The Tree of Knowledge
Yoga, Science and Health
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means the union between paramatma (the Supreme) and the jivatma (individual soul or spiriton).The English word ‘yoke’ derives from yoga. Science comes from the Latin scientia which can mean to split or to know. The West has pursued knowledge of the material world by ‘splitting’ it into or analyzing its smaller and smaller constituent parts. In contrast, the Hindu sages or yogis through the practice of yoga have sought the ultimate reality or eternal truth underlying the material world and its relation to the conscious world.
Yoga is one of the six orthodox āstika schools of Hindu philosophy. According to the Yogatattva Upanishad, it has four aspects, namely Mantrayoga, Layayoga, Hathayoga and Rājayoga, the last one being considered the highest practice. The Sindhu or Hindu civilisation is the oldest extant civilisation on the Earth., dating back to more than 10,000 years ago. The discovery of the inscribed idols of yogis from the relics of the Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro ruins near Takshilla (now in Pakistan) shows that Hindu yogis practised yoga on the banks of the ancient Indus (Iravati) river.
The oldest scripture on the earth, the 5000-year-old Rig Veda, contains sacred hymns of yoga in its sublime pages. The essence of the Vedas, four in number, is known as Vedanta or the Upanishads, which also make reference to various forms of yogic practices in ancient Bharat. Yogis aim at detachment from the earthly, ephemeral pleasures which they transcend to attain the joy of Brahman or the Supreme. The path to this goal is described at length in those scriptures. Modern day science, on the contrary, is focused on earthly attachment through harnessing the power of Nature. With the same objective, it exploits the ancient yogic secrets so as to gain more vigour, strength and stamina for the enjoyment of this material world.
Yogeswar Krishna gave a discourse on yoga to his devoted disciple the great archer Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, as recorded in the Bhagavad Gita which dates to about 500 BCE. According to eminent scholars Radhakrishnan and Moore, the Hindu sage Patanjali composed his Asthanga Yoga possibly in the 2nd century BCE, at the time of the Mauryan Empire (322–185 BCE). Historian S.N. Dasgupta claims this is the same Patañjali who authored the Mahabhasya, a treatise on Sanskrit grammar. Patanjali started with a description of yoga as Chitta Vritti Nirodha (Chitta – mind, Vritti – whirlpool and nirodha – restraint or control of sensual instincts). Another valuable text on yoga is Katyayan’s Yoga Sutra.
Types of Yoga
Millions of people in Europe and America are now practising types of yogas having to do with different aspects such as power (muscle), bikram (heat and humidity), kriya (the special pranayama of the author of ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ Paramhansa Yogananda), kundalini (a part of Rajayoga) and Christian yoga with a view to attain beautiful physique, stamina, extra muscle power and flexibility of joints and limbs. But this is far from the basic principles of Maharishi Patanjali’s Asthanga Yoga, which has eight limbs, as follows: 1.Yama refers to the five abstentions – ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (non-covetousness), brahmacharya(celibacy) and aparigraha(non-possessiveness). 2. Niyama refers to the five observances, namely: saucha (cleanliness), santosh (satisfaction), tapas (austerity), swadhyaya (study of the Vedic scriptures) and ishvarapranidhan (surrender to the Supreme). 3. Asana: discipline of the body and mind. 4. Pranayama: control of breath. 5. Pratyahara: withdrawal of senses. 6. Dharana: concentration of the chitta (mind). 7. Dhyana: steadfast meditation. 8. Samadhi: oneness with the Supreme
The characteristic features of Asthanga yoga are that it requires a Guru (well experienced teacher), chanting of the mystic syllable Om, solitude, stationary postures, slow-paced body movement, synchronized breath control technique, emptiness of mind and combined effort of body-mind-soul to achieve the desired objective. On the other hand, aerobic exercises like jogging, swimming, cycling etc. are self-practised jerky bodily movements to burn fat and calories, toning and conditioning of heart and adapting it to the stress of less oxygen supply. Yoga also lays greater emphasis on the release of contained energy and the mind-body-spirit connection.
But yoga, besides being a philosophical approach to life, also boosts muscular strength and endurance, according to the American Council on Exercise, and bestows medical benefits.
Relationship of Science and Yoga
The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems of modern neurology correspond to the Ida and Pingala described in Sanskrit literature thousands of years ago. Antonio Mario Valsalva of Bologna discovered a method of breathing to control a racing heart in the 17th century. Hindu sages taught the same technique thousands of years ago. In its pursuit of knowledge, modern science has proceeded by observing and experimenting with smaller and smaller parts of living things, the human body included. However, the Hindu sages’ approach to the understanding of body, mind and soul was from a more holistic perspective. They documented their knowledge of the different sheaths (koshas) of the human being as annamaya kosha (body), manomaya kosha (mind), pranamaya kosha (‘soul’), vigyanmaya kosha (yoga) and anandamaya kosha (divine), explicitly described in Patanjali’s Asthanga Yoga. Western thinkers, philosophers and scientists have of late taken a greater interest in the ancient yogic practices, and have undertaken in-depth studies in relation to them.
Usefulness of Yoga
Body and mind are inseparably connected to each other. As has been mentioned above, whereas scientists in the West have been more interested in the study of the physical body, the quest of Hindu sages has been for the origin of body, mind and soul, and their interrelationships. This search of the Eternal Truth has led them to subconscious, conscious and superconscious worlds.
It is well known that mental ailments manifest in various ways to affect the body, and vice-versa. Our body is kept well-functioning by the endocrine (hormonal) and nervous systems, which constantly send ultrasensitive signals to the various organs and tissues. For example, growth hormone secretion reaches its peak at the dead of night. The heart and lung function without a moment’s rest throughout our life. The complex metabolic functions of the body and mind are executed by the continuous secretions of hormones from endocrine glands such as the thyroid, pancreas, testes and ovary, and so on. In the brain, chemicals called neurotransmitters are released and regulate the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Studies have shown that yogic exercises, in the form of commonly known postures (asanas), enhance the synchronization of involuntary heart and lung function with the voluntary muscular and joint movements. This helps to increase the flexibility of skeletal muscles, remove excess of fat from the blood and the body, improve circulatory function, burn calories, stimulate the excretory function of skin and kidneys, retard atherosclerosis and significantly increase the lung capacity. Yogic postures, pranayam and Vedic mantras have a major positive impact on the body and mind if practised regularly in the proper way.
The long life, healthy living and high thinking of ancient saints reveal the efficacy of yogic practices. Daily practice of anulom-vilom pranayam reduces blood pressure, increases useful blood constituents and removes harmful ones. Intelligent quotient, memory and concentration have been proved to be increased by yoga practice. Tranquility of mind returns, undisturbed sleep is induced, and the frequency of nightmares is reduced. In HIV-AIDS, the mortality is reduced and longevity is increased.
Richard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn have shown that eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation produced significant increases in activity in a part of the brain which is associated with positive emotional states. Studies done in America have shown that meditation increases gray matter in specific regions of the brain and may slow the deterioration of the brain as a part of the natural ageing process. The latest neurological investigation, known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), has demonstrated positive changes in the brain waves and its regenerative power in Buddhist monks practising intensive yoga, compared to those who do not engage in such practice. Hatha yogis are world famous in controlling their body metabolism, heartbeat and respiration.
Further, it is now well established that regular yogic exercise increases the daily supply of anti-oxidants which we get easily from red tomato, green capsicum, orange carrot, purple beetroot and red spinach. These anti-oxidants are essential ingredients which prevent premature ageing, premature falling and greying of hair, heart disease, joint disease, various blood disorders and help in myriads of body functions.
Further benefits of yoga
Yoga can help in the treatment of several diseases of the body. They include high blood pressure, thyroid problems, atherosclerosis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, diabetes, obesity, asthma, loss of appetite or anorexia. Many disorders of the liver, pancreas and gall bladder respond positively to the regular practice of asanas such as mundakasana, sarvangasan and pranayam. This list is not exhaustive.
Moreover, as far as the mind is concerned, the daily practice of pranayam has been found to give immense relief in cases suffering from the trio of depression, sleeplessness and anxiety, which is becoming widespread in the mechanized life of our modern times. In children, regular pranayam and specific asanas (shirshasan and sarvangasan) practised under the guidance of an expert yogi can improve intelligence, memory, concentration, cognitive power and arithmetic skill.
There is enough evidence to date that shows the usefulness of yoga in the management of the afflictions of both the body and the mind that result from the storm of unrest, anxiety, violence, strife, stress and strain pervading our modern world, and that cuts across family, society, state, country and continent. In fact, there is no conflict between science and yoga; rather, they can complement each other to give a sound and strong body which hosts a balanced, serene and spiritual mind. Our sages and saints have left for the entire human race an invaluable niche of knowledge in the form of Patanjali Yoga which, if followed sincerely and properly, can well be the simplest solution to all sorts of self-induced problems.
Dr Rabindranath Das
Professor, Department of Medicine,
SSR Medical College, Belle Rive, Mauritius