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Yoga, Medicine and Relaxation

Integral Yoga Teachings   |   September 25, 2015  |    Amrita McLanahan

Janice, a 33-year-old mother of three small children, had a great reluctance to visit a dentist, based on some very unpleasant childhood experiences. Then she read about the use of a Yoga program and its success with dental operations–known to be one of the most feared types of surgery. Determined to be a good role model for her kids, she used Yoga techniques to help herself undergo the work she needed. She then taught simple Yoga techniques to her kids. Now they all have beautiful smiles. In a report entitled “Tension Free Dentistry with Tension Free Patients,” the authors report on the success of such a Yoga regimen. Another report called “Meditation in Dentistry” confirms these findings.

Yoga Medicine 5I have found Yoga practices to be the most powerful of all the avenues to achieving relaxation. Yoga is an ancient system for renewing and maintaining health, consisting of techniques addressing the body, mind and spirit. Although some Yoga schools promote certain beliefs, the Yoga tradition itself does not have religious dogma associated with it. You may choose to use its methods to enhance your own spiritual path, but it can also be practiced by anyone, of any faith, simply for its many health benefits. Virtually all stress management techniques now utilized in the West were derived from this Eastern root.

Yoga techniques have been studied extensively, with the varying components providing differing benefits. Research indicates its helpfulness for heart disease, cancer, digestive disorders such as ulcers or hemorrhoids, diabetes, as well as for pain control, insomnia, drug addiction, and a multitude of other problems. Dr. Robin Monro, an English molecular biologist, compiled a 1,500-item bibliography of scientific papers documenting the many medical benefits of Yoga. Numerous studies have now demonstrated the ability of the Yoga postures to lower blood pressure. Much heart bypass and vascular surgery today is the result of ongoing long-term effects of high blood pressure on the heart and arteries. Since coronary bypass surgery has become such a common major operation in adult American men, a preventive and therapeutic program that can help “bypass the bypass” takes on great importance. Stress elevates cholesterol directly, and the Yoga postures have, by their anti-stress effects, been found to lower cholesterol levels independent of dietary change. This is important not only in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, but also in preventing the many types of cancer, such as breast, colon and prostate, that have been linked to high cholesterol levels.

Yoga Medicine 4In my exuberant Irish family, New Year’s Eve was always a Big Deal. My father would create a Grand Celebration with bells and whistles, and banana splits with hot fudge, too, spread out for all us six kids and our friends. We then would write New Year’s resolutions and predict where we would be the next year, since my dad was something of a spiritual Don Quixote, and we moved thirteen times before I graduated from college. One New Year’s Eve early in my studies of Yoga I was on tour with a group of physicians in India. The others went to bed early. I missed the excitement and comfort of my family’s traditions and began to feel somewhat lonely and glum. I decided to “celebrate” the incoming year by doing the headstand—it has similar benefits to the simpler shoulder stand—to greet the newborn year from a new angle. So at five minutes to midnight I positioned myself upside down and held the position until five minutes into the new year. One of the physiological changes that occur as a result of the shoulder-stand and headstand is a relative shift of blood flow to the brain, along with an equalizing of blood flow to its right and left hemispheres. When I finished the posture, I found that I suddenly had a new “perspective” and felt refreshed and content to be just where I was. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I have made it my own new tradition, to greet every new year upside down, often in some very interesting locations—including the Golden Gate Bridge! All the Yoga practices can be thus used to more clearly observe our emotional reactions, reduce stress and shift from unhealthy habits of responding to external stressors.

Yoga Medicine 2Diabetes is responsible for much of cardiovascular and renal disease. It is also a major factor in peripheral vascular disorders, limb surgery and eye disease. Studies have been able to show that Yoga practice lowers the fasting blood sugar in insulin-dependent diabetics. Many type II diabetics can revert to normal blood sugars with weight loss; a Yoga program can thus have a two-pronged effect to lower blood sugar directly and through weight loss. One specific Yoga posture, the bow, has been evaluated in relation to both types I and II diabetes, and found to be beneficial to both, working by improvement of blood and lymph circulation to the pancreas itself. Yoga practice has been found helpful for the functioning of other endocrine glands. Physiological and biochemical studies show normalization of glandular function in the thyroid, adrenals and pituitary. In addition, a Yoga program has been shown to help greatly in maintenance of correct weight. Yoga is able to achieve success where other programs have failed, because its deep relaxation addresses the eating patterns that result from tension and stress. Studies have been able to document that simply by the regular practice of Yoga postures, both overweight and underweight subjects return to their optimum weight.Although the exact cause or causes of colon cancer remain unproven, chronic constipation has been found by Dr. Denis Burkitt and others to be associated with disorders of the colon such as diverticulosis and cancer. Regular Yoga practice has been shown to relieve constipation.

Yoga can help your exercise program. Muscle strains, sprains and bruises are disorders that are especially benefited by a Yoga program. Most athletes know the importance of stretching before active exercise. Both preventive and therapeutic, these asanas have the added dimension of immediately feeling soothing, relaxing a strained muscle. Research has confirmed their usefulness in this field. The Yoga postures are particularly good for persons who have back problems. When performed daily they have been shown to help avoid the necessity of back surgery. Especially beneficial are the forward bends.

Yoga Medicine 3Dr. Michael Lerner and I conducted a preliminary study of Yoga for the treatment of systemic lupus and found significant lessening of pain within only one week of practice. Similarly, Dr. Ornish and I observed improvement in heart patients within only a few days of practice. Our research has also shown, in an ongoing study of lifestyle and Yoga change in the treatment of prostate cancer, evidence of delay in progression and even reversal of tumors. Improved white cell activity after a period of meditation has been documented. White cells act to defend the body against both infection and cancer, so the addition of a Yoga program may act as a preventive and therapeutic agent for the surgical disorders associated with decreased immune activity. One patient with metastatic (spread beyond the breast) cancer of the breast, unresponsive to conventional approaches, achieved remission by the use of a Yoga program. Yoga has been demonstrated to reduce the anxiety caused by radiation treatment, so it may also serve as a helpful adjunct to other therapies, as a direct immune enhancer.

Specific Yoga postures may feel especially soothing to your individual problem. For example, I recommend more rounds of sun salutation for back and hip problems, and I myself used the child pose to help me pass a kidney stone. The basic principle is to do the full general program, as is comfortable to you, and spend more time in whichever poses give you the most relaxation. In summary, a Yoga program may be able to help prevent and treat surgical diseases of many types.

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