Integral Yoga and Integrative Medicine: A Retrospective

“The spiritual teacher Swami Satchidananda was once asked, ‘What’s the difference between illness and wellness?’ He walked over to a blackboard [during Grand Rounds at the University of Virginia Medical Center] and wrote illness and circled the first letter, i. He then wrote wellness and circled the first two letters, we.”

Dr. Dean Ornish in The Oprah Magazine, November 2002

Perhaps one of the most impressive arenas of Swami Satchidananda’s (Sri Gurudev) service has been his contribution to the field of health and complementary medicine. From the start of his service in the West in 1966, Sri Gurudev steadfastly promoted vegetarian diet, stress reduction through the Yoga practices and philosophy, and living in harmony with nature.  As a homeopath and naturopath, Sri Gurudev offered a holistic health perspective to the world of Western medicine. He was, at the same time, supportive of the positive aspects of allopathic medicine, and always spoke about the great advances achieved, particularly for acute problems.

Sri Gurudev’s ideas and ideals were radical at the time—chief among them the notion that disease was essentially—“dis-ease,” or disturbed ease.  The chief culprits responsible for those disturbances included: non-vegetarian diet, unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking, drug use, wrong thinking (“As you think, so you become,” he would often quote), sedentary life-style and stress.  He taught that treating illness from a purely allopathic approach put undue focus on symptoms without going to the root cause of disease. He gave the analogy that treating symptoms alone was like cutting the wires on a home smoke alarm. If you cut the alarm wires and go back to sleep, the fire may take your life. He would often tease the doctors performing bypass surgery that they will only be “bypassing” the real problem which would recur unless addressed. These words were prophetic and were to change the face of Western medical approaches to heart disease.

It was September 1972 and 600 people gathered on a hot, dry day in Calistoga, California for the start of a ten day Integral Yoga retreat. Among them was Sandra McLanahan, M.D., there for her first retreat experience. Finished with her internship she was seeking a deeper understanding of herself and her profession. Sri Gurudev spoke daily at the retreat and was teaching kriyas—the yogic cleansing practices. Dr. McLanahan wanted to approach him but she was shy and it was a silent retreat. On the last day of the retreat, Sri Gurudev came up to her, put his arm around her and said: “So, you’ve come to be my doctor.” And that is exactly what happened. She received the name Amrita (the divine, life-giving nectar), and after completing her residency, she moved into Yogaville East in Connecticut. Later, in 1974, she toured India with Sri Gurudev.

Putting into practice all she was learning from Sri Gurudev on yogic approaches to health and healing, Dr. Amrita opened the Integral Health Center (IHC) in Putnam, Connecticut in 1976. Sri Gurudev’s vision was to bring practitioners of every healing discipline together to individually make assessments and then to jointly diagnose and provide treatment options to the patient. Called a “Comprehensive Evaluation,”  this idea of complementary and multimodal treatment was cutting edge in the mid-1970s. Within a short time, Prevention magazine featured IHC in an article entitled, “The Clinic Where Love and Medicine Go Hand in Hand.” Soon, IHC had a 500-patient waiting list!

Just around this time, another groundbreaker-to-be was coming onto the medical scene. Dean Ornish’s sister Laurel was a Yoga enthusiast and student of Sri Gurudev. With all the challenges of medical school, Dean was finding himself extremely stressed and depressed. Laurel introduced him to Sri Gurudev and Yoga. He felt an immediate benefit. Dean read an article in Integral Yoga Magazine written by Dr. Amrita on the “Medical Benefits of Yoga.” He invited her to his medical school—Baylor College of Medicine—to speak. He also asked her to do research with him on the medical benefits of Yoga on heart disease. Dean came to Yogaville East and spent time with Sri Gurudev and Dr. Amrita, discussing plans for research projects that would attempt to measure the benefits of vegetarian diet, meditation, Hatha Yoga, and exercise.

A number of Sri Gurudev’s students were now working in the medical field and were attempting to integrate his ideas and Yoga teachings into their practices. They were soon procuring invitations to important medical institutions for Sri Gurudev to speak so that others would be able to benefit from his approach.

In the mid-1970s, Sri Gurudev spoke at the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins Medical Center, Baylor College of Medicine, and many other medical institutions. Sri Gurudev often spoke about natural living and how we fall sick when we don’t live according to nature. Dr. Amrita remembered one of these talks when Sri Gurudev said, “The root cause of all illness is selfishness.” And, she also recalled that, “You could have heard a pin drop. The only sound was that of jaws dropping. Sri Gurudev was not talking about selfishness in moralistic terms but that sense of separation and isolation that makes you separate from everyone and your essential nature. The sense of ‘I, me, mine’ as Sri Gurudev often said.”

Dr. Michael Lerner, director of Commonweal, a leading health research institute in California, met Dr. Amrita in the 1980s during a conference at which they were both speaking. They soon became good friends and Dr. Amrita invited Dr. Lerner to Yogaville to meet Sri Gurudev. Deeply moved by Sri Gurudev and the Integral Yoga approach to well-being, Dr. Lerner invited Sri Gurudev to visit Commonweal. Inspired by Sri Gurudev’s teachings, Dr. Lerner subsequently established the Cancer Help program. This program also has an East Coast center which is directed by Shanti Norris, one of Sri Gurudev’s first personal assistants.

Dr. Amrita remembers teaching Dr. Mehmet Oz his first Yoga class. Now, Dr. Oz is a leader in the field of complementary medicine. At Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, Dr. Oz has a groundbreaking program where he practices Yoga with his patients before and after they undergo heart surgery and he finds it to be the most powerful of all the alternative health interventions.

During the 1980s, Bill Moyers’ popular series “Healing and the Mind” aired on the PBS television station. There were nine students of Sri Gurudev profiled during this series. In the 1990s, Dr. Ornish went on to scientifically prove that heart disease not only could be prevented but even reversed through Yoga. He was President Clinton’s personal physician and Dr. Ornish worked with members of Congress who had heart disease. Currently, Medicare is funding his research on reversing prostate cancer through Yoga and complementary medicine.

When asked for her assessment of the impact that Sri Gurudev’s teachings have had on the medical field, Dr. Amrita smiled and replied, “All you need to do is look at the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines over the past few years. In 2001, Time had a cover story entitled “The Science of Yoga.” And, in January 2003, Time featured Dr. Mehmet Oz in a special issue entitled, “How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body.”  The same week Newsweeks cover story featured Dr. Dean Ornish!”

In December 2002, Dr. Phil McGraw was interviewing CNN’s Larry King on the Dr. Phil Show. At one point, the conversation went like this:

Dr. Phil:  “You have had several bypass surgeries. How do you handle anger?”

Larry King: “Swami Satchidananda was a great man . . . you’d have liked him. Swami Satchidananda said that when you’re angry, the last thing you get is information. It’s the first thing you want and it’s the last thing you get. If you’re angry at the clerk at the airport you will not get information. If you’re nice, you will get information. So anger, he said, never pays. It never pays. . . .”

~ Excerpted from Boundless Giving: The Life and Service of Sri Swami Satchidananda

(Photo: l-r: Dr. Michael Lerner, Dr. Sandra McLanahan, Swami Satchidananda, Dr. Dean Ornish, early 1980s)

Leave a reply