There are times when the wisdom of the ages stares at us in our face. It is unobtrusive, simple and gentle. And we of modern times, anglicized, westernized and intellectualized, have a hard time fathoming it. Until, someday, we are free of our own trappings and notice that what we realized as we matured was with us all the time, only a hundred times more refined and tested, scientific and lived. And suddenly we realize how inadequate we are with our hubris and how much we need to learn outside of Gray’s Anatomy and Guyton’s Physiology.
Such a lesson I had as I turned towards figuring out my own physical ailments, as a physician who should proverbially ‘heal myself’.
Over the last couple of years, I noticed a slight tremor in my hands. I realized it was a case of benign tremors, a neuronal degeneration, the deterioration in my case caused by years of intense over-work. Slogging through 36-hour shifts in hospitals during my residency, staying up late at night or getting up at 1 am to round on patients, working 14 to 16 hours on days, sometimes 7 days a week for close to 30 years might have taken its toll. I knew I had to find a solution. I was not going to take medicines since I do not believe in popping pills. I saw an Ayurvedic practitioner who just listened and talked to me about having a regular lifestyle and following ‘parheja’. I tried some homeopathic pills. They did not work. I had no solutions in sight.
Then, a friend of mine introduced me to Surya Namaskaar. Rather, re-introduced me to it, since I used to do it in Medical School. That was close to 25 years ago and I was not sensitive enough to realize any of its beneficial effects at that time.
I had been introduced to yoga asanas when I was probably 7 or 8 years old but it did not register as being of much significance since I only took them as physical exercises then. Now, practicing the whole routine at the age of almost fifty, I realized that they gave me the means to master my own vital energy and physical ailments. My tremors disappeared and the subliminal stress of pushing, pushing, pushing everyone and everything, suddenly came under my own control.
One of the first things I noticed about Surya Namaskaar was how it is conducted slowly,deliberately, with awareness, but with strength and fluidity. There should be no stress on the body, no comparison, no mindset of competition or strength-testing. This brought a new perspective to the whole concept of exercise to me.
Gone were the days of heavy weights in gyms, trying to outdo others, show others and myself how strong I was, being unconscious and distracted. With the Surya Namaskaar came physical and vital awareness, an attention focused on the energy one feels flowing through the body, the muscles, the sensations arising and the organic consciousness and spontaneous nature of the body.
I was learning to feel my own body, my faithful companion for all these years. I was learning to let it be aware and be itself, rid of the movements of thought, emotions and concepts. I was learning to let it flow. The training of muscles and nerves to move slowly, to re-train them and recruit fibers into performing acts which require sustained and deliberate strength gives one the tool, I believe, to feel and heal.
Here, finally, was a way I could take charge and control the slow deterioration of the body. I could stretch and strengthen at the same time, the stretch both forward and backward in a properly coordinated sequence. Here was what I could finally call a complete exercise, tried and tested by me alone, its benefits realized personally.
These ‘exercises’ are, like Tai Chi, ways to train not only the body but also the nerves, the mind and the heart. Learning how to relax while exerting is not something we are taught usually in our current education system. How to be sensitive and strong, to find a balance in the body, or rather, let it re-learn balance by reflex, are important concerns too in the increasingly aging population we cater to. Reducing falls, decreasing strength and various ailments due to lack of exercise is a global concern. It has been shown in NIH studies, I believe, that Tai Chi is one of the best exercise to reduce falls among the elderly. The concepts here are the same.
The recent controversies about Surya Namaskaar and Yoga from certain quarters are quite absurd. This is poor leadership from netas and preachers who know nothing, wish to learn nothing and want their congregations to remain limited and parochial.
The best part about such therapies is that they can be researched and verified. I hope the future scientists of India and the world would subject such knowhow to rigorous testing. And the validation does not need to happen only in select laboratories or fancy academic centers of the world. It can happen right here, now, in your own bedroom, your own backyard. And that is the only research worth having. When each person is willing and able to explore with an open mind all that is present in our culture and reject or accept according to his or her own constitution, realizations and discoveries. That would be the true Sanatana Dharma, what Aldous Huxley called the Eternal Philosophy.