes, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, epilepsy, hypertension, back pain and other functional disorders. Yoga can help reduce and in some cases eliminate drug dosage and dependence in patients suffering from diabetes mellitus, hypertension, epilepsy, anxiety, bronchial asthma, constipation, dyspepsia, insomnia, arthritis, sinusitis and dermatological disorders. 

To quote Dr Steven F Brena, “Yoga is probably the most effective way to deal with various psychosomatic disabilities along the same, time-honored, lines of treatment that contemporary medicine has just rediscovered and tested. Asanas are probably the best tool to disrupt any learned patterns of wrong muscular efforts. Pranayama and Pratyahara are extremely efficient techniques to divert the individual's attention from the objects of the outer environment, to increase every person's energy potentials and 'interiorize' them, to achieve control of one's inner functioning. Moreover, in restoring human unity, the Yoga discipline is always increasing awareness and understanding of ourselves, adjusting our emotions, expanding our intellect, and enabling us not only to function better in any given situation, but to perform as spiritual beings with universal values.”

Yoga therapists must work in tandem with medical doctors when they are treating patients who have been on allopathic treatment. There are many instances where the patient stops medical treatment thinking that it no more necessary as they have started Yoga. This leads to many catastrophes that could be easily avoided by tandem consultations with a medical specialist. Similarly many allopaths tend to tell the patient to take up Yoga or relaxation and forget to mention to the therapist what they actually want the patients to do.

Most allopathic medications need to be tapered off in a progressive manner rather than being stopped suddenly. We often find this mistake in regard to corticosteroids as well as cardiac medications where sudden stoppage can be harmful. We must remember Plato’s words when he said, 

“The treatment of the part shouldn’t be attempted without a treatment of the entirety,” meaning that the treatment of the body without treating the mind and soul would be a useless waste of time.

Rehabilitation

Yoga as a physical therapy has a lot to offer patients of physical and mental handicaps. Many of the practices of physiotherapy and other physical therapies have a lot in common with Yoga practices. Mentally challenged individuals can benefit by an improvement in their IQ as well as in learning to relate to themselves and others better. As their physiological functions improve with Yoga, the combination of Yoga and physical therapies can benefit such patients as well as those with learning disabilities. Musculoskeletal problems can be treated by the combination to improve function as well as range of movement, strength and endurance abilities. Balance and dexterity can also be improved by the combination therapy.

The use of Yoga can help those recovering from accidents and physical traumas to get back on their feet faster and with better functional ability. An example of this was Dr Swami Gitananda Giri who managed to get back on his feet and function normally after a debilitating stay in a full body cast for more than six months.

Swamiji used to say, “Modern medicine kept me alive, but Yoga gave me back my life as otherwise I may have been a cripple for life”. Yoga also has a lot to offer those suffering from drug and substance abuse in assisting them to get back to a normal life. Yoga helps develop their self-control and will power and also gives them a new philosophy of living. This is vital as otherwise they will lapse into their old negative habits. 

Healthy diet

This is a place that modern medicine and Yoga can help give a patient as well as normal person the proper wholistic values of a proper diet. Modern research shows us the benefits of the ‘break-down' study of foods on the basis of their physical and chemical properties. This is important for the person to know how much of each constituent of food is to be taken in the proper quantity. 

Yoga can help a person to learn the right attitude towards food as well as understand concepts based on the Trigunas and Tridoshas for better health. Yoga teaches us that the physical diseases manifest as a result of the digestive imbalances that may be hypo, hyper or deranged in nature (Ajjeranatvam, Atijeeranatvam and Kujeeranatvam). Yoga also teaches us about the approach to food, the types of food as well as the importance of timings and moderation in diet.

A combination of the modern aspects of diet with a dose of Yogic thought can help us eat not only the right things but also in the right way and at the right time thus ensuing our good health and longevity.

Inducing the relaxation response 

Most medical doctors understand that it is important to relax in order to get better. The problem is that, though the doctor tells the patient to relax, they don’t tell them how to do so and maybe in fact they don’t know the answer themselves in the first place. 

Hatha Yoga and Jnana Yoga Relaxation practices help relax the body, emotions and mind. Relaxation is a key element of any Yoga therapy regimen and must not be forgotten at any cost. Shavasana has been reported to help a lot in hypertensive patients and practices such as Savitri Pranayama, Chandra Pranayama, Kaya Kriya, Yoga Nidra, Anuloma Viloma Prakriyas and Marmanasthanam Kriya are also available to the person requiring this state of complete relaxation. It is important to remember that relaxation on its own is less effective than relaxation following activity.

Enhancing coping skills

Yoga has a lot to offer those who unable to cope with death and dying as well as those suffering from incurable diseases. The Yoga philosophy of living sees death as an inevitable aspect of life that cannot be wished away. Swami Gitananda Giri used to tell us that the whole of life is, but a preparation for the moment of death, so that we can leave the body in the right way. Those who are taking care of the dying as well as those taking care of patients of incurable diseases and major disabilities are under an extreme amount of stress and Yoga practice as well as its philosophy helps them gain the inner strength necessary to do their duty.

Yoga can help break the vicious spiral of pain-drug dosage-pain and by doing so help reduce the drug dosage in patients suffering chronic pain. It has been reported that Yoga helps improve the quality of life in patients suffering from cancer and also helps them cope better with the effects of treatment. It relaxes them and helps them sleep better.

As someone rightly said, “Yoga may not be able to always cure but it can surely help us to endure”.

Reducing expenditure

Modern medicine is often criticized for the cost involved in its methods of treatment. Yoga offers an inexpensive method of health that can be added to the medical armory when required. Yoga only requires the patient’s own effort and really doesn’t need any paraphernalia. 

Of course the modern Yoga industry would rather have us believe that we need tons of Yoga equipment to start Yoga, but they are awfully of the mark in this case. Reduction in drug dosage and avoidance of unnecessary surgeries in many cases can also help reduce the spiraling cost of Medicare.

Making aging more manageable and healthier 

Aging is inevitable and Yoga can help us to age gracefully. Modern medicine tries to help retard aging and help people look better by costly surgical methods that are only an external covering over the underlying aging process. Healthy diet, regular exercise, avoidance of negative habits and cultivation of the positive habits and a healthy lifestyle can help us to age with dignity.

Yoga can also help our ‘silver citizens’ retain their mental ability and prevent degenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and various other dementias. Physical accidents such as falls can be minimised and many an artificial hip, knee or shoulder replacement surgery can be avoided. 

Swami Gitananda Giri, Yogashri Krishnamacharya, Kannaiah Yogi, Swami Suddananda Bharathi, Yogeshwarji, Yogendraji and my beloved Yoga uncle Padma Bhushan BKS Iyengar are but a few of the Yogis who have shown us that its is possible to grow old without losing any of the physical or mental faculties of youth.

Holistic system of lifestyle modification 

Yoga helps patients take their health in their own hands. They learn to make an effort and change their life style for the better so that their health can improve. Life style modification is the buzzword in modern medical circles and Yoga can play a vital role in this regard.

Yogic diet, Asanas, Pranayamas, Mudras, Kriyas and relaxation are an important aspect of lifestyle modification. Dr Dean Ornish, an eminent American medical doctor who has shown that Yogic lifestyle can reverse heart disease says, “Yoga is a system of perfect tools for achieving union as well as healing. “  

Facilitating women’s health

Women are the chosen ones blessed with the responsibility of the future of our human race. Healthy mothers give birth to healthy babies and a healthy start has a great future ahead. Yoga has a lot to contribute in combination with modern medicine to the health status of womankind. Puberty and menopause become easier transitions with the help of Yoga and many eminent Yoginis have said that they were not even aware of a single menopausal symptom as they went through this difficult period in a woman’s life. Similarly our young girls can vouch for the fact that their pubertal changes and menarche has been relatively smoother than their counterparts who don’t practice Yoga. 

The benefits of Yoga in terms of family planning are also an important aspect that needs further study, as they can be an effective part of the contraceptive armory. The risk of side effects is negated and the entire control restored to the individuals themselves.

The Oli Mudras as practiced in the Gitananda Yoga tradition have great potential in this regard and also the Swara Yoga theories of conception have a lot of exciting possibilities. Once conception occurs, Yoga helps the young mother to be, to prepare herself physically and mentally for the upcoming childbirth. Yoga helps open the joints of the pelvis and hip as well as strengthen the abdominal muscles for childbirth. Later, simple Pranayamas and relaxation techniques help the new mother relax and enjoy the new experience of her life.

Post-partum introduction of simple practices along with breathing, relaxation and a lot of crawling helps her come back to normal earlier and this can be used in all maternity hospitals along with allopathic management. Yoga practices can also help reduce the drug dosage in medical problems that often complicate a normal pregnancy such as diabetes, asthma and hypertension.

In conclusion 

Many medical doctors have tried to bridge the gap between modern medicine and Yoga and in my humble opinion the best work till date has been the work of Dr Steven F Brena who in his path breathing work on YOGA AND MEDICINE puts into perspective the similarities between Yoga and medicine and also discusses in their relationship with different aspects of human phenomena. He says,

“Besides more or less close similarities, is there a realistic ground upon which both contemporary science and Yoga philosophy are going to meet and possibly to cooperate? The actual field of convergence between them lies in the recognition that physical laws of matter are binding only to a certain point; beyond them, man can find inner freedom, using his will power and proper techniques to select his habits and to gain control of his visceral and emotional functioning, according to the principles of learning.” 

“Psychology tells us that our biological functions are bound to the rhythmicity of earthly phenomena, but it also has demonstrated that our performances can be controlled by instrumental training, which is not influenced by circadian rhythms. It looks as though scientific investigations from one side are showing man bound to the earth, like any other living creature, while from another side they seem to prove that the human potentials are greater than the forces binding us – which is exactly what the Vedas have been teaching for thousands of years.” 

“The concept of “dysponesis” is much more than a new theory in medicine. It is almost a new philosophy, bringing into perspective the value of energy-spending in problems of health and disease. Because of our habitual lack of control over our visceral systems, we are often too prodigal in spending our energy capital. In any given situation we are not only prone to “overshoot’, but also to learn the “overshooting” as a model of habitual interrelation with our environment. We are always tense and aggressive in whatever task we perform, always in competition with somebody or with ourselves, wasting our energies in confused actions and maladjusted reactions. We often do not cope with some given situation following a rational and intelligent evaluation, but with emotional outbursts, burning out a lot of fuel.”

“The experiences gained from the various rehabilitation centers around the world, dealing with a variety of disabilities, confirms that our potentialities are greater than we assume, provided that we adequately train our energy-spending and effort-making.”

Author is Director CYTER and Professor Yoga Therapy, Sri Balaji Vidyapeeth, Pondicherry, Indiawww.sbvu.ac.in/cyter

Recommended reading:

1. Anand BK. Yoga and medical sciences. Souvenir: Seminar on Yoga, science and man. Central council for research in Indian Medicine and Homeopathy. New Delhi. 1976.

2. Bhavanani AB. Role of yoga in health and disease. Journal of Symptoms and Signs 2014; 3(5): 399-406.

3. Anantharaman TR. Yoga as Science. Souvenir: Seminar on Yoga, science and man. Central council for research in Indian Medicine and Homeopathy. New Delhi. 1976.

Anantharaman TR. Yoga Vidya and Yoga Vidhi. The Yoga Review 1983: III: 3, 119-137.

4. Bhavanani AB. Integrating yoga and modern medical science. Souvenir of the National Seminar and CME on Introducing Yoga in Health Professions Education. SBVU, Puducherry. 19-21 June 2016. pp 48-55.

5. Bhavanani AB. Role of yoga in prevention and management of lifestyle disorders. Yoga Mimamsa 2017; 49:42-7

6. Bhavanani AB. Yoga in health care. Annals of SBV 2012; 1 (2): 15-24.

7. Brena Steven F. Yoga and medicine. Penguin Books Inc. USA. 1972.

8. Feuerstein Georg. The Shambala Guide to Yoga. Shambala Publications Inc,  Boston, Massachusetts, and USA.1996.

9. Gitananda Giri Swami and Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani (Ed). Bridging the gap between Yoga and science. Souvenir of the international conference on biomedical, literary and practical research in Yoga. ICYER, Pondicherry, India. 1991.

10. Gitananda Giri Swami. Frankly Speaking. Satya Press, Pondicherry, 1997.

11. Gitananda Giri Swami. Yoga the art and science of awareness. Souvenir 1996; 4th International Yoga Festival, Govt of Pondicherry.

12. Go VL and Champaneria MC. The new world of medicine: prospecting for health. Nippon Naika Gakkai Zasshi. 2002 Sep 20; 91 Suppl: 159-63.

13. Nagarathna R and Nagendra HR. Integrated approach of Yoga therapy for positive health. Swami Vivekananda Yoga Prakashana, Bangalore, India. 2001.

14. Ramamurthi B. Uphill all the way. Guardian press, Chennai. 2000.

15. Ramanathan M, Bhavanani AB. Understanding how yoga works: a short review of findings from CYTER, Pondicherry, India. EJPMR 2017; 4(1): 256-262.

16. Yogi Ram. Health and longevity through Yoga. Yoga Thara 1997; July/Aug, pp 7-9.

Also read

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