Thursday, August 20, 2009

161/231 - Healing

Wednesday Off

No, the title of this post is not about my knee, though its coming along very nicely. Instead, the day 236 meditation is about one of my favorite topics: the incredible healing power of the asanas.

The meditation starts with a quote from a student who had both a chronic shoulder injury and a thyroid condition. Her doctors told her that her shoulder would never heal. After two months of yoga practice, the shoulder injury was gone. With the shoulder healed, she told her doctor she was going to go off her thyroid medication. Three months later it was borderline, and the doctor still wanted to put her back on medication. Three months later, her thryoid was normal. The thyroid medication, for most people, is a life sentence. Of course, even after this happened, the doctor was unwilling to conclude that the yoga made any difference.

There are tons of stories like this out there. I have my own. Bikram quickly got me off blood pressure medication and tri-glyceride medication. It also eliminated my acid reflux, and cured my planar fascia-itis. It has straightened out my right big toe, leaving me with one bad bunion instead of two (I'm still working on the left foot, and hopeful). I know other people who are dealing with arthritis with Bikram, and with chronic knee, hip and back problems. I know of other people who have gone off lifelong medications after just a few months of yoga practice, including one who got off her thyroid medication.

Why does this happen? Doctors, for the most part, are trained to suggest drugs or surgery. They will give a nod to exercise and weight management, but in my experience, most doctors don't stress these things, probably because they know that their patients are not likely to follow the recommendations, and then will likely blame the doctor anyways for not having given them a pill to take. I don't really blame the doctors here. They simply are doing the best they can with their training and the tools at their disposal.

And I don't blame their skepticism about yoga as a remedy either. They are trained to be skeptical, and have been taught to put their faith only in scientific method. And lets face it, no one has done any scientific study of the benefits of asana practice. In class, we hear lots of theories about why the poses have such amazing benefits. In Bikram, the tourniquet theory gets alot of credit. We shut off the blood to an organ or an area of the body and then let it flood back in, and that has great benefit. But, as far as I know, no-one has ever really studied this theory, and I have no idea if it explains the benefits or not. But it sounds nice and explanatory.

Gates has his own explanation for why asana practice gives such radical benefits. First, he links it to prana, or life force. He says that most people are pretty much cut off from their own prana, and yoga puts them back in touch. This process has incredible healing power. For Gates, this explanation "works." I think this means that he understands this explanation because it fits into a way of thinking that he has already bought into. I tend to agree with this explanation as well, but let's face it, if I gave this explanation to your average doctor or scientist, I expect he would simply roll his eyes and say "Whatever."

Gates comes close to acknowledging this difficulty when he says that he still wonders at the mechanics of this miraculous process. He then offers a more complete explanation. He says that the asana force us to act as a co-ordinated whole. Doing the asana correctly requires integrating the entire mind, body and spirit. And its this program of re-integration (forced bussing for the soul?), that leads to the spectacular health benefits that people see from yoga.

I completely buy into this explanation, but it still leaves something to be desired for the scientists. How does one begin to measure how integrated the mind body and soul are? One answer is: watch the person practice. And yes, I know that begs the question from a scientific standpoint.

In Bikram, we are constantly told that if we try the postures the right way, we will receive 100% of the benefit. I've wondered about this before, because its pretty clear that you aren't getting, for example, a backbend in Fixed Firm if you aren't going all the way back. This meditation makes me think that the "benefit" that Bikram is talking about is the greater benefit if re-integrating body, mind and spirit. That comes from trying the poses the right way, and not from depth.

That's why the miracles can, and often do, occur when people first starting to practice. And it may also be why some people never see much benefit at all; they simply aren't trying it the right way. It also explains why there's such a difference between simply exercising and stretching, and doing yoga.


Shabs said...

I love reading about this type of thing. It's fascinating to me!

I spent a while hunting for the study that Bikram was meant to have done in Japan, but I could never find it. Some people have questioned whether it actually exists.

There are a few scientific studies out there on yoga practice. I was pointed to 'pubmed' when I was looking for Bikram's study. However as you infer, they tend to focus on the physical benefits, as that's the only part that science can explain.

Duffy Pratt said...

I've looked for the Bikram studies as well. They seem to have dropped into a black hole. By their very nature, studies seem to insist on isolating out a single factor and seeing what influence that factor has. That mindset, by itself, might hinder finding any benefit to asana (as I discuss in the next day's post).