A Balanced Approach to Dealing with Illness and the Health of the Body for the Yogic Practitioner

The traditional Western approach to health and well-being sees the human body as under attack and health is a matter for defense and counter-attack against the causes of illness in the form of bacteria and viruses. In cases where the process of illness or deterioration of the capacities of the body which are not subject to resolution through pharmaceutical drugs, surgery is considered to be a primary option.

In recent decades, this approach has been subjected to considerable modification as a deeper understanding of the interaction between mind, emotions and body takes hold, and as the influence of diet, lifestyle, stress, pollution, etc. have been recognised. This brings the Western approach more into alignment, although not fully aligned, with the long-standing approach and understanding we find in the East, both in Chinese traditional healing and in sciences such as Ayurveda from India.

For the yogic practitioner, there are several issues that need to be taken into account and balanced. First, the basic stability of the body as the ‘seat’ (asana) of the yogic practice must be assured. This means that a body wracked by illness and dominated by weakness is not generally the most fit instrument for yogic progress. While it is true that progress can be made regardless of one’s outer circumstances, including health-status, it is also true that this issue can become a distraction, obstacle and hindrance that needs to be overcome.

Second, the yogic practitioner should not have to devote inordinate time and attention to the body and its needs, so that he can refocus and tune the consciousness toward the higher spiritual endeavour. The need to harmonize between taking care, and not placing too much attention on the body, is one that requires a fine sense of balance on the part of the seeker.

The vital nature of man wants to feel that it is ‘doing something’ and is ‘succeeding’. Thus, we want to employ vigorous methods and see instant results. Yet the best approach may turn out to be the one that requires the least effort!

Yogic practitioners are not required to give up the benefits of human progress, and thus, may choose to employ medicines, vaccines, surgery, and urgent care options as they may find helpful, without at the same time adopting the entire philosophical approach underpinning the Western model of health and healing. These can be understood as supports or physical carriers of the will to health that is required.

The influence of the mind and emotions on the body is another factor that can be utilized to positive effect without undue attention being paid. Simply keeping a positive attitude about health and wellness, and treating the body with respect can go a long way toward achieving the balance and harmony needed so that the yogic practitioner can focus on the shifting of attention toward the spiritual endeavour. Yoga requires a strong aspiration and will on the part of the seeker, and needs strength on all levels of the being for the eventual success of the sadhana. In the long run, the advent of a higher spiritual force in action will have its own impact on the strength, resistance and well-being of the physical body, as it begins to change the way the cells and organ systems respond and deal with the pressures of bodily existence.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Care should be taken of the body certainly, the care that is needed for its good condition, rest, sleep, proper food, sufficient exercise; what is not good is too much preoccupation with it, anxiety, despondency in the illness, etc., for these things only favour the prolongation of ill-health or weakness. For such things as the liver attacks treatment can always be taken when necessary.”

“But it is always the right inner poise, quietude inward and outward, faith, the opening of the body consciousness to the Mother and her Force that are the true means of recovery — other things can only be minor aids and devices.”

“Above all, do not harbour that idea of an unfit body — all suggestions of that kind are a subtle attack on the will to siddhi and especially dangerous in physical matters. It has been cropping up in several people who are doing the yoga and the first business is to expel it bag and baggage. Appearances and facts may be all in its favour, but the first condition of success for the yogin and indeed for anybody who wants to do anything great or unusual is to be superior to facts and disbelieve in appearances. Will to be free from disease, however formidable, many-faced or constant its attacks, and repel all contrary suggestions.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Illness, pp 318-322