Yoga: A Panacea?

When I tell people about yoga postures and how they can help heal disease they seem surprised. Not just a particular disease, but every type of disease. Is yoga a panacea? In many ways yoga is a panacea. That is a bold statement, I know. The word panacea conjures up something miraculous. Yoga is not miraculous. Its effects can be scientifically quantified. The reason yoga works is because it is a practice and a discipline that helps re-fashion our lives around optimal patterns of energy distribution. Why it works is because of how the human body is constructed.

Our amazing bodies are full of pathways similar to electrical circuits and plumbing. In Sanskrit, the language of yoga, the word that describes these circuits is “nadi.” A nadi is a tube in its simplest terms. The human body is essentially a network of tubes inside a framework of bone and skin. The largest tube is the alimentary canal. It starts at the mouth and ends at the anus. Blood vessels, nerve fibers, the spinal column, ducts between organs and glands and the lymph system are all examples of the tubes or nadis in our bodies that facilitate energy flow.

Each yoga posture is a distinct energy template or design. Energy, or as it is called in yoga, prana comes in three basic forms: air, food and water. Our bodies’ job is to assimilate and distribute these energy forms throughout its network of nadis.

The architecture of these unique designs or patterns causes energy to flow and concentrate itself into specific joints, organs, muscles and glands. It doesn’t take an expensive study to prove this. You can test my statement by comparing the sensations of your body in different positions and relationships to gravity.

Take a simple seated forward folding posture as an example. As you extend upward from your seat to lengthen and bend forward you are compressing your abdominal organs as you elongate and stretch your calves, hamstrings, buttocks, back, kidneys and adrenal glands. This energy template distributes weight and pressure throughout the body in a singular way. Now breathe deeply into your belly and chest. Feel how the breath massages these specific parts. The combined leverage, weight and pressure exerted by the pose and modulated by the breath cleanses, nourishes and delivers healing energy throughout the tissue.

The shape or architecture of the pose also harnesses the force of gravity. Postures where the head is below the heart illustrate this very well. Gravity pulls the bodies’ fluids downward toward the earth. As we move between upright and inverted poses these fluids wash back and forth through the body pulled by gravity.

What happens is akin to alchemy; we are practicing a physical formula that produces the elixir of life, or the ability of the human body to reach an optimum state of balance and health. The formula consists of breath, posture and gravity. The intentional use of this trinity of forces transforms the gross energies of air, water and food into a thriving, conscious being capable of attunement with the limitless creative energy of the Universe. This is what yoga is all about!

So the next time someone refers to yoga poses as “just stretching”, you’ll know what to tell them.

Advertisements

Recovering from Addiction Through Yoga and Ayurveda

During a yoga training course I recently completed we studied with renowned Ayurvedic teacher, Durga. She teaches the yoga of recovery from addiction. The first day she asked each of the 22 people in our class to share their experience with addiction. I found out we were all closely related to an addict of some kind. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, grandparents and siblings were all among those with addiction issues.

 

My parents were addicted to cigarettes. Tobacco killed them both. They also used alcohol daily.

 

My ex-wife was a cocaine and crystal meth addict for many years. She has never recovered her health.

 

The essential question is why do so many of us succumb to addiction? Durga, a recovering alcoholic who combines the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous with yoga and Ayurveda treatment addresses this question from a spiritual perspective. Yoga and Ayurveda (the medical sister science to yoga) say that addiction stems from the fact that we have forgotten our true identity and nature. Likewise, Deepak Chopra speaks of addictions as “self-destructive outlets for an unrecognized spiritual craving.” According to these ancient teachings we are spiritual beings whose true nature is bliss. Consequently, our longing for fulfillment, love, freedom and peace are turned outward rather than inward to our true nature. As Durga says, “we seek the eternal in the transient.” We try to find our bliss by seeking euphoria in the many intoxicants or habits the world offers. Whether our addictions involve alcohol, drugs, food, gambling or shopping, it is a fundamental unhealthy dependence that is at issue.

 

The next question is: what do yoga and Ayurveda offer to help us remember and connect with our true nature which helps us break addictive behavior patterns? Yoga/Ayurveda and the 12 steps agree that breaking addiction begins with recognition of our powerlessness over our addiction and that we must conduct “a fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Yoga calls this svadhyaya or self observation. As we examine our lives with compassion we begin to see the errors and misapprehensions that have led us down the blind alley of addiction. This is where we can start to reclaim our lives and our own heroic journeys. We re-establish the connection with our basic goodness, our innate talents, our breath and our eternal life force or prana.

 

Yoga and Ayurveda offer ways for us to nourish our life force. Through a balanced regimen of delicious, wholesome foods, herbs, proper exercise and meditation we reignite our desire for the sweetness of life that sustains us. Tasting the sweetness of life once again helps to displace addictive behaviors.

 

We also begin to form a new bond of community with like-minded healthy people who can lovingly help us on this path of awakening and reconnection to our true nature and identity.

 

Yoga and Ayurveda offer an effective path of health and recovery to the addict because they address the roots of addiction. Combined with the 12 steps, yoga and Ayurveda provide a comprehensive, holistic way to restore ourselves to balance.

 

For more information please visit Durga at: http://www.yogaofrecovery.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Yoga Therapy Series: Healing with Yoga

Since before the Vedic tradition was committed to writing thousands of years ago, yoga has inspired the hearts of human beings to reach beyond their limitations toward the fulfillment of their divine capacity. From the primeval past yoga calls us to investigate who we are, why we are here and where are we going as a species. The shining record of ancient yoga rings with the vibration that summons the human race to full maturity. Today, we, their descendants are pushing the long evolution of yoga into many exciting and novel manifestations. Yoga therapy is one of those manifestations.

For those of you not familiar with the term, yoga therapy is the use of yoga to directly deal with all kinds of disease conditions. Of course, this new emphasis on the direct therapeutic use of yoga is a natural progression of how yoga has been used since prehistoric times to build superior health for body and mind and set us on a course to realize our unlimited potential.

Not only is yoga therapy changing the face yoga, but it is stepping up to take its place as one of the preeminent healing modalities in the world today. New York physician, Loren Fishman says that without yoga, “I’d lack the most interesting, least expensive and most helpful and versatile form of treatment that I have.” (The Science of Yoga by William Broad 2012 p.148)

As many people know, all forms of medicine have their limitations. Drugs and surgery have their place. They routinely save lives and make life better for millions. Likewise, the many forms of yoga and its sister science Ayurveda can be applied to relieve chronic pain, extend and improve quality of life, and in many cases heal the human body in ways that defy modern medicine.

Personally, I’ve used my yoga/meditation practice to rid myself of the dreadful inflammatory digestive disorder, Crohn’s Disease, and depression, not to mention a raft of potentially debilitating injuries. My first application of yoga was for chronic back pain in 1994. In two weeks the back pain was gone without drugs or surgery. Since that early discovery of yoga’s healing power I committed myself to yoga practice and haven’t looked back. At 61, people still guess me to be in my forties. My current state of health is the product of a twenty year yoga practice.

As healthcare costs continue to spiral beyond the reach of many, yoga’s inexpensive, time-tested methods offer a shining opportunity for human kind to be not only healthy but transcendent.

Yoga therapy is poised to become a major dynamic force in the effort to treat addiction, heart disease/hypertension, obesity, diabetes, depression, cancer, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis and a myriad other scourges of human kind.

Yoga therapy is not in competition with modern medicine; it is a compliment. At times yoga therapy will act as an adjunct to medicine; at other times it will lead the way. The point is that we now have an emerging field of treatment and healing that empowers people to care for their bodies in ways they have not dreamed possible.

Prana Dance

So many exercise regimens today emphasize pushing oneself to the limit of one’s endurance. This is a foolhardy strategy that is sure to lead to injury, debility and perhaps permanent decrepitude. Certain sub genres of Hatha Yoga have also been infected by this hyper driven, egoistic approach to practicing the ancient and venerated method of developing human potential we call yoga.

I was once badly injured by an aggressive teacher from one of the most prominent yoga lineages of the 20th century. Her violent, thoughtless actions inflicted painful, chronic sciatica upon me. It took me months to heal myself. But with gentle, persistent effort, I did.

Of course, I’ve injured myself with my own egoistic stupidity, too. All of these injuries combined have helped me formulate and realize my motto: Gentleness is the Path to Strength. One of my talented students graciously embroidered these words of wisdom on my yoga mat as a constant reminder. When we pay for our mistakes with our flesh and bone, we tend to remember them!

So, how much vigor and force should we use during our yoga practice? It’s different for each one of us. We all have a head, two arms and two legs I tell my students, but the similarities end there. Individual tolerances to the forces of exertion vary widely. This is why I’ve coined the term “comfortable engagement” yoga.

It’s not another in the ever increasing number of yoga styles on the market today; it’s simply a way to practice that ensures incremental progress with safety and enjoyment.

The hallmarks of comfortable engagement yoga are attention and awareness. As we move and breathe we must exercise discrimination and discernment as we “play the edge” of our ability as Erich Schiffman would say. A rule of thumb I use is that if you can smile with genuine pleasure as you practice you are comfortably engaged; and as such, you are unlikely to injure yourself.

As we mindfully move into each asana we are working to apply the perfect amount of exertion to match our ability. This is the concept of sukha and sthira, ease and steadiness. As we work with ease and steadiness we learn to inhabit the sweet spot of each pose.

Discomfort and pain are warnings for us to back off. The “no pain no gain” philosophy is simply an egotistical invitation to injury. What we are striving for is a balanced dance of movement, breath and gravity, the three components of asana. Too much exertion afflicts us with tension which restricts the flow of our life force or prana. Like a wire with more voltage than it can handle our musculoskeletal and nervous systems are over loaded. This is the threshold of injury. Too little effort will result in a pose with less than optimum energy or benefit. We may become distracted and bored. A comfortably engaged body feels totally active in the pose, while the mind can focus in the repose of meditation.

The comfortably engaged body achieves optimal musculoskeletal engagement. The bones, muscles, organs, glands and connective tissues are in a state of balanced effort that conveys an unobstructed flow of vital force to each cell of the body. This is the yoga or union of our whole being. This unity of being is what confers good health upon us and the preparation for us to progress into the techniques of single-pointed concentration, meditation and blissful absorption into union with the unlimited creative force off the universe.

A Useful Meditation Technique

Beginning a meditation practice can be daunting, especially if you don’t have a teacher or don’t practice with an experienced group. The mind has been likened to a monkey stung by a scorpion. It jumps around wildly and chatters a mile a minute. It’s easy to give up after trying to calm such a creature. The key, as with anything else in life is the golden virtue of persistence.

First, sit in any comfortable position on the floor or in a chair. It’s best to keep your back erect without the support of the chair if your back will allow it. Try to remain perfectly still allowing not motion whatsoever. Your asana or posture practice will help you build the strength and health of your body so you can do this. That is, in fact, the explicit purpose of asana.

You may close your eyes or leave your eyes open while focusing on a stationary object or just allow your eyes to go out of focus.

Fold the hands or use an easy mudra.

Begin using the three part breath. Allow your belly to be soft. Breathe into your belly; draw the breath up into the solar plexus and heart. Slowly exhale using the abdominal muscles and diaphragm to gently push the air out. Brief deeply enough to adequately supply your needs, and use each breath to become progressively more relaxed. Slow your breath and keep it even and regular.

I recommend using a simple mantra. Two syllables works really well. I use the So Ham (like hum) mantra. It means “I am that.” Silently say “so” as you inhale and “hum” as you exhale. Of course, you may use any meaningful or sacred phrase you choose. Concentrate on the breath, mantra and the motion of your belly and chest.

As you breathe and repeat your mantra, you will notice that the mind can still jump all over the place despite your efforts of concentration. You may forget your mantra and breath and be caught away in some personal drama or see the characters of your favorite TV show floating through your mind. I saw the entire cast of Downton Abbey this morning. When you notice that you’ve lost your concentration, gently bring your mind back to your breath and mantra. As you concentrate, become a disinterested third party witness to the things your mind will do. Give them no weight or importance, simply observe the thoughts and let them go. They will soon be replaced by others; you can be sure of it.

Now, here’s the trick to help you keep your concentration. As you reach the top of your inhalation pause just long enough to notice it. Likewise, when you reach the bottom of your exhalation, pause without beginning your next inhalation for a brief moment. While the breath is suspended for that short span, the mind will remained focused. Suspension of the very act that that keeps you alive brings the attention to the present.

Experiment with the length of your pauses. I usually make the pause after the exhalation longer than the inhalation pause. Breath suspension is much easier after the exhalation because the lungs are nearly empty with no pressure inside them.

As you use this technique, the gallivanting mind will begin to slow down. Lengthen your meditation sessions and you will find that dharana or concentration will transition into dhyana or meditation. Eventually you will experience the ecstatic peace of total absorption into your true nature which is bliss. Meditation helps us to remember who we are.

The path to samadhi will have some bumps in it. Some days the intensity of what the yoga sutras call the “modifications” of the mind are quite resistant to our best efforts. Some meditation sessions may feel fruitless and without effect. During those times be grateful for and enjoy your breath—and most of all persist. You will be rewarded. You will touch your true nature. You will achieve a peace in your life that will give you the strength to be who you really want to be.