Holistic Health in Light of Yogic Philosophy
We all seek happiness. People who take up some kind of spiritual or religious practice often do so due to a desire for more depth and substance in their material life. In my experience yoga and yoga philosophy can bring perspective and tools to us. As yoga is non-sectarian, its teachings can be applied by anyone, no matter their religion, as long as they have an open and curious mind.
In my experience, lasting happiness is not possible with poor health. In this article, I aim to build a bridge between what yoga philosophy teaches us about happiness and the tools yoga and Ayurveda give us for complete health.
What is happiness?
Expanding from the teachings of the six pillars of a happy life, in this series of blogs and webinars we explore each pillar that together helps us experience a fulfilled and happy life.
The six pillars are:
- Career /productivity
- Leisure / fun
Now, this order is arbitrary, all these pillars are equally important and our expectations in these areas must be fulfilled to a certain extent if we want to experience a relatively constant level of happiness.
Before we dive further into the first pillar, it is important to understand what happiness is. Most people, when I ask this question in my classes, say that they feel happy when they (for example)
- spend time with family
- have a walk in nature
- lie on the beach
- are dancing
- are listening to music
- are traveling
But all these ideas of happiness are very temporary. They are actually pleasures. In the beginning, the pleasure gives us a feeling of happiness, but it usually fades relatively quickly and easily. For example, if you are very hungry and sit down to eat a big pizza. The first slice gives you the most pleasure but as you start to get full the last slices don't give you the same pleasure anymore. When the pleasure has faded, we look for the next source of pleasure.
In our human quest for happiness, we make the mistake to confuse pleasures with happiness. In a nutshell, pleasure is when our senses are temporarily fulfilled. Whereas happiness is when a certain set of expectations are fulfilled over a prolonged period of time. In my experience these sets of expectations are universal, and I describe them as the six pillars of happiness as listed above.
Students often ask me if pleasures are bad. No, they aren't as long as you recognize them for what they are; temporary. Enjoy the pleasures but do not get so attached to them that they disturb your physical or mental balance.
The first pillar of happiness: Health
Now in this blog, we are going to zoom into the first pillar, health. We will understand why health is important and how yogic principles help us to attain the health we need to experience a fulfilled life.
I am starting with the pillar of health, because even though the six pillars are equally important in my experience, the pillar of health holds just a little more weight. We all know from personal experience that if our health is compromised it is very challenging to experience a certain level of happiness, even though all the other five pillars fully meet our expectations.
What is health in light of yogic philosophy?
Health is often mistaken as the health of the body only. But just like the peel of a mango will rot if the seed or pulp are rotten, so will our physical body suffer if our inner bodies (energy body and soul) are unhealthy.
At the foundation of complete health lies the concept of the three bodies. We are much more than only our physical body. In fact, every living being is made up of three bodies. Like a driver needs a car to travel to the office, a soul needs a body to move around in the material world. Unlike common belief, there are three bodies present, not just one:
1. Physical body
The physical body is made up of the five elements: earth (prithvi), water (jal), fire (agani), air (vaayu) and ether (akasha).
2. Astral body / energy body
Every living being has an astral or energy body. It is made up of 19 elements:
Five organs of action (Karma indriyas)
- Vak (action of speech)
- Pani (action of upper extremities)
- Pada (action of lower extremities)
- Upashtam (action of genitals)
- Payu (action of excretion)
Five senses of knowledge (Gyan indriyas)
- Tvak (to feel)
- Jivha (to taste)
- Grahna (to smell)
- Shotra (to hear)
- Chakshu (to see)
Five pranas (Panch vayu)
Four elements of antahkarana / inner instruments:
3. Spiritual / causal body
The causal body is the seed body. This body continues through all the lives. The causal body stores subtle impressions in the form of karma of everything that has happened to you in this life and past lives. The causal body determines the development of the physical and astral bodies in the next birth. At the time of death, the causal and astral bodies, which remain together, separate from the physical body. The elements of the spiritual body are:
- Karma account (Read more: What is Karma?)
- Free will
Yogic strategies for holistic health
Yoga recognizes the presence of all three bodies, and offers practices to balance them each, to accomplish overall (holistic) health:
Physical body - Yoga and Ayurveda for holistic health
The practice of yoga asanas contribute to the health of the physical body by:
- purifying and detoxing the entire body (through improved blood and lymph circulation for example)
- stimulating and re-balancing the endocrine (hormonal) system
- restoring nervous system balance
The science of Ayurveda contributes to the health of the physical body by:
- identifying the doshas and their appropriate balance (Read more: What are the 3 Doshas & Dosha Quiz)
- applying natural remedies and diet to
- balance the metabolism
- balance all body tissues
- improve waste removal
Astral body holistic health through pranayama, pratyahara, and concentration
The subtle practices of pranayama contribute to the health of the astral body by
- purifying the nadis (energy channels)
- expanding our capacity to retain life energy (prana)
When referring to breathing exercises, the term ‘pranayama’ is often used. However, not all breathing exercises are pranayama. In fact, most aren’t. The term pranayama literally means “expansion of life force (prana) and its purpose is to improve the body’s capacity to retain and increase prana in the body.
In order to increase the body’s ability to retain prana, pranayama exercises purify our energy channels (Nadis). With regular practice of pranayama, the channels become pure, the body retains more prana and the mind becomes ready for concentration and meditation. Regular practice of pranayama awakens the inner spiritual force, brings joy, and enhances spiritual development.
Note: Most breathing exercises commonly taught today are actually an easier version of a pranayama.
The practice of pratyahara is the practice of sensory withdrawal. In combination with concentration practices, pratyahara contributes to the balance of the astral body by
- calming our thoughts and therefore our mind.
Spiritual body in balance through the practice of vivek, vairagya, and meditation
- The spiritual body will be in balance when we are aware of our true nature and purpose. The practice of distinguishing between what is unreal (temporary) and real (ever-lasting) and developing dispassion for the unreal are the practices of vivek and vairagya.
Read more: The 7 Stages of Knowledge
- The most effective way to remind ourselves of our true nature is meditation.