By Howard Kent

The inter-relationship between our health and the way we live our lives, both physically and mentally, has been recognised for thousands of years. In the Apocryphal Book of Ecclesiasticus we find the statement: "He who sins before his maker, let him fall into the hands of the physician." In modern language that would be: "He who gets out of sync with life. . . ."

While the ancient Greeks were postulating that mind and body were interwoven, the sages of India were exploring the same fundamental subject and coming to the same conclusion - only they explored the subject more deeply and offered a combination of intuitive research and applied disciplines, which they called yoga, or the understanding of one-ness.

hatha yoga

Sadly, the misunderstanding grew up that all so-called spiritual approaches must be opposed to rational scientific ones and religious diehards fought a battle - sometimes literally to the death - with the scientists. Today it is being seen increasingly that there is no conflict between science and spiritual beliefs and many great scientists, from Einstein on, have shown that their grasp of rational principles in no way has prevented them from being true mystics.

The yoga approach has always been to seek to appreciate the true natural process of life. This is epitomised in the little story of two drops of water falling from a storm-tossed sky on to the waves below. One says to the other: "I am terrified of falling into that ocean." The other replies: "We are that ocean."

We have fallen into the trap of the greatest of all illusions: that we are isolated creatures.

The result is that life becomes a perpetual battle in which we are seeking constantly to ward off the energy. The inevitable result is a breakdown in the body's remarkable power to ward off anti-life forces, creating a morass of what we call illness and disease. In this morass we are tempted to believe the way to a "cure" is through a whole series of what are at best palliatives: pills, potions, treatments and so on. Some of these will ease physical and even mental symptoms but will be quite unable to get to what must be seen ultimately as the cause: dis-ease.

A life of true ease is one in which the individual is at peace, firstly with him/herself, then, as a result, with all around.

This may seem to be pure fancy in a world so divided as ours, but the alternative is simply to accept that unhappiness and suffering is man's lot - and a pretty miserable alternative it is. Christian churches often come up with two statements. The first is: Let go - let God, and the second: Be in this world, but not of this world.

Both are part of the yoga philosophy

The unique aspect of yoga is that it developed disciplines to make these statements a reality. The best-known aspect of yoga in the West comes broadly under the heading of exercise, but it is exercise with a substantial difference. The word used (in the classical Sanskrit language) is asana, which means literally "holding a position". All aspects of life are involved in the asana.

Firstly the mind is quietly concentrated, in such a way as to promote balance and reduce tension. The breath is controlled to ensure not only an effective flow of oxygen but also the body's electrical force, which is contained in every cell and plays a role in the functioning of all body systems. Together with these two essential aspects, the body is moved into a beneficial position, assisting the functioning of glands, organs, joints and neuro-muscular system.

This may seem a complicated process, but in fact, with the right approach, it is easy to master because of the immense benefit which is felt when these aspects of life all synchronise. The result is a confidence-building feeling of control. It will be seen from this that yoga asanas are what we would call today, holistic. The peaceful, balanced feelings which are aroused, then assist further in bringing the mind under control.

The cry, "I can't control my thoughts", is heard all too often. But if we can't control our thoughts, we can't control life and are a prey to all sorts of disasters. This essential control is encouraged in three ways: relaxation, visualisation and meditation. These are complementary processes. Relaxation tackles the basic need for balance between activity and letting-go.

It is plain common-sense to realise that if we are revving the human engine the whole time it is going to wear out. We cannot wholly switch-off, but we can let the engine idle, letting it just tick over. Many different relaxation techniques are on offer these days, but a lot of them are very superficial. If the mind is not at ease, the body will not be at ease and the mind will only be at ease if we are at peace with life itself.

Human existence is dominated by self-awareness, seeing ourselves in relationship to everything around us - both people and circumstances. Unless we view life in a 'unity' context, we are constantly in a state veering between defence and attack. This mental conflict is conveyed by the brain right through the body, in due course causing a breakdown in the weaker aspects of our physical functioning.

Effective yoga relaxation promotes the sense of mental peace and unity, with resulting benefits to the physical body. It has long been realised that this is one of the most difficult states to achieve and so the whole process of relaxation has been studied deeply.

Earlier this century, medical researchers led by the late Professor Hans Selye, conducted intensive research into the process we now know as unrelieved stress and they showed how this mental dis-ease brought about much illness and made other health problems much worse.

Stress is a process of visualisation: seeing, both pictorially and verbally, certain situations as a threat and reacting to the threat.

What we now call visualisation involves taking hold of this remarkable capacity we have to 'see' and using it beneficially, rather than destructively. Many experiments have now shown that the mind - and through the mind, the body - will respond to the strongest expression presented to it. Through visualisation a consistently beneficial message is presented, which finds a response in the brain and is then conveyed through the body.

The effectiveness of this process depends on discipline, which is simply steady practice and the integrated approach to the asana can play a major role here. Finally, meditation provides a partial dissociation between mind and body. In a comfortable, but effective natural position, the body can be allowed for a while to function freely, without mental inhibition. This provides major benefits, including - as trials have shown - an enhancement in muscle circulation of up to 300 per cent.

Meanwhile, the mind, free from concern about the body, rejoices in a sense of peace. Once again to quote from Christianity: Be still and know that I am God. Stillness is the necessary prerequisite for intuitive knowledge and that knowledge will be calming and fulfilling. From all this, it can be seen why one apt description of yoga is: The art of life, based on the science of life.

Today we are being urged to believe that man's great hope is technology and, truly, many discoveries in this area are wonderful - providing we see them in perspective. We are at present in a 'honeymoon' period with genetics, being told that the ability to tinker with the genes - that is, putting someone else in charge - will eliminate diseases. However, one thing we know is that everything in this universe is changing constantly.

What will prove to be the greater influence for beneficial change: the technician or the human mind?

To return to the long conflict between science and religion, it is all too easy to dismiss the contribution of the scientist (even as a natural reaction to the exaggerated claims which are being made), but, in the same way that we are learning of the need to balance the calculating left hemisphere of the brain with the creative right hemisphere, so the rational and intellectual need to be balanced with the intuitive.

The path to health needs to be a hand-in-hand one, because of the various factors which make up human existence. The British Medical Association has, happily, promoted this by describing yoga as a "complementary self-help therapy". In other words, in our search for better health we need not shun approaches which offer relief of symptoms, whether these be allopathic or involve more natural approaches, but these must be part of an overall process in which our own responsibility for our health is recognised.

It has recently been stated authoritatively that our resistance to illness today is significantly weaker than it was half a century ago.

This weakening coincides with an increasing pressure to leave our health to others - to abrogate any responsibility.

The tragedy is that it is so rewarding to work towards control of our own lives in this way.

The disciplines of yoga are not bleak, unhappy activities, but immensely satisfying. It may be only anecdotal evidence when those practising yoga say, with their eyes gleaming, how much they owe to this practice, but these anecdotes are heard so often that they cannot be ignored.

Copyright 2002 Howard Kent


Howard Kent, Director of the Yoga for Health Foundation, is an advisor to the International Integrated Health Association, the International Association of Yoga Therapists, the American College of Yoga and other bodies. His two books are The Complete Yoga Course and Breathe Better, Feel Better. The Yoga for Health Foundation (Ickwell Bury, Ickwell Green SG18 9EF, England), has its own residential centre and runs groups throughout the UK and is also represented in over 20 countries.

the meaning of life ...

When I was very young, my father would sit me on his lap and hold a set of antique constellation cards to the heavens and explain to me, in that burnished murmur I still hear in dreams, each starís myth and meaning.

With an inclination of his head and an extended steady hand, he introduced to me the Lynx and Telescopium Herschilii, BoŲtes Canes Venatici, Coma Berenices and Quadrans Muralis, Hercules and the Corona Borealis, Lacerta, Cygnus, Lyra, Vulpecula, Anser and Pegasus - the winged horse I made mine in fantasy.

On his muzzle, the star Enir; on his wing, the Saddle Star, Markab; on his forelimb, Scheat; below his breast, Andromeda, known to the superstitious Ancients as Sirrah vel Alpheratz. My Pegasus, son of Poseidon and Medusa, activator of the Musesí fount of inspiration, bearer of Divine lightning.

"Lo vedi li, il cavallone?" my father would ask, one index finger to the crowing and ecstatic sky, and I would gaze up and up and up, my eyes absorbent, learning to listen, learning to see.

The sensibility he taught me was that of the eternal. And in that sky he loved, a beauty there long before me and long after me - a beauty belonging not to man, but to the universe: impossible to alter or own. So many years had passed and there I was, still gazing up and up and up, still learning to listen, still learning to see.

- from The Pure Weight of the Heart by Antonella Gambotto-Burke

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