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Yoga & Eastern Influence on Holistic Healthcare
An Awakening Fall
As a nine-year-old boy, while enjoying the warmth of the midday sun, I was easing my way out onto a branch of a wild apple tree. It was in a deserted field with the sweetest green apples I had ever tasted. These weren't like the shiny red ones you can buy at the local store. The tree’s singular presence in an untamed field of weeds and wildflowers made it an even more tempting challenge to climb.
Though a little hesitant, I believed myself up to the quest of grabbing one of those tasty fruits, perfect for a hot, muggy summer day. It ended up being slightly more of a reach than I had figured—the limb wasn’t the sturdy support I expected. With a loud snap of the branch, all came crashing down. We studied the concept of gravity at school, but the fall was a much harder lesson learned, and before I knew it, I was lying on my back looking up at the sky. As I regained my senses, I sat up, and there beside me was the apple. I reached over, grabbed it, and took a deep and very satisfying juicy bite.
With the sun still warming my skin and my heartbeat slowing down, I took a moment to check that I had done no severe damage to my body. Deep down, I realized I was lucky to have survived my ordeal and that further adventure waited for me just around the corner.
Would I climb that tree now? Perhaps not. With age and experience comes the wisdom of being more astute and better calculating the risks versus benefits of tempting situations. Later that day, I had a bit of an epiphany with a smile about the fall—I could have easily just laid back in the grass and let the sun warm my skin as I waited for Mother Nature to hand me the apple naturally. I took the latter approach many times after that day.
As I matured, I slowly realized that the apple wasn’t the real prize; it was the wisdom gained to live more in the moment and experiences of my life—to feel more fully alive in the flow of my unfolding journey. I felt fulfilled and complete when I ran and played, even though I would sometimes fall and injure myself. I took part in swimming, biking, and some competitive sports at school and learned to appreciate my body’s strength, fitness levels, and connectedness with my surroundings.
Health Crisis Becomes an Inspiration
A dramatic turnabout occurred during the 1950s polio epidemic when I developed high fevers and required hospitalization, as this was years before there was a vaccine. Much like COVID, we heard about the devastating consequences of the disease every day. It was the dread disease of the time, with 15,000 cases of paralysis per year. I was lucky to survive with no permanent effects and left the hospital after several weeks. However, spending time in the large children’s hospital had a profound impact on me.
I admired the multidisciplinary team of doctors, nurses, physical therapists, nutritionists, and other healthcare workers that helped me. As I recovered, I realized that the children’s hospital, which at first seemed to be a dark and foreboding place, was actually safe and comforting. I didn’t realize that the hospital was using new and innovative therapies of the day, such as natural heat and warm water treatments. It was here that I met an outstanding Spanish intern, Alberto, who became a role model and an inspiration for me.
Alberto had left his home in Spain and traveled to the US to take up a one-year medical internship. His arrival at the highly respected children’s hospital was a blessing for me, because initially, I felt abandoned—like a polio victim hijacked from my home. Alberto was naturally attentive and caring and, with his help, I rapidly adjusted to life on the ward. He was full of life and joy, radiating love and caring for all his patients. The young doctor had a wide range of interests, a fascination with other cultures, and was constantly looking for anything new to broaden his horizons. As a young intern was always very open about sharing his life and wisdom, which made him fascinating to those around him. I found out later that he returned to Spain and became one of their most respected and famous doctors.
Later in life, I was lucky enough to be accepted into medical school. The experience was disappointing, as sometimes I experienced it as a stressful, over-demanding trade school. We were so swamped with learning which tests to administer or procedures to perform, plus absorbing information about the body’s anatomy, the psychology of the mind, and so on, that it seemed almost impossible to remember it all.
Medical School, Yoga, and Eastern Influences
Med school was also the first time I moved away from my family home and to a new area. However, I was lucky enough to explore the many book shops that you often find in collegial towns and cities. In one particular shop, I came across a book about yoga that held my fascination. The writer was a journalist introduced to the lifestyle who then committed himself to intense yoga practices. He recorded his experiences and talked about the exciting people and the shared encounters with them; these were often magical.
The book resonated heavily with me. I realized that healing could be more successful with holistic approaches, as seen in yoga along with conventional medicine’s best practices. Yoga and Buddhist teachings and philosophy were growing in popularity and permeating the western culture. It motivated me to study traditional medicine but also to explore, study, and practice yoga.
My interests gradually grew beyond the ideas and practices of Yoga to Buddhism, Zen, Mindfulness, Sufism, Macrobiotics, and mystical Kabbalistic tradition in Judaism. All seemed to be grounded in the wisdom of being more flexible in mind, body, and spirit and less stuck in rigid thinking and ideas that cause strife and conflict. I integrated the valued aspects of these different schools of beliefs and practices—especially those that focused on tools for self-improvement, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.
Areas valued included a healthy lifestyle with beneficial exercise, nutrition, healthy relationships, care and concern for others, including the environment and larger world community. Teachings went beyond the advocacy for health and wellbeing to include ethical guidelines for coexistence and acceptance of self and others—a pearl of wisdom for living with the diversity of people with different backgrounds, needs, and priorities.
My exploration of yoga and the teachings from other cultures and philosophies, ran parallel with my intense studies and training to become a traditional medical doctor. What changed my life was when I had some time off from medical school and traveled to the mountains for retreats led by the considered yoga or spiritual masters of the day.
The Blossoming of a Holistic Philosophy
The experiential nature of this time away inspired and influenced me for years to come. These included retreats, quiet meditative times, moments of sharing and working together as a community: the maintenance of our dwellings and grounds or meals preparation, rigorous and supervised yoga practice on mats, sitting or walking meditations, and practicing awareness and mindfulness. Mindfulness was the art of moment-to-moment focused attention, awareness of the breath and breathing, bodily sensation or feelings, rising thoughts, and mental content as taught in some mindfulness training programs.1,2
The retreats reminded me of those natural moments in childhood when I was optimally healthy, invigorated, and spiritually attuned—the integration of experiences in natural settings. I regained my inspiration and health, to return to my medical training, which was somewhat oppressive and narrowly focused.
Yoga molded the holistic orientation of my integrative psychiatric and medicine work. My career and teaching bridged the narrow focus of traditional medicine with the complementary and alternative health-oriented choices, wisdom, and practices outside of conventional medicine—all that had positively influenced my health and lifestyle—my physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing.
The teachings, wisdom, practices, and philosophies from other cultures, including the alternatives found in non-traditional medicine, added a needed dimension to my health care training. Yoga can mean a return to wholeness, joining, or union—a returning to the original state of completeness, wellness, awareness, and spiritual attunement by meaningful practices, intentions, and effort. The holistic way can complement traditional medicine, but it may be the best medicine available and profoundly helpful in many circumstances. Yoga and related complementary choices can offer beneficial ways for hope, inspiration, inner peace, wellbeing, and health.
In Buddhist studies, the sangha or support group of followers and practitioners is a critical necessity of the journey. The Twelve Step Alcoholic Anonymous program has been a great savior for many alcoholics wanting to stay in sobriety through a support network. A support group’s positive influence is essential for those overcoming adversity and the negative impact of those who seek to harm, purposely or inadvertently.
The Opportunity of Yoga and Complementary Choices
Yoga might be the way and a good fit for those looking for a broader approach to health, recovery, or transformation from an unfulfilled, restricted life—vulnerable to illness and decay. However, the lesson intended for most is to broaden or add to your existing life, things of value, that may get you unstuck and on the road to a healthier, purposeful, and more fulfilled life. The inspiration or key to healing and recovery may be your opening to venture into new things and ideas. Inspiration came to me from Alberto, the young intern who entered my life when I was ill in the hospital, down and out, with a polio diagnosis.
My holistic philosophy inspires new interests, studies, or practices, but does not exclude traditional health care when indicated or needed. In treating illnesses like severe depression, for example, when a person has lost a significant amount of their brain’s chemicals needed to experience gratification and joy, there can be the loss of pleasure, appetite, and even the will to live. The person can reach a point of being suicidal or severely addicted to drugs or alcohol. In this situation, the optimal program and intervention would be a broad regime in the long run, but a narrow-focused approach initially, including hospitalization, medication, and intensive therapy treatments when medically indicated and needed.
A person with very aggressive cancer may initially need a specific focus on determining the type, locations, and most beneficial treatments to contain and prevent further spread, which may include chemotherapies or surgery. Once this stage of treatment has passed, it would be time to consider and inspire the person to a broader array of programs, lifestyle changes, and practices that the person would be open to doing. Ironically, many people have survived life-threatening mental or medical illnesses, only to return to many of the same unhealthy lifestyles and choices that were possible contributors to their disease.
People are often creatures of habit and tend to fall back to their comfortable and customary ways of doing things—which leads again to ill-health and disease. Some hospital programs start with broader approaches offering a more comprehensive array of programs at the onset of treatment, such as exercise, recreational art, and movement therapies. Addiction treatment hospitals at which I have worked in the past have had offerings in meditation, mindfulness, and yoga, along with their more traditional therapies and treatments. The skillful health care provider will respect the need for safety and a limited program at first, but look for an opening and the appearance of motivation to move into more expansive areas of beneficial programs.
A holistic healthcare provider or counselor that knows you personally can often offer more specific guidance and recommendations for programs or paths of study or practice of potential benefit for you. The mere step of signing up for a new class or getting some counseling about healthy options and lifestyle changes may be the key to improving health and wellbeing.
Consider, if you are in the pursuits or practice of holistic health and lifestyles, to be humble, and to follow the ethical guidelines stemming from the sage guidance of the venerable teacher from both the East and West and the teachings of your religious background.
Be aware of arrogance, which may lead to a loss of openness to broader perspectives and information from respected and knowledgeable sources
Avoid the overconfidence and misperception that your lifestyle and practices will protect you from any severe illness, trauma, or misfortune with no valid scientific guidance—avoid being influenced by false or misleading information—don’t pass it on to others that you may influence
Carefully look at the background, credentials, and reputation of any teacher with whom you may choose to study and learn
As much as possible, diversify your interests and studies to get a broader perspective about healthy, life empowering, transformative paths that come from both contemporary and the ancient schools of perennial and sagely wisdom
Find and do consistent daily practices to enhance your physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional wellbeing; consider yoga, mindfulness, healthy diet, nutrition, and regular life-enhancing exercise
Maintain a positive support community to nurture your chosen path as well as to provide the opportunity for you to help others—stay in the awareness and the reality of our mutual coexistence with all that is beyond our narrow ideas, self-interests, and sensitivities
I appreciate you and your interest. Please share this article with others or leave comments below.
Be well and do the best you can on your journey of discovery and learning.
Ron Parks, MD
Lead-in photo for the article: ©bonanatty/123RF.com -- Enjoying health and wellbeing with yoga