Health is the basis of all forms of human self-effort. The scriptures declare, Dharmaartha kaama mokshaanam aarogyamoolam uttamam, which means arogya or health is the basis of dharma (ethical value in life), artha (material achievements in life), kama (satisfaction of desires, or the vital value of life) and moksha (spiritual release, the infinite value of life). Without health, no self-effort can be possible.
Further, in Sanskrit the term for health is swasthya, which literally means the quality of being established in the Self. This gives you a broad insight into health. True health implies being established in the Reality of the Self within yourself. True health is, therefore, the state of Self-realization.
In a restricted sense, however, health is normally defined by the expression Sound mind in a sound body. The general concept is that a person should have a healthy physical body and a clear strong mind as a requirement for promoting any form of self-effort in life. In the perspective of Yoga this is true also. However it is to be understood that it is not the body that fashions the mind; it is the mind that fashions the body.
In order to understand how health is promoted and how diseases are warded off, you must first understand the general analysis of health according to Yoga.
Avidya or ignorance is considered to be the root disease. Avidya refers to an unconscious obscurity which does not allow you to discover your essential nature as Brahman, or the Divine Self. As long as you do not discover your essential nature, you cannot possess a mind that is free from complexes and the burden of frustrations. All Yogic process are designed to eventually heal this root disease which overcomes your casual body.
So, ignorance or avidya is the mula adhi or root disease. It is the basis not only of the personality of the present life, but of countless embodiments you have already experienced, and the many personalities that you may have to live through in future. This process of birth and death will continue until you are freed of this disease by attaining Self-realization.
From mula adhi (root disease) there arises adhi (mental disease). From a broad point of view, egoism, attachment, hatred, fear, greed, lust, anger, pride, jealousy, craving, discontent, and other negative qualities are expressions of adhi or mental disease.
Adhi or mental disease sets forth discordant vibrations causing abnormal functions of the pranas (vital forces). The nadis or subtle channels through which the pranas flow become misbalanced in their operation: some nadis become extraordinarily active, while others become sluggish. Consequently, the humors of the body are disturbed. According to the ancient view, the health of the body depends upon the balance of the three humors: wind, bile and phlegm. When these humors are disturbed, there develop physical diseases.
From the popular point of view, physical diseases refer to diseases such as fever, cough, cold, pneumonia, typhoid, rheumatism, and numerous others known to modern science. However, in the Yogic perspective, diseases include your circumstantial developments as well. If you have diseased circumstances, then in your family life there is constant quarrel among friends and neighbors; there is constant jealousy and hatred; in business there is loss, tension and pressure. Your circumstances are shadows of your personality. The conditions of adversity that you encounter in your life are like diseases which result from the karma of your past.
This however, does not mean that you are destined to experience adverse situations. If you study the law of karma profoundly you will realize that you have the innate freedom of self-effort; you have the power of spirit within you that can overcome all impediments and lead you to the supreme health of the spirit: the state of Self-realization.
What is Health?
To be truly healthy implies to be free from discomfort within yourself. The English term ‘disease’ refers to dis-comfort or dis-ease. To be healthy implies having a physical body that is fit to work out a process of spiritual evolution, as well as being able to promote circumstances that are congenial to your spiritual growth. As you deepen your understanding of spiritual growth, you gain further insight into what we mean by health.
Your circumstances may not be comfortable in the way your ego would like them to be, but if they are such that they help you to think deeply in spiritual matters, then they are healthy. Similarly, if your physical body is able to promote in your mind a process of spiritual reflection, if you are able to use your physical body for mental advancement, then you are healthier than a person who is physically very healthy, but whose mind is weak and filled with negative qualities.
Such a person, one who is physically fit but unable to grasp the higher purpose of life, may be, both medically and scientifically, considered at the top of physical vitality. But, from the Yogic point of view, he is like a person who possesses a wonderful palace, but that palace is filled with monkeys, horses and uncontrolled servants. It can hardly be used for his joy and prosperity. Therefore, even though he possesses a healthy body, he is not healthy. To be healthy is to utilize your resources for your mental advancement.
On the other hand, due to hereditary reasons, you may be born with a serious defect in your body. If, however, through that feeble body you continue to combat what you already have developed from your childhood, and in spite of the obstacle you have, you continue to advance with your mind and transcend the physical limitation, then you are Yogically healthy. Even though you may possess an ordinary house with a thatched roof that leaks slightly here and there, if you are able to live in it with great joy and harmony, it is much better than having a great palace filled with disharmony and lack of understanding.
One must understand, therefore, that the physical body is a tool, and your real health does not depend entirely on the quality of the tool. Rather, if the quality of the tool is there, it shows that you can work out your evolution better.
Simply because a mechanic has in his hands wonderful and advanced tools, he may not be able to set things right. You cannot judge the skill of a mechanic on the basis of the tools he possesses. However, if you have a mechanic who is an expert as well as in the possession of tools which are wonderful, that is the ideal. Just as you cannot judge the mechanic on the basis of his tools, in the same way, you cannot judge the true health of a person on the basis of his body.
The Flow of Prana
Vitality flows from the plane of mind through numerous nadis or subtle astral channels. That vitality is known as prana. In Yogic perspective, insight into health can be gained by understanding the flow of prana into your physical body through those subtle channels or nadis.
The pranas are divided into five categories: prana, apana, udana, samana and vyana. The study of these is particularly important in Raja Yoga, Hatha Yoga and Kundalini Yoga.
Hatha Yoga specializes in the balancing and harmonization of these Pranas in your body. The very terms ‘ha’ and ‘tha’ refer to prana and apana, the two important pranic functions. Prana assimilates and nourishes your body by operating through the lungs and heart. Apana removes the waste product from the body. Therefore, a balance of the two sustains your physical health.
When the root disease of ignorance afflicts your unconscious, keeping you from discovering your real identity, mind builds within itself an ego center and clings to it. That ego begins to obstruct the flow of vitality into your body.
Further, whenever the mind is upset and confused, or in the process of exhausting or working out a negative karma, that mind develops a basis for restricting the flow of prana in your physical body. When there is a strong mental reaction to something, the prana that flows into your physical body reels like a deer that has been shot by an arrow. Instead of flowing through the right channels, there arises an imbalance of the flow of prana through your physical body and certain pranas become overactive and some under-active.
When mind sets up restrictions on the flow of prana due to Karma, ignorance or misunderstanding and dullness, the pranas do not flow in harmony. Therefore, various diseases develop in the physical body.
Physical diseases arise due to abrupt flow of prana in your physical body, causing the chemistry of your body to become disturbed. Toxic developments begin to take place. Things that should be rejected are not. Certain body parts that should work become lazy and say, ‘We will do it tomorrow’. If the liver says, ‘I will secrete tomorrow,’ while gastric fluids secrete in abundance, you have heartburn, nausea, restlessness. There must be synchronization in different parts of your body in order for you to be healthy.
Effect of Mind on Body
We can thus see, with Yogic insight, that every disease is the result of a negative karma. By that we imply it is the result of a negative pattern of the mind.
Reinforcing this idea, doctors and psychologists have pinpointed many psychosomatic cases of disease, where a disease has no scientific basis in the physical plain yet the patient creates it due to psychological reasons.
From a wider point of view, it is reasonable and understandable that different mental afflictions cause different physical diseases. If you are constantly subjected to fear, you will have heart trouble and low blood pressure because fear chills. On the other hand, if you are subjected to anger, violence and hatred, you will have high blood pressure. You will be hypersensitive, and you will not be able to breathe deeply because you are too restless. Your lungs may become affected. Therefore, although different mental afflictions and negative thoughts of the mind do not result in physical diseases immediately, they are the basis of future physical illness.
In order to overcome diseases, you must understand that prevention is better than cure. This proverb is very important. Do not wait until a disease has developed and taken root in your physical body. Try to prevent it.
Bring Rhythm and Joy into Your Life
‘Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise’: This simple saying encourages a pattern of life that keeps you in harmony — no excess in entertainment, no excess in sleeping, no excess in eating, no excess in keeping awake, but a life characterized by moderation and rhythm.
In addition, there must be joy and good humor. Your personality must develop a taste for humor. When there is an occasion to be joyous, do not let it slip by. Do not stay in gloom. To this effect, we might evolve our own proverb: “One humor a day keeps brain-fog away!”
And do not forget the other proverb as well: ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away.’ In a society of great economic complexity, it may not be too wise to keep the doctors away. However, in Yogic understanding an aspirant must be his own doctor. You must develop an insight into how you can adjust your diet, your exercises, your method of concentration and your association.
Develop Insight into Karma
At the same time, you must have insight into karma: in spite of all your efforts, at times, disease may persist. Your negative karma of the past may seem to void your efforts of today. However, you should persist with patience. By sustained self-effort, by generating good karmas in your daily life, and by adopting rational methods you may triumph over the disease and regain perfect health.
Diet and Exercise
If you are suffering from a disease, controlling diet becomes a meaningful and necessary austerity. Adjust to a diet which is scientifically sound even if it is not too tasty for you. Since the problem may be due to simple weakness or stress, then try to combat it with Yoga exercises and relaxation.
Doctors and Medicine?
And what about the question of whether or not a Yogi should take medicine? Many people are confused about this matter. There are Yogis who will not have doctors coming in through their front door but will have them come through the back door because they do not want their devotees to see that they are depending on doctors. In their minds, they think that taking recourse to any medicine is a violation of Yogic principles. That is completely wrong. Yoga does not oppose research in matters of practical health.
With Yogic insight, you must accept any research that science has presented and take advantage of it. In the scientific study of health, research has shown the value of vitamins and of various things pertaining to the physical body. All these things must be taken into consideration. Philosophy does not oppose science. Rather, philosophy is like a tree that has its roots deep within the Self, but its branches can continue to grow wider and more extensive in the world of matter. As scientific research grows and further understanding of disease is gained, you must utilize the understanding. However, you must maintain the constant awareness that medical science is not the ultimate. There is something more.
God – The Master Physician
You must seek the roots of disease and destroy them by the practice of mantra. Even ayurveda, which was written in ancient times by great physicians, concludes that ultimately it is by the grace of Narayana that a person can be cured when all medicines have failed.
If a person has the possibility and capacity to love God with such intensity, there isn’t any disease that Narayana cannot cure, because he is the master physician. The Self within you can cure anything, whether it be physical, mental, or spiritual disease. Therefore, the purpose for being healthy, the attainment of Self-realization, must be understood. Do not wait to be ideally healthy to do ideal things, but continue to do ideal things in your day to day life.
Dedicate Your Energies to True Healthiness
Since diseases have their roots in the mind, do not rely on external treatments alone. It is unwise to go on running from one system of treatment to another: a month of homeopathic treatment, followed by a month of naturopathic treatment, and then by allopathic treatment and so forth.
Be close to nature. Prevention is better than cure. Observe the laws of health. Take recourse to a healthy vegetarian diet. Perform your duties in the spirit of worship of God. Take recourse to Hatha Yoga asanas and pranayamas. In addition do walking, swimming, and similar outdoor exercises.
In the case of a physical problem, adopt any system of treatment and follow it through. At the same time adopt techniques such as meditation, repetition of mantra, study of scriptures, and others to remedy the mind of its subtle diseases. The ideal a Yogi should work for is a healthy body and a healthy mind for attaining Self-realization, which is the only true health. When in spite of your best efforts, you are unable to ward off a disease, you should learn to transcend it. Continue to enlighten your mind with the understanding that you are not the body, you are essentially the Absolute Self.
No matter what the impediments in your daily life, continue to utilize your energy in the right direction, towards the good of humanity. As you serve humanity, as you put your energy to use and develop higher qualities, you begin to see many defects drop away from your personality like a miracle. Diseases will evaporate as if they didn’t exist. Nothing is impossible for you; you can develop ideal health, abundant vitality, and your presence will be like a breeze: soft and sublime to humanity and to yourself.
With permission from Swami Jyotirmayananda