Yoga for Healing and Wholeness

By Mark Stephens on Wed, 02/15/2017 - 12:12

Excerpted from the "Introduction" to Yoga Therapy: Foundations, Methods, and Practices (712 pages, forthcoming November 2017, North Atlantic Books/Penguin Random House)

Yoga offers a rich array of resources for living healthier and better lives. The asana, pranayama, and meditation practices of yoga are well-honed tools for cultivating an abiding sense of wholeness in our lives and for opening to a more expansive appreciation of life itself as part of the sublime nature of human existence. They can also be applied in uniquely customized yoga practices to help us heal common injuries and ailments, including those that can arise when practicing yoga. 
From the earliest times of yogic exploration in India’s Vedic period (c. 1500 BCE), seers, sadhus, and various seekers have sought to make life better through reducing or eliminating suffering. This is the leitmotif of yoga. For some yogis, suffering is seen as an inherent part of the human condition that is ultimately addressed on the path of ritualistic self-transcendent practices, while for others yoga offers a path for living a healthier and more joyful life in the present moment regardless of one’s conditions or circumstances. Here we take more of the latter path, exploring how best to heal and have greater joy in the here and now.
Throughout the ages and up to the present, we can see tremendous progress in understanding human health, with many advances leading to letting go of what in earlier times was considered most efficacious or beneficial. Many ancient yogis and their healing arts peers, especially the pioneers of ayurveda, did their best in using speculation (or, as many assert, divine transmission) and experimentation to understand the nature of human nature and how best to live in the healthiest ways. While we can find some healthy yoga practices in the ancient mists of early Indian civilization, our deepening understanding of the human organism in the modern world is generating more refined and effective tools for healing, even as some modern developments are the cause of great dis-ease. In the light of our greater knowledge we can recognize some earlier practices as beneficial even as others are ineffective or even harmful, this while giving consideration to the innovative methods and techniques that are developing to the present day.
As an evolving practice for self-cultivation and self-awakening, yoga invites us to go beyond the practices given by the ancients. It is thus in the spirit of yoga as a living and evolving tradition that this book attempts to offer insights drawn from ancient to modern yoga, ayurveda, and what is often called modern scientific medicine in addressing practices for healing what ails us on and off the yoga mat.
According the most recent cross-national survey of yoga students in the United States, doing yoga on a regular basis makes people feel better – calmer amid stressful conditions, more positive in outlook, and more self-accepting. With these benefits, yoga typically leads to taking better care of oneself, with better diet, sleep, and balanced exercise. With self-improvement we also find social benefits, with clearer communication, deeper appreciation of human diversity, and better care for others and the planet.
Every physiological system is affected in doing yoga. There is a growing body of evidence that particular yoga practices can have specific affects on these systems, including in healing a variety of increasingly common health conditions and offering potential cures for some maladies that remain largely mysterious to modern medical science. There are also many mysteries in how yoga works in the human organism, especially as there are a vast array of different practices called yoga and an even greater diversity of conditions and intentions of those who do these practices. As we move further into the 21st century, we have a growing body of research revealing how various yoga practices are sources of harm, health, or sometimes both. 
We can also find insights into health and healing in the annals of modern medical science, even as many mainstream medical practices are anathema to some adherents of yoga and alternative medicine and sometimes cause harm. Here we will open to insights into healing regardless of their source – Eastern Western, allopathic, ayurvedic, integrative or complementary– thereby allowing us to tap into yoga, ayurveda, and scientific medicine for all they have to offer in healing our ailments….