Yoga transcends physical benefits

Yoga transcends physical benefits

By MURLI MANOHAR JOSHI | 26 September, 2015
A woman takes part in International Yoga Day celebrations at Times Square, New York in June. REUTERS
The business of yoga is worth more than $30 billion in the United States.

The term yoga appeared for the first time in the Rig-Veda, but as a "spiritual discipline" the term yoga appeared much later. It was Patanjali who defined yoga as "restraining the mind stuff from taking various forms". Over the course of time, yoga travelled to different parts of the world. In the West, yoga started gaining popularity in the 19th century mostly as a health regime for physical fitness, and relaxation through yogic exercises. Various experiences of the yogic sadhakas were initially categorised by several western authors as a mystic phenomena. But during the last decade or so, much literature has come out about the changed Western approach to yoga as reflected in the writings of scholars like Evelyn Underhill, saying, "Mysticism, in its pure form, is the science of ultimate, the science of union with the Absolute and nothing else."

The question why does consciousness inevitably involve us in a spiritual quest has been answered by two eminent neurologists, Andrew Newberg and Eugene D'Acuily and their answer is simple and scientifically precise: "The religious impulse is rooted in the biology of the brain." They conclude their findings by observing, "The neurobiological roots of spiritual transcendence show that Absolute Unitary Being is a plausible, even probable possibility and that all religions are branches of the same spiritual tree — the fact that this ultimate unitary state can be rationally supported intrigues us the most. Our minds are drawn by the intuition of this deeper reality, this utter sense of oneness." This utter sense of oneness, this integration of personality at all levels of existence — is the crux of yogic experiences. The scientific rationalist will argue that this is a different level of reality. How can this utter sense of oneness be given a scientific language? But the physicist's own way of investigation showed the path.

Just as biologists faced difficulties in explaining life and health on the basis of the Cartesian dualism, so did the physicists. When they tried to understand the sub-atomic world, serious problems confronted them. Classical mechanics failed to explain the motion of sub-atomic particles and experiments in the domain of the particles resulted in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, according to which "efforts to discover ultimate reality through experiments were meaningless, and also that the common division of the world into subject and object, inner world and outer world, body and soul was no longer adequate". As a consequence, in the sub-atomic world, the observer becomes a "participator". This leads to the notion of a participatory universe quite different from the mechanistic world-view.

Perhaps the most revolutionary development of the 20th century was quantum theory, which is at the basis of our understanding of the behaviour of sub-atomic particles. Erwin Schrödinger, one of the two founders of quantum theory, wrote before this revolutionary theory was completed in 1925, "This life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of this entire existence, but in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance. This, as we know, is ... again expressed in such words as I am in the east and the west. I am above and below, I am this entire world." He also says, "this is you (tat twam asi)". Schrödinger considered the idea of pluralisation of consciousness and the notion of many souls to be naïve and considered the notion of plurality to be a result of deception (maya). In the latter half of the 20th century, J.S. Bell, a leading physicist at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, while explaining the paradoxical results of a famous thought experiment, had proposed what is known as Bell's theorem — "at a deep and fundamental level the separate parts of the Universe are connected in an intimate and immediate way". Thus reiterating the concept of a holistic universe.

Towards the middle of the 20th century, several scientists including David Bohm, had questioned the Cartesian philosophy. According to Bohm, "all of reality is enfolded in each of its parts". Cautioning about the deleterious effects of the reductionist approach, he says, "However, men who are guided by a fragmentary self-world view cannot, in the long run, do other than to try in their actions to break themselves and the world into pieces, corresponding to their general mode of thinking...Then society is...broken up into separate nations and different religious, political, economic and social groups, etc., and the natural environment which is also seen as an aggregate of separately existent parts, will be exploited by the different groups of people." Continuing further he says, "The unity in the individual and between man and nature as well as between man and man, can rise only in a form of action that does not attempt to fragment the whole of reality." Thus one can see that the serious environmental degradation, worldwide political and economic disorder and emerging fault lines, which have produced a civilisational crisis, are the result of the fragmentary worldview. As a consequence, a proper worldview becomes the central factor for maintaining harmony in the individual and the society as a whole.

The holistic or integral worldview, as we have seen, offers a new approach to look at "nature". It recognises as unbroken relationship between humankind and the ecosystem. The relationship is organic and symbiotic, injury to one is injury to the other. In consequence, the holistic paradigm completely prohibits the exploitation of nature or for that matter of any part by the other. Exploitation of any part is, in ultimate analysis, the exploitation of the whole. It also establishes a dynamic balance between humankind and ecosystem, which should not be disturbed beyond repair. It is easy to recognise that the three tenets of the holistic view are, (a) Truth or Reality is one but wise men describe it in different ways; (b) World is a Family; and (c) Unity in Diversity. Any socio-economic system built on these concepts is inherently value based, non-violent, democratic, inclusive, secular, and egalitarian. Any human activity not based on a value system will ultimately produce unbearable stress and strain, leading to a violent collapse of the system.

What are then the possible consequences of a close engagement of these two systems based on fundamentally divergent world-views? Consider the case when the yoga comes under the sway of the market forces. In the international community, yoga has been accepted primarily due to its cost-effective health potential. In the West, the benefits of yoga are largely confined at the body plain and it does not reach the stage where mind, intelligence and spirit are all in harmony. In consequence, the globalised world will fail to realise its full potential for providing total health and well-being. On the other hand, it will be used merely as an ordinary regimen for physical fitness and will soon be relegated as a health merchandise; it will be one of the medical products with high business promise. Even at present, the business of yoga is worth US $30 billion or more and is thriving in the United States. If yoga or its integral world-view remains confined to the body plain alone and becomes a tradable commodity, it loses its philosophical and spiritual dimensions entirely.

It may be recalled that the WHO has warned that depression will become the biggest killer after HIV/AIDS by 2030. Even today, about $150 bn is spent on mental illness and depression alone. As Shri Shri Ravi Shankar has pointed out, while the remission rate through medical treatment is about 14%, a study has shown that the same would be 64% through the practising of yoga. Several studies have established a direct relationship between meditation and a change in crime rate. In a paper published in 1987 in the Journal of Mind and Behaviour, the authors reported about transcendental meditation and changes in social indicators. Thus the integral world-view can lead towards total health and solutions to psychological disorders as well. Yoga recognises whatever is in microcosm is also in macrocosm, thus the wounded cell contains the entire structure and can regenerate to its original structure. The work of J.C. Bose towards the end of the 19th century had shown that the autographic records of the stress and strains and responses to the effects of poisonous drugs in the living and the non-living were so similar that we cannot draw a line of demarcation and say, "here the physical ends and there the physiological begins". Life and consciousness can only be understood with an integral approach and not through a fragmentary one. Consequently, the proponents of the prevailing health-science and health care regime will be required to take a fresh view on the current medical practices and a new approach towards total health and healing may come out of this engagement of the two systems.

Dr Murli Manohar Joshi is a BJP MP and former Union minister. This is the second of a three-part article on yoga and globalisation.

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