SCIENCE AND SECRETS OF YOGA
During the last couple of decades, yoga has emerged as a kind of fashion, thanks to its popularity in the West ever since Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo and now Swami Ramdev attracted the attention of both elite and intellectuals alike.
This popularity however also attracted certain false yogis who found it a better money-spinner. Yoga is therefore seen today with appreciation as well as suspicion. Skepticism between yogis and medical men is understandable as medical men know nothing about yoga and yogis having little knowledge about modern anatomy and physiology. In such a situation, the only course left for a scientist to understand yoga was to undergo yogic training himself and actually feel the subtle changes occurring in his body and mind.
I am no yogi myself but curiosity led me to experiment with some of the fundamentals and probe deep into ancient literature like Patanjali’s Yogasutra,Gheranda Samhita, Hathyoga Pradipika etc. and relevant scientific works on yoga. Being a scientist I have natural tendency to ignore religious aspects, but experience soon revealed that yogic exercises if performed accurately produce results exactly as described in ancient texts. The very fact that something works is enough evidence to accept its veracity. Methods of expression and terminology in yogic and scientific literatures are vastly different Nevertheless, an in-depth study of both combined with experimentation can help in scientific explanation of many a yogic feat. In the ensuing description I would like to attempt to do just that.
The ultimate aim of yoga is to control the restless mind and bring it to a peaceful state and maintain it there.
What is yoga? The most comprehensive definition comes from that versatile genius of 2nd century BC and founding father of yoga, Maharis hi Patanjali: Yogaschitta-vriti-nirodhah, meaning “Yoga is restraint of mental modifications.” Thus the main aim of yoga is to attain complete control over the mind, senses and nervous system. Asanas, pranayama, meditation etc. are means to achieve this control and superhuman powers mere byproducts of ‘taming the mind, which a true yogi must ignore.
Meditation demanding long sittings in one posture, an unhealthy and restless body that distracts the mind would be an impediment. Physical fitness is therefore a prelude to higher yoga, which is achieved through shat-karma and asanas. To perform these exercises fairly accurately, books that give vivid, illustrated accounts could be easily followed. Here space permits me to explain only the physiological mechanisms of their action on body organs as understood by modern science.
(Systematic internal purification)
Shat-karma is a group of six daily exercises aimed to mechanically remove harmful materials from body.
Neti: Nasal douche, in which lukewarm water with a pinch of salt (Jal-neti) or cotton string (Sutra-neti) is passed through the nasal passage. It removes phlegm, pollutants and germs from the nasal passage and sinuses and tones up nasal epithelium, making it resistant to infection. It works wonders to persons suffering from chronic cold and sinusitis. It also stimulates hypothalamus (The ventral part of the brain, just above the nasal passage) which controls body metabolism. Rock salt provides minerals locally to tissues and adjusts the pH of the secretions.
Kunjal: Practiced as the first exercise in the morning, one or two pints of lukewarm water is hurriedly drunk and regurgitated. In dhauti a thin muslin cloth (7 cm wide and 8 meters long) is swallowed and then pulled out. Both these exercises cleanse the stomach of food residues and acids accumulated overnight, which often cause allergies. The latter also massages the oesophageal lining and reflexly produces expectoration due to which lot of mucus is expelled from trachea and bronchial tree. Doctors Anandanand and Varandani (1975) treated 235 bronchial asthma patients with yogic exercises that included shat-karma and reported relief to 64% of the cases.
(Body postures for tempering the body)
Asanas exercise muscles by leaving them stretched in one position over a period, spending much less energy than in repeated contraction and expansion prescribed in other exercises. This explains the absence of fatigue after yogic exercises. But as yogis are not interested in building muscles, most asanas are so devised as to exercise smooth muscles, glands and nerves. It is important to note that in order to attain full benefit of an asana, the seeker must know its effect on the particular organ, concentrate on it and feel the bioenergy flowing in that direction. An asana without concentration (samyama) is no better than simple gymnastic exercise. Surya Namaskar of Hindus and Namaaz of Muslims are good examples of yogic exercises combined with meditation.
All muscular exercises and aerobics stimulate sympathetic nervous system and hence inhibit the activities of digestive system and endocrine glands, leading to metabolic disorders. Yoga and pranayama stimulate parasympathetic system, which tones up glands and smooth muscles and corrects metabolism.
Out of about 84 common asanas, the space here permits me to explain the scientific significance of only the 8 important ones.
1. Padmasana (Lotus posture)
This posture is recommended for pranayama and meditation because of two reasons: one that legs being interlocked, the asana as well as body balance remains intact during levitation. Secondly, pranayama and meditation produce lot of vital bioenergy which has a tendency to get dissipated through extremities like toes and finger-tips. In padmasana this energy is recycled and locked up within the body.
Both legs stretched in front, toes are held with hands and forehead touching the knees by bending the body forward. This asana exercises the backbone, reduces paunch and puts pressure on kidneys, with the result most of the waste materials are excreted through urine. The sweat is then left without many wastes that generally result in foul smell. Those practicing this asana regularly escape kidney ailments and do not require artificial deodorants.
3. Bhujangasana (Cobra posture)
Snakes possess the strongest vertebral column among all animals. This asana aims at making the backbone strong and flexible. In normal daily routine, body has a tendency to bend forward, putting pressure on the anterior side of vertebral column. This asana reverses that, relieves pressure on sciatic nerve and inter-vertebral discs, corrects faulty posture and provides elasticity to the backbone. It is a proven remedy for spondylitis and sciatica.
4. Sarvangasana (All-organ posture)
Lying on the back, raising the body and legs straight up with the support of palms at the waist and elbows resting on the ground so that the chin is locked against the chest, is called Sarvangasana. It reverses the effect of gravitational force on the blood flow, so that the neck and the head region receive maximum oxygen-rich blood. Heart muscles are toned up and the chin puts a pressure on thyroid gland. Bioenergy starts flowing from base of spinal cord towards brain.
Studies on 30 patients conducted by two Professors of Surgery, Udupa and Singh (1972), Institute of Medical Sciences, Varanasi revealed that sarvangasana provided significant relief in thyrotoxicosis, insomnia, diabetes and colonopathy.
5. Mayurasana (peacock posture)
It is believed that the peacock eats snakes and can digest its poison, and a yogi practicing this asana regularly is also capable of digesting toxic food. The entire body is balanced on two arms with elbows resting on either side of the navel. This exerts a tremendous pressure on the liver, spleen, stomach and the intestine, increasing the flow of gastric juices and squeezing the gall-bladder. Thus, digestive power is significantly enhanced. It eradicates diseases like enlargement of liver and spleen and removes allergies, cough and lethargy. Body becomes capable of neutralizing toxic materials.
Hathyogapradipika describes this asana as follows: “Just as a sharp weapon is capable of cutting through any substance, Matsyendrasana alone is sufficient for eradication of all ills of abdomen.” It directly affects the pancreas and succeeds in controlling diabetes mellitus. Two doctors, Rugmini and Sinha (1975), having treated 105 diabetics by this asana found satisfactory response in 64% cases within 40 days. This asana assists in rejuvenation of pancreatic cells, freeing of bound insulin, increasing glucose metabolism in muscles, liver and adipose tissue. Simultaneously, it improves functioning of liver, kidneys and the reproductive system.
The body is balanced on the head with both legs stretched straight upward. Like Sarvangasana, it also reverses the effect of gravitation on the blood flow, improves blood supply to the brain, pituitary and thyroid, resulting in improved body metabolism. Sense organs like eyes, ears and taste buds are sharpened.
8. Shavasana (playing dead)
Gheranda Samhita describes this asana as follows: “Sleeping supine on the floor like a dead person is known shavasana, which removes fatigue and relaxes the mind.” Not even the smallest muscle should remain under tension and the brain should be completely free of thoughts. Advantages are immense. It is a sure remedy for hypertension and insomnia. Complete command over sleep is achieved. One can sleep at will anytime. Napolean Bonaparte had such control over sleep that he would fall in deep sleep within seconds of going to bed and required only 4 hours’ sleep in a day.
According to D.W. Bronk (1936), hypothalamus of brain controls homoeostatic mechanism via the vagus nerve, which is set at higher level during hypertension. Shavasana reduces both proprioceptive and enteroceptive impulses to brain, which sets the regulating mechanism in hypothalamus at a lower level thus reducing blood pressure. Out of 86 hypertension patients treated with Shavasana by Drs. Datey and Bhagat (1975), all except 20 irregular ones, showed a drop in average mean BP from 147 to 110 mm Hg, whereas drugs could bring the BP down to only 120 mm Hg.
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