Photo: (l-r) Dr. Michael Lerner, Dr. McLanahan, Swami Satchidananda, Dr. Dean Ornish, 1987.

I first came across the teachings of Swami Satchidananda (Sri Gurudev) in a transcript from a talk he gave in which he said, “We have a natural state of ease and when we lose it we get disease.” I was in medical school at the time, and nobody was really addressing the fundamental root of disease. Over many years, that’s what his teachings and his guidance have been for me as a medical doctor.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, when drug use was fairly rampant in my generation, he also talked about how when you take drugs they gets you on a jet plane up to the higher sphere, but without a parachute. He explained how Yoga can enable you to access higher state of consciousness and awareness, but it does so step-by-step and with good support. These teachings really intrigued me so I read To Know Your Self, a foundational book of Swami Satchidananda’s Yoga teachings.

I also began taking Yoga classes at the San Francisco Integral Yoga Institute. When we came to Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation) and went over the parts of the body and came to relax all of them, I had an amazing experience of letting go of a lot of the stress that I was carrying from being a medical student. And I said to myself, This is a kind of medicine. And, I’ve been studying it ever since.

With the Integral Yoga teachings, I began to realize that “God” is a state of being. If God is omnipresent, it can’t be one person, but it’s a state of Beingness that is omnipresent. We can tune into w-God on our internal radio dial.

I was fortunate to be able to travel to India with Gurudev many times over the years. On my first trip, he talked about how he had been trained as a naturopath and a homeopath, and he believed in natural ways of healing. So, he taught me all these natural ways to assist the body to heal itself and to look at the root causes. Dr. Dean Ornish, then a medical student, read an article that I had written about this in an issue of Integral Yoga Magazine. And he invited me to come and speak at his medical school. After my talk, he said: “Let’s do research together.”

He designed the initial research study, during which I would teach the Yoga practices to all the patients in the study. Since this was in the 1970s, he felt the patients would feel more comfortable with a medical doctor teaching them. Dr. Ornish was the first to show that heart disease could be reversible and, later, also diabetes and prostate cancer.

I also began to do research with Michael Lerner, the cofounder of Commonweal and the Commonweal Cancer Help program in California and another student of Sri Gurudev. We began using Yoga with lupus and cancer patients. After several years, with Dr. Lerner’s guidance, Smith Center for Healing and the Arts was established in Washington, DC, which also incorporated Yoga therapy for cancer patients. Shanti Norris, a former assistant to Sri Gurudev, was tasked as the director.

Photo: Dr. McLanahan (next to Sri Gurudev) with Dr. Craig Bradley (behind left) and the world surgery mission team that offered free cleft palate surgeries in South India, 1997.

And so this kind of “lifestyle medicine,” as it is now called, became a new avenue by which practitioners could address the root causes of illness. Sri Gurudev taught me that Yoga was not only a “lifestyle medicine” but a lifestyle. He demonstrated that each minute and every action can have a little Yoga in it. For example, once when I was traveling with him, we were having snacks on the plane that the flight attendants had just offered. I took and ripped open one of the snack bags with my teeth. He looked at me and he didn’t say anything in words. He just took his snack bag and he showed me there was a place where you could tear it easily. The bag opened easily and that was a moment for me to see, yes, there is a little bit of Yoga in every action if we just look for it.

That’s why I also love reading his book, The Golden Present. It contains life lessons for every day. One reading is about death and it is titled: “Changing Forms.” It says, “Birth and death are changing forms. The plant changes into a flower and the flower changes into a garland. And if you leave the garland alone for some time, it will change into dust. It is the same for the body. The body is composed as elements and the elements are constantly changing. One day, when the body decomposes, the body is dead. But you, the owner of the body, are always the same. This realization of immortality is possible only when you free yourself from your identification with the body. What’s more, it is when you experience the realization of your own immortality that you can be permanently happy. Strive for the eternal, not for the temporary. This realization of the eternal will make you able to be always happy, no matter what the circumstances. The happiness that seems to be coming from your possessions is false, or in other words, reflected happiness.” For a medical doctor trained to look at people as “bodies,” this realization of the eternal was life-changing for me and guides all I do as both a yogi and a doctor.

Someone once asked Sri Gurudev how to get rid of past bad karma. And he said: “There’s the fast way and the super-fast way. The fast way is that from this moment forward never do anything to hurt anyone in thought, word, or deed.” So that takes some awareness, that takes some focus. It’s work. And then he said: “There’s a super-fast way. The super-fast way is realize you never did anything—it was the Divine moving you the whole time.” It made sense to me that this bigger force is moving through us. The force is with us always. We are not really going anywhere anyway; we are eternal. And, we are one Beingness appearing as many.

And that’s what the Integral Yoga Yantra represents. It represents the Oneness, which is the essential Source of all. And then It manifests in all these different forms and names. So, if you keep that in mind, mind then we don’t get caught up in the various differences. Remember that the Essence, the Source, is within everyone.

About the Author:

Sandra Amrita McLanahan, M.D., is a nationally recognized authority on preventive medicine, nutrition, stress reduction, and primary family health care. She founded Integral Health Services, America’s first integrative medicine clinic in 1976. She continued her trailblazing work as Director of Stress Management Training at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute for twenty years, where she worked with Dr. Dean Ornish to document the benefits of dietary change and stress management to prevent and treat cardiovascular disease and cancer. Dr. McLanahan is the author of the book Surgery and its Alternatives: How to Make the Right Choices for Your Health, co-author of Take a Deep Breath: A Simple Exercise Guide to Increasing Your Oxygen Intake and was the medical consultant for the books, Dr. Yoga.