In Religion in the New Age, Swami Kriyananda observes that since the world entered Dwapara Yuga in full force in 1900 AD, we have seen an increasing number of breakthroughs in the prevention and treatment of illness and disease, many based on the new understanding that energy is the underlying essence of matter. We have seen that certain parts of the body that were considered unchangeable in adults, such as the brain, can be healed, and even transformed. Many of these new healing approaches were either predicted or suggested by Paramhansa Yogananda, including the use of laughter or humor as a healing technique.
When I was new on the spiritual path, I was very serious and, at times, even solemn or a bit gloomy. I rarely laughed or smiled. Swami Kriyananda used an interesting technique to rid me of this unfortunate tendency: he would call me at six o’clock in the morning or eleven o’clock at night and would simply tell me a joke. Not only did I find his behavior rather odd, I sometimes had to “work” at actually laughing. Looking back, I’m surprised at how long he persisted because only gradually did my sense humor begin to improve. Finally, once I was able to laugh easily and spontaneously at his jokes, Kriyananda never called simply to tell me jokes.
A few years before Kriyananda’s passing, when I having a meal with him and a few others, I told him several funny stories. He laughed heartily but then gave me a thoughtful glance with the hint of a smile. He said, “Peter, you’ve become quite the jokester!”
The healing power of laughter
Paramhansa Yogananda often said that laughing was good for one’s health. In his talks and articles, he recommended that people read one funny story a day. He described laughter as “good mental food for the convalescing mind,” and encouraged those in need of healing to associate with people whose laughter and joy were contagious. A laughter diet, he writes, “fills our mind with sunshine and has the potential to revitalize us after only a few months.”
Swami Kriyananda, like Yogananda, saw laughter as a means of healing disease and bringing about lasting health. To illustrate how laughter can cure disease, Kriyananda cites Norman Cousins, the well-known writer who, by deliberately laughing many hours each day for several months, was able to cure himself completely of what had been diagnosed as a terminal illness. Alone in a hotel room with a movie projector, Cousins watched a large number of humorous films every day, including Candid Camera clips and old Marx Brothers’ movies, and would sometimes laugh for hours at a time.
The therapeutic benefits of laughter illustrate a point Kriyananda often emphasizes – that the future of healing lies in knowing how to introduce positive energy into the body and to work with it in a way that destroys disease and brings about lasting health. As a practicing physician, I’ve had many opportunities to observe the healing power of laughter. I can now say, along with Kriyananda, that “an attitude of joy is perhaps the best healer of all.”
The chronic illnesses of our age include many well-known diseases: diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, depression, anxiety disorders, and dementia. Curiously, all of these diseases, including the behavioral health disorders, have one thing in common: inflammation in the bodily organs involved. Given the high incidence of inflammation-associated diseases, the question naturally arises, what is the best way to treat an inflammatory process in the body?
The Dean Ornish program for heart disease
For many years, Dean Ornish, a well-known physician, has offered a program for people with heart disease which includes not only proper diet but also hatha yoga and meditation. Often people would tell him that they liked the dietary aspects of the program, but asked if they could leave out meditation and hatha yoga. And the answer was always “no” because all of the studies documenting the success of the program included all of these components.
Since then, there have been other studies confirming that the program’s beneficial anti-inflammatory effect on heart disease is the result of its comprehensive approach of attacking the disease from multiple therapeutic modes – diet, physical activity, lifestyle, and meditation. As it turns out, meditation has proven to be a very important component of the program.
Meditation, heart disease, and high blood pressure
Beginning in 2008, other studies began to appear showing that meditation, by preventing inflammatory imbalances, reduced the incidence of stress-related diseases, including heart disease. Later studies, published in 2011 and 2012, showed that meditation reduced, and sometimes reversed, the inflammation caused by prolonged stress. These most recent studies confirmed that, by reducing stress, meditation had important health protective effects.
In 2012, the results of the first long-term (ten-year) study of meditation and heart disease were published. Researchers divided 200 adults with heart disease into two groups. One group was taught to meditate for twenty minutes twice a day. The other group was encouraged to spend a similar amount of time exercising and preparing healthy meals, activities usually recommended by physicians for patients with heart disease.
After nearly a decade, researchers found that individuals who had meditated for twenty minutes twice a day had reduced their risk of heart attack and stroke sixty-six percent more than those in the control group who had not meditated at all. The risk of heart attack and stroke for those who meditated twenty minutes once a day had dropped by nearly fifty percent, compared to those in the control group. Both groups of meditators also reduced their blood pressure and reported feeling better able to control their anger.
Today most people understand the importance of the kind of lifestyle changes that are now recommended routinely in medicine to improve health and reduce risk of premature death — better diet, more exercise, sufficient sleep, reduced stress. Meditation, however, is the one aspect of preventive health care that has not been adopted broadly as a therapeutic tool. Increasingly, however, it has become more common to see meditation courses offered in hospitals for patients and as part of training courses for physicians, including instruction on how to teach patients to meditate. Physicians are rapidly becoming more aware of the benefits of meditation, including its disease-prevention effects.
I believe these recent studies will encourage more physicians to recommend meditation and that meditation will soon become one of the cornerstones of good preventive healthcare, along with a good diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep, and reduced stress.
Meditation and DNA changes
Paramhansa Yogananda said that if we meditate, our DNA, our genetic material, will change. When I first read that statement, it made absolutely no sense to my scientifically-trained mind. It seemed to me that X-rays or toxic substances could damage the DNA inside the nucleus of our cells, but I didn’t see any way the DNA could be improved.
In the last decade, however, there have been a number of discoveries that confirm Yogananda’s statement. We now understand that there can be what are known as “epigenetic phenomena.” In essence this term means that many genes can be turned on or off depending on our behavior — on what we eat, whether we smoke, the nature of our thoughts, and on whether we meditate. We’ve learned that everything in our lifestyle, taken as a whole, influences our genetic material, and that meditation, in particular, is a very important factor in determining whether disease-producing genes turn off and health-producing genes turn on.
If I could choose only a single piece of advice to give to the followers of Paramhansa Yogananda on how to stay healthy and well, what piece of advice would I give them? I would say attunement with the Guru is the most important thing because everything else in life will flow from that attunement. By approaching issues of health through the lens of attunement, we will be guided by the Guru not only on what will be most beneficial for our spiritual development, but also on what will make us healthy and happy. If we work on attunement, we find we are guided to do the right things to promote good health, including proper diet, exercise, and medication.
Once we make attunement our focus, we quickly realize that devotion to the Guru is essential to proper attunement. Through devotion to God and Guru, not only do we become receptive to his influence in our lives, we also magnetically attract his influence by putting ourselves on the Guru’s wavelength of love. Devotion, or the opening of our hearts, is thus extremely important for our physical and mental health.
The importance of praying for guidance
Many times when I don’t know what to do when I am practicing medicine, I will pray to Paramhansa Yogananda mentally and ask, “What is the right thing for me to do in this instance?” I’ll always check the response I feel with my rational mind and ask, “Does that make sense?” Interestingly, I’ve had experiences in which I came up with a diagnosis that made absolutely no sense to me rationally in the moment but in the end turned out to be correct.
In one instance I recall, my patient had a very rare disease which was completely unfamiliar to me. In searching for the right diagnosis in my various references, an odd diagnosis kept popping into my mind, pestering me like a fly buzzing around my head. It turned out to be the correct answer: the disease, although quite rare, was serious but treatable. That mental “fly” was pestering me because I had asked for help. I had prayed to Yogananda, “Please help me.” In situations like these, when I pray for guidance, I can usually feel in my heart when I’m on the right track.
I would like to end by quoting the words from the Ananda Purification Ceremony, created by Swami Kriyananda: “The Master says, open your heart to me and I will enter and take charge of your life.” The moment we open our hearts to the Guru and, through him, to God’s influence in our lives, he will guide us. He will guide us in right diet. He will guide us in health and exercise. He will guide us in our relationships with other people. And he will guide us to God-realization.
From a talk given on August 12, 2015 at Ananda Village.