19 Apr Miracles of yoga that left this heart surgeon
There is no supernatural. We are continually learning new things. There are powers within us which have not yet been developed and they will develop. We shall learn things of ourselves, which will be full of wonders, but none of them will be beyond the natural.
-Thomas A. Edison
Miracles are often not easy to see. They are harder to believe. Somebody like me with a background of studying science and medicine following that, is less inclined to believe in them. What happened in my life seems like a miracle, although I will leave it to my readers to decide.
It was winter and the chill descended in Kolkata – one of the largest cities in eastern India that was the capital of the country during the early years of British Raj. It is still an important business centre. Kolkata was considered to be the intellectual capital of India for a long time.
Spiritual giants of modern times, who spread the eastern philosophy in the West, including the likes of Swami Vivekananda, the founder of Vedanta Math, Paramhansa Yogananda, the founder of ISKON, all came from the state of Bengal.
Evenings were mostly smoggy, and the air was cold.
My guru Swami Hariharananda Giri had reached Kolkata from one of his trips abroad. I spent many evenings with him. He always had a constant string of visitors wanting to meet him. Most people would have to wait for a long time. His nephew would always be waiting at the gate and the police was placed in charge of making sure that there was no crowd squatting all over. I for one was lucky. He never prevented me from sitting in the Gurudev’s room. Always absorbed in meditation and soaking up as much of spirituality and his grace as possible.
One beautiful evening we were informed that Gurudeva has planned to go to his Rourkela ashram. We started from Sealdah, a local train station in Kolkata, to catch an overnight train to Rourkela. I had reached the station early and was very excited.
Gurudev came with his followers shortly after I reached the train station. He was made comfortable on a platform chair as the train was nowhere in sight. I stood by him. I suddenly noticed a spot of blood on this big toe. Examining it further, I noticed he had an ingrowing toenail. The nail punctured his skin, and he was bleeding. I was a medical student and had already finished some clinical rotations including surgery. But I was surprised by this colour of blood. It was bright red. In my over 15 years of practice, I am yet to see such an unusually bright shade in blood.
The answer may lie in Kriya Yoga. It is an ancient technique used by rishis to super-oxygenate their blood as well as energise the spinal cord and the brain to attain a superconscious state of existence. It is this oxygenation of blood that gives the arterial blood its red colour. Individuals practising such breathing can attain a super oxygenated state, giving it the bright red colour.
Kriya Yoga’s earliest reference is found in the epic Mahabharata. Lord Krishna, a manifestation of the Supreme Godhead, is supposed to have taught his disciple Arjuna this technique. This revered, but esoteric method has been in use for centuries passed from sages to their disciples. It is a time-tested and supreme method of Yoga, which means union with God.
It was in the year 1846 that Mahavatar Babaji reintroduced the technique in the modern era by teaching his disciple Lahiri Mahasaya (1828-95). Since then the technique has been popularised both in the East and the West. However, unlike most yoga techniques, which are limited to physical postures to create a more healthy body, Kriya Yoga involves some exercises that help energise the spine and the brain for expanded consciousness as needed for understanding the universe.
Thus, it is not surprising why the blood was so red. I had heard about it over dinner-table gossip but had had a first-hand experience only now. I pointed out the blood spot to Gurudeva and asked him if this was the reason for the deep red. He just gave me an affirmative smile.
The train arrived shortly, and we got on board. I slept soundly throughout the night and got up in the early hours to visit Gurudev’s compartment. I asked him about autonomic control. I had read that certain functions of the body like maintaining blood pressure; breathing are controlled by the autonomic nervous system, and so we have no control over it.
He said in his classical, soft voice, “That is true for most normal people” he smiled at, me and said, “Medicine teaches what is a commonly known concept.” I looked at him in awe as he continued, ” A yogi experiences a completely different physiology. He can both control his breathing and blood pressure.”
I looked at him in disbelief. ” You mean they can control their own blood pressure?” I asked to reconfirm. He continued, “Yes, absolutely, I can control my blood pressure. It can be zero. If I wish.”
I continued to look at my guru in disbelief. My medical training almost made me blurt out that this is impossible. The hypothalamus, the highest centre of autonomic nervous system, is an autonomously functioning bunch of neurons and not known to be controlled by any extent by volitional control. There are nerves that run from this hypothalamus to a part of the brain called medulla oblongata, which is buried, in the posterior aspect of our skull that contain the actual nerves bodies that mediate blood pressure and respiratory control. Exchange of information by these two sets of nerve cells at two different sites allow the body to control blood pressure and breath to maintain homeostasis at every moment of our existence.
“But wouldn’t that kill someone with zero blood pressure. We see such blood pressure only in people who are dead or dying!” I protested.
“May be” he said in his inimitably casual style, “But yogis can.”
Next morning I got up early, as I knew that the guru never slept. He would be up early. At that time, I could not believe how one could meditate and not sleep for nights. Now we know that meditation produces greater rest and recoups the body from stress much more than sleep. Brain anyway does not sleep when we sleep. Probably it rests in meditation.
The next couple of days were spent in bliss. I spent most of my days with my Gurudeva almost in ecstasy. On the second day, we were off to the roof of the ashram and were viewing the surroundings. Far away we could see small rolling hills. The sky was clear with a little speck of a cloud floating. There was a bright sun up in the sky but unlike typical Indian weather, it was not hot and humid but dry and comfortable. I soon realised that I could “talk” with my Gurudeva without really speaking, and he would have the answer for me.
When I had a question for him, I would read it aloud in my mind looking at him. He would smile but not look at me, and I would have the answer. I did not believe this was truly happening.
The skeptic in me was not satisfied. So I tried doing it several times, and it worked every time while I was with him.
The following morning, Gurudeva asked me to check his blood pressure. I wrapped a blood pressure cuff around his biceps and had my Littman stethoscope in place. His blood pressure was zero! I deflated the cuff and put it back and checked again.
It was still zero. I could not believe it!
Was my BP machine not working? I felt his pulse. No pulse was palpable. I told him that he needed to go to a hospital. He refused saying that he is fine.
Forced by my strong appeal almost to the point of rebuke, my poor Gurudeva agreed to go to a hospital.
His pulse was again taken there, and it was near zero. I was at least relieved that my blood pressure machine was not at fault, and his pressure was really low. He was at the hospital overnight. He had no symptoms.
All his blood tests including EKG were normal, and the doctors told me that miraculously his blood pressure came back to normal without any intervention.
Eastern philosophy has consistently shown that mind has a far greater effect on our heart and vascular system than modern medicine ever imagined. Current developments in the area of psychosomatic medicine have brought to the fore the ubiquitous impact of mind on the body.
Elucidation of the effect of multiple neuro-hormones released by the brain on different body organs, including the immunological system, has made it amply clear that the different mind state has a direct effect on the body.
The age-old concept in western medicine of the brain being a static organ that was the highest seat of neuronal control has given way to the prevalent eastern concept that the brain changes its structure and function based on emotional and environmental inputs.
It also became clear that human mind has direct control and can influence the body’s capacity to protect itself from diseases. What this basically meant is that, if you were depressed your immunological functions might get compromised enough for you to get a viral infection.
We have now an ever-expanding compendium of evidence that points to the fact that abnormal mental states like anxiety and depression and certain behavioral aberrations, including Type A personality can produce heart disease, including heart attacks and strokes, highlighting the age-old Eastern concept that mental state has a direct relationship with your body.
It is adequately evident that changing lifestyles including adopting the practice of yoga and meditation and other form of self-regulation have a protective effect on heart disease.
Psychological factors associated with increased cardiovascular risk include anxiety, depression and behavioral aberrations like hostility and anger.
Chronic stress either at home or at work including marital stress, unfriendly boss at work or stress related to poor socio-economic status can lead to increased risk of cardiovascular diseases including heart attack and stroke.
The mechanisms by which psychological stress increase the risk of cardiovascular disease has not been clearly worked out though an imbalance of the autonomic nervous systems functioning is suspected to play the predominant role.
Emotional states like anxiety and depression are known to potentiate our nervous system causing the release of chemicals both in the brain and the blood called catecholamines.
These potent chemicals are essential to the functioning of the healthy heart. However, in stress states or during chronic stress the increased release of these catecholamines makes them toxic to the heart. Psychological stress is also known to increase inflammation in the body leading to some diseases like stroke and heart attack.
Because we learn new things everyday as we keep ourselves open to the universe. Things, which would have been classified, as a miracle hundred years back is science now. I remember the great words of Albert Einstein
“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”
I like chanting to myself…the Gayatri Mantra with the hope that this darkness in my knowledge of the unknown is replaced by a glow of the known.
om bh?r bhuva? sva?
Which the great Swami Vivekananda translated as:
“We meditate on the glory of that Being who has produced this universe; may He enlighten our minds.”