A critical element is missing in the national debate on health-care reform. Politicians, medical experts and insurance executives struggle to formulate an affordable health-care system, but overlook the simplest, least expensive, yet most profound ingredient in the equation: Self-Care. The most effective way to reduce health-care costs is to reduce the demand for medical services. How? By acquainting people with attractive alternatives to old, unhealthy habits that create disease.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia report that the key factors influencing an individual’s state of health have not changed significantly over the past twenty years. Quality of medical care accounts for only 10%. Heredity accounts for 18% and environment 19%. But everyday lifestyle choices contribute an impressive 53%. The decisions people routinely make about their daily lives are by far the greatest factor in determining their wellness. The meaning of these statistics is crystal clear. If people could be introduced to some essential, basic information and be motivated to make more skillful choices, they’d experience better health and, as a consequence, lower health-care costs.
Mind-body medicine pioneer Herbert Benson, M.D. of the Harvard Medical School claims that maintaining good health is analogous to building a three-legged stool. One leg is pharmaceuticals. The second leg is surgery and medical procedures. And the third leg is Self-Care. “Health and well-being,” Dr. Benson insists, “is balanced and optimal only when all three legs of the stool are in place.”
The present health-care system is broken and bankrupting the nation because our society assumes that heart disease, cancer, diabetes and most of the chronic diseases that plague us are simply the natural breakdown of the human body. But that is just not true. The body strives to maintain good health. It is the mind that sabotages and overburdens the body by making poor decisions that serve short-term pleasure or convenience and undermine long-term health.
Human beings are not merely physical bodies. We are breathing and thinking beings also––living with complex thoughts, desires and emotions. Yoga Science views the body as a covering outside the mind, and the mind as a covering outside the center of consciousness (the soul). To experience health and well-being, we must properly care for and feed the body, regulate our breath, coordinate the functions of our mind and base all our actions on the inner intuitive wisdom of our spirit, as reflected by the conscience (buddhi).
Our individual achievement of optimal health does not begin with a lower health insurance premium. First and foremost, human wellness requires a reliable blueprint for mind-body self-care. With active and discriminating participation in our own health management, we can form a healing partnership with our physicians––and stop working against our own best interests.
The basis of every effective mind-body self-care program is meditation. The word meditation is derived from the Latin mederi, meaning to heal. The words medicine, medical and medicate come from the same root word. Mederi implies a sense of attending to or paying attention to something in order to facilitate well being. In meditation, you sit quietly and ask the mind to let go of its everyday tendencies to think, analyze, remember, solve problems, and focus on past events or on expectations of the future. Meditation increases theta waves (the electrical waves that appear in the brain just before one falls asleep) while the meditating person remains alert and focused. This experience creates a sense of calm awareness that allows a meditator to overcome the body’s natural “fight or flight” stress response to perceived external danger or irritation. This, in turn, slows down the mind’s rapid series of thoughts and feelings, and replaces that mental activity with a calm, inner awareness and attention. As a consequence of this quiet, effortless, one-pointed focus of attention, the body and mind both become rejuvenated. By maintaining a daily meditation practice, stress, fear, depression, fatigue, high blood pressure and addictions are all diminished and the body is free to function to its healthy potential.
Mind/body medicine is an approach to healing that uses the power of thoughts and emotions to positively influence physical health. As Hippocrates wrote, “The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well.” Yoga Science, the world’s oldest holistic mind-body medicine, presents a comprehensive and time-honored program for staying well.
While phrases such as “mind over matter” have been around for years, only recently have scientists found solid clinical evidence that mind-body techniques of meditation and Hatha Yoga actually do combat disease and promote health. Here are a few of the most recent findings.
• Educator Robert Schneider, M.D., of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, recently announced the results of a new study which found that patients with high blood pressure who meditated regularly had a 23% lower death rate from all causes and a 30% lower rate of cardiovascular disease mortality (such as heart attacks and strokes) than did similar patients in a control group.
• NaturalNews.com recently reported on two important new studies. The first, published in Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, found that yoga postures and meditation improve blood pressure, blood sugar and triglyceride levels and reduced waist circumference. In the second study, the University of Karlstad, Sweden researchers concluded that the daily yogic breathing practices of pranayama significantly lowered levels of anxiety, depression and stress in those individuals participating.
• A pilot study in the Arab Emirates revealed that as little as 12 sessions of meditation and hatha yoga significantly improved the conditions of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients. Out of a total of 47 patients enrolled in the study, 26 undertook Yoga sessions, while a control group of 21 remained on regular treatment. Some patients in the yoga group were able to decrease or discontinue RA medications. The study was funded by the Emirates Arthritis Foundation.
•According to Dr. Amit Sood, director of research at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, both meditation and Hatha Yoga are used in their complementary medicine program. Meditation is used to treat anxiety and high blood pressure and to help people quit smoking without medication. Mayo reports their studies have found that meditation helps patients cope with epilepsy, premenstrual syndrome, menopausal symptoms, autoimmune disease and the anxiety experienced during cancer treatment. When Mayo Clinic patients used yoga, it was found to be effective for stress relief, lower back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoarthritis, anxiety and depression. Patients with heart disease and diabetes who practiced yoga breathing techniques and postures had significant improvement in total cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
• Research conducted by Dr. David Eisenberg and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School has recently concluded that meditation is the most beneficial of therapeutic alternatives. And it’s no wonder, when you consider the growing body of medical evidence. Focusing the mind continuously on one thought, phrase or prayer for a period of time naturally leads to a “relaxation response,” changes in the body that are deeply restorative and which accelerate the healing process. These beneficial changes include reductions in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, perspiration and muscle tension, as well as an improvement in immune function.
• For the first time, meditation has been shown to produce lasting beneficial changes in immune-system function, according to Dr. Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin. The study, which looked at a group of 25 biotech workers who underwent an eight-week meditation training program, is the latest in a growing body of research into the mind-body connection. Toward the end of the eight-week study, flu shots were given to the employees and a group of 16 other employees who did not receive meditation training. When researchers checked for antibodies to the vaccine at one month and two-month intervals, the meditators had significantly higher levels than the nonmeditators. On average, the meditators had a 5 percent increase in antibodies, but some had increases of up to 25 percent.
Other clinical studies document the positive effect of meditation on mood and symptoms in people with a variety of conditions (such as high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, and cancer) as well as an improved quality of life. Researchers have found that particular stress hormones are associated with specific unhealthy emotions. For example, stress related to hostility and anxiety can result in disruptions in heart and immune function. Similarly, depression and distress may diminish the body’s natural capacity to heal. In contrast, emotional expression that encourages openness and active coping with problems helps stabilize the immune system.
Research indicates that the inability to skillfully deal with stress and emotions leads to inappropriate lifestyle choices and illness. According to internist Steele Belok, M.D., staff physician at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, “Twenty percent of Americans have an anxiety disorder. Stress arises when a person has trouble coping with the demands placed on them. When people are unable to cope, the resultant anxiety leads them to self-medicate in various ways such as food, TV, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, and coffee.” However, these methods are short-sighted because they depress the body’s natural immune system. What results is a vicious cycle of stress and debilitating emotions, where the less a person is able to cope, the more he or she improperly self-medicates. These actions further worsen the ability to cope and cause even more poor lifestyle choices as some measure of compensation. This vicious, habitual cycle of stress and harmful lifestyle choices inevitably leads to disease and higher health-care costs.
Take obesity for example. Much obesity is a function of lifestyle choice, and it’s not just dangerous, it’s expensive. New research shows medical spending averages $1,400 more a year for an obese person than for someone whose weight is normal. Overall obesity-related health spending has reached $147 billion, double what it was just a decade ago, according to a study published by the journal Health Affairs.
But there is a way to cut short this vicious cycle of stress. One goal of meditation is to activate the relaxation response and reduce the stress response. When you are relaxed, the levels of hormones related to stress are reduced and your immune system is more efficient.
Mind/body techniques such as meditation, diaphragmatic breathing and yoga postures are helpful for many conditions because they promote relaxation, improve coping skills, reduce tension and pain, and lessen the need for medication. For example, many mind-body techniques are used successfully (along with medication) to treat acute pain. Symptoms of anxiety and depression also respond well to mind-body techniques.
Because they improve coping skills and give a feeling of control over symptoms, Yoga Science mind-body techniques are being used to help treat many diseases beyond those already mentioned. These include: asthma, coronary heart disease, cancer (and the pain and nausea/vomiting related to chemotherapy), insomnia, diabetes, stomach and intestinal disorders (including indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhea, ulcerative colitis, heartburn and Crohn’s disease), fibromyalgia and menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, depression, and irritability.
But personal health is not the only area in our lives affected by poor lifestyle choices. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, American business and industry loses over $300 billion dollars annually due to the devastating effects of stress in the workplace. Worse, none of the widely used programs to combat stress are doing the job. So healthcare costs, loss of productivity, and morale problems continue to escalate––especially during the current economic recession. According to the American Institute of Stress, research indicates that meditation is the most effective solution to the problem of job stress and the only program shown to significantly and reliably develop creativity and intelligence while increasing productivity.
In every culture and society, all over the world, people are educated in the skills needed to function and survive in that culture––how to talk, think, work, and investigate the objects and experiences of the external world. We learn science, technology and business practices in order to succeed in the world, but no one teaches us to understand or attend to those habit patterns that motivate actions that cause dis-ease. Instead, we merely learn to assimilate the goals, fashions and values of our society, without really examining and knowing ourselves first, within and without. This leaves us ignorant of our own inner intuitive wisdom and leaves us dependent on the advice and suggestions of others.
The take-home message from all this is simple. You are the architect of your life and you determine your destiny. For over 6,000 years meditation and gentle yoga have provided tools to help human beings learn the art of healthy living. As holistic mind/body medicine, both provide the tools and motivation to change old, debilitating habits into new healthy habits that enhance well-being and reduce health-care costs. Regardless of your age, if you meditate and practice easy-gentle yoga exercises, you can cut health costs dramatically by boosting the immune system, facilitating clarity of thought, helping focus attention, increasing energy and productivity, enhancing problem solving capabilities and strengthening and healing relationships. As part of a complete daily wellness program, meditation and an easy-gentle yoga practice can improve mental, emotional and physical well being and give you the necessary skills to become an active partner with your physicians in maintaining health and vitality at a fraction of the current cost.
You can live in an optimal state of balance and healthfulness––if you simply learn to make living in that state a priority and unite the intuitive wisdom of the spirit with the healing power of the mind.
About the author
Leonard Perlmutter (Ram Lev)
Founder and director of The American Meditation Institute, Leonard is the author of “Transformation,” The Journal of Meditation as Mind/Body Medicine and the award-winning book “The Heart and Science of Yoga®: A Blueprint for Peace, Happiness and Freedom from Fear.” His “Heart and Science of Yoga®” entry-level course has been certified by the Albany Medical College, American Medical Association, the Massachusetts Association of Registered Nurses and American Nurses Association for continuing medical education credit. Leonard has been a student of Yoga Science since 1975 and a direct disciple of mind/body medicine pioneer Swami Rama of the Himalayas.