Yoga, Ayurveda and Meditation
A Holistic Approach to Healing
My first yoga teacher Renee Taylor was 90 when I met her; she was a cancer survivor. She would sit on a desk and teach us. In the late 1960’s diagnosed with cancer, Renee Taylor went to Rishikesh India ( the birthplace of yoga ) and was healed with yoga, Ayurveda and meditation. She came back to the U.S. and started teaching and writing books, living well into her 100’s. Renee was able to find a cure that many Western doctors are not able to. I was proud to know and be taught by her.
Cancer is a complex disease that is not well understood. Researchers and doctors have not been able to find a cure. The western approach to rid the body of cancer is to cut it out and/or burn or destroy it through chemicals. The yoga approach goes deeper to the root cause and sets up a scenario for possible cure. Many cancers treated conventionally come back and doctors don't speak in terms of cures. Rather, they speak of remissions, relapses, and 5-year survival rates. Cancer is a process that involves many steps involving mutations of DNA and other factors. A holistic approach requires that we look at the possible causative factors at all levels of being.
The layers of being are described as koshas:
annamayakosha (physical body)
pranamayakosha (energy body)
manomayakosha (mental body)
vijnanamayakosha (wisdom/psychic body)
anandamayakosha (bliss body)
Cancer is an excessive accumulation of the tamas guna. Tamas can accumulate in one or more of the koshas with exception of the anadamayatkosha, which remains unaffected by anything physical. The healing principles that are emphasized in the manual are rooted in the ancient yogic idea of integration and balance of all 5 layers of the individual. In Western medicine only the physical layer is important in that the focus is on getting rid of the tumor. Western medicine doesn't take into consideration the idea that imbalance in any one layer can bring about the disease. The koshas take us on a journey from physical to spiritual and the yoga techniques used will vary depending upon the person and the circumstance. There is not one protocol that will cure a certain type of cancer; rather, as with any condition, the programs will vary. It is important to use yogic tools that you comfortable with and if you choose a yoga therapist they must be able to ascertain which tools and methods will be most appropriate.
Let’s first look at the gunas. The three gunas can be described as states of being or characteristics of personality and are
The unas are inherent in everything in this universe (prakriti), and always exist in combination. We all have all three gunas operating at various times, although one or more of the gunas may dominate. Our thoughts and behaviors are always under the spell of the gunas and we think and act according to what is predominant at that time. The gunas can change spontaneously or we can consciously change our state of being with intention and attention. We all need rajas when we need to get something done just as we need to have tamas to settle down at night and get some rest. We strive for sattva when clarity is needed. Ultimately the yogi’s aim is to go beyond the three gunas, even sattva, to remain unattached and balanced in all the states.
Any disturbance in the gunas, usually excessive rajas or tamas, will lead to ill health. Too much rajas would present as diseases like anxiety, gut issues, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and similar. Excessive tamas might present as depression, obesity, infections and cancer. Sattva is a state of balance and good health.
True healing will happen when we can bring balance back into any layer of being (kosha) that may be out of balance. Let’s look at what excessive tamas may look like at each layer. Annamayakosha is the physical body and all the systems of existence within the body. Western medicine traditionally just looks at this layer with the goal of removing the tumor. However, from the yoga point of view this is the last step when the disease is finally manifesting in the physical body. What we eat, drink and the air we breathe all nourish the physical body. How much sleep we get and what toxins we are exposed to, including infectious agents, viruses and bacteria, all have the potential to affect this layer. Excessive tamas accumulates if we are not living a healthy lifestyle. A sluggish or poor functioning digestive system will also lead to disease. It is important for the yoga therapist to understand the various systems of the body and how cancer and cancer treatments will affect the body.
A healing program cultivates body awareness and an understanding of how emotions and chronic stress affect the body. Releasing chronic muscular tension and facilitating easy flowing movement is essential. Grounding and connecting with the elements of nature are also important in healing the annamayakosha. Asana, meditation, yoga nidra, mudras, and sound healing are examples of yoga tools that will be useful.
Pranamayakosha is the energy layer also known as the vital body. Excessive tamas in this layer would be exhaustion, overexposure to the elements (bad weather), lack of adequate physical activity and also a lack of interest and passion for life. This is the layer that expresses the chakras and the other aspects of the subtle energy, although the chakras also weave and connect all the koshas. The cosmic prana also known as mahaprana, enters the body and is known as vasti prana.
Vasti (individual) prana is divided into five main winds or vayus. Prana vayu is seated in the heart and flows upward, influencing the cardiorespiratory system, organs and the throat. Apana vayu is seated in the colon and flows downward influencing elimination, gut motility, and the reproductive organs. Samana vayu is located in the solar plexus and governs the digestive system and the metabolic system, as well as acting as a balancing source between the forces of apana and prana vayus. Udana vayu is located in the throat and head, and influences the sensory and motor organs and the autonomic nervous system as well as expression. Vyana vayu is the wind of the arms, legs, and skeleton and influences the muscles, bones and joints as well as circulation.
We always have prana in the body but the amount and circulation will vary depending on our lifestyle and practices. Yoga says that we can activate the prana to flow more freely and strongly through various yoga practices and that the amount of prana is related to consciousness. An increase in prana is linked to an expanding consciousness.
The pathway of prana in the body is through the nadis or channels. Scriptures estimate that there are anywhere from 72,000 - 350,000 nadis or channels in the body, depending on the source. The focus is on three of these in our study of yoga: ida (left), pingala (right) and sushumnuma (center) nadis. The nadis do correlate with the meridians of Chinese medicine, acupuncture and acupressure. When the energy moves through the nadis, specific effects have been observed through release of hormones and changes thinking patterns and habits. Disturbances or blockages of energy flow in the nadis lead to imbalances and reduced panic flow and depletion in certain areas leading to disease including cancer. Shat karma and kriyas and other detoxifying procedures are part of a healing protocol for the pranamayakosha.
Breathing exercises to increase awareness of the breath and movement of prana will help create a bridge to the subtle body. Mudras, asana, and chakra balancing are other healing practices. Meditation and yoga nidra are also important in the awakening of prana. Renee found solace and healing through yoga, and she passed the light to me. I wish you well on your yoga and healing journey.