In this article, Swami Satchidananda, founder of Integral Yoga, and a trained naturopath himself, discusses the essential elements that comprise classical Yoga therapy.
When I came to this country in 1966, I met Dr. Ramamurti Mishra (who became Swami Brahmananda), the founder of Ananda Ashram, New York and a doctor from India who was also a Yoga practitioner. He was giving a lecture and, casually, he mentioned that Yoga practices can help healing. He did not even say they could “cure” anything, but that Yoga could help healing. Just because he mentioned Yoga, some doctors cooked up a story saying that he was using drugs at his ashram. He was deported and he couldn’t return to the U.S. for two years. Thankfully, attitudes toward Yoga therapy are changing.
Today, there are many different types of treatments that have been introduced as “complementary medicine,” like homeopathy, Ayurveda, acupuncture, and so on. We talk a lot about the different “pathies”: homeopathy, allopathy, naturopathy. None of these will work if you don’t have one more pathy: Sympathy. Doctors should have sympathy, then every pathy works well. Compassion goes a long way in bringing health and happiness to the patient. It’s not medicine alone that aids healing—it’s your attitude, your approach, your compassion, your concern, your love for the patient. That’s where Yoga and meditation come in, because the essential point behind Yoga is to see your own Self in other beings.
As the Bible says, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” You cannot do that unless you see your own Self in the patient. When you are able to do that, it will bring a beautiful rapport, a good communication, and then all the rest happens naturally. That is the essence behind Yoga and anything you call Yoga therapy—you see the oneness of all, the unity of all in spirit. Of course there are many helpful practices to achieve this vision, such as keeping a clean mind, a clean body through Hatha Yoga, pranayama, pratyahara (discipline over the senses, and through the senses the mind), and meditation.
Yoga teaches that disease is not your birthright. Ease is your birthright. Therefore, as a Yoga therapist, the question is to find out what disturbed the person’s ease, because disturbed ease is disease. So, find out the cause of the disturbance. Where did they disturb it, how did they disturb it, what did they do? The South Indian sage Thiruvalluvar said, “First, investigate the cause of the disease.” Otherwise, you are only treating the symptoms. And symptoms are caused by an underlying disturbance.
What are the various causes with which someone disturbs his or her physical and mental ease? You were born with an easeful body. What happened? Now, you can’t even reach down and touch your toes. One clue can be found if you observe babies. First of all, their minds are so innocent and pure that they are not affected by anything. They are well‑balanced, with no attachments. Adults have lost that neutrality. They are either attached to something, or have an aversion to something.
Do you give your baby chicken sandwiches? Adults’ diets are totally different. What do devotees offer at a temple? Clean pure sattvic foods like fruits, are offered. As yogis, your diets should be sattvic. You are what you eat. If you go back to what you ate as a baby, you won’t have any problem. Human beings are the only creatures who eat cooked food. That, itself, is not natural. I can easily say that the day we started the kitchen, we laid the foundation for the doctors. If you are going to cook your food, steam it rather than using other unhealthier means. That’s why, in the Ayurvedic system, whatever remedy they give you has some restrictions in the diet. Why? Because the major cause of most problems is food.
And the next thing is mental food. You are not only eating through the body, you eat through your senses to satisfy the mind. So anything that goes into your mental system—through the eyes, the mouth, the nose, all the senses—should be clean. If you keep on seeing dirty things, hearing harsh things, you will become dirty. So keep the senses clean. If you follow nature’s way of doing things, you won’t need any of these pathies.
It’s wonderful to see today that hospitals and doctors are starting to ask for Yoga. What a change from when I first came to the U.S. One pioneer, even before Dean Ornish and others, is our doctor Amrita (Sandra McLanahan, MD). She began Integral Health Services in Connecticut in the 1970s. We had what was called a “Comprehensive Evaluation.” When a patient came in, he or she would be seen by about seven or eight different pathies: medical doctor, nutritionist, chiropractor, psychologist, massage therapist, and they were all Yoga practitioners or teachers. Each one will do their own evaluation. The nutritionist will ask, “What is the food you are eating? The psychologist will ask, “What kind of upsets are you going through?” The chiropractor will ask, “What kind of stiffness or pain do you have?” Each one will evaluate the patient and then they will all meet together to discuss their findings and together devise a comprehensive holistic health and lifestyle plan, including Yoga. Then they all would meet with the patient and explain their findings and suggestions.
An allopathic approach isn’t always most effective in the long run because doctors are treating only the symptoms. They never worry about the cause of the problem. They don’t even question what is the underlying cause of the pain or recommend lifestyle changes. Immediately they will just give a painkiller, when that is essentially a suppressive method. The more you suppress, the more other problems are created. For example, it’s a well‑known fact that if you suppress asthma with a remedy, eczema will come out. If you try to suppress the eczema with a remedy, the asthma will return. So, you’re never really curing anything.
That is the reason why doctors themselves are tired of this approach and patients are even more tired of it. So they wanted other, alternative methods, and I’m glad that many different approaches, including Yoga therapy, are now accepted. I say, “Whatever approach suits you, take it, use it.” Because when wealth is lost, nothing is lost. But, when health is lost, everything is lost. You need a healthy body, a healthy mind to continue your service to the world.
Some years ago, an Ayurvedic doctor in India—who was doctor to the prime ministers and presidents of India—was asked to address a huge gathering of doctors in Australia. He was asked many questions about Ayurveda and he explained that Ayurveda didn’t have anything to do with disease. The doctors were all stunned. What system of medicine has nothing to do with disease? So he explained that Ayurveda brings health to the body and then that healthy body is able to clean up any disease.
This is the essence of Yoga therapy: You don’t have to treat the disease, you treat the person. Yoga is a holistic practice—you treat the whole person though the full range of practices, through the entire system of Yoga. Through these practices, the person becomes strong and healthy—physically, mentally, spiritually, and also becomes of service to humanity. That’s the entire basis behind Yoga.
That’s why at the very outset of the Yoga Sutras Patanjali says, “Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha.” Keep the mind free from all the turmoil, keep it clean, keep it balanced. When you do that, your health is clean, your mind is peaceful, and the greatest benefit is you will realize your True Self. May you all find perfect health and happiness, peace and joy.
By Sri Swami Satchidananda. Excerpted from a health symposium May 26, 2001, at Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville.