StressStop Blog

My First Day In India And The History Of Mind/Body Medicine

Jim Porter, M.A.L.S., President, StressStop.comTuesday, January 15th, 2013

My first day in India was so remarkable it's hard know where to begin. It started in a little three wheeled green and yellow taxi with open sides, careening through dirty streets crowded with people some of whom were burning little piles of garbage on the sidewalks. During the course of this day I saw "sacred" cows and stray dogs wandering in the streets and Monkey's playing with their babies overhead in the trees. I literally had to play chicken with the cars and the busses and the motorcycles in order to cross ANY street. I was hugged by Indian school children, who wanted to pose with me in pictures because I was a "foreigner."

I saw Jain temples and mosques where women are allowed to pray beside men and have been able to do so for hundreds of years. I saw young children (under age 5) homeless and begging in the streets. I saw a toilet in a public restroom you had to squat over to use. I saw women washing their clothes by hand on the sidewalks and even saw one ironing her saris with an over-sized iron she had to fill with hot coals.

One of the most remarkable things I saw all day were the handwritten rules - about living truthfully - on the wall of Mahatma Gandhi's ashram written by Gandhi himself. These rules specify how this philosophy of honesty was meant to be lived out - day to day - in the affairs of the people who co-inhabited this ashram with Gandhi in the early part of the 20th century.

I've wanted to go to India since the 1980's when I worked for a company that made educational films on World Relgions, parapsychology and holistic health in Greenwich, CT. My boss, Elda Hartley, who was in her 70's at the time, would go to India for a month every year to make a film or just participate in some adventure.

Elda was a true pioneer. She made films about Zen in the sixties, about Yoga and holistic health (what we now call wellness) in the seventies and even made films about biofeedback and the use of biofeedback to treat hypertension in the early eighties. I remember taking phone calls while I was there from Dr. Herbert Benson (author of The Relaxation Response) Dr. Bernie Siegel (author of Love, Medicine and Miracles) and even Marlon Brando, who called once to find out how to get a copy of her film, "Biofeedback."

Elda Hartley was so far ahead of her time, it was hard for most people (including me) to even grasp what she doing or trying to say. In her film on biofeedback - which had many scenes she'd shot in India - she focused on the work of Dr. Elmer Green of Menninger Foundation, who is considered to be the "grandfather" of biofeedback. It's not too much of an overstatement to say Dr. Green basically invented it. (Brando had gone to see Dr. Green at the Menninger Clinic to treat his migraine headaches.) What it's hard for us to understand today, so many decades later, is how new all this stuff was and how strange things like yoga, meditation and mindfulness seemed to us back then.

In the film, Elda and Dr. Green had gone to India in search of yogi's who could self-regulate their nervous systems. Dr. Green introduces the term "psycho-somatic" at the beginning of the film, and defines it as how the mind can make us sick. But he says optimistically in the film's opening minutes: "If can make ourselves sick, why can't we also make ourselves well?" This was the very beginning of the wellness movement. And that's what they went to India to find out.

About a decade prior to this film, Dr. Herbert Benson, was risking his career at Harvard to study what he described at the time as "hippies" who claimed they could lower blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate by simply practicing meditation. This seemed like an outrageous claim at the time. Benson agreed to test their claims, but only if they agreed to come to his lab at night. A precaution he took so that his colleagues at Harvard wouldn't find out what he was doing. Dr. Benson later went to India to do further research on the connection between yoga and meditation and health.

So here I am in India 30 years later trying to capture a bit of the spirit of those pioneers. Dr. Green and Dr. Benson paved the way for people like me, who are in wellness professions and are now able to definitively say that yes, meditation, yoga and mindfulness have proven health benefits.

When we got to the Gandhi ashram at the end of the day, I was exhausted. But I immediately noticed a peaceful sensation overtake me as I walked onto this graceful property which once housed over 1,000 devotees. There was the garden next to the river where Gandhi would meditate and meet with his followers. There was the simple building where Gandhi lived. There was a room where Gandhi sat on the floor in his homespun, traditional clothing and met and greeted heads of state and other dignitaries.

Gandhi was clearly a person, who to the highest degree possible, chose to live up the values he espoused and preached. He spent a lot of time writing and thinking about how he could do this honestly and truthfully (two slightly different concepts here that I will talk about in later blogs) and how these concepts could be expressed in action. Gandhi wrote so much that when his right hand tired, he would continue writing with left hand. You can see the little desk in the room where he sat on the floor sometimes spinning yarn, sometimes writing on the desk in front of him with his right hand and the little specially designed desk to his left, where he continued to write when his right hand tired.

The guide jokingly told us that Gandhi had hand-writing only a pharmacist could read. Once you study India and see the 2000 year old history of non-violence (ahimsa) that Gandhi adopted from the Indian religion that espouses it (Jainism) you realize that something really different is going on in this country. And I'm here - on a journey - to capture a greater understanding about the birthplace of mindfulness, non-violence, meditation and yoga.

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