Some people seem to have won the genetic lottery when it comes to both physical and mental resilience. Tales of survival in the wake of horrible events are as old as time. In the book and subsequent movie, Unbroken, the main character, Louis Zamperini ’s World War II plane is shot down and he survives on a floundering life raft for well over a month. He had been a champion Olympic runner. Did his past physical training augment his survival?
In the decades-famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes beautifully about surviving the horrors of Auschwitz in what would become his practice of logotherapy. Young Viktor loses everything, including his entire family. The book is about maintaining a life-affirming outlook in spite of the most extreme adversity.
Were these two people gifted by genetics or was there something in their physical and mental behavior that helped them achieve happiness and longevity?
Can the practice of yoga bring us to physical and mental strength in similar ways? My view is that yoga can help with what science calls psychoneuroimmunology. Perhaps we can influence our physical and mental health through certain practices. In traditional yoga, we are suspended between the twin pillars of abiyasa, or practice, and vairagya, which is surrender. We navigate the balance between these two opposing elements our entire lives.
My teacher, BKS Iyengar, survived poverty, tuberculosis, and the typhoid epidemic of 1918. He claimed that the practice of yoga restored him to health. Was he genetically tougher? Did discipline change both his physical and mental health? Perhaps.
We all participate in the sweepstakes of human life, held in the balance of what we can and cannot control. Iyengar wrote again and again, that yoga was his path to whole health. Did the rigors of his physical practice, combined with the deeply calming effect of pranayama and meditation, transform him?
BKS Iyengar’s granddaughter, Abijata, told a large group us last week that his only visit to any hospital occurred just before his death at age 96.
Scientists are beginning understand that we do, indeed, participate in a kind of brain remodeling (another term is neuroplasticity) throughout our lives. We already know that physical exercise has a positive effect on our physical and mental health, and that stress has a negative effect on our heart and brain health. The mind and body connection is obvious.
Science has even identified certain neuroprotective growth factors that affect the central executive network of our brain. We all must navigate the balance of what we can and what we cannot control, abhyasa and vairagya.
Human connection, a positive attitude, and physical activity nourish us. For more reading on scientific theory of brain connectivity and resilience, look to the work of Richard A. Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Cornell Weil Medical College, and the work of Gregory Miller, a psychologist at Northwestern University.