1) In general, Brazilian yoga studies focus on secular therapeutics in biomedical science. I analyse yoga here as a new religious phenomenon forming in the country. The hypothesis is that ancient spiritual yogic salvation benefits - attenuation of kleshas, mystical experience of samadhi and acquiring kaivalya or “illumination” - are transforming on contact with Brazilian urban culture. To understand how Brazilian urban society is shaping yoga to its “way”, I describe its practices as healing rituals and not only psychotherapeutical techniques.
2) More than just a promotor of organic health, yoga can be investigated in Brazil as a new spiritual lifestyle in progress. The principal causes of Evil in yoga (the kleshas, lit. poisons) have been embodied dialectically among two physiologies: organic, investigated empirically by biomedical science; and “subtle”, perceived only by yogis in their spiritual practices. Concepts such as stress, relaxation and homeostasis are acquiring spiritual shapes and transform contemporary yogic soteriology with the Brazilian singularity. With the sacred body, the yogic religious ethic that now arises is much more than the physiological (and “transphysiological” or subtle physiological) perceptions and sensations than its holy scriptures.
3) The “subtle” physiology has been established with scientific physiology, that instead of disenchanting modern yoga, has been its principal proselytizer. As a result, the diseases arising from stress, anxiety and depression - so common for the individuals who live in the megacities of Brazil - have been reframed by a new physiology of religion in process. Brazilian yoga is building a new way to suffer, where the megacities turn into a metaphor for samsara; in other words, intoxicating religious geographies of bodies and their practices, spiritual ways of purification searching for “illumination” as a state of “divine homeostasis”.
Yoga, Spirituality and Healing
Yoga is a belief system linked at its origin with Hinduism, but also with Muslim alchemists, Buddhists, tantrics, disciples of samkhya, natha yogis and other religions too. A medical convention with themes such as yoga, reiki and Daime (a Brazilian religion) for example, is quite controversial. Especially since many scientists really believe that they can investigate the results of their research without needing to pay attention to the complex belief systems of practices or “techniques”, which are borrowed from the cultural system of yoga.
It seems to me that at first sight, yoga in Brazil, in particular, has been totally “disenchanted” and is still encased (faz parte, dentro, ligado) between the mystic and the scientific. I consider (and there is always a mix of amazement and indignation when I express this among Brazilian yogis and academics) that modern yoga is a religion dissociated from Hinduism and the New Age Movement. Therefore, (and now to my surprise) there is never a reaction of surprise and/or heresy when a biologist, for example, shows them data in a scientific magazine about the benefits of meditation, yoga postures or yoga breathing techniques for asthmatics, depressives, anxieties or people living with HIV; even more so if group investigating has been disciples or practitioners of their yoga method or tradition. In general, the scientists are disciples or practitioners of this method or tradition too.
In this article I will describe the ambivalence that spins around the modern yogic ritual and its relationships with spirituality and health. I will try to demonstrate why and how the yogic ritual has been changed, all the way from its ancient history until its modernity where it has obtained its most eminent characteristic of healing by “relaxation”, sustained as much by Western biomedical discourse as by yogic scriptures rewritten by modern spiritual yogic leaders. Somehow and, as paradoxical as it may seem, modern science has been legitimizing modern yogic beliefs at the same time as it has secularized its rituals.
Yoga as religion in Brazil
To start the conversation
We, human beings, build some fields of knowledge which take turns in proposing with more or less veracity the reality in that we live. Religion is one of them, and until the mid 1900s, for example, the Catholic perspective of the world imposed the rules in Brazil about what was moral and ethical. It´s still not unusual today to witness families commissioning Christian rituals of baptism and confirmation, and concomitantly, magical services of “Brazilian faith (or traditional) healers” - with her herbs and murmuring prayers - to break the evil eye and other popular beliefs. Therefore, it is not imprudent for us to extend a little our knowledge about our concepts of religion, religiosity and spirituality.
Another version of history
I remember the first time that I had in my hands the book by Euclides da Cunha, Os Sertões. I was fifteen when my teacher informed the class that this specific book would be in the test. What torment it was to read line by line that infinite description; first of the geography of the Brazilian northeast, then the northeast Brazilian man and, in the end, of the Canudos war. I felt arid, heavy and short of breath. In the end I was tired and asking myself why these people followed, in the poor interior of Bahia, a man who walked in the search of a Promised Land, of which in the end almost all the people were shot dead because they resisted the Brazilian Government and the Catholic Church. But, poor and ignorant was I myself, who could not access so profoundly the complex bio-psychological structures and social norms that we form as human beings.
Twenty five years later, I was asked again to flick through the same yellow pages of the Os Sertões of my school years, but in a doctoral class, with an objective now to understand the messianic movements in Brazil. I have to confess that I faltered a few seconds and I felt that dry soil, the heavy heat of the text and the difficulty to become embroiled one more time in the caatinga forest through Euclides´ words. Anyway, this wasn’t in the test, but in the seminar that I should offer, on the same thing, so I faced Conselheiro and his religious community one more time.
The comprehension of the text now was absolutely different and delightful. The book was still hard, difficult to access, with tortuous and arduous tracks, however, it lifted me to a greater understanding of Brazilian religiosity. I was now prepared (and humbled by the maturation of life) for understanding challenges that the human spirit undertakes; as well as strategies that are built to experience in a dignified and moral form its existential anguishes of the meaning of life. In general, we follow the meaning of life of others, but a few individuals develop the courage to build and persist in their own dreams.
In Os Sertões, we read the “path” built by Cearense Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel, who was born in Queixeramobim, and is more known historically as Antônio Conselheiro - but called himself “the pilgrim” - that the journalist Euclides da Cunha describes the real history of a Brazilian Messiah who went on a pilgrimage by land parched under the strong sun and leader of twenty five hundred “fanatics” - as the print media called them at the time - between 1893-1897 - for the unknown village of Canudos, but was rebaptized by them, as Belo Monte: the Brazilian Canaan.
However, the Catholic Church and the State Government perceived the threat, because Conselheiro taught the civil disobediences of not paying taxes or bowing down to the Brazilian priests; in other words, he declared war against the two powers of that time. The Church and State Government combined, sent three military inroads with the intention of eliminating the plans of that village; but they would lose in a bloody fashion to Conselheiro’s devotees. It would be only in the fourth last battle that Belo Monte would be defeated and their leader would be killed.
One question, however, still haunts me since my adolescence, and even today, with my PhD concluded in the science of religion, I ask myself what was that great power that combined many people around one charismatic leader? And what were the reasons and social circumstances that authorized that movement exist? Exist that transcends our senses and provides legitimacy for a popular resistance movement with the courage of Belo Monte Brazilians? In the following paragraphs I don’t promise an absolute definition of religion, but by thinking a little about this theme we can expand our knowledge, because understanding the religion built, sustained and transformed by our culture reveals more about ourselves.Don’t look down your noses, you know much less about this than you imagine, and you might be full of common sense about the subject to follow. Open your mind and follow with your critical thinking, but disarmed of your biases.
Neurophysiology of Relaxation
Let us begin with a logical and empirical observation: the relaxation condition is contrary to fatigue, tiredness or, as popularly acknowledged, stress or fight-flight response. All relaxation, we know, is accompanied, physiologically by a metabolic low activated by the vagus nerve, via the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS in turn, is responsible for lowering the respiratory and cardiac frequency, secreting neurotransmitters and specific hormones, such as arginine vasopressin (AVP), dopamine (DA), serotonin (5-HT), melatonin (ME), Beta-endorphin (BE) and furthermore, in some specific cases that we will see, secrete potent consciential modifying anesthetics such as N-acetyl-aspartyl-Glutamate (NAAG). The whole complex system works in the preparation of the organism to “slow down” and restore its optimal homeostatic levels. These autonomic parasympathetic responses are accompanied by a lower electrochemical neuromuscular activity and of the electroencephalographic waves of “wakefulness” (Beta waves) for a “light relaxation” level (Alpha waves), “relaxation with mental images” (Theta waves), or even a psychophysical state of “deep relaxation” (Delta waves).
Everyday, except for the chronic insomniacs, we can reach those same psychophysiological responses, but in an unconscious way, when exhaustion comes and we sleep with or without dreaming. What is proposed with the Restorative Method here is, voluntarily and, therefore, in a conscious way, reach this same deeper level of relaxation and its physical, psychological and spiritual benefits. Thereby, permitting r its practitioners to reorganise the unconscious material in a beneficial form.
Fight-flight stress response
The classic stress response was discovered by Hans Seyle, the Austrian physiologist in 1936. The term was borrowed from physics, but has its etymological origin in the Latin strictus, which literally means, strangle, erode, deteriorate or tighten. In physics it is described as the natural wear and tear of body contacts, but in physiology it means the organism´s response to a stressor agent that broke, momentarily, its stable homeostasis state. Homeostasis, in turn, was a term created by other physiologist, Walter Cannon in 1932, from the Greek homeo (lit. same or stable) and stasis (lit. static). Cannon, watching the functioning of living organisms, perceived that there was an internal, structural and functional organization that contributed to maintaining the dynamic equilibrium of the body. This way, all living beings try to always come back to their equilibrium state (homeostasis), when this is broken by a stressor agent.
When the ambient is hot, we sweat to cool the body temperature; in contrast to, if it was cold, we would produce little muscular contractions (quakes or tremors) to warm ourselves; when dehydrated, specific hormones produce vasoconstriction in our blood vessels, in addition to promoting re absorption of kidney water (antidiuretic hormones). These are little examples of stressor agents (heat, cold, dehydration) and homeostatic physiological responses (sweat, quakes, thirst). Stress, therefore, has three phases: 1) Warning, when it detects any homeostatic disequilibrium caused by a stressor agent (heat, cold, dehydration); 2) Adaptation, the adaptive response for a return to homeostasis (sweat, quake, thirst); and 3) Chronic, the moment that the adaptative response cannot drive the organism to its homeostatic state. It´s at this third stage that the stress can be prejudicial to health, because by continuous production of the cortisol hormone, there is a drastic lowering of immunologic system action.
Relaxation, as a psychophysiologistical antagonist to stress, is a state, therefore, essential for maintenance of life. While the stress response manifests as fight or flight, it’s reasonable to think that the response of relaxation would be peace and “presence” or stability. We fight or flight, however, when we produce rage or fear. Thereby, we can just relax - since stress-relaxation are opposites - at moments that we feel loved and confident that we are protected.
Walter Cannon in his 1927 book Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear and rage - five years before he himself coined the term homeostasis and nine years before H. Seyle had described the stress axis - already predicted the principal stress triggers, according to him: pain, hunger, fear and rage. Except for the first two (pain and hunger), because they are of “material” needs so to speak, and they can be pragmatically attenuated; rage and fear belong to the same “subjective” group. The feelings of rage and fear can be characterised by complex and much more comprehensive factors than an analgesic (that eliminates pain) or a heart of palm tart (that eliminates hunger) could solve the problem. What triggers anger for fighting or fear for flight depends on biological factors, but also psychological and cultural triggers. It will be these “stressor triggers” (rage and fear), so what we will dwell on in this chapter to search to understand the benefits of deep relaxation, in contrast to chronic stress that upsets individuals, above all, who live in big cities around the world.