Holistic healing: where Eastern and Western understandings of wellness meet

Over the last several years, I’ve studied wellness and healing from both Western and Eastern perspectives.  The two systems of health start from very different premises. And yet, their ways of viewing health and wellness are also mutually complementary.   Since I think most of us are familiar with the Western paradigm of health, I describe the yogic paradigm below, and identify where Western research has come to similar conclusions.

The Five Kosas

From the perspective of yogic philosophy, the physical body is just one of five kosas, or “sheaths,” that surround the essential self.  The kosas, in order from most physical to most subtle, are:

  • The Anna-maya Kosa: the food sheath (the physical body – so named because it is maintained by food and ends up as food).
  • The Prana-maya Kosa: the “vital air” sheath (including perception, thought absorption, and various physical processing faculties).
  • The Mana-maya Kosa: the mind sheath (including emotions, impulses, likes, and dislikes)
  • The Vignana-maya Kosa: the intellectual sheath (including reflecting, reasoning, and judging)
  • The Ananda-maya Kosa: the bliss sheath (undisturbed peace and bliss, encountered in the deepest sleep).

Imbalances in the Kosas

From a yogic perspective, imbalances in one kosa adversely affect the balance in other layers, and physical ailments result from imbalances in subtle sheaths that manifest eventually in the physical body.  So, for true health, all five sheaths must be kept in balance.  Western medicine is beginning to uncover similar relationships (though, of course, using different paradigms and terms).  For example:

  • The Prana-maya Kosa is associated with breath.  Research shows that consciously controlling one’s breath has an impact on both emotional states and physiology.  For example, short, shallow breathing makes the body anxious and elicits a stress response.  In contrast, slow, deep breathing soothes the body and mind.
  • The Mana-maya Kosa is associated with emotional reactions and similarly affects the well being of the “food body.”  For example, people with anger issues tend to develop heart conditions, while people with stress issues tend to get ulcers or produce stress hormones that lead to weight gain.  Research shows that people tend to feel physical pain more intensely when weighed down by depression.  As well, of course, emotions can affect the breath – and the breath affects emotions just as it affects the physical body.
  • The Vignana-maya Kosa is associated with thinking.  Yogic philosophy suggests that certain mental patterns can inflame imbalances such as headaches as well as (and often related to) neck pains.  In addition, this kosa is associated with karma and samskaras (habitual patterns and natural tendencies).  Because of that association, I link this kosa with the Western perspective that there are certain ailments for which we are genetically predisposed.
  • The Ananda-maya Kosa is associated with the deepest sleep.  People who get too little sleep, or who don’t sleep deeply have a whole host of issues, affecting faculties associated with all other kosas – reasoning abilities, emotional reactions, and the physical body (for example, studies have associated weight gain and delayed reaction times with sleep deprivation, and most of us notice our tempers are short when we don’t get enough sleep). Additionally, research suggests that meditation has a beneficial impact on physical, emotional, and cognitive health.

Applying the Yogic Concepts of Health to Self-Healing

I find it useful to consciously reflect on the concepts associated with each of the koshas in an effort towards self-healing.  For example, when I am mindful of imbalanced thought patterns or emotional states, I have the opportunity to adjust them.  When I am aware of my own shallow breath, I can consciously restore deep, even breathing. I can scan for places of tension within my physical body, and consciously invite them to release, whether through thoughts, visualizations, massage, yoga, or some other means.

I’ve noticed that, when I get too busy with life and I don’t take time to assess and to live mindfully, I tend to get illnesses that slow me down sufficiently to carve out the time that is necessary for healing.  As well, if I take notice at the first feeling of oncoming illness, I’m often able to avoid or shorten a cold by consciously restoring balance at multiple levels.  Of course, colds are spread by germs.  But, I notice that my body is more susceptible to getting sick when I am out of balance due to imbalanced emotional states such as worry, periods of prolonged inadequate sleep, or other causes associated with the more subtle kosas.

Finding the Willpower for Wellness

I think it’s pretty common for us to think that life circumstances, or our current health is “good enough.” And, while we might notice some imbalances, a lot of us are unwilling to do what it takes to honestly appraise and adjust those aspects of our lives that are out of balance – or that are not in alignment with our authentic needs and gifts.  Or, more truly, we are unwilling to do what it takes if we think the effort “just” for ourselves.   But, we are often willing and able to dig a deeper well of Intent when we have the perspective that we are healing in support of someone or something we feel is greater than ourselves.

During the times when I made the biggest shifts in my life towards healing and balance, “I” was never the conscious reason for the change.  Instead, there was an underlying intent of bringing in peace, joy, and healing energy in support of someone I loved.   Many of us who don’t have sufficient drive to heal for ourselves can find the willpower to do so out of love for our children, our pets, our significant others, our God, our art, or the cause that aligns most deeply with our soul’s purpose.

If we aren’t already doing all we can for optimal wellness, I think it’s useful to discover what we love so much we are willing to face whatever truths, and to make whatever changes are necessary, to truly heal.  For many of us, there are beneficial risks we are willing to take, burdensome walls we are willing to break through – only when empowered by deep, selfless love.

The Future of Western Medicine

Western medicine has historically been focused on the physical body, and I am very excited by the newer research looking into the interconnections between physical and emotional well being.  As well, I am excited about the growing movement towards valuing the hospice experience (where quality of life can be maintained, even within the experience of living with a terminal condition and dying).  Eventually, for everyone, there comes a point where the physical body fades.  And, yet, even when the body is dying, healing is still possible at the more subtle levels.  From the yogic perspective, by working at the level of the more subtle kosas, we can find tremendous peace, love, and acceptance.  I’ve read many accounts of people for whom their illnesses were their greatest teachers and their greatest blessings:  through sickness, and through realizing we are all far more than our bodies, they were able to discover tremendous depth of beauty, stillness, and love.

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