Western Medicine, Yoga, and the “Spirit” of Wellness

Increasingly we are seeing the medical community and scientific analyses aiming its microscopes and textbooks at yoga. This can be seen to have brought benefits. For example, Western medicines knowledge of the skeletal and muscular mechanics of the body has brought a greater sophistication to our bodily understanding through yoga. The medical profession can often be quite complementary to yoga; the evidence is often quite apparent as people move from sickness to wellness through yoga. However, as yoga becomes progressively more popular, Western medicine increasingly seems to be attempting to take ownership of yoga, but we should never forget yoga’s roots and western medicines shortcomings.

Dominant Western medicine and psychology, for the most part, ignores and often goes out of its way to disprove the existence of the soul. It brings everything down to a physical basis which denies an important part of the human experience.

I am going to use a recent example to show how western medicine incorrectly analyzes and critiques yoga, due to its spiritual limitations. There has been the belief that hot yoga such as Bikram yoga helps us detox and purify by inducing sweating. So a scientific study was done to see the composition of the sweat to see if we were really sweating out toxins. The results found that sweat is 99% water combined with a small amount of minerals such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, as well as trace metals like zinc, copper and iron. Therefore, the study concluded that yoga does not detox because of what was seen through a microscope, ignoring what thousands of people have felt through experience.

It also ignores traditions that have evolved separately in ancient Greece, Rome, Scandinavia, Japan and amongst the Native Americans. All that have a strong belief that sweating through ceremonial ritual is a means of purification; traditions that are still going strong today. Perhaps certain claims for hot yoga that described the purification in material terms have helped lead to Western medicines current critique of hot yoga, but this purification is predominantly energetic and spiritual, not material. Although its positive effects can be seen manifested on the material body, currently Western medicine does not have a machine that can see and analyze the process. The current scandals around Bikram as an individual have probably not helped lend credibility, but it is the system that should be judged, not by one of its promoters, but on the health of its practitioners.

Bikram yoga does not have exclusivity on generating sweat through yoga. Indeed, in other forms of yoga such as Ashtanga, bodily heat to induce purifying sweat does not need to be externally generated as internal heat can be generated through breathing techniques such as ujjayi breath.

What is next? Is Western science going to deny the existence of the chakra system, an important part of the tradition of yoga and meditation, because modern day machines cannot see it? That is not to say all scientists take this purely material outlook. A notable example being Barbara Brennan, a former NASA physicists, who has an extensive body of work that brings increased understanding to the energy body and its spiritual dimension.

Yoga means union. This union can be attributed to many dualities but the most common used is the union of body and soul. Most people, if questioned, could describe someone’s body but would have a greater difficulty describing people’s soul.

There can be certain arrogance to Western medicine but its science is part of a worldview that is beginning to crumble under the latest research and realizations. Breakthroughs at the cutting edge of science are realizing that there is so much of ‘reality’ that we cannot see. Even the most sophisticated machines of Western medicine can only see a fraction of reality, with this mysterious other matter given names such as dark matter and antimatter. There is even a popular theory in quantum physics that multi-dimensions exist.

Experiments at CERN’s hadron collider are at the cutting edge of these breakthroughs and it is interesting that outside this massive experiment is a statue of Shiva, a homage to the work of Fritjof Capra and his Tao of Physics. Capra found many similarities between the dance of particles, and the dance of the gods and cosmos, as portrayed in Eastern Mysticism.

Obviously a science-based view on what cannot currently be seen by the majority of people is something that can easily be corrupted, with some making claims of being able to see and know that which they are merely speculating or outright fraudulently deceiving. So it is important that yoga is scrutinized, but equally, Western medicine should expect to be scrutinized back.

Science is supposed to be an evidence-based discipline and from what I can see, those that have a serious discipline to yoga have far greater health than those that have a dogmatic faith in Western medicine. Obviously there are always exceptions but this is the reality that the medical community needs to face in understanding its strengths and weaknesses.

There is no doubt that Western medicine is a welcome addition to the many influences of yoga; it has brought many advances, subtleties and knowledge to the table, but it could also benefit from listening to the spiritual elements of yoga in formulating its treatments and approaches to wellness.

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