Faith as a Factor in Optimum Mental Health

Be ground. Be crumbled, so wildflowers will come up
where you are. You’ve been stony for too many years.
Try something different. Surrender. 

Rumi, from “A Necessary Autumn Inside Each”(5)

In the early 80’s, a blind study done in San Francisco General Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit involving 393 heart patients showed that patients who were prayed for had a better recovery rate from heart attack. Since then, there have been numerous studies documenting the importance of faith and prayer in recovery from illness and in maintaining optimal health and longevity. Studies have shown that people who maintain a strong religious faith experience less depression and anxiety and are less likely to commit suicide.

For most of its years, psychiatry has had an anti-religious basis. In fact, evidence of religious faith might even, in some cases, be considered symptomatic, and medical students studying psychiatry were once warned about the dangers of religious belief. But current research disputes this. Indeed, a patient’s religious views are to be respected, according to current American Psychiatric Association guidelines, and members are asked to refrain from imposing their own religious or anti-religious attitudes on those in treatment.

Does this mean that to be healthy you should go to church or temple every week? Not necessarily, though one study did show that regular church attendance increased longevity by 25% in men and 35% in women. What it means is that attending to your spiritual life, having a belief that sustains you, and expressing it in the company of others is good for your health. If you find sustenance in your faith, you may be a bhakti yogi. This is not an endorsement of organized religion, although for some, that may provide emotional resilience. “In my soul,” says the poet Rabia, “there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque, a church/ where I kneel./ Prayer should bring us to an altar where no walls or names exist.”

Devotion (bhakti) is a path towards healing the heart. It is the union of loving devotion with faith. According to Yogic tradition, the bhakti yogi dedicates herself to the divine. “It is the only kind of attachment that does not reinforce the egoic personality and its destiny,” said Yoga scholar and author Georg Feuerstein. In the Bhagavad Gita, when Krishna counsels Arjuna about the three paths to enlightenment—Karma Yoga (service), Jnana Yoga (knowledge) and Bhakti Yoga (devotion)—he says that all three are legitimate routes to the ultimate goal of union, but that bhakti is the straightest, surest route for the ordinary person.

Prayer, in whatever form it takes and to whatever deity or higher power within, can not only lift the heart from the darkness of depression, but may actually help others in their recovery from illness. Physician Larry Dossey, author of Healing Words and Prayer Is Good Medicine, suggests that the intercessory prayer studies that have been done show the “nonlocal” nature of consciousness. Which is what the Yogis have been saying for thousands of years. Yogis have verified the vast nature of mind in their own experiences on the mat, when small self dissolves into Self with a capital “S.” The subjective feeling is not describable in words. There is a sense of connection to all that is—Tat tvam asi—You are that. If this subjective feeling represents a glimpse of infinite mind, then the prayer studies make sense. Intercessory prayers, in which patients who did not know they were being prayed for had a higher rate of recovery than those who were not being prayed for, work because in prayer we somehow enlist not only our own mind, but the infinite mind of cosmic consciousness.

cd-meditation-coverDevotion is often expressed through chanting the names of God, which can have a harmonizing effect on the central nervous system. The subjective experience of even a few minutes of mantra chanting has always, for me, been both energizing and uplifting. And the studies of mantra chanting show important physiological benefits. In LifeForce Yoga, the tones we use, though based in the ancient language of Sanskrit, are universal, and are not addressed to or about the pantheon of Hindu deities. As such, the tones don’t conflict with anyone’s religious beliefs, and in fact, when we use them, they clear more space for a sense of felt connection with energy or the divine, as each of us knows the divine. You don’t have to be devotional in nature to try a simple secular chanting practice, using ancient mantras that provide a sense of stability even as they energize. The LifeForce Yoga Chakra Clearing Meditation, used in health care settings around the world, is available here.   To find a LifeForce Yoga Practitioner in your area click here.

Adapted from Yoga for Depression (Broadway Books).

About the Author

Amy Weintraub

Amy Weintraub E-RYT 500, MFA, YACEP, C-IAYT, founded the LifeForce Yoga® Healing Institute, which trains yoga and health professionals internationally, and is the author of Yoga for Depression and Yoga Skills for Therapists. The LifeForce Yoga protocol is used by health care providers worldwide. She is involved in ongoing research on the effects of yoga on mood.

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