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Yoga

I write about the problems with too much medicine and the body’s ability to regenerate itself. There are some things that humans have known about since at least as far back as Ancient Greece that can boost our bodies’ natural healing abilities. These are mainly: exercise, stress reduction (balance), and good diet. There are probably hundreds of ways of going about getting these into your life routine, and the one that I find most useful is Yoga. This doesn’t mean that Yoga is the only way, it’s just the one I know most about. The first year I tried to row for the Canadian rowing team I was training like a demon twice or three times per day. I remember being so tired at night that I was barely strong enough to lift the fork to eat my dinner. Whatever I was doing wasn’t enough because I failed to pass the final test, and was cut from the team. I was completely devastated. After a few days of feeling depressed I realized I wasn’t ready to give up. The problem was that I really felt like I was at my physical limit. What more could I do?
The one thing I remember is feeling too nervous before races and then feeling drained for the actual races. I was short for an international rower and the need to outperform taller, stronger athletes meant that I couldn’t afford to waste any energy. It was then I remembered stories I’d read about mothers lifting cars to save their children, and Yogis in India not eating for days or standing on one leg for weeks. ‘If I could learn to focus my mind like that,’ I thought, ‘I will be able to row faster’. My rational mind told me these stories of extreme human performance through deep mental focus were probably nonsense, but I was willing to try if it would help me win. I decided to seek out a yoga teacher.
The problem was that I didn’t know anyone who taught traditional yoga. These people, I thought, were what I needed to control my mind and help me do the rowing equivalent of lifting cars. Yoga wasn’t as popular back then in the mid-1990s as it is today. The few teachers I did know focused on more modern forms that emphasise the learning of physical postures and stretching. Eventually my mother (who was into that kind of stuff) put me in touch with a traditional yoga instructor in Montreal called Dr. Madan Bali, who I mentioned briefly in the preface. I was intrigued when I heard he had apparently worked with the Montreal Canadiens professional ice hockey team a few years earlier at a time when they used to be the best team in the league. We spoke briefly on the phone and set up an appointment to meet the next day. When I got to his place, my first reaction was surprise at the modesty of the place. The small living room of his apartment in downtown Montreal doubled as his yoga studio. I remember the smell of curry being cooked in the kitchen, which was only separated from the living room studio by a thin beaded curtain. He clearly wasn’t in it for the money. We sat down together and I fired a battery of skeptical questions at Dr. Bali. How do you know it works? If it is so great why doesn’t everyone do it? Is it scientific? What do you mean we only use 2% of our brains? Can we really rewire our brains and our DNA? Where did you get your PhD? Dr. Bali answered all my questions patiently, and his friendly manner disarmed me. It was hard to continue my aggressive line of questioning when he was being so kind and patient. He told me about endorphins, about the body’s ability to change, about the damage caused by the fight or flight response, and the power of the mind over the body.
Eventually I ran out of questions, and although I didn’t believe it, I wanted to believe what Dr. Bali said about the mind controlling the body. If I could control my mind, I could improve my rowing performance. He smiled and told me that the first class was free so I could try it, and test for myself whether my mind felt calmer or not. I was still very suspicious. I wondered whether he was planning to hypnotise me and turn me into a cult member. But the offer of a free class, combined with my desperation to win races won out against my skepticism. I decided to give it a go.
It turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. Dr. Bali blew me away. He was already 70 years old and could do as many leg lifts and push ups as I could and I was in world-class shape. More than that, I was so relaxed at the end of the session that I almost fell asleep. When I sat up everything seemed clear. I felt deeply focused. ‘If I could learn to control when I felt relaxed and to focus so well,’ I thought, ‘I’ll save energy and win more races.’ So that’s just what I did. I learned his routine, and practiced yoga. Eights months after that first yoga session, I made the Canadian team. But I’m not telling this story because of me, I’m telling it because of Dr. Bali.
At 93 years young, Dr. Bali’s schedule includes teaching about 40 hours per week, travelling to faraway places like Indonesia to give yoga courses, and taking care of his family. He always has a smile on his face. He took care of his wife who was very ill until she passed away in 2016. His many students plague him with their trials and tribulations on a daily basis and he listens carefully and offers them good advice. I’m sure he has physical and emotional aches and pains, however he chooses to think positive thoughts. This lets him get on with his life. Getting on with his life means doing exercise and interacting with people, which benefit his health. This, in turn allows him to continue exercising and interacting. It’s a virtuous circle. He says his daily practice of yoga keeps him young and healthy.
A skeptic might say that Dr. Bali was born with good genes, and that’s why he is so healthy and happy at 93 years young. To them, his state has nothing to do with yoga. It is true that Dr. Bali was born with great genes. I know this because of what he told me about a faded tattoo he has on his arm. I asked him what it was and he said it was his name, ‘M. Bali’. I asked him why he had it. He replied that as a Hindu during the 1947 partition of India he had survived multiple attempts on his life as he escaped to Delhi. He thought he might not survive and wanted to make sure that anyone who found his body would recognize him so he could have a proper burial. He survived hard times that might have killed a weaker person. At the same time, you would be hard pressed to find someone working full time and taking care of people at 93 years young who is not doing yoga or similar. Dr. Bali is not proof that his lifestyle and attitude are what keep him going. That would require an impossible randomized trial in which his health outcomes were measured against those of a cloned version of him engaging in some tricky-to-design placebo version of traditional yoga. Yet his story—together with the science presented in this book—suggests quite clearly that genes are far from the whole picture.
In a way, this book is a description of the scientific evidence showing that many of the things Dr. Bali promotes improve health in a measurable way. Studies show that relaxation reduces stress and improves health, positive thinking activates the body’s inner pharmacy to reduce pain, depression, and anxiety, good social networks make you live longer, the care of an empathetic doctor can be just as effective a blockbuster drug. These things might even be able to change your genes and your brain. Beyond that, the health of the different parts of your body are connected, the health of your body as a whole and your mind are connected, and your overall health is connected to the people around you. The high quality evidence presented here means that this can no longer be viewed as fuzzy feel-good stuff: it is hard science.
More than a story about Dr. Bali, this book is about you. I hope you’ve understood the science, and actually experienced it working. I hope you’ve become an active medical citizen, either in your individual interactions or on behalf of society at large. Most of all, I hope you know that you are not a mindless machine damned to sit back and pray for pills to cure us from things that we often seek medical help for.