First published on www.meditationaustralia.org on 18th Sept, 2019
The promise of mystical experiences attracted me when I began learning Yoga in the early 1970s. I was particularly drawn to meditation. My first serious teacher, though, discouraged my dreaming of meditation ecstasy. He pushed me to get grounded in hatha yoga practice, good health and practical work, either at a job or his centre.
In the 1980s I studied closely with Yoga master Sri Ramamurti Mishra at his New York and San Francisco ashrams. Sri Ramamurti was also a medical doctor and Sanskrit scholar, having written one of the finest, modern translations and commentaries on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.(1) His Yoga teaching focused on both the spiritual and therapeutic, Nirvana and healing of ailments.
My work over the following decades has been in medical centres and holistic health environments. Teaching meditation to thousands of people with cancer, AIDS, chronic pain, anxiety and depression I came to talk about meditation as a therapeutic practice. A skill for fostering mental and physical wellbeing.
When I began that career path the highly respected Australian medico, Dr Ainslie Meares was still practising. His advocacy of meditation for therapy and his book, Relief Without Drugs, were hugely influential.(2) I worked with Dr Ian Gawler, widely known for his near-miraculous recovery from metastatic bone cancer, which he attributed significantly to meditation.(3)
Since about 2000 an increasing volume of articles has appeared in the media declaring that various health problems can be treated with mindfulness meditation. A number of scientific studies seem to support this view.
In 2016 I reviewed my thirty five years work in the area and published a small book, Freedom From Stress and Anxiety, with the largest section about meditation as a health strategy.(4)
Against this background, from time to time my mind has come back to the question: what is it all about, therapy or enlightenment? Recovery or Nirvana?
Aside from the yoga path many people start meditation through Buddhist practice, where the same question can arise. The popular image of Buddhism might be meditating monks seeking nirvana. The record of Gautama Buddha’s preaching, however, refers to universal suffering and its cure. His examples of suffering were mental and spiritual malaise that included anxiety about disease and death.
I stick to the Yoga tradition here by looking at how the ancient Indian sage Patanjali treated the question in his classic text, the Yoga Sutras.
Undoubtedly a great mind, Patanjali may not have been the head of any school or sect. Scholars vary in their estimates of when he lived, ranging from the time of Buddha two and a half thousand years ago, to about 400 years after Christ. They also disagree on whether he was the same Patanjali who authored landmark texts on Sanskrit grammar and on Ayurvedic medicine.
The Sutras are grouped into four chapters and are usually accompanied by the original, ancient commentaries of Vyasa, about whom very little is known.
Patanjali gets straight to the point. In the second sutra he writes: “Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah”, which translates as: “Yoga (union with supreme Brahman) follows restriction or cessation of the waves of activity in the chittam (all levels of mind)”.(5)
So apparently Yoga is about nothing less than the Nirvana of completely transcending our thinking minds.
The very next sutra seems just as starkly transcendental: “Then the witness is established in its own form, in pure Self-awareness”. But Sanskrit words can contain rich layers of meaning. Sri Ramamurti’s interpretation includes: “When by practice of meditation all physical and mental diseases are rooted out, individual consciousness … stands in its own real state, which is Pure Consciousness and Pure Existence”.
So in this third sutra Patanjali has pointed at rooting out diseases as an integral part of the journey toward transcendence. How does he progress this theme?
By the middle of chapter one he is referring to Ishvara, the supreme, omnipresent spirit that acts as teacher to us. Sutra 28 tells us that a yogi connects with Ishvara by meditating on the inner OM sound, nadam or pranava that we hear without any outer cause of the sound.
Sutra 29 then ends with “… antaraya-abhavashcha”, destruction of obstacles and disease. It means that through meditation on nadam physical and mental diseases can be removed. The sutra indicates this occurs through identity of the yogi’s consciousness with the supreme consciousness, Ishvara or Brahman, progressive attainment of Cosmic Consciousness.
In Sutra 30 the obstacles that can be removed are listed, including vyadhi or disease, laziness, doubt, lethargy, delusion, lack of concentration and others. Sutra 31 lists further troubles that might be overcome including duhka (grief), daurmanasya (anxiety) and shvasaprashvasa (difficult breathing).
While the discussion in those sutras might not be systematic or detailed, according to our standards, the foremost chronicler of Yoga of that era is strongly stating that yogic meditation can alleviate a range of physical, mental and psychosomatic conditions.
The causes of suffering are treated in chapter two. Sutra 15 and onward discuss the factors in our material world that can cause failure to identify with the supreme, universal spirit. This leads to all the forms of mental suffering and consequent physical ailments.
Further along in the chapter, when introducing the eightfold path of Yoga practice Patanjali returns briefly to methods of alleviating disorders.
Sutra 47 discusses “Prayatna-shaithilya . . .” the releasing of tension-producing factors. This is in the context of asana practice along with the relaxation produced when sitting in a stable meditation posture. The terms used seem to refer to releasing physical tension and the associated psychological tension and anxiety.
The next limb of Yoga explained is pranayama, breathing and subtle energy control. Surprisingly the Sage makes no claims about banishing ailments through breathwork. Many other Yogis, ancient and contemporary have praised breathing practices for their healing capacity.
Patanjali however, in Sutra 52 goes straight to announcing that pranayama destroys the Avaranam, or web of wrong thoughts that veils the light of the real Self. This prepares the student for deepest concentration and meditation. And meditation, as already described in chapter one, can remove many ailments.
Those sutras are as far as Patanjali goes in discussing disease and healing. The final two chapters of the Sutras are largely devoted to the stages of meditation, dharana through to samyama, and to ultimate liberation.
He describes the psychological development of the meditator, including the possibility of extraordinary powers. In particular he treats at length the nature and attainment of Kaivalya, the term he uses for liberation, enlightenment or Nirvana.
Therapy or enlightenment?
If Patanjali were writing now I wonder if he would devote more sutras, or entire chapters to health and therapy. Perhaps the prevailing mindset of both Yogis and students was less oriented to health matters in those times. I do think it unlikely that Patanjali was the doctor who wrote the textbook on Ayurveda or he would have written more about Yoga therapy in the Sutras.
Furthermore, in those times I don’t think anyone was conducting clinical trials of anything. The observations on people overcoming physical and psychosomatic conditions may have been more incidental as students followed the eightfold path of Yoga for their spiritual liberation.
Nevertheless a rereading of the Yoga Sutras convinces me that Patanjali was well aware of the therapeutic potential of Yoga practice. In certain sutras he announces enlightenment and removing disease as the joint outcome of persistent, correct meditation. At other points he suggests that curing disease is a helpful step on the journey to liberation.
Patanjali’s Yoga text largely disappeared from Indian life in the Middle Ages. It has been rediscovered and spread across the globe over the last century and a half.
The re-emergence of the Yoga Sutras has coincided with a modern, growing interest in the medical applications of mindfulness and meditation. The two thousand year old Sutras sowed the seed for the modern investigation and hope that Yogic meditation might be a major force in alleviating some of the worst chronic, mental and psychosomatic health problems that beset our age.
(1) Ramamurti S Mishra (1963). The Textbook of Yoga Psychology: Translation and Interpretation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
(2) Ainslie Meares (1968). Relief without Drugs.
(3) Ian Gawler (1984); You can Conquer Cancer.
(4) David McRae (2016); Freedom from stress and anxiety.
(5) There are several conventions for writing Sanskrit words with the English alphabet; mine is not necessarily the most scholarly approach. Ideally some of the English letters would have diacritical marks above them to indicate nuances of pronunciation.