Back in the early 1990s I was taking a graduate class in exercise science and during a part of the class covering cardiac rehab I made a site visit to a rehab center at a hospital. While talking with the nurse who was showing me around the conversation turned to someone whose research I had recently read, and whose work impressed me deeply. She mentioned that in years past she had worked at a hospital where he was on staff and that a number of the staff, her included, had thought he was rather nuts. But, she added, it turned out he was right. Actually he was right big time.
I am talking about Dean Ornish. What he showed (published in 1990 in the Lancet) in his lifestyle heart trial, was that people with known coronary heart disease could have better outcomes, and in fact could even reverse the progression of their disease, not by expensive surgery, but by lifestyle changes that included smoking cessation, yoga, meditation, and a vegetarian diet.
In my last blog I was talking about research and the importance of well designed and controlled protocols so that we can trust the results of that research. One of the important things about his study is that though the idea was likely to cause eye rolling in some quarters at the time, the research was so beautifully carried out that it was difficult to dismiss. Today the idea of lifestyle changes affecting health is common..... but he is one of the giants on whose shoulders we stand.
The thing about his work that really spoke to me though has to do with the idea of a multipart treatment. It is often a part of science to take apart the pieces and look at them seperately, and yet, how each of these pieces interact, can be just as important. The whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts. With the human organism this seems especially true. We are beings of both body and mind, but also beings who exist within an environment, and in connection to other living beings, and especially within a social context with other humans. True fitness or health is not about big muscles and the expense of a mind fed only on x box, or about running every day and living on processed food, or about spending every minute on our own diet and exercise and never connecting to other beings.
One of the things that makes yoga so interesting is that it is inherently multidimensional.... it starts with the idea that a person is more than a body, and that our journey must recognize and honor all the dimensions of our humanity. This is also why the YogaAlliance set the basic level for a yoga training program at 200 hours. It is not enough to be able to do a sun salutation or a head stand. The practice of yoga includes postural work for strength, flexibility, and balance, breath work, meditation, as well as other practices. Yoga is meant to increase connections between the mind and the body, to increase strength and flexibility, as well as self understanding. It honors the social compact. A teacher of yoga studies diet.... not so as to create daily menus, as a nutritionist might, but because what one eats connects to our physical health as well as to our connection to other life on earth.
There is a way of understanding the exegesis of literature: first you read the poem, then you take it apart and look at each piece, then you read it again. Or: read once for the plot, a second time for the textual details, and a third time for enjoyment. (I know some people say read once for pleasure and once for the details). That is true in yoga also. You can just take a yoga class and enjoy the postures, get some strength, flexibility, and stress reduction benefits. But the more you see and understand all the threads in the tapestry, see the patterns and interconnections the more benefit you will have, and the more you will gain in understanding. And this brings us to the place I meant to go when I moved back several steps to talk about research in an effort to show some of the threads that bind the physical to the mental to the social in yoga. I want in the next blog to explore the ethical underpinnings of yoga, which a teacher of yoga should also understand: the yamas and the niyamas.