Yoga and transcendental meditation

Western interest in Eastern thought, including ideas about sickness and (physical and mental) health, was stimulated enormously by the visit of the Beatles in 1968 to the Indian Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to be initiated in the doctrine of transcendental meditation. It is now practised by millions of people throughout the world.

The practice of yoga and transcendental meditation consists of physical and mental disciplines designed to transform, perception of the world by freeing the mind from attachment to the senses. At the same time it improves health-giving a general feeling of well-being. It can also alleviate specific medical conditions and help you to overcome the stresses of modern life.

Background of yoga

Yoga is the practical aspect of the Vedanta philosphy and has been practised in India for at least 6,000 years. It is a vast philosophy with its roots deep in Indian mystical thought. Many different forms exist. The most common form of yoga in the West is a combination of asanas (yoga-postures), which are a part of the Hatha yoga that tries to reach a state of complete balance of body functions (physical harmony), and Raja yoga which encompasses the control of the mind through meditation.

Effects of yoga

Yoga works by freeing the mind from attachment to the senses. It should not be treated as a form of therapy for a specific disorder, but rather as a form of self-help through self-knowledge and self-improvement. Yoga can help to keep a person healthy, because it improves respiration, digestion, elimination of waste products and circulation. It also makes the body more supple, stretches the spine and strengthens the muscles.

The aim of yoga is mind-body control and a dedicated yoga devotee, or ‘yogi’, can achieve extraordinary control over his bodily functions. For example, yoga techniques enable fakirs to perform acts such as sitting on beds of nails. Less spectacular are postures that benefit specific parts of the body by increasing their blood supply, or exercises which change the rate of breathing, heart beat or even brain wave rhythms to improve the health of body and mind. Asanas strengthen the body and harmonize the mind, and makes it possible to reach the highest level of breathing, pranayama. Indian philosophy claims that those who breath according to the rules of yoga will live a long life. Different asanas act upon different parts of the body and help to activate and control body functions such as blood pressure, circulation, the nervous system and digestion, and at the same time prevent disturbances of the body. About 25 of the total number of asanas can be learned and performed by everybody.

Although yoga postures can be learned from books, it is better to be taught by a qualified instructor. Posture exercises should be done slowly and smoothly. A position can be held for anything from a few seconds to about half an hour during which time special breathing exercises are carried out. A typical class consists of asanas performed in slanting, kneeling, sitting and lying positions. Every posture on one side of the body should be repeated by the same posture on the opposite side. The class may also include meditation.

No special equipment is needed to practise yoga, only a quiet room which is well ventilated, comfortable loose clothing and bare feet. At the end of a yoga session there should be a feeling of physical and mental relaxation with no aches or pains from overex-ercise. Regular practice, if only for a short time each day, gives more benefit than longer but infrequent sessions.

Unlike strenuous exercise programmes, yoga can be taken up by anyone, regardless of age or state of fitness, provided the form of yoga exercises is suited to the individual. Anyone who suffers from a specific medical problem, such as heart disease, high blood pressure or a slipped disc, should consult a doctor first because some yoga postures may be dangerous for them. It should be kept in mind that: . certain exercises are forbidden for children . yoga should not be performed during menstruation . for pregnant women and elderly people there are special classes of yoga . large meals should not be eaten before starting yoga exercises . eating habits should be adapted when starting yoga (cut down on meat, milk and eggs; eat lots of fruit and uncooked food; avoid coffee, tobacco, narcotics and stimulants).

Although the value of yoga lies mainly in the prevention of illness through a general improvement of the physical and mental state, certain medical conditions, including some chronic diseases, respond beneficially to it. Some multiple sclerosis sufferers, for example, have claimed that yoga helps them both physically and emotionally.

Transcendental meditation

Transcendental meditation (TM) is based on a meditative system attributed to the eighth-century Hindu philospher, Shankara (physicist and philosopher). The aim of TM is to achieve a state of pure consciousness, which goes beyond, or transcends, thought. During TM, energy which is normally dispersed in various physical and mental activities is channelled towards an intense inner experience. This concentrated energy can result in a number of beneficial effects. A TM initiate is given and learns how to use a special, for him personal, selected word (mantra), which he has to repeat again and again. Transcendental meditation consists of sitting in a relaxed position, breathing easily and normally and focusing attention on the repetition of the mantra. TM is usually taught in four one-hour lessons on four successive days. Students are shown how to use their mantras and how to exercise twice daily for about 20 minutes in order to achieve progressively quieter levels of thinking.

TM has become popular as a therapeutic aid, mainly because of its capacity to reduce tension. Other beneficial effects include a reduction in heart-rate, respiration rate and oxygen consumption during and after TM and a measurable decrease in blood pressure in hypertensive patients.