Why I will not participate in the Isha Yoga Program
Yesterday, there was an introduction to an Isha Yoga program at my work place. I got a mail in the morning itself. Since the project I was working on was in a lean phase, and having completed what little work I had, I thought I will walk in. Let me state upfront that I look at all kinds of “spiritual” programs with suspicion and consider most of them to be, at best as harmless fluff. But I just wanted to find out what it is that they say. And with such an idea, I went in. Not wanting to be inaccurate, and not wanting to forget anything, I took a pen and a writing pad. This is a gist of what happened, and my thoughts on it.
The program is called “Inner Engineering”. One representative from Isha Yoga foundation anchored the 45 minute introductory session. The crux of what he wanted to convey was “You are not giving enough attention to your inner self. That shows from the fact that you are usually stressed. This program will help you handle stress better”.
The session started with a video clip. In this there was a voice of a foreigner, as seen from his accent, describing Mr.Jaggi Vasudev as a “Realised Master” and a “Mystic Yogi”. I understood neither of those terms. This was followed by a video of Mr.Jaggi Vasudev talking to a large audience. His talk was on the irony of how he sees a lack of happiness everywhere, though everybody claims that whatever they are doing, they are doing it to keep them happy. He also compared the happiness of a 5 year old with a 35 year old, and said that happiness only goes down with one’s age, and wondered why people are not happy like a 5 year old.
That struck me as odd. I can surely do with more happiness than I have, as would every other human being, including Mr.Jaggi Vasudev himself. But my point is this. I have always looked at childhood happiness, as the bliss that comes out of ignorance. So there is really no point in asking why we are not as happy now as we were at age 5. It is because we are less ignorant now. Given an option, I would rather be the 30 that I am today, than the 5 that I was then (ignoring, for the moment, the number of years left to live in either case).
The clip ended with the voice saying that the program is “scientifically structured” and is an “invitation to the divine”. Then the representative, who called himself a full-time volunteer with Isha Yoga, took over. He pointed out that our physical body is affected by mental stress and it takes the form of muscles becoming rigid because acidic impurities are released to the muscles when one is mentally stressed. He also said that stress releases more sugar into one’s blood. These could be true. But he was trying to establish this since he wanted to convince the audience that “mental” events can have “physical” side effects. This, I thought, is well known. There is nothing surprising here. It probably is surprising to people who think that mind and body are two separate things (as I have heard “spiritual leaders” frequently say). Science has always said that mind-body dualism is wrong and that, whatever we call as mind (some people even say soul), is very much physical and is part of the brain. So there was nothing new there.
Then he said, that if we participate in this program, we can see immediate benefits like not having to sleep (rest) for long hours. But what was more surprising was that he claimed that his program would cure a host of diseases including Asthma, Diabetes, Sinusitis and Hypertension. Even before I could recover from these startling claims, he went on to say Diabetes is not genetic.
The video clip shown in the beginning also had some individuals saying that they had benefitted greatly from the program. One of them was a doctor, who said she stopped taking medication for Hypertension, after following the program for 4 months. She also went on to say that her logical mind does not see how it happened.
The representative then concluded that equanimity is Yoga. And that one should be like Krishna of Mahabharatha, who, as the story goes, is always calm and smiling, as everybody else in the story is having some problem or the other. He implied that it is such equanimity that could be achieved through the program.
I am guessing here, that all that the program probably does is to generally make people look at their daily problems in perspective. This is combined with a little bit of stretching exercises. By daily problems, I mean the small ones like an argument with your spouse, an issue at work etc. The big problems, like losing a dear one, cannot be wished away so easily. But the daily problems can indeed be handled better by looking at them in perspective. It is not always easy, but it is possible, without any “spiritual” guidance of an “Enlightened Master”.
What could be better to put things in perspective than to look at the amount of suffering some section of humanity endures every day. The poverty that a majority of people in India lives in. The violence that some nations of Africa experience. Is that not enough to know that our problems are small and that we should not sweat the little stuff. That should at the very least prevent us from lingering long on those small problems.
Another way to get perspective is to look at the night sky, to realise that the stars you see are so far away that what you are seeing is how they were hundreds of years ago. In some cases, thousands. Can you fathom the kind of distances they are? If not that, what about the fact that every kind of thing the table, the computer, the food you eat, the water you drink, the mountains you trek, the buses you travel in, the bones that make you are all basically protons neutrons and electrons arranged differently? What about the fact that every living organism that exists today, a virus, a snail, a mosquito, a seahorse, a whale, a bacteria, an owl, a tomato plant, your pet dog, a chicken: everything is literally your relative, a distant cousin. Is it not mind-blowing to realise that you and the potato you had for dinner share a common ancestor ages ago? In all these unimaginable scales of time and distance, we are an insignificant speck. And our problems, are even more insignificant.
I realise that everyone has their own way of getting uplifted, and some probably get it from the Isha yoga program. But if the foundation wants to claim they can cure diseases like Diabetes, they should back it up with some evidence. When the representative said that Diabetes is not genetic, he probably wanted to say that genes alone do not determine whether a person becomes a diabetic or not, which is true, since the kind of life he has lead too plays a part. But the way he said, it looked as if he wanted to say that everybody has an equal chance of getting Diabetes, which is untrue.
But even ignoring the “genetic” argument, how can he claim that the program can cure Asthma and Diabetes? Has the foundation done research on it? The only way they want to convince us is by showing a few individuals (part of the video clip). Strange!! As any doctor should know, medicines and cures cannot be decided by anecdotes. There must be hard data based on systematic research backing it up. If they indeed can cure Diabetes or Asthma, they only need to make their research known and Nobel prizes will come calling.
I think the problem with these programs is that there is some amount of exercise involved (in the form of yoga), which will have some amount of health benefits (which can go to the extent of even reducing blood sugar the next morning), though not enough to cure diseases. This is mixed with a good dose of meditation (now, what is that??) and mantra chanting or spiritual discourse. Having spent time at a silent place, you probably would feeling better after the program. Add to that the placebo effect of “thinking” that you have indeed been subject to some significant transformation. But the same effect can be had by doing your own exercise and spending some time in the library. There is no need to invoke words like spiritual and divine.
There might be many good programs run by the foundation which helps the community at large, as I can see from their website, and what I read in the newspapers. Some of the tree planting work done is also impressive. I don’t deny that and this post is not about that. I dont even doubt the intention of the organization or the representative. But what I want to say is this. Humanity has moved forward with painstaking work in Science. If the average life expectancy of humans has gone up in the modern age, much of the credit goes to medicinal research. Till the time medical claims, like that of Isha Foundation, are verified by research, I would much rather spend my weekends looking at the night sky, watching a movie or spending time with family and ask my mom, who is a diabetic, to continue her regular walking. All of these are stress busting, and most importantly, none claim they can cure diseases. I will leave that work to the medical research community and my doctor.