Yoga and Medicine


Yoga postulates that there is the Pranamaya Kosha or the Pranic body which is anterior and causal to the physical body, that a functional exchange is continuously going on among the differentiated vital energies and that the functional or Pranic body conducts as well as regulates thermo genesis of this tabernacle. Happily, physiology has discovered these three postulates of yoga as enunciated by the ancient seers. The discovery by physiology of the electro structure of the electro exchanges with the outer milieu taking place constantly and of the regulation of cellular tension or heat, has necessitated a change in the medical outlook and in the treatment of diseases. It is high time for medicine to set its materialistic standpoint and its empirical view and relate itself to life and function so that it be able to effect functional unity as well as structural unity that make a three leveled human organism.



It is indeed a matter of joy to me to express my views on yoga and medicine before this August conference. Medicine means Aushadhi and Aushadhi is food. Food is therefore the universal medicine and not a drug. “Annam, Brahma, Vyajanit” says the Upanishad. ”Know food to be a great remedy”. What kind of food is fit to be the remedy? It is the healthy food, it is the natural food. Food is called Annam because it is eaten and because it eats the eater. Food is therefore life sustaining as well as death giving. Food that is misused becomes toxic filth and provokes diseases. If it is rightly used it is conducive to health. There is a pregnant saying “Let food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food”. The former part of this saying is for the sick and the latter part is for the healthy. To the sick, healthy food is true medicine; to the healthy medicinal food is the means of freedom from disease.

In fact, food is the universal medicine because all beings come into existence out of food and sustain themselves by food. Verily food is the oldest of all creatures and therefore it is the medicament of all.

There are three bodily states – health, ill-health and disease. Diseases come and go but beneath them all, it is health that indurates, health is real and disease is apparent. Disease has no existence apart from health, because it is an outward, visible and tangible form of ill-health, which is only a diminution or a form in health. Health is not merely an absence of disease but a positive quality of the body. The cure of disease is not a distinct sign but an integral part of the science of health. As there is unity of health, so there is unity of disease. Diseases are not many; there is only one disease through all life. But this one disease appears again and again out of an inward abnormal condition, each time having a new form and each time the doctors giving it a new name. Each time it appears in its cause, the inward abnormal condition and reappears out of it, but with a progressive change in its outward symptoms. This progressive change falls into three distinct stages. In the first stage, the disease is of the kind called acute and it is transient. In this stage there is a considerable degree of health and vitality; hence it is possible to cure it radically by removing the cause. Usually acute diseases are suppressed by excessive drugging, whereby they are driven to merge into their cause. In this process the abnormal condition is greatly increased, hence worst diseases arise out of it, leading the patient to the second stage of chronic disease. If the same anti-vital treatment is followed, then it hastens the third stage of destructive or degenerative diseases.

All diseases become possible on the basis of health. For health, in some degree, must be present as the subtraction of any kind of disease. Since health is inseparable from life both health and disease subsist in life. The positive aspect of life is health, the negative aspect of it is disease. Thus is established the doctrine of unity of health and disease and this unity is verified by the cure of all diseases alike by a single process of restoring health.

A few honest and intelligent members of the medical profession have now come around this view. Dr. Allinson of England has expressed his opinion about allopathy in these words: “This is a system by which people sin against the laws which govern them, and avoid the penalty by taking nauseous drugs. It is an attempt to cheat the nature”.   Many of you might have heard the name Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga is the science of respiration. The term Hatha is composed of two syllables, Ha and Tha. The breath that rises from the heart and goes out of the body is called Prana and is denoted by the syllable Ha. Since it is warm it is called the sun. The breath that is taken in is Apana and is denoted by the syllable Tha. Since it is cool, it is called the moon. The right regulation of Prana and Apana or of the afferent and efferent impulses is Hatha Yoga.

Respiration is based on the movement of the breath through the nostrils. The process of breathing appears to be quite an ordinary function of the body, yet the mystery that surrounds it, is very deep. The success and failure of our actions, health and disease, the joy and grief we pass through, the activities that befall us have much to do with the movement of the breath. That movement always indicates what will happen in all such cases and by the proper knowledge one can remove the cause of one’s grief, disease and failure and replace them by the rhythmic movement which brings joy and peace. This little thing called breath holds in its hands the reins of the chariot of the physical body which is figuratively described as Chhyavana.

Yoga means union or harmony. Physiologically yoga is harmony between Prana and Apana, between the afferent and efferent impulses. Prana and Apana are styled Ashivini Kumaras, the twins, who act as physicians to the Devas, i.e. the sense organs. Ashvini Kumar literally means that which runs like a horse and Ashvini Kumaras are ever young, not being subject to decay and disease. This description wholly applies to Prana and Apana, the twin movements of the breath in our body.

The body as it grows old withers and becomes feeble. It desires to remain young but it lacks the knack to do so. Those who know the Ashvini Kumaras and follow their lead can make their body immune from old age, can keep their powers intact and enjoy the full length of life accompanied with mental peace and moral powers.

Medical students know that the respiratory act is under the control of the vagus nerve which has two sets of fibers – afferent and efferent. The stimulation of the former stops exhalation and produces inhalation, while the stimulation of the latter does the reverse. These fibers are excited to action by the alternate collapse and distention of the air vesicles of the lungs where the vagus terminations are situated. Vagus is the only nerve which is composed of motor and sensory fibers both efferent or outgoing and afferent or incoming. The afferent or inhibitory are anabolic in action, while the afferent or acceleratory are catabolic. The afferent and efferent fibers have their nerve endings in the thalamus and corpus striatum, which are known as Agni and Surya in Yoga Shastra. Thalamus is a mass of grey matter at the base of the brain; corpus striatum is also a mass of grey matter in each cerebral hemisphere. Thalamus and corpus striatum are the heads of the two portions of the nervous system known as sensory and motor. The efferent fibers of the thalamus are described as the flames of Agni. Yes, it is true, the efferent fibers are the cerebral sensory nerves which are like fire carrying the energy of the impressions from the outside world to the chief sensory center – the thalamus. The mingling of the efferent fibers with the afferent fibers of the corpus striatum is suggestive of the nature of Ashvinis that galvanize into activity the dormant corpora quadrigamina, situated behind the pons as the four swellings which are companions to each other. Hence the receiving and sending of afferent and efferent impulses from the sensory and motor centers located above the medulla oblongata at the base of the brain, form the earliest phase of consciousness in life. This is the sunrise in the inward sense. The sun of consciousness which was hidden is made to shine by the Ashvinis. Before the corpus striatum was stimulated by afferent influences it was sending out efferent impulses by the pressure exerted by the ventricular fluid secreted by the moon – i.e. the lateral ventricles in the brain. This intraventricular fluid secreted by the moon is known as Somarasa. The lymph which is symbolized as Somarasa is milky in appearance. The rhythmic pressure exerted by the Somarasa on the collection of grey matter helps to carry on all the involuntary activities of the body. The Yoga Shastra assigns to this fluid a creative function, for it says that the fluid is the producer of rain, i.e. efferent impulses exercise a re-strenuous influence over the action of the larynx, pharynx, lungs and heart.

This intra ventricular fluid secreted by the moon is known as “Somrasa” . The lymph which is symbolized as Somrasa is milky in appearance. It is then filtered through the choroidcal plexus with its epithelium. This purified secretion of the brain flows into thruvats or ventricles which form the abode of Soma or the moon. This is a further process of purification which Somarasa has to undergo at the hands of the ten cerebral nerves, which line the ventricular cavities. This added purification makes the Somarasa or lymph flow in the collection of gray matter that lines the cerebro spinal cavity. The rhythmic pressure exerted by the somarasa on the collection of gray matter helps to carry on all the involuntary activities of the body. The yoga shastra assigns to this fluid a creative function, for it says that the fluid id the producer of rain, i.e. efferent impulses exercise a re-strenuous influence over the action of the larynx, pharynx, lungs and heart.

Yoga is the science of respiration and it consists of three limbs – Asanas (postures), Pranayama (regulation of breath) and Bandha (catches). The tradition says that there are 84 Asanas. By permutation and combination their number has increased to 360. One is required to practise at least 12 principle Asanas. The practice of the Asanas makes the nerves soft and flexible. Yogasanas are not merely concerned with muscle training but with the health and strength of the whole body. They tone up the brain, glands, nerves, tissues and cells. They increase the power of endurance and build up a strong reserve of resistance. They improve the process of respiration, blood circulation, digestion and elimination. They are both curative and recuperative in action. They are specially designed to bring the body into the condition where the healing forces of nature are able to do their work. The practice of Yogasanas has brought health and well-being to many people. Yoga relaxation is taught as an art, breathing as a science and concentration as a means of harmonizing the body, mind and spirit.

Pranayama is an exercise of the respiratory system. It means pause in the movement of breath. The normal movement of breath takes the following course – exhalation, pause, inhalation, pause. This normal course of respiration is interfered with in Pranayama. The inhalations and exhalations are made deeper and longer and pause is also made to last longer. In yogic terminology inhalation is called Puraka, exhalation is called Rechaka, and pause is called Kumbhaka. During Kumbhaka or breath retention when the inhaling of outer energy with oxygen is stopped and exhaling with carbonic acid gas is prevented, the viscosity of the blood is increased and this increased viscosity of the blood has a powerful effect in stimulating the origin of the vagal center in the medulla. The longer the breath is retained, the more powerful is the effect on the vagus. By this process, the current generated proceeds through the whole length of the vagus center and distributes itself in the solar plexus which is indirectly connected with the hypo-gastric and pelvic plexuses.

The three important Bandhas, namely Mulabandha, Jalandarbandha and Uddiyanabandha are to be practised in one rhythm of Pranayama. At the beginning of Pranayama inhalation or Puraka is practised; with deep and profound inhalation, the anus becomes contracted and is drawn upwards. This is Mulabandha. At the end of inhalation, Kumbhaka or retention of breath is practised with the head bent forward and the chin is made to press firmly against the root of the neck. This is known as Jalandarbandha. After this, the breath is exhaled to the utmost so that the navel is drawn upwards with expansion of the lower part of the thorax till the abdomen is completely flattened. This is called Uddiyanabandha.

Mulabandha blocks the downward and outgoing efferent impulses but the upward going afferent impulses being unchecked ascend through the connecting fibers to the hypo-gastric plexuses and through it to the solar plexus. These plexuses being thus stimulated there occurs inhibition of functions of the organs supplied by the sympathetic fibers from these plexuses. Jalandarbandha by its particular bent in the neck, prevents the afferent impulse from reaching the vagal center, but at the same time it directs downward the afferent impulse so that a meeting of the afferent and efferent impulses takes place in the navel. The meeting is manifested by the internal sounds which are heard by a yogi. This meeting generates a reflex movement which in its turn produces an ascending impulse that goes through the posterior portion of the spinal cord affected through Uddiyanbandha. By the constant practice of Pranayama with these three Bandhas a yogi can establish a conscious control over the vagus which is then easily acted upon by his will.

Breathing or the process of respiration is of the utmost importance to the health. Dissipated breathing brings about early death while its regulation prolongs life. A yogi measures the span of his life not by the number of years he lives but by the number of breaths he breathes. Every man inhales and exhales from thirteen to fifteen times a minute. The number comes to 21,600 during twenty four hours of the day. The less the number of breaths per minute, the longer the duration of life. Every breath measures twelve fingers from the nose in exhalation and ten fingers in inhalation and it requires four seconds to complete the inward and outgoing course. To shorten this length and to increase the period of the course of breath is the way to attain health and strength.




This article ‘Yoga And Medicine’ is taken from H.H.Mahatapasvi Shri Kumarswamiji’s speech,’Yoga And Medicine’ given at Tapovan, Dharwad 1973.