Why Do Some People Believe the Practice of Yoga Causes Illness or Death?

People in the West who have been introduced to yoga, primarily Hatha Yoga, come to understand that there can be substantial health benefits to the practice of yoga. Meditation has also been shown to help reduce stress, aid in achieving rest and sleep, and thereby enhance health for the practitioner. With all of these known and supported benefits, we still see that in some people’s minds there is a connection between ill health and yoga.

It is true that extreme austerities can weaken the physical and nervous frame and thus, may indeed undermine basic health in various ways. It is also true that Pranayama practiced incorrectly can cause tremendous disruptions to the energy flow and lead to illness or death. Further, it is true that a practitioner may inadvertently or purposefully open up to various forces from other planes of existence, the energies and direction of which may be harmful to the life-force and the physical being. The practice of yoga may also lead to the action of powerful forces for which the practitioner has not been sufficiently prepared, thus leading to issues in ‘holding’ the force that is working. It has been said that in some cases a master, a guru, may actually take on various karmic burdens of a disciple, and this may have a negative impact on the guru’s health and well-being! In some cases, realized souls choose to take on illness and death to aid others in their spiritual development. The example of Milarepa, who consciously allowed himself to be poisoned in order to convert a jealous opponent.

All human beings are subject to illness and death at this point. Yogic practitioners are not excluded. There are methods to enhance the life-force and physical strength and resistance to illness which some yogic practitioners employ. Thus yoga can actually be a benefit to health.

Any human being who undertakes actions beyond the capacities of the mind, life or body will find that issues arise. Even if the mind is focused, there is still the possibility that vital or physical forces may act to break down the health. Just because someone is practicing yoga does not make him exempt from the basic law of Nature under which we currently live and act. Until that day comes when the body has been fully transformed, Nature will wind up taking its course. This cannot be laid at the door of ‘yoga’ per se. On the contrary, yoga may help to hasten the advent of the longer-term evolutionary changes that will wind up overcoming the body’s receptivity to illness and death.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “There is a sort of traditional belief in many minds that the practice of yoga is inimical to the health of the body and tends to have a bad effect of one kind or another and even finally leads to a premature or an early dropping of the body. Ramakrishna seems to have held the view, if we can judge from his remarks about the connection between Keshav Sen’s progress in spirituality and the illness which undermined him, that one was the result and the desirable result of the other, a liberation and release from life in this world, mukti. That may or may not be; but I find it difficult to believe that illness and deterioration of the body is the natural and general result of the practice of yoga or that that practice is the cause of an inevitable breakdown of health or of the final illnesses which bring about departure from the body. On what ground are we to suppose or how can it be proved that while non-yogis suffer from ill-health and die because of the disorders of Nature, yogis die of their yoga? Unless a direct connection between their death and their practice of yoga can be proved — and this could be proved with certainty only in particular cases and even then not with an absolute certainty — there is no sufficient reason to believe in such a difference. It is more rational to conclude that both yogis and non-yogis fall ill and die from natural causes and by the same dispensation of Nature; one might even advance the view, since they have the Yoga-Shakti at their disposal if they choose to use it, that the yogi falls ill and dies not because of but in spite of his yoga.”

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

Developing and Maintaining an Effective Attitude Towards Illness for the Spiritual Seeker

One of the challenges all human individuals, including spiritual seekers and yoga practitioners, have to face, is the issue of illness. Illness was described as one of the ‘four noble truths’ by the Buddha, when he described the human condition and why he recommended that people take up the spiritual life to escape the suffering of human existence.

Spiritual paths have tried numerous different ways to deal with illness when it comes. Some of them simply accept it as a fact of human life and try not to let it interfere with their spiritual effort. Others try to use various forms of faith healing or ‘mind over matter’ practices to overcome or prevent illness. Some paths develop extensive methodologies to create new power and endurance in the body and some use mantras to cure diseases! Sri Aurobindo reported once that his brother was violently feverish and a wandering yogi came by, said mantras over a glass of water and after partaking of the water, his brother was cured.

Some years ago a researcher at Jipmer Hospital, Pondicherry was doing research on using vibrations to both diagnose and cure diseases. He was infecting mice with cancer cells and he monitored the tumor growth and took regular photographs, including Kirlian images, to monitor the progress of the disease. He also measured the vibrational pattern of both sick and healthy mice. At a certain point in time he began to play back the vibrational pattern of the healthy mice to the sick mice, and was able to document the reduction of the tumors! Clearly new vibrational patterns as they develop have the opportunity to enhance the strength and resistance of the body to disease, and even cure disease once it has gained a foothold.

In Sri Aurobindo’s integral yoga, the body is the physical foundation for the transformation of life on earth through the next evolutionary manifestation. As this occurs, changes can and must occur in the physical being as also in the vital and mental levels to embody the new force and give it its complete scope. In the interim, while the seekers are still immersed in the current normal human consciousness, the body should be kept fit and strong, as possible, without either giving too much influence to its demands, or getting caught up in focusing entirely on the illness of the body when it comes.

.Sri Aurobindo notes: “Your theory of illness is rather a perilous creed — for illness is a thing to be eliminated, not accepted or enjoyed. There is something in the being that enjoys illness, it is possible even to turn the pains of illness like any other pain into a form of pleasure; for pain and pleasure are both of them degradations of the original Ananda and can be reduced into the terms of each other or else sublimated into their original principle of Ananda. It is true also that one must be able to bear illness with calm, equanimity, endurance, even recognition of it, since it has come, as something that has to be passed through in the course of experience. But to accept and enjoy it means to help it to last and that will not do; for illness is a deformation of the physical nature just as lust, anger, jealousy, etc., are deformations of the vital nature and error and prejudice and indulgence of falsehood are deformations of the mental nature. All these things have to be eliminated and rejection is the first condition of their disappearance while acceptance has a contrary effect altogether.”

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

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

The Role of Medicine in Treating Illness for the Practitioner of Yoga

The spiritual seeker often is confronted with a situation that seems to pit faith against medical science. The debate between religion and science goes back millennia and this is one small part of that larger debate. Those who are dedicated practitioners are asked to face all difficulties with faith in the Divine intervention protecting and supporting them. Therefore, they are asked to call upon the Divine when they face physical illness or challenges. For many this means they should not use medicine, consult doctors or take precautions such as immunizations against virulent diseases.

They are shocked when they wind up sick, or dying, and either respond with the fatalistic idea that they were intended to suffer this, or even be ‘called’ to depart their earthly life; or else, they feel like they have been abandoned, possibly because of some failure in their expression of faith.

Sri Aurobindo takes a deeper look at the issue and points out that the individual is not consistently and harmoniously perfect in bringing their faith and aspiration into all parts of their being, and thus, there is a process that takes place, through time, that needs to understand the complexity of the transformation that is called for, the various different aspects of the being, and the need to systematically open up the receptivity and acceptance of the transformative change in each part of the being. This does not happen overnight, and thus, there will be divergences between the faith and the response of the physical body along the way. Yoga depends on strength of body, life and mind, and thus, taking support from means developed by mental processes, such as medical science, is not a deviation from faith, but a support of the evolutionary growth that needs to occur.

There are many potential causes of illness, including some that arise through the pressure of the sadhana acting upon parts of the being that are not sufficiently receptive, as well as overbearing pressure of some mental idea, overly ambitious vital activity as well as purely physical issues that impact the body. Fear also can set up a reaction that weakens the protective vital sheath and opens the way to what one fears. One way or the other, illness eventually needs to be rejected or overcome, and this can take place through the action of any particular force or combination of forces in the being, including, for the spiritual seeker, the action of the higher Force as it descends and opens up the being to its action.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “Illness marks some imperfection or weakness or else opening to adverse touches in the physical nature and is often connected also with some obscurity or disharmony in the lower vital or the physical mind or elsewhere.”

“It is very good if one can get rid of illness entirely by faith and yoga-power or the influx of the Divine Force. But very often this is not altogether possible, because the whole nature is not open or able to respond to the Force. The mind may have faith and respond, but the lower vital and the body may not follow. Or, if the mind and vital are ready, the body may not respond, or may respond only partially, because it has the habit of replying to the forces which produce a particular illness, and habit is a very obstinate force in the material part of the nature. In such cases the use of the physical means can be resorted to, — not as the main means, but as a help or material support to the action of the Force. Not strong and violent remedies, but those that are beneficial without disturbing the body.”

“As for medical treatment it is sometimes a necessity. If one can cure by the Force as you have often done it is the best — but if for some reason the body is not able to respond to the Force (e.g. owing to doubt, lassitude or discouragement or for inability to react against the disease), then the aid of medical treatment becomes necessary. It is not that the Force ceases to act and leaves all to the medicines, — it will continue to act through the consciousness but take the support of the treatment so as to act directly on the resistance in the body, which responds more readily to physical means in its ordinary consciousness.”

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

Illness and Immunity

The human being is composed of a number of different forces working along their own lines and attempting to find some kind of harmonious interaction between the parts of the being. There is the physical body, the vital being, the mental being, the psychic being and the spiritual planes beyond that. Many times, the vital or the mental adopts a mode of action without taking into account the needs, and limitations, of the physical body. This is true for spiritual seekers as well as those living the life of the world. In such instances, actions or decisions are taken which force the body and push its past its limits. If proper care is taken, training and development done, and time spent wisely in creating the right circumstances for the physical body, one can see what appear to be extraordinary results. However, in many cases, people believe that holding a mental idea about something means that ‘with faith’ they have actually succeeded in the needed transitions and changes. People can read all about swimming for instance, understand the principles of swimming and ‘how to do it’, but in the end, until they actually get in the water and work to coordinate the body to the action, they don’t actually know how to swim.

Similarly, spiritual seekers frequently extrapolate the achievement of the end result from the aspiration held in front of their vision. This can lead, however, to extraordinary breakdowns when the seeker finds that the body simply is not prepared or readied for what the mind is prepared to exact upon it.

This same issue arises with respect to illness and the ability to marshal the immune system to prevent illness from taking hold. Certainly there is a truth to the power of the mind, and the vital nervous envelope, the aura, to withstand and reject the advent of certain illnesses. Many people have the experience of “feeling a cold coming on” and then strengthening their will and prevent its development. This does not mean, however, that the body itself has been transformed and can withstand any assault no matter how powerful, of forces that can cause it dis-ease.

For those who are willing to devote considerable time and attention to the process of strengthening the nervous sheath and the body, such as through practices of Hatha Yoga or Pranayama, certain signal advances can be documented. Some yogis gain extreme control over the body and its reactions to the point of being able to control not only the voluntary actions, but even the autonomous nervous system and the actions of the organs themselves, slowing the heartbeat, entering into deep states of trance without eating or drinking for days at a time, etc.

The Western celebrity, Harry Houdini, was said to be able to withstand extreme cold, freezing water for extended periods of a time, after habituating his body systematically to endure and accept the cold. Some Tibetan yogis practice the art of tummo, the generation of psychic heat, and they are able to wear freezing wet cloths and dry them with the heat generated without experiencing any form of physical suffering as a result.

For those who have not, however, devoted the time or attention needed to practice these external controls and train the body to accept and endure, the mental formation is generally insufficient, on its own, and they remain subject to ill-health from time to time. There is of course a natural strengthening of the immune system through a positive and focused purpose in life, and it can thus help the seeker avoid numerous inconveniences; yet in the end, until the physical body itself is transformed and fully opens and responds to the higher force, it remains subject to the weakness of the physical plane, and there remain limits to what can be imposed on it without breakdown.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “All illnesses pass through the nervous or vital-physical sheath of the subtle consciousness and subtle body before they enter the physical. If one is conscious of the subtle body or with the subtle consciousness, one can stop an illness on its way and prevent it from entering the physical body. But it may have come without one’s noticing, or when one is asleep or through the subconscient, or in a sudden rush when one is off one’s guard; then there is nothing to do but to fight it out from a hold already gained on the body. Self-defence by these inner means may become so strong that the body becomes practically immune as many yogis are. Still this ‘practically’ does not mean ‘absolutely’. The absolute immunity can only come with the supramental change. For below the supramental it is the result of an action of a Force among many forces and can be disturbed by a disruption of the equilibrium established — in the supramental it is a law of the nature; in a supramentalised body immunity from illness would be automatic, inherent in its new nature.”

“The complete immunity from all illness for which our yoga tries can only come by a total and permanent enlightenment of the below from above resulting in the removal of the psychological roots of ill health — it can’t be done otherwise.”

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

The Source and Cause of Illness

Western medical science holds that illness has several potential causes. Failing to digest food properly is one such cause. Stress on the body and its organ systems is another. A third is failure to obtain proper nutrition or fluids. Aging is considered a contributing factor in the breakdown of the bodily systems and reduction of the ability to withstand stress and external attack. But the primary cause that Western medicine recognises nowadays is due to the influence of germs — bacteria and viruses — that are separate life-forms that attack the body and, when they gain a foothold, begin to break down or take over its functioning to the detriment of the individual.

For an individual, if the basic needs of the body are being met and there is not excess stress, the primary function to defeat the impact of germs is assigned to what is called the immune system which marshals defenses to destroy the invading life-forms. A powerful force, such as a pandemic overwhelms the immune system easily and thus, causes large numbers of people to fall ill.

If we now look at the view from the side of Ayurveda we see that a being who stays in balance, eats nourishing food and keeps everything attuned, operating from a sattwic level, tends to stay healthy for the most part. An excess of rajas causes overstrain and an eventual falling back into tamas, and it is tamas, the weakness, ignorance and darkness in the body that manifests illness. Food plays a large role in this, so that tamasic foods, that have lost their virtue of nourishment, will tend to weaken and lead the individual toward illness.

Sri Aurobindo points out that illness comes from outside, creates a vibration or suggestion for the being, and if accepted, this suggestion can turn into illness. There is no essential conflict here with the idea that the vibration is carried by some physical form, whether bacteria or virus, and that it is the acceptance of the vibration, through a weakness or failing of the inner resistance (immune system) that can lead to the manifestation of the illness. Sri Aurobindo goes on to point out that the body tends to respond to these suggestions and particularly if a fear or panic arises, the opening in the vital sheath creates more opportunity for illness to arise.

It is possible, with this understanding, for an individual to withstand even virulent disease, and there are instances where people have gone into an epidemic, treated numerous people dying from the illness, and walked away without themselves becoming ill. This points to a mechanism outside of a purely mechanical action of a virulent germ attacking a physical body.

It is also possible to recognise that various mantras, various practices of Hatha Yoga, various breathing techniques and a strong action of will can help the practitioner create a virtually impenetrable wall of force to protect the body from the attack. Even without specific techniques, some individuals who are sensitive can ‘feel’ the pressure or onset of an illness and push it away. In some cases, they may use an herb or medicine to aid in the process as that helps convince the physical consciousness that something is being done. As a side note, research shows the powerful positive effect of what is called the ‘placebo effect’ which is the use of a non-active physical support, such as a pill, to convince the mind and the body that they will withstand or throw off the illness. A considerable portion of the benefit attributed to a pharmaceutical drug has been shown to actually be produced through the placebo effect, and people have been healed through such mechanisms.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Attacks of illness are attacks of the lower nature or of adverse forces taking advantage of some weakness, opening or response in the nature, — like all other things that come and have got to be thrown away, they come from outside. If one can feel them so coming and get the strength and the habit to throw them away before they can enter the body, then one can remain free from illness. Even when the attack seems to rise from within, that means only that it has not been detected before it entered the subconscient; once in the subconscient, the force that brought it rouses it from there sooner or later and it invades the system. When you feel it just after it has entered, it is because though it came direct and not through the subconscient, yet you could not detect it while it was still outside. Very often it arrives like that frontally or more often tangentially from the side direct, forcing its way through the subtle vital envelope which is our main armour of defence, but it can be stopped there in the envelope itself before it penetrates the material body. Then one may feel some effect, e.g., feverishness or a tendency to cold, but there is not the full invasion of the malady. If it can be stopped earlier or if the vital envelope of itself resists and remains strong, vigorous and intact, then there is no illness; the attack produces no physical effect and leaves no traces.”

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