Why the Practice of Yoga Will Benefit Your Health
I believe that the practice of yoga has three measurable, in-this-world, in-this-life, in your body health benefits:
The practice of yoga directly addresses your internal organs, your body chemistry, muscle and bone. It involves the exercise, massage, and sensible palpation of superficial and deep tissue structure, thereby toning and refreshing these structures. By this action it also decreases feelings of spaciness, fragmentation, and dissociation.
Yoga strengthens neurological connectivity and communication by increasing the number of recognized and routinely sampled neurological receptors, by increasing the coordination of these receptors, their networks, and their network effects, and by improving the flow of motor and sensory neuron traffic through robust, stable and versatile pathways. By this action it improves self awareness, perceptual acuity and judgment, and appropriate immune system response to self and environment.
Yoga increases your range of motion both bio-mechanically and palliatively, that is, through the reduction of pain. By this action the practice of yoga extends and motivates life choices, assures work and lifestyle options, and increases interaction with, knowledge of, and opportunities in the world.
In the next several q&a columns, I’ll endeavor to explain these three benefits in terms of today’s health issues. This month we’ll begin with autoimmunity.
Dr. Ivan Roitt wrote the classic text, “Essential Immunology”; now in it’s 11th edition Roitt’s continues to be one of the most widely used textbooks in the field today. His research on thyroid disease was critical to opening up scientific understanding of autoimmunity and progress in grasping the relationship of autoimmunity to disease.
Roitt’s premise is simple: “Memory specificity and the recognition of the non- self — these lie at the heart of immunology.”
If memory specificity and the recognition of the non- self is what protects us from disease, then loss of this physical intelligence is a primary condition of non-health, a physiological ignorance so profound it not only compromises the functioning of the afflicted individual, it may even be swiftly, or slowly but inevitably, fatal.
Another way of saying this is, when you don’t know, or when you have in some way been deprived of knowing, deeply and in your body who you are, it leads to self-destructive imbalances and suffering. Autoimmunity is not an invasive disease, it is a progressive disorder of self recognition.
Wrestling with autoimmunity is a variation on the classic argument about free will and fate and/or “God’s will”. One serious stumbling block in contemporary medicine is that we haven’t yet located the place where disease begins: is it our habits, our genes, the health of our parents when we were conceived, or our environment? Or some combination of these? And when does disease begin?
Our compassion for ourselves and each other ought to arise naturally from this truth. No one really knows why one person who has a genetic predisposition, for example, becomes obese while another with the same predisposition doesn’t. We do know for sure that our judgment of ourselves and each other is painful, fear-based hubris. And we also know for sure that acting as though our health is out of our hands pretty much condemns us to suffering and illness.
Last month we quoted Dr. Stanley Feld, “The role of patients with chronic diseases and their physicians must be clear to both patients and physicians. Physicians are coaches. Patients are players.” Feld argues that passivity is a death sentence. He maintains that at best, really good doctors can coach you well; those who live with a disease know more about what they are experiencing, how well a particular therapy is working for them, what they need more or less of, and are metaphorically like players on field, wrangling control of the game by understanding their own weaknesses and making strategic use of their own strengths. In such a model, yoga is a superior practice of awareness, creating options, tolerance, and calm, while tapping into sources of energy and hope.
The practice of yoga is as powerful in our cells as it is in our conscious awareness. The Kumarasambhavam instructs, “Indeed, the body is the perfect instrument for the path.” In yoga as in immunology, knowing yourself is not done with a vague cloud of citta – inner relentless chatter and distracted, obsessive, or circular thought – but with your flesh and blood, your bones and chemistry, your nervous system, your digestive track, with everything that makes you human. For as often as those who think of yoga as a spiritual practice speak of the omniscience and omnipresence of God or the Universe or High Self, we often seem reluctant, abashed, or unable to imagine Presence as the life of our blood or the animation of our cells: the universe of Life which is our bodies.
In the Brihadaranyana Upanishad it’s written, “The world is a sacrificial fire. Its firewood is the Earth, the wind its smoke, the night its flame, the heavens its coals, the regions between its sparks. In this fire, the gods sacrifice the rain; from this gift arises the food.”
Our teachers want to point to our natural state; according to the ancient texts, we are the metabolism of the gods. “Man is a sacrificial fire. His firewood is the opened mouth; his breath a smoke, the voice his flame, the eyes his coals, the ears his sparks. In this fire, the gods sacrifice food; out of this food arises the seed.” In other words, we are fed life, and how we live it is the seed of what comes next.
Dr. J.E. Blalock believes that current neurological research shows the immune system is our “sixth sense,” because the nervous system and the immune system share a common set of neurotransmitters. “One of the truly remarkable discoveries in modern biology is the finding that the nervous system and immune system use a common chemical language for intra- and inter-system communication.” Blalock says that the immune system “notifies the nervous system of the presence of entities … that are imperceptible to the classic senses.”
The practice of yoga is a one of recognizing unity – in this case, the perceptible and sensuously imperceptible threats to our health. When we lose this unity, we suffer intense inflammation — an immunological response to the presence of non self entities — where there is no physiological infection. This is called autoimmune response, a mysterious internal estrangement during which the self destroys the self.
Brihadaranyana Upanishad, trans Adolf Hillebrandt, 1973.
The immune system as the sixth sense
Department of Physiology and Biophysics, University of Alabama at Birmingham
(Minisymposium). J Intern Med 2005; 257: 126–138.
New York Open Center
Restoring Your Range of Motion Through Vinyasa and Yin Yoga
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212 219 2527
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.