I am overwhelmed with the response to my earlier post on Yoga Therapy. Numerous people have contacted me after reading the post and some have either joined the Therapy sessions already or have planned it for a later date. I now want to get into some details of how this therapy works. I will start with understanding the sources of disease in this post and then follow it up with how Yoga Therapy addresses the psychosomatic (stress related) diseases. I will then get into details of how this therapy works for some of the ailments where I have good understanding.
Please do read the earlier post (Yoga Therapy: The key to maximum wellness) before reading this post to get the context.
Sources of Disease
Yoga Therapy is not a quack solution and hence will not works in all diseases. To establish which are the cases it works in and which not, let us look at the various sources of disease for human beings.
The source of the word disease is from dis + ease, which means not at ease. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines it as “a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms”.
So, what are the ways in which the normal functioning of our body can be impaired? There are four distinct ways that I can think of:
- Infections: One of the most common source of disease is when the body is infected by bacteria or a virus.
- Physical Damage: Disease caused by any kind of physical damage to the body like a limb being damaged, a broken bone, etc.
- Defective Organs: Diseases caused by defective organs either at birth or because of some other disease or physical injury. Examples could be loss of eyesight, hearing, speaking, etc.
- Psychosomatic Illness: Disease caused or aggravated by a mental factor such as internal conflict or stress. Some examples include Hypertension, Diabetes, Asthma, Peptic Ulcers, etc.
While Yoga Therapy can have a positive impact on the first three sources of disease also, it is most effective in case of Psychosomatic (stress related) illness. Yoga Therapy can not only alleviate the symptoms of psychosomatic (stress related) diseases but also cure it with regular practice. This is precious because modern medicine can only address the symptoms of psychosomatic (stress related) illness and has no cure for it.
There are primarily two sources of psychosomatic (stress related) diseases – breakdown in the body’s Autonomic Nervous System and Autoimmunity. I will now cover each one briefly.
Controlling the bodily functions
Have you ever wondered how the various bodily functions are kept in perfect balance and control most of the times? How exactly the right quantity of hormones is released by the body? How the breathing rate, the heart rate, and numerous other rates are kept in check?
The answer is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which keeps working in the background balancing all the bodily functions with almost no conscious effort from us. The ANS in turn consists of two systems – the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) which act in unison to maintain the balance. It’s part of the body’s survival mechanism. The PNS gets triggered when the body needs “fight-or-flight” a “threat” (although it does remain active at a basic level to maintain homeostasis). Once the “threat” has passed, the PSNS kicks in with its “rest-and-digest” or “feed-and-breed” response.
Let’s take the example of the digestive system. The ANS keeps monitoring the level of nutrients in the body and the moment the body needs nutrients it triggers the SNS which makes us feel hungry. As we start eating, the level of food in the stomach is being monitored in the background and at some stage the PSNS kicks in and send a trigger that we are “full”. This is when we stop.
Similar triggers and actions happen to control other bodily functions – blood pressure, insulin levels, thyroid levels, etc.
Breakdown of ANS – the first origin of psychosomatic disease
So why are we talking about ANS and how is that related to the origin of psychosomatic diseases? Well, the ANS is regulated by the hypothalamus in the brain. Under normal circumstances, the hypothalamus regulates the ANS and hence the kicking on of the SNS and PSNS at the exact time. This keeps all bodily functions in balance.
However, our current lifestyle exposes us to long periods of emotional excitation. This can be experienced as stress – both positive and negative. This excitation triggers off intense activity in the limbic area of the brain. This information gets passed down to the hypothalamus where the ANS is the controller of the bodily functions. This then gets passed down to the SNS and the PSNS and the ANS tried to re-establish the balance of the body. While the ANS can handle a lot of this stress, it does break down at some point of time. It just can’t take the constant excitation anymore and loses the ability to balance the SNS and PSNS.
The breakdown typically affects the weakest organ first. The weakest organ is usually determined by heredity and that’s why family history is a predictor of psychosomatic (or stress induced) diseases. If my parents have a heart disease, it is likely that the first breakdown in ANS will be for the cardiovascular system in my case.
Typically, diseases caused by a breakdown on the ANS are Diabetes, Hypertension, Asthma, Peptic Ulcers, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
The war we don’t see
To examine another source of psychosomatic diseases like Rheumatoid Arthritis, Ulcerative Colitis, and Cancer let us look at the frequent wars that happen in our body to keep ourselves healthy. The body has a well-equipped immune system to fight against any dangerous invasion of the body by enemy bacteria, viruses, foreign bodies, and even transplant tissues. The immune system consists of various types of White Blood Corpuscles (WBCs).
Its’ just like the armed forces of a country. The country’s intelligence senses enemy movements, the soldiers send the information to the Commander in Chief, who considers the messages and decides whether to go to war. He then assembles the suitable regiments, who wait for orders. If war is declared, the regiments act with velocity to win the war. All the country’s resources are directed towards the war and there is constant communication and monitoring of the situation till the war is over.
A similar phenomenon occurs in our body. The WBC senses the invader and send a message to the base headquarters which is the lymph nodes and the thymus, where the decision is made to trigger off the fight. the type, quality, and severity of invasion is carefully considered to decide and dispatch the type of army cells (neutrophil, eosinophil, basophil, lymphocyte, monocyte) or chemicals (antibodies, complements, local hormones). These are carried through the bloodstream to the location and war (inflammation) starts at the location.
The WBCs and the chemical fighters surround the invaders and break the cell walls and dissolve the cell material of the invaders (bacteria, virus, etc.). The WBCs themselves are destroyed in the process. After all the invaders are destroyed, the debris (pus) is liquefied and thrown out. Healing begins by filling up the damaged area by surrounding healthy tissue or scar tissue.
The most important step in this complex immune process is the ability of the WBCs to sense danger and distinguish between foreign cells and own cells. This is a highly-evolved faculty which is specific to an individual. Your immune cells do this by identifying the chemical differences between protein of the foreign cell and your own body cells.
Autoimmunity – the second origin of psychosomatic disease
Autoimmunity is breakdown in immunity process. It is a state when the immunity system starts attaching its own body cells rather than only attack foreign cells. The WBCs think that one self-protein is foreign and sends the signal to gather the fighter cells in that area and inflammation begins. Since there are no actual foreign cells, this leads to chronic, repeated, long standing fights similar to a civil war.
This leads to a series of psychosomatic diseases classified as autoimmune diseases including Diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Spondylitis, and Ulcerative Colitis. Modern medicine cannot treat these diseases because there are no actual foreign cells in the body. The only treatments are either to ease the symptoms through pain relievers, accelerate the repair through steroids, or reduce the attacks by suppressing the immune system (immunosuppressant). As you can appreciate, none of these would cure the disease. If anything, if will make it worse and expose the body to further diseases due to the suppressed immune system.
Let’s examine the source of autoimmunity now so that we can get access to treat these diseases through Yoga Therapy. The question to ask is what had the WBCs behave in this manner? What made them lose the capacity to distinguish between self and non-self? This is because of a breakdown in the Central Nervous System (CNS) once again due to emotional excitement (Stress).
The CNS is disturbed if you mind is disturbed. Persistent emotional surges and suppressions go on triggering the loop of intense activity in the limbic cortex which finds no time to rest. The excitement not only disturbs the SNS and PSNS as we discussed earlier, it also hits the immune system. The function that is disturbed is the most recently learnt lesson and that is the ability to distinguish between “self” and “non-self” cells. Hence, whenever you are stressed chronically, it disturbs and knocks off the capacity of the immune system to distinguish between self and non-self. However, the more basic reflex of killer instinct is still active and that instinct starts a war against your own organs. The damage may continue almost to the extent of self-extinction.
Where do we go from here for stress related diseases?
A deep understanding of the two major sources of psychosomatic (stress related) illnesses – breakdown of ANS and Autoimmunity has helped Yoga Therapy design a set of scientific interventions which not only control these diseases but can also lead to regression and even cure of the diseases. I will discuss how Yoga Therapy achieves this in my next post.
Please share your thoughts and questions using the comments below and I will try to answer to my best possible ability.