How The Yoga-Ayurveda Combine Helped Me Stay Afloat: Musings Of A Cancer Survivor

by Swati Kamal - Jun 21, 2018 03:57 PM +05:30 IST
How The Yoga-Ayurveda Combine Helped Me Stay Afloat: Musings Of A Cancer SurvivorA lady practises Yoga. (Phil Walter/Getty Images) 
  • Yoga is the miraculous companion in the battle against many diseases.

    Here is the author’s account of how she got the better of cancer with her steadfast belief in Yoga.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiatives in the recent years to make Yoga an integral part of life for children and adults alike, impel me to share my experiences with these life sciences.

My Early Brush With Yoga

My mother was a Yoga teacher, an alumnus of a Yoga school where yoga was taught in a comprehensive manner: breathing, diet, attitudinal training, etc, accompanied the asanas, and when done sincerely, and over a period of time, yielded results of better living and good health. So, as a family we did practise Yoga, and my sibling and I even became demonstrators for my mother’s classes at Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan and other places. But needless to say, very reluctantly.

Though we knew the benefits, as we saw her students get relief in countless cases of illness – asthma, back pains, high blood pressure, upper respiratory disorders, obesity – and also stress. In fact, there was actually a case of a young schoolboy, who had lost his voice owing to what my mother figured could be excessive body-building efforts; within few months of her yogic care, he actually got back his voice.

Despite all this exposure, we children dreaded Yoga-time in the evening, and as soon as we got a chance, we dropped it out of our routine.

Couple Of Decades Later…

On Diwali day of 2005, I found myself checking the word `leukaemia’ in an online dictionary: the dreaded word had made its way into my blood report, and I was sure it couldn’t be what I thought it was.

But it was. My boys were then five years and six months old, respectively. Bone marrow transplant, the known permanent cure was not an option for various reasons. Thankfully, there was a breakthrough chemotherapy drug – though how long it could prolong life was not known. However, one had to take it daily, life-long, and endure all its attendant side effects – also daily.

Thus began my debilitating journey with cancer and the promise of life sustained by chemotherapy – at the age of 33, and with one little boy and a toddler in tow.

My Real Tryst With Yoga

Chemotherapy was prolonging my life, but it came with very heavy quality-of-life costs. Plus, the drug was new and no one knew how long it would offer remission. There were also instances of people turning resistant to it. I desperately searched and tried all kinds of alternative therapies for support. One by one, I read about and tried them all out – You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay; past-life regression; affirmations, healing stones, nutrition therapy. Though begun with gusto, none of them really seemed to be helping really.

My mother was gone by then, so that refuge was not available to me. But my father knew an elderly gentleman, Dr Sivananda Murty – an embodiment of compassion and wisdom. It started with taking homeopathic medicines from him for symptomatic relief; his concern and his soothing words inspired confidence and trust – and the fact that he had a radiant face, was extremely energetic, as also aware, sharp, knowledgeable and a terrific sense of humour. Later, I got to know he was a practising yogi, of quite some stature.

Yogic-Ayurvedic Lifestyle

Though there was no imposing schedule I had to follow, I knew a few changes would need to be made.

Diet, of course, was to be nutritious, though light and I cut out the heavy and toxic. Here, I cannot stress enough the importance of a wholesome diet, and according to ayurvedic principles of eating according to season and time of the day. I would go so far as to say that the current trend of veganism could lead to serious imbalances later in life, both in body and mind. Food cannot be broken down into nutrients alone; it is the totality of the food that contributes to our being.

Asanas, again, according to body type, morning and evening walks, to soak in sunlight and the early morning oxygen. I was taught pranayama or breathing exercises, not too vigorous.

Gradually, I was able to accommodate meditation – different kinds of meditation, for different purposes, and at different times of the day. Mantras helped me to invoke the Sun’s healing energy, some general chants to keep calm and feel connected with the higher power. I realised the power of herbs – in providing stamina, in helping digestion and elimination of toxins.

What I realised is that many of these things were Ayurveda in practice, which is nothing but a sister science of Yoga. Or perhaps, Ayurveda forms the base for Yoga; either way, they work hand in hand and reinforce each other. Herbs, mantra, foods, colours, stones and many more things are all part of Ayurveda. Later, I found good resources in the works of Vedacharya David Frawley, Dr Robert Svoboda and Vasant Lad.

The biggest revelation was music. I had always been passionate about music and thought I knew about its “healing effects”. But here was a different suggestion: I was told to listen to classical ragas of Hindustani music at the appropriate time (each raga has a time that it has to be sung in). And though initially it was pleasing only to my ears, I realised that it was impacting me at a deep level: there were episodes of relief in severe neurological issues caused by the chemo drug, which the doctors had neither been able to identify nor cure. As I discovered later, classical music and its time-theory is part of Ayurveda, and that the ragas’ notes penetrate deep into the spinal cord, creating healing effects.

The best part about the entire experience was that I did not have to give up anything or change anything in my life – my likes, my preferences in food, people, dressing, recreation, entertainment, sense of humour. Some changes occurred on their own: for instance, I realised that honey taken three times a day had tremendously aided my digestion by helping eliminate toxins, and given me strength. In their turn, the toxins that left also left me bereft of the craving for such foods that would harm me.

I suspect the other positive impressions I was taking in had a role to play too – music, the right food in the right order, eaten at the right time – they had effected subtle changes in my psyche, and that had also a role to play in my unhealthy cravings disappearing. Perhaps, the connection back with nature and its cycles was helping.

The explanation for all this, I found recently in David Frawley’s book Ayurveda and the Mind. I understood that we have three vital essences that are responsible for our vitality, clarity and endurance – they are called prana (life force), tejas (inner radiance) and ojas (primal vigour).

All these three have psychological and emotional functions to perform: prana helps the mind respond to the challenges of life; tejas enables the mind to judge correctly; ojas gives patience and endurance that gives psychological stability.

Again, on an emotional level, prana maintains emotional harmony and creativity; tejas gives courage and vigour to help accomplish extraordinary actions, and ojas provides peace, calm and contentment.

It is obvious that all these three are desirable for a peaceful, meaningful existence. And how are they built up? These are built up in two ways: a) from the essence of nutrients we take in from food, heat and air, and b) by the impressions we take in through the senses.

Thus, the right food and impressions ingested – in accordance with ayurvedic principles, would help impact the psyche and mind and, bolstered by the effects of Yoga, would create and restore health. Viola!

My own experience was that, over time, and I don’t know how and when it happened, I had adopted things that I had no idea existed, and often didn’t even believe in. Just incremental changes – so gradual that they went unnoticed – that worked on each other and added up. As toxins left, strength at both the physical and subtle levels was built, and that further gave me strength to let go of other toxins. Some of my worst phobias went too – as did my acid reflux, and my hypothyroidism, my eczema.

Cutting a long story short, it’s now 13 years since I began considering alternative ways of living. The chemo continues, but it is a small fraction of the original prescription. I have gone back to working, and pursuing other interests. There’s no denying that I am a work in progress – we all are – but if it is nothing short of a miracle that I am where I stand today.

Just a small clarification is in order here. We hear about different forms of Yoga today – power Yoga, hot Yoga, Kundalini Yoga and others. While these surely have their purpose, it needs to be clarified that while dealing with serious life issues, what comes handy is the comprehensive Yoga, which deals with all aspects of existence – body, life breath, psyche, the consciousness.

Bhakti Yoga

What I now realise is, that without really thinking about it, a good number of steps of the eight-fold path of Yoga laid out by Patanjali were scaled. At one time, they had seemed so daunting and non-negotiable!

I didn’t have to change anything, or exclude any materialistic activity or eschew its fruits. All that was needed was to mentally dedicate everything to the higher truth. The rest was left to the higher power.

There is a verse in the Bhagawad Gita which translates to:

Whatever you do, whatever you eat, what you sacrifice, what you give, whatever austerity you engage yourself in, offer it to me.

(Yatkaroshi vadasnasi vajjuhoshi dadaasiyat, Yattapasyasi kaunteya tatkurushva madarpanam)

For a near-atheist, it was an unimaginable thing to do, but I had no choice, and so I did. Krishna was my chosen one – the powerful but fun, multifaceted, enigmatic god. It’s not a coincidence that he is, as I realised later – Yogeshwara.

Over the years, I also realised that our Indian deities and idols were only a means to an end. Just as an example: Mahalakshmi, the supreme mother is the Aadishakti, the original energy. What is the harm in connecting with that energy, with tools like mantras, meditation and appropriate worship? Many such benefits are available to all, at specific energised places all over India.

The Last Word

Religions, with their prescriptions of activity, are a way of life with each section of humanity. However, they widely differ in content from each other, and to the extent that they are based on the assertions of a few and vertically divide society irreconcilably, they become selfish, and a kind of materialism.

The Gita seeks to make every man a Yogi. Ultimately, the state of being unaffected by the results of action, and therefore, the ability to sail smoothly on the waves of the vicissitudes of life – is Yoga. It first benefits the individual and then permeates his surroundings.

Swati Kamal is a columnist for Swarajya.

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