Excerpted from the "Introduction" to Yoga Therapy: Foundations, Methods, and Practices (712 pages, forthcoming November 2017, North Atlantic Books/Penguin Random House)
Yoga is now part of the zeitgeist of most Western societies just as these societies are undergoing tremendous challenges to advances in health, wellbeing, and life expectancy. Amid fast paced lives and increasing socio-economic pressure, stress is a leading cause of illness and a leading motivator for doing yoga. We also live in a global environment beset by rapid climate change, resistant infectious organisms, and social dislocation and alienation that reflect and are exacerbated by the very globalizations in which most of us actively participate. Yet human beings are naturally healthy. According to the World Health Organization, being healthy means “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The alternative definition given by Andrew Weil, M.D., as “a dynamic and harmonious equilibrium of all of the elements and forces making up and surrounding a human being,” gives similar emphasis to wholeness, which is the basic idea at the etymological root of the term health.
Our natural tendency is to live with all the strength and vitality with which we are endowed by our nature. We promote and maintain our health by taking care of one another and ourselves with food, exercise, sleep, love, ritual, and optimism. We go further in cultivating healthy lives by ensuring access to adequate housing, education, and health care services, sharing in social relationships and spaces that are safe and supportive of living life to our fullest potential, striving for a healthy planet that can sustain healthy lives, and opening ourselves to the greater powers manifest in the universe in ways that give deeper meaning to our lives.
Still, our health can be challenged by our genetics, lifestyle, and environment. The traits we inherit from our parents play a significant role in our lives, predisposing us to certain diseases, conditions, and behavioral habits, all akin to what the ancient yogis called samskaras. The physical and social conditions of our natural and built environment can introduce toxicity that we experience as disease. Our way of life, including our values, beliefs, relationships, hygiene, physical activities, and diet, can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and greater susceptibility to injury or disease. Taken together, these factors affect our homeostasis, the balanced regulation and stabilization of our whole being.
The conditions of health and wellbeing in the world today give definite cause for pause in considering how we live our lives and share in it all with one another as citizens of the planet. The data on world health make clear the patterned relationships between levels of economic development, access to health care, and qualities of health and life. While life expectancy worldwide increased by five years from 2000 to 2015, there is a vast discrepancy in life expectancy related to economic conditions, from Japan and Switzerland’s 83+ years to Angola and Sierra Leone’s 51 years.
With the quality of life in the balance, we have a range of defenses to ward off attacks on the bodymind originating from inside or outside and to thereby optimize our health. When attacked from the outside by living microbes, toxins, or chemicals, the skin, mucous membranes, cilia, and saliva provide crucial physical barriers and filters. When harmful pathogens get inside, our finely tuned immune system brilliantly distinguishes friend and foe, generating more than 100 million types of antibodies that can quite effectively ensure our survival. Add our natural tendency to cough and sneeze for immediate rejection of irritants, to produce interferon to ward off tumors, and to become inflamed to kill bacteria or heal traumatized tissues, and we are pretty well protected.
The bodymind knows all of this in its inner workings, even if we tend to forget it in our mental wondering, wandering, and worrying. In forgetting – in losing conscious awareness of ourselves as beings that are naturally healthy – we tend to diminish our defense mechanisms. When experiencing an infection or injury, we tend to say to ourselves, “I’m sick” or “I’m hurt,” defining ourselves in self-deflating reductionist terms, rather than saying, “I’m a healthy person living with or healing from this condition that makes me feel unhealthy.” In habitually thinking we are unhealthy, we tend to become so, compromising our natural healing resonance as we degenerate into irrational neuroses and unhealthy activities.
Such neuroses can become all the more palpable when we consider our mortality. Realizing that our health in this bodymind is temporary, we tend toward fear, denial, and adherence to comforting beliefs that may or may not have any basis in reality. Every culture offers up at least one belief system, most commonly a religion that explains everything from birth to death (and in many religions rebirth, transcendence, or even transmutation). If we agree to follow certain prescriptions – believe this, not that, do this, not that – we are guaranteed ultimate liberation from suffering and possibly even ever-lasting life in what often amounts to something of a Faustian bargain.
All of these matters are experienced in every culture and civilization across human history, all of which have used what means they have to try to make life better. This meliorative project of humanity finds expression in ritual, prayer, meditation, and scientific experimentation and application. As a result, there is now a vast accumulation of techniques thought or proven to promote and maintain health. One of these is yoga, the primary source of insight into healing offered in this book, while in ayurveda and scientific medicine we can find some wonderfully complementary practices...