krys méndez ramírez

Making Sense of Medicinal Yoga

In Health Justice, Multiple Sclerosis, Philosophical Musings on June 11, 2013 at 10:12 PM

For the longest time, I’ve been a fitness enthusiast. It started when I was a teenager trying to overcome severe depression, when hitting the gym to boost my confidence and self-esteem.

Since aesthetics didn’t factor in until later, I simply enjoyed the way working out made me feel in my own skin.

The law of impermanence would ensure that wouldn’t last. It just didn’t occur to me that it could happen so quickly.

One summer afternoon, sometime after my sophomore year in college, I was in the gym as usual and sweating profusely after a few sets of an abs workout. Suddenly I noticed stars flashing in my left eye. I didn’t think much of it at first. I assumed it was an after-image from the bright sun that day.

When the after-image persisted and intensified over the course of the following days and weeks, I became concerned and consulted an ophthalmologist in Brooklyn.

Before long I was being shuffled between facilities and doctors, had blood and fluids drawn, had my head thrown into an MRI machine. Within two months, the life-altering diagnosis: MS, or multiple sclerosis.

Fast forward five years. I’m as dreadfully skinny as I was before hitting the gym. The Universe has tested my resilience by putting me through a number of flare-ups, including a heinous one just this past month.

In this one, the lethargy and weakness were beyond what most of you temporarily healthy folks could imagine. A walk to the pharmacy felt like a hike up a canyon. Bedridden and constantly sick, I knew something had to seriously change.

After getting treated for my relapse, I made a decision to analyze my habits (again) and see if there was something else I could do that I haven’t already done.

I’ve done yoga during sporadic periods of my life, never consistently, but always understood it was a “healthy” thing to do. I pursued this course of thought.

Now a few weeks in of assiduous practice, with as many as two to three sessions a day, I can optimistically report a number of improvements that confirm the widely reported health benefits of yoga I had previously only read about.

First, I’ve been able to attain levels of flexibility unthinkable when I was an amateur bodybuilder. More importantly, I’ve seen an upsurge in energy, stamina, and libido, and find myself feeling more at ease with (and even enjoying) my newfound unemployment. A

nd once again I am writing and returning to long ignored interests. Like millions of practitioners worldwide, I’ve become completely enamored with the millennia-old tradition of yoga.

Not one to be complacent with yoga-as-exercise, I decided recently that I wanted to investigate this ever-alluring science as thoroughly as possible.

After all, why should I not invest some months learning about yoga when it can potentially revamp my quality of life for decades? With a chronic condition that is poorly understood and over which I feel little control, doing yoga gives me a desperately desired feeling of control.

But my awarenss of the health benefits of yoga were rudimentary. Although I knew of research studies pointing to health benefits, the abstracts I read were unhelpful in explaining the actual substance of yoga.

When I set out to investigate the literature on yoga more thoroughly, however, I was impressed by its nuanced complexity and sociopolitical history—aspects of yoga that are rarely, if ever, explored in the context of general courses. Per usual, I was left with more questions than answers.

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The Sanskrit symbol “Om,” inscribed within a mandala.

One of the things that has impressed me the most vis-à-vis yoga is the vast proliferation of schools, styles, and practices that fall under its name. For something as new to the West as yoga (having first been introduced to europe and the united states in the 1890s), it is fascinating that one can now find a yoga class, or even a yoga studio, in virtually every major amerikkan city.

The many schools of yoga include such disparate styles as Power Yoga, Bikram Yoga, Astanga Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, even Naked Yoga and Laughing Yoga. Moreover, according to the New York Times, the number of U.S. practitioners rose from 4 million in 2001 to a whopping 20 million in 2011 (add link). Having experienced first-hand the variations in yoga, from the highly exercise-oriented Astanga to the breath-centric spirituality of Kundalini, I was fascinated by what seemed to be an ever-growing trend that churned out classes faster than you can finish chanting ‘Om.’

Quite naturally, my skepticism led me to wonder whether a rigorous traditional and spiritual discipline, said to be thousands of years old, was going the wayside of other traditional, non-white customs co-opted and bastardized by a dominant consumerist culture.

To be clear, I can emphatically say that I’m not against modernizations or alterations of tradition, especially when such changes are necessary or beneficial.

Yet, when something becomes a trend in our media-saturated profit-driven society, with corporatized yoga being retailed in niche markets that engender highly lucrative careers for certain charismatic self-professed gurus, I have considerable reason to be skeptical. But this self-righteous skepticism is mixed uncomfortably with an insatiable curiosity to plunge the depths of a science with purported healing capabilities. And why wouldn’t I?

Living with MS, I am lured by the idea that I can foster the healing power of my body and mind to keep disabling flare-ups at bay. So this brings me to the central questions I sought to answer: What exactly is yoga, and how do its supposed medicinal properties work? Is there a deep, uncovered wisdom in this practice from ‘the ancients,’ or are we being hoodwinkeden by a marketing ploy that exploits our exoticized fantasies?

Being relatively new to the study of Yoga as a bona fide discipline, I make no claims to being an authority in this field. Nevertheless, from what I’ve been able to cull from the literature, here are some basics:

  • The word ‘yoga’ is used to refer to a number of distinct disciplinary practices that have their roots in ancient India, and that are encompassed within Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Many scholars postulate an origin in Dravidian civilizations as far back as the 7th millennium BCE.
  • The very term ‘yoga’ is popularly interpreted from the Sanskrit as meaning “union” or “a bringing together”—an allusion to the Hindu belief in an ever-present connection between individual self (jivatman) and Absolute, or cosmic, self (paramatman).
  • Yoga has many definitions. For instance, Timothy McCall, a doctor and writer of the book Yoga as Medicine, defines yoga as “a systematic technology to improve the body, understand the mind, and free the spirit” as well as a “series of practices that allow you to steadily gain discipline, strength, and self-control while cultivating relaxation, awareness, and equanimity.” Jean and Doriel Hall, writers of Astanga Yoga & Meditation, refer to it as “an inner journey to the true centre of the soul,” while Yogi Bhole Prabhu defines it as “an experiential science of self-study.”
  • The term ‘yoga’ appears frequently in the Bhagavid Gita, one of the oldest scriptural texts in Hinduism. In it, the deity Lord Krishna tells Prince Arjuna to “[p]erform your duty equiposed…abandoning all attachment to success or failure. Such equanimity is called yoga” (2.48). According to A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, this aphorism can be interpreted to signify yoga as a “means to concentrate the mind upon the Supreme by controlling the ever-disturbing senses.”
  • The first writings to formally systematize the practices of yoga were the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (C. 100BC – AD100), which defined it as a state wherein “there is stilling of the movement of thought.” It is the foundational text of what is now called raja yoga.
  • The first known written introduction of asanas [bodily postures] come from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written in the 15th century.  It is believed that hatha yoga became the dominant yogic practice in India after the turn of the first millennium, and it is the basis of what we commonly refer to as ‘yoga.’
  • Much of what the mainstream calls ‘yoga’ (i.e. a set of postural movements) actually refers to a specific type of yoga, hatha yoga, and specifically within that, the asanas. Yoga has traditionally included meditation, breath work, and various practices aimed at taming the mind with the goal of self-realization. In classical texts, yoga simply refers to communion with the Absolute; consequently, there are forms of yoga that do not involve asanas, such as bhakti-yoga (yoga of devotional service) or karma-yoga (yoga of action).
  • While many of us have been taught that the asanas come from ancient knowledge passed on through the ages, research into the literature suggests that the vast number of the postures used today were invented in the 20th century, if not more recently, by a relatively small number of gurus (to see one treatment of this issue, read yoga expert Alanna Kaivalya’s article in the Huffington Post. In fact, much of what is taught in the different modern yoga schools can be traced to Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, a yogi said to have learned the ‘original’ asanas from an unpreserved (and unverified) text. The only known asanas preserved in the writing of classical texts still with us today are the mere fifteen shown in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
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Warrior I pose

Researching the historical and philosophical underpinnings of yoga gave me added reason to doubt certain claims (such as that it never hurts and always heals 123) while feeling validated in my belief of others.

For one, I think it is necessary to acknowledge the modernization, commercialization, and yes, the colonization of yoga. The possibility that most of the known asanas were created after introduction of yoga to the West, as well as the known reality that certain yoga schools (such as Power Yoga and Phoenix Rising Yoga) were founded by Western yogis, makes it evident that yoga, in the broadest terms, is not simply an ‘ancient’ discipline.

The most obvious changes, such as the invention of new asanas like “airplane pose” and the popularity of music-thumping yoga classes in sports clubs, make it clear that many amerikkans are not averse to the blatant evisceration of spirituality and philosophical inquiry from classical Yoga. Personally, I can respect some of the asana-focused courses of corporatized yoga—given, of course, that it is advertised as the exercise-centric activity that it is. So let’s at least make the terms clear.

As far as medicinal yoga is concerned, such clarification is needed if we are to genuinely understand its healing properties. After all, how best to disaggregate research data or understand the ideological substrate of yogic practice than to know what, in actuality, we’re doing?

Putting Yoga Inc. aside, there are actually many reasons to take yoga seriously as both an ancient spiritual science and as a form of body-mind discipline. For one thing, yoga works. I’ve experienced firsthand its potential to heal, and this is in addition to the reports many of us have likely read or heard regarding its health benefits (McCall, 2007):

  • increased flexibility;
  • stronger muscles;
  • improved immune function;
  • increased oxygenation of tissues;
  • relaxation of the nervous system;
  • an activated prefrontal cortex;
  • lowered stress hormones, blood sugar, and blood pressure;
  • pain relief;
  • improved psychological health;
  • an elicited placebo effect and many others.

Recently, it was uncovered that yoga has a beneficial impact on the genetic expression of immune cells. This latter finding is worth emphasizing, for the fact that yoga can tap into the molecules that formulate the fabric of our very being is a very powerful realization, indeed.

One of the factors said to contribute to yoga’s success, even as evidenced in the realm of empirical evidence-based studies, is its ability to unify body and mind (and for believers, the cosmic soul) through the breath.

Whereas Western science has only recently uncovered the role of mental force on bodily responses through such disciplines as psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) and positive psychology, this connection has long been axiomatic to yogic philosophy. In fact, the vinyasa flow of the physical postures is believed to help relax the nervous system enough to facilitate meditation, known for easing excitatory responses and producing mental clarity.

Because the ultimate goal of classical yoga was to produce serenity through a quieting of thoughts, the goal of which was self-realization and commune with Brahman, our cosmic self, breath work and meditation were always integral to yoga practice. In this day and age, when stress contributes to a disproportionate number of medical conditions, yoga can help us modify our bodily reactions to environmental stressors through a deactivation of the sympathetic nervous system and a “rewiring” of neural networks.

At the macro-level of medical philosophy, yoga also provides a much-needed holistic approach to the body. Incorporating a corporeal ontology that links mind, spirit, and energy, yoga’s relation to medicine is arguably distinct from the dominant allopathic model that treats the body as a compartmentalizable machine. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras do not mention asanas, but rather, such concepts as pranayama,  yamas (abstentions such as non-violence or non-stealing), dharana (concentration), and dhyana (meditation), all of which are necessary for the ultimate goal of self-realization.

Although they lacked the imaging technology to study the endocrine system, yogic scholars were nevertheless able to identify what they called chakras, centers of energy aligned with specific plexuses (nerve clusters) and endocrine structures in the body. Their studies also highlighted the importance of the breath in facilitating changes in energy throughout the body.

This alternative to the dominant Western medical model, which has been with us in its modern form only since the 19th century, may become increasingly necessary as the years advance. In my own experience, yoga as an all-body, whole self discipline has provided me with benefits that the dominant medical model would have achieved only through excessive risk and costs: pain relief, nervous relaxation, aerobic conditioning, energy improvement, improved libido. By way of contrast, my own experience with doctors makes evident the alienating dynamics of capitalist medicine. Having seen various doctors for my neuropathic pain, the atomizing tendencies of the established medical field became apparent when the different neurologists I’ve sought for help all provided distinct explanations of my condition with corresponding, distinct remedies and treatments. The fact that four different doctors with the same specialty (neurology), three of whom share the same sub-specialty (pain management), could offer such disparate treatments is telling.

While Yoga is no panacea, it might be the perspective we need in the face of austerity medicine, environmental degradation, factory farming and other forms of systemic violence that threaten the viability of our species.

While acknowledging the breakthrough achievements of allopathic medicine, we should also be cognizant of the deteriorating effects of the neoliberal impetus to turn everything—including land, clean air, and water—into commodities. And I anticipate a rise in more young people, like myself, finding themselves with unexplainable autoimmune conditions. In this age of empire, we might just need yoga if we are to survive.

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  1. Have you seen this DVD? The Biogen people are giving it out to those with MS. The instructor is well-known – Baron Baptiste – and I don’t think they tried to sell me anything when they sent me the DVD so that was nice.

    I used to think the content was easy but now it’s difficult. Interesting to watch yourself over the years and flares. I’m the chick they show in the back of the room doing everything from a chair now. I am still waiting for my yoga butt to magically appear. Fingers crossed.

    DVD: http://www.msactivesource.com/ms-yoga.xml

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