An Increase in the Mind-Body Interaction in Healthcare: The Importance of Yoga

Ashley E. Murphy is currently a second year student at Grinnell College. She is majoring in Biology with a concentration in Environmental Studies. She selected this blog post topic because she is interested in complementary and alternative healing pathways within medicine. In her free time, she enjoys waterskiing and looking up funny YouTube videos of marine animals.

There is a medical shift occurring in America, as complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) are increasing in popularity. While the two therapies are generally grouped together to describe medical treatments excluded from traditional medicine, there are many differences between them. Alternative medicine is generally used as a replacement of traditional medicine (a cancer patient choosing to use herbal remedies instead of chemotherapy), whereas complementary is used to supplement traditional medicine (a cancer patient using yoga to relieve pain induced by chemotherapy). Many complementary forms of medicine, including meditation, yoga, and prayer, have a spiritual component that patients with chronic illnesses are interested in trying out. The increasing popularity of these healing pathways suggests a consumer interest in medical treatment involving the interaction of the mind and body.[1]

Spirituality and physical health have been intertwined across cultures for many centuries. Traditional Chinese medicine, for example, is based on the interaction of the spirit and body, a delicate balance referred to as yin and yang. In other cultures, Christians believe in prayer healing, a prayer to God asking for a quick recovery of a friend who has become sick. In America, one of the modern-day mind-body healing pathways is incorporated in the practice of yoga. Although American yoga mainly focuses on the healing pathways involving the physical body, its worldwide history has traditionally been one much more connected to the spirit. The term yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word yuj, meaning, “to unite.” Yoga was first applied as a healing pathway several thousand years ago, intended to unite the physical and spiritual worlds, a journey deemed the path to enlightenment.

Patanjali highlighted the interaction between the physical act of yoga and its philosophy in Yoga Sutras, a text that is still commonly read and acknowledged to be the foundation of yoga. Patanjali focused on the different “tools” used to heal the individual both spiritually and physically. He described the path to enlightenment as ashtanga, meaning “eight limbs.” Today, there are many different forms of yoga that have evolved from ashtanga, the most commonly accepted in America being asana, the physical practice of yoga. Hatha yoga is the most frequently practiced form of asana, emphasizing the incorporation of physical postures, differing from the traditional meditative pose, within yoga.

In 1893, a swami, or “master,” of yoga by the name of Vivekananda arrived in the United States, bringing with him the practice of Indian yoga. Vivekananda intentionally refrained from using the word “yoga” in his dialogs, fearing that “Westerners would find it too foreign and frightening, and he avoided hatha yoga altogether because- along with the majority of his compatriots- he found it distasteful and wholly unsuitable for the yoga revival.”[2] Ironically, it was not until the emergence of Hatha yoga, that we would recognize the physical exercise and postures that we would associate with Americanized forms of yoga today. When Vivekananda returned to India, his student, Abhedananda, traveled to the States, bringing with him the postures of Hatha yoga.

In 1915-1920, immigration laws tightened, restricting Indian immigration to the United States, ultimately slowing spiritual influence in the practice of yoga. The emergence of Hatha yoga, along with the slowing spiritual influence, increased the emphasis on the physical, rather than spiritual aspects of yoga in America. As medicine started to become involved with the health benefits of yoga, the push away from the spirit strengthened. For many decades, this is how the medical aspect of yoga remained: well-established in “science” with an emphasis on the body rather than the spirit.

The practice of yoga increased in popularity by the mid-twentieth century, largely stemming from Western travelers who had recently visited India. Indra Devi, a famous actress, opened up a yoga studio in Hollywood, and incorporated yoga into American culture in the form of Hatha yoga. Devi introduced yoga as a beauty supplement with promises that the relaxation would serve as a defense against aging and illnesses. Another world traveler, Richard Hittleman returned to the States in 1950, selling millions of books about the practice of yoga and openly advocating for it on television. Although a spiritual man taught him the practice, Hittleman presented a very unique, secular yoga to the Western World. One Indian man noticed the change in the spiritual value and commented that Americans “needed yoga to be non-religious in order to accept it.”[3] More than perhaps any other person, Hittleman altered the traditional take of meditation to the modern American view on yoga: an event conducted for healing the body, and only secondary, for healing the spirit.

In the 1980s, yoga experienced another drastic increase in popularity, as Dean Ornish suggested health benefits as a side effect of yoga. In the late 1990s, medical practices based on ancient faith traditions about the mind-body interaction began to reemerge. By the early 2000s, yoga and Pilates had become health fads, with an increasing number of classes provided in the exercises. Hatha yoga evolved to include hot and water yoga, courses focused on increasing the physical health benefit of yoga, all the while, detracting from the mind-body interaction that yoga is rooted in. One article claims, “there is certainly a spiritual side to yoga, but you don’t have to subscribe to any particular beliefs to benefit from it.”[4] Yoga is taught in many health and wellness institutions in the United States today: it is no longer associated with any particular religion or set of beliefs.

Today, yoga and meditation are commonly used as complementary medicine to strengthen the connection between the mind, or spirit, and the physical body.[5] Even so, the relationship is not as important as it was 5,000 years ago. Yoga is commonly used as a form of complementary medicine for patients suffering from chronic illnesses, especially cancer. The treatment is primarily intended to relax and strengthen the body, and secondarily intended to strengthen the mind-body interaction.[6]

While yoga is mainly “prescribed” to strengthen the physical body and provide a psychological calm, we do see the role of the spirit beginning to make a comeback in importance. Traditional yoga practitioners argue that although the focus of the positions may be more physical therapy than spiritual based, they still have origins in spiritual transformation. Following controversies over whether yoga has a certain religious affiliation, the White House released the statement that “yoga has become a universal language of spiritual exercise in the United States, crossing many lines of religion and cultures.”[7] Slowly we are beginning to see the spiritual component of yoga reemerge in Western practices of the exercise.

The current patient interest in the spiritual component of complementary forms of medicine, such as yoga and meditation, suggests that the public opinion might be returning to a state in which healing the spirit is once again becoming important in curing the body. While there are current, ongoing debates about whether the activity is spiritual in essence, many Americans are under the impression that they get some spiritual benefit out of the activity, in addition to the physical.

Medical studies have shown yoga to improve in cases of mental health conditions, symptoms of asthma, heart conditions, and lower back pain. In cases of cancer patients, yoga has been shown to decrease anxiety and depression.[8] When compared to similar physical exercises, yoga has been shown to further improve these health benefits than its counterpart, suggesting some benefit from the mind-body interaction. These studies have also shown a correlation with a greater spiritual growth in those who practiced yoga than those who incorporated a similar, but purely physical workout. One study claims, “While yoga is not a cure for cancer, nor a definitive way of preventing it, yoga increases physical, emotional and spiritual wellness, and brings about a certain peace, of which many cancer patients desire.”[9] The breathing and meditative poses of yoga can reduce stress and promote a sense of calm and healing, which can be very therapeutic for many patients suffering from chronic illnesses. In releasing the tension involved in maintaining the different poses, yoga practitioners feel a sense of energy flooding throughout the body, further emphasizing the mind-body interaction of yoga.

As researchers are only just now beginning to understand the importance of both the medical and spiritual benefits of yoga and meditation, there is an increasing push to have more knowledgeable physicians in the field of complementary forms of medicine. However, many people notice the trend of American medicine moving toward a more spiritual mind-body interaction. With the Internet, people have a wealth of knowledge about what additional different healing pathways are available to them. Complementary and alternative forms of medicine such as dietary supplements, acupuncture, and yoga are greatly increasing in popularity among the general American population. Many patients, especially those suffering from cancer and other chronic illnesses are open to try supplemental healing pathways differing from the traditional, harsher treatments prescribed by their physicians.[10] One article argues “as medicine becomes more interdisciplinary, a new and more powerful type of integrated medicine may once again be possible, as it was four thousand years ago.”[11] By acknowledging the mind-body interactions through practices such as yoga and meditation, people are better able to strengthen their body as well as their spirits, becoming holistically much stronger, healthier individuals.

[1] Kevin Seybold and Peter Hill. “The Role of Religion and Spirituality in Mental and Physical Health”. Current Directions in Psychological Science 10 (2001): 21-24.
[2] Shayne Bance. A Complete History of Yoga. <http://www.abc-of-yoga.com/beginnersguide/yogahistory.asp>.
[3] Andrea Miller. “Yoga’s Twisted History”. Yoga. <http://www.mindful.org/mindfulness-practice/yoga/yogas-twisted-history>.
[4] Timothy McCall. Yoga as Medicine (New York: Bantam 2007), 7.
[5] “Yoga for Health”. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. <https://nccih.nih.gov/health/yoga/introduction.htm>.
[6] David White. Yoga, Brief History of an Idea. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press 2010) 1-22.
[7] “Yoga in the News- White House Says Time to Live Healthier!” 2013. <http://www.ishafoundation.org/us/blog/yoga-in-the-news-white-house-says-time-to-live-healthier/>.
[8] McCall.
[9] Catherine Woodyard. “Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life”. International Journal of Yoga 4 (2011): 49-54.
[10] Bower et al. “Yoga for Cancer Patients and Survivors”. Cancer Control 12 (2005) 165-171.

Further Reading:

Catherine Woodyard. “Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life”. International Journal of Yoga 4 (2011): 49-54.

Timothy McCall. Yoga as Medicine (New York: Bantam 2007).

“Yoga for Health”. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. <https://nccih.nih.gov/health/yoga/introduction.htm>.