A Revolution in Healthcare
Swami Satchidananda made far-reaching contributions to the field of health and complementary medicine. From the start of his service in the West, Sri Gurudev steadfastly promoted vegetarian diet, stress reduction through the Yoga practices and philosophy, and living in harmony with nature. Swami Satchidananda fully supported the use of holistic and natural remedies. Yet, at the same time, he was supportive of the positive aspects of allopathic medicine and always spoke about the great advances it had brought, particularly for acute problems.
Swami Satchidananda’s ideas and ideals were radical at the time—chief among them the notion that disease was essentially—”dis-ease,” or disturbed ease. The chief factors responsible for those disturbances included: non-vegetarian diet, unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking, illicit drug use, wrong, sedentary life-style and stress. He taught that treating illness from a purely allopathic approach put undue focus on symptoms without going to the root cause of disease. He gave the analogy that treating symptoms alone was like cutting the wires on a home smoke alarm. If you cut the alarm wires and go back to sleep, the fire may take your life. He would often say that the doctors performing bypass surgery were only “bypassing” the real problem which would recur unless properly addressed. These words were to foreshadow important changes in Western medical approaches to heart disease that Dr. Dean Ornish, among others, was to bring.
While in in training, Dr. Ornish found himself extremely stressed and depressed by the challenges of medical school. He was introduced to Swami Satchidananda and Yoga and felt immediate benefit. Dr. Ornish read an article in Integral Yoga Magazine on the “Medical Benefits of Yoga,” written by Swami Satchidananda’s student, Dr. Sandra Amrita McLanahan, Dr. Ornish invited her to speak to his medical school—Baylor College of Medicine. He also invited her to do research with him on the medical benefits of Yoga on heart disease. Dr. Ornish spent time with Swami Satchidananda and Dr. McLanahan, discussing plans for research projects that would attempt to measure the benefits of vegetarian diet, meditation, Hatha Yoga, and exercise.
A number of Swami Satchidananda’s students were working in the medical field and were focusing on integrating his ideas and Yoga teachings into their own practices. They also wanted to share with those same teachings with the medical world at large. Because of the growing awareness of the health benefits of Yoga, Swami Satchidananda was asked to speak at a wide variety of medical institutions.
In the mid-1970s, Swami Satchidananda spoke at the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins Medical Center, Baylor College of Medicine, among other places. He often spoke about natural living and how we fall sick when we don’t live according to nature. Dr. McLanahan remembered one of these talks when Swami Satchidananda said, “The root cause of all illness is selfishness.” And, she also recalled that, “You could have heard a pin drop. The only sound was that of jaws dropping. Sri Gurudev was not talking about selfishness in moralistic terms but that sense of separation and isolation that makes you separate from everyone and your essential nature. The sense of ‘I, me, mine’ as Sri Gurudev often said.”
Dr. Michael Lerner, director of Commonweal, a leading health research institute in California, met Dr. McLanahan in the 1980s. Deeply moved by Swami Satchidananda and the Integral Yoga approach to well-being, Dr. Lerner invited Swami Satchidananda to visit Commonweal. Inspired by Swami Satchidananda’s teachings, Dr. Lerner subsequently established the Cancer Help Program. This program also has an East Coast center which is directed by Shanti Norris, one of Swami Satchidananda’s first personal assistants.
Dr. McLanahan remembers teaching Dr. Mamet Oz his first Yoga class. Now, Dr. Oz is a leader in the field of complementary medicine. At Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, Dr. Oz has a groundbreaking program where he practices Yoga with his patients before and after they undergo heart surgery and he finds it to be the most powerful of all the alternative health interventions.
During the 1980s, Bill Moyers’ popular series “Healing and the Mind” aired on the PBS television station. There were nine students of Swami Satchidananda profiled during this series. In the 1990s, Dr. Ornish scientifically proved that heart disease not only could be prevented, but even reversed, through Yoga. Dr. Ornish was one of President Clinton’s personal physicians and he also gave consultations to Members of Congress who had heart disease. Currently, Medicare is funding his research on reversing prostate cancer through Yoga and complementary medicine.
When asked for her assessment of the impact that Swami Satchidananda’s teachings have had on the medical field, Dr. McLanahan smiled and replied, “All you need to do is look at the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines over the past few years. In 2001, Time had the cover story: “The Science of Yoga.” In January 2003, Time featured Dr. Mehmet Oz in a special issue: “How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body.” The same week Newsweek‘s cover story featured Dr. Dean Ornish!”
“The spiritual teacher Swami Satchidananda was once asked, ‘What’s the difference between illness and wellness?’ He walked over to a blackboard [during Grand Rounds at the University of Virginia Medical Center] and wrote illness and circled the first letter, i. He then wrote wellness and circled the first two letters, we.”
—Dr. Dean Ornish in
The Oprah Magazine,
December 2002, Dr. Phil McGraw interviewing CNN’s Larry King on the Dr. Phil Show:
Dr. Phil: “You have had several bypass surgeries. How do you handle anger?”
Larry King: “Swami Satchidananda was a great man… you’d have liked him. Swami Satchidananda said that when you’re angry, the last thing you get is information. It’s the first thing you want and it’s the last thing you get. If you’re angry at the clerk at the airport you will not get information. If you’re nice, you will get information. So anger, he said, never pays. It never pays. . . .”