Even though external objects (in this case a violin) appear to have fixed realities, in fact what they are is largely decided by what we (as the perceiver of the object) project on to them, which is largely a result of our own training and experience. The same holds true for the importation of Yoga from India into our own countries, and for the practice of applying Yoga for healing (which has come to be known as Yoga Therapy). The practitioner’s ideas regarding what Yoga is, and especially what the human system of body, mind, emotions, etc., is, have a profound influence on how Yoga for healing is practiced.
The human system is also like the violin. Different cultures have different therapeutic practices based on different understandings of what the human system is and how it operates. Consequently, these systems lead to different ways of responding to the same malady. What should be done, when, and how are different in different therapeutic systems. Conventional Western medicine, Yoga and Āyurveda, Chinese medicine, and homeopathy treat the same symptoms in dramatically different ways.
Yoga in the West
As the application of Yoga for healing becomes increasingly prominent in the West, we must remain conscious of how it is happening. Is the application of Yoga for healing remaining true to its origins while being adapted to meet Western cultural contexts? Or, as is seemingly more common, is it being fundamentally changed and recreated by the familiarity of its Western practitioners with Western medical theories and principles? Is Yoga for healing becoming assimilated into Western medicine, psychology, or physical therapy? Or is it still retaining the essential elements that compose its unique therapeutic perspective?
In musical terms, we might ask: Are we playing Carnatic music in the U.S., or are we introducing a few Carnatic notes into our Western symphonies? And are we claiming to play Carnatic music while actually playing Western symphony in what we imagine to be a Carnatic manner? In other words, are we really practicing Yoga for healing? Or are we just introducing Yoga-esque tools into conventional, Western models of therapy and calling it “Yoga Therapy?”
Theory and Principles: Yoga’s Indian Origins
To answer the question, “Are we adapting yoga for healing to Western contexts or are we fundamentally changing it into a system founded upon a Western episteme?” we need to look as closely as we can at the therapeutic application of Yoga in its original context. Yoga has been developing in India for at least the last 2000 years, so we know that: (1) The origins of Yoga for healing are Indian; (2) The epistemological foundations of Yoga for healing are Indian; (3) Yoga for healing emerged out of, and in accordance with, Indian understandings of the body, mind, and human system; and thus (4) Yoga for healing is related to, and indeed the product of, these Indian anatomies.
To understand what Yoga for healing is and how it works, we need to know how it views the human system (body and mind), and why it holds these perspectives. The answers to this question can be found, at least in part, by looking for traditional Indian anatomical models that have been influential in India at different times over the past 2000 years as Yoga developed. It is from those anatomical models, and indeed in response to them, that Yoga’s ideas about the body and mind—and how to deal with them—were developed.
Three Indian anatomies have been particularly influential in the formation of Yoga for healing as both a philosophical and a practical medical system in India: (1) the pañcamaya model, (2) the prāṇa vāyus model, and (3) the model of the subtle anatomy. Together, they describe a single very rich and detailed geography of the human system that has important ramifications for the practice of Yoga for healing. By briefly examining these three anatomies, we will see some of the fundamental principles underlying the application of Yoga for healing. It’s worth acknowledging that Āyurveda is also an important and rich source of Indian anatomies that have deeply influenced the application of Yoga for healing. However, a discussion of Āyurveda is beyond the scope of this article.
Yoga’s Holistic Model of Healing: The Pañcamaya Model from the Taittirīya Upaniṣad
One of the most important bases for Yoga’s truly holistic model of the the human system is presented in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad*, in particular the Brahmānandavallī section. It is called the pañcamaya model. Pañca means “five” and maya means something “pervading.” The term pañcamaya thus indicates that the human system is composed of five fundamental dimensions (physical body, breath/prāṇa, intellect, personality, and emotions) that are completely interconnected and interrelated. Indeed, as the text says, they pervade each other.
Practically speaking, each of us has a body. The body breathes, and if the body stops breathing, then it becomes a very different body! So body and breath are inseparably related. Also, each of us has an intellect that has been trained in specific ways: a dentist, a carpenter, and a philosopher have received very different training. In addition, each of us has our own way of perceiving and communicating—we each have our own personality. Lastly, and most powerfully, we have emotions. None of these five dimensions by itself can completely describe who we are as individuals, but together they present a complete picture of the individual.
Through experience, the ancient Indians observed that each of these five dimensions is completely and inextricably interlinked with all of the other dimensions. When one changes, all the others change as well. For example, when someone gets angry (an emotional change), the way that person breathes also changes. It may become faster and shallower, or perhaps be held for long periods. The body also changes: the heart rate increases, the blood pressure increases, and the face turns red. The personality changes, too, as the person’s communication becomes more aggressive and perception of the situation gets increasingly negative. The understanding of how these dimensions are related is what is meant when we refer to Yoga as “holistic.”
The interconnectedness described by the pañcamaya model is the positive basis of Yoga as a holistic system of healing and health. It is also the theoretical underpinning of almost all Yoga practices. For example, by changing the length of a person’s breath (through āsana and/or prāṇāyāma), we can greatly influence that person’s mental and emotional state. The same is true of working on the mental level. By asking the practitioner to focus on a particular object, we can see that the breathing also changes, and over time so do the body and personality. This process takes time, but it is a key mechanism underlying the effectiveness of Yoga for healing.
It is worth noting that this holistic approach is fundamentally different from the emphasis on specialization in Western approaches. Conventional Western medical and psychological models for healing often define specific fields of specialization, which focus on single dimensions of body or mind in great depth with less regard for other dimensions.
Since we see the importance of Yoga’s holistic understanding of the human system, it is also worth making a clarification regarding the terminology of this pañcamaya model. Unfortunately, in the United States, the pañcamaya model is often referred to as the kośas, which in turn is most often translated into English as “sheaths” and graphically misrepresented as a series of ever larger areas surrounding the body as depicted in the diagram below.
This is also why we should not think of any particular Yoga tool as working on only one dimension (maya). Take āsana, for example. Āsana is not merely an activity of the physical body, but also of the breath and mind. In āsana we are actively moving the body in particular ways, but in doing so we must account for the fact that the body is already almost constantly moving (since it is breathing). Even if we stay in a single posture for an extended period of time, it is not possible to be absolutely still in that posture. At the very least, we must breathe, and with each breath the chest and abdomen cavities expand and then contract.
The same expansion and contraction of the chest and abdominal cavities occurs when we move in āsana: a forward bend contracts the chest and abdomen, and a back bend expands them. So moving the body in āsana is actually an extension of the movement already happening in, and created by, breathing. When we put the two together and move based upon our breath, we find that different āsanas facilitate different types of breathing. More specifically, some postures emphasize and support inhaling and some postures emphasize and support exhaling. In fact, āsana is specifically designed to function in this way. By doing so, it involves and thus affects the prāṇamaya dimension at the same time that it is working on the physical body dimension (annamaya).
In addition to working on the annamaya and prāṇamaya dimensions, āsana also works on the manomaya (mental dimension). Āsana requires attention and mental focus. If we’re not paying attention, we can’t coordinate the movements and breathing very well at all. In fact, if we don’t pay attention, our breathing changes and we end up with a different result. In other words, even something as seemingly straightforwardly physical as āsana was not conceived by the ancient Yoga masters as working only on the physical dimension.
The point is that Yoga’s understanding of the human system is holistic in specific ways. It is not accidental or mysterious, but, rather, concrete and definite. How and why the different dimensions of the human system interrelate to one another are described in texts like the Taittirīya Upaniṣad, and can be used in the application of Yoga for healing. Moreover, the various Yoga tools and techniques are based on, and gain their effectiveness from, these principles.
One way of understanding prāṇa is “that which supports the physiology of the body.” In this capacity, prāṇa is sometimes compared to the role of electricity in electronic machinery. Without the electricity, nothing in the machine works, but when electricity is present (assuming the machine is in operating condition) it enables the machine to perform all kinds of different functions.
In the prāṇa vāyus model, prāṇa in different areas of the body is known by different names because prāṇa in different parts of the body supports different functions.
When we combine the perspective of the prāṇa vāyus with the pañcamaya ideas about the interrelatedness of the different dimensions of the human system, we can begin to see how these anatomies not only influence, but truly direct our treatment decisions. Different tools can be used to influence different parts of the human system in very specific ways. For example, we can generalize that if there is a problem in the apāna region of the body, then two tools that could be used to influence the apāna area of the body are exhalation and forward-bending āsanas.
Of course, this does not mean that all apāna area problems should be handled with forward bends and exhalation. There are many nuances and principles which a person must know before applying Yoga for healing, and it is not the intention of this article to explain how to apply these principles in depth. Rather, the intention of the article is to show that the application of Yoga for healing is built on Yoga’s understanding of how the human system functions. These models of anatomy provide predictable guidelines for how the human system can be influenced through different Yoga techniques and methods. In other words, applying Yoga for healing is not primarily an intuitive practice, but rather a practical science (and art) following definite, well-defined guidelines.
The material that is blocking the base of the suṣuṁnā nāḍī is called many different names. In some texts, the name given to the material blockage at the base of the suṣuṁnā nāḍī is kuṇḍalinī , a word that literally means a circular or winding shape and comes from the idea that the kuṇḍalinī is coiled around itself 3.5 times. Another name for the material blockage is mala, which literally means “impurity” and signifies things that are unhealthy for our system and should be eliminated. This mala may be physical (annamaya), as results from bad food or poor digestion; it may be emotional (ānandamaya), resulting from some difficult experiences; it may be unuseful communication styles (vijñānamaya), or even negative attitudes (manomaya). In other words, the impurity may be in any or all dimensions of our human system.
This model helps show how the physical practice of āsana is designed to affect the human system on multiple dimensions, in particular the prāṇamaya dimension. Thus, the ancient yogis conceived the practice of Yoga as having a focus that is fundamentally different from the typical Western attention to flexibility and alignment of muscle and ligament.
Yoga’s Tools are Extensions of Indian Anatomies
These anatomies describe the functioning of the human system, and in doing so serve as maps showing routes of treatment. They show how to apply Yoga tools and techniques for healing. By understanding their descriptions of how the human system functions, we know how and why various Yoga techniques and methods were conceived. Simply put, these Indian anatomies explain how and why Yoga’s various tools work. Of course, different tools work in different ways and on different parts of the human system. So we can see why different Yoga practices produce different effects, and how to purposefully elicit different effects in ourselves and students. As a result, our Yoga for healing treatments can account for myriad differences in individuals, symptoms, circumstances, causes, times, and so on.
Yoga Therapy is its Own Therapeutic System
Each of these three ancient Indian anatomies describes a specific portion of the human system in some detail. In doing so, they overlap, and some details do not correspond exactly with details from the other anatomies. However, that does not mean that one is right and the others wrong. Instead, if we understand what each offers, we find that they are very compatible with each other. When applied together as a whole, they present an incredibly rich and fertile geography of the human system.
We can now see that what is and is not “Yoga Therapy” is determined not by which Yoga tools are used nor by the effects they engender, but rather by the understanding with which the tools are applied. Yoga therapy is not Yoga therapy by virtue of its using Yoga techniques or methods, but rather by virtue of its yogic understanding of how these tools are used. This understanding is based on yogic understanding of the human system, ideas that are very different from conventional Western medicine.
For example, a particular position of the body is not, by itself, Yoga therapy (or even Yoga for that matter). Physical therapists also put the body in different positions, many of which resemble āsanas. But unless it is supported by Yoga principles as described above, an āsana is only a position of the body. In fact, an āsana separated from breathing, from mental attention, and from the Indian anatomical understanding from which it emerged, is no longer an āsana, even more so if it is applied according to conventional Western models of the human system.
What differentiates Yoga for healing from physical therapy, psychotherapy, and other Western therapies is the understanding of what we are trying to accomplish and what dimensions of the human system are involved in that process. What we do is not Yoga therapy. How we do it is. The importance of this principle cannot be overemphasized.
We have seen that the application of Yoga for healing is not just the use of specific techniques or methods, but rather a holistic therapeutic perspective towards the human system and the process of healing. It is not just a few techniques or methods that define Yoga for healing, but rather the theory, method, and principles underlying how the techniques are applied.
As practitioners of Yoga for healing, we must be careful to understand and maintain Yoga’s unique, holistic perspective. It is precisely this quality that makes Yoga special, and it is crucial to Yoga’s effectiveness. Ironically, it is also this critical quality that is most readily lost when Yoga for healing techniques and methods are applied according to conventional Western medical principles and assumptions.
Thus, it is of the utmost importance to maintain the distinction between assimilating Yoga tools and techniques into conventional Western medical practice, and practicing Yoga for healing. In the former, applications are solely according to Western anatomies, while in the latter, applications are according to the subtle, pañcamaya, and prāṇa vāyus anatomies of ancient India.
We need to ask ourselves, what anatomy is underlying our understanding and practice of Yoga for healing? Indeed, what do we think we are trying to accomplish through the practice of Yoga and āsana, prāṇāyāma, and meditation? Our imagined starting and ending points will strongly influence not only what treatments we can conceive, but also how we apply Yoga for healing.
*Special thanks to the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) for allowing us to republish this article which first appeared in the “International Journal of Yoga Therapists (IJYT).
* Desikachar, T.K.V. and Desikachar, Kausthub, information and translations orally transmitted in workshops and private classes between 2003 and 2007.
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