THE ROLE OF HEALING IN ASIA'S TRADITIONAL ARTS
by Shanta Serbjeet Singh, New Delhi
This is the keynote address Shanta Serbjeet Singh researched and wrote for the 4th APPAN International in Seoul, Korea, in May 2001 on "The Role of Healing in the Arts of Asia (with special reference to India)".
Seen your liver lately? Or checked your DNA? Did you know that your stomach lining changes every five days, your skin changes every four weeks, your liver changes every six weeks? Or that every 12 weeks there are major changes in your skeletal structure, every six weeks your DNA changes? In short, says New Age Guru Deepak Chopra, “you create the body you live in…You are constantly reincarnating a new body in yourself. Just as you cannot step into the same river twice, as the water keeps flowing, so also you cannot possess the same body.”
What a miracle this human body of ours is! We breathe out 10 to the power of 22 atoms and breathe in the same amount. As Dr. Chopra notes, these atoms are “the very same millions of atoms which have inhabited the bodies of Gautam Buddha, of Jesus Christ, of Osama Bin Laden or a man in Manhattan which pass through our bodies and put the human body through a constant process of change.”
It is this constant replacement of raw material by the human body, thus, continually creating a new physical body, which is at the heart of the Indian belief that the sharira, the body, is the link between the earth and the cosmos, between humanity and divinity. And to help this body remain healthy, the traditional knowledge of India and indeed all of Asia has identified the creative impulse and its expression through the arts, especially music and dance, as a tool beyond compare.
There are so many systems of treating disease but only one science of health. These various systems can be broadly classified under two heads: those which depend on external preparations, like drugs and chemical formulations; and those which take the internal route, often called Nature Cure. The first, the external system, uses drugs and is loosely known as the allopathic, Western system of medicine. It is by far the more popular because it is an easy and quick way of alleviating the symptoms of disease, even though it is largely suppressant, not eradicatory. But in the other system, the one that looks at the body's interior, commonly known as Nature Cure, the belief is not only that prevention is better than cure. It goes further to stress that prevention is the only cure.
A body that changes its entire physical structure and schemata as quickly and as thoroughly as we have observed earlier cannot possibly be reduced to mechanical deductions of the sort that the allopathic system of healing presupposes. Pop a pill, and are you sure it will have the same effect on the liver, the spleen, the lungs, the skin today as it did a few weeks ago when the doctor prescribed it? Also, says the traditional healer, how do you know what side effects it is going to cause, not just at the time of consuming it but for the weeks thereafter when it will stay in the body, its chemical nature making it indissoluble, imperishable and yet challenged by the body's continually changing nature?
In other words, true health needs to be created from within the body and with the help of awareness of its real nature. This is where the creative process comes in, particularly the role of the arts.
Indian traditional view equates the arts of music and dance with that of a revealed scripture - they are called the fifth Veda, after the four Vedas, written, conservatively, some 3,000 years before Christ. The Vedas deal with the nature of phenomena, of the existence of man and other aspects of the vast cosmos. There is a limitless treasury of written material in our texts and treatises, which details the effect of music and dance on the minutest and most microcosmic layers of the body. Coupled with it is a sizeable corpus of recent advances in scientific research and the conclusion is exactly what the ancients had said it was: the arts heal, they are completely therapeutic in nature and behind the apparent good health, longevity and incredible stamina of most dancers, musicians and visual artists lies the fact that the very nature of the work they do, i.e. sing, dance, paint, sculpt, in short create a work of art, is an endless source of pumping metaphorical iron, vitamins and nutrients into the body while at the same time ridding it of disorders, imbalances and disease.
The idea of music therapy is a very old one in India and Shruti, my colleague, will demonstrate some of its age-old practices and precepts in the course of this very important conference. Also dancer Uma Sharma, who is also here, will show you how the Indian aestheticians and philosophers of dance have always pointed to these arts being akin to Yoga and hence their training and teaching, too, is in the nature of building blocks of Yogic discipline, from the physical exercises, called Asanas to the breathing techniques, the Pranayama, which act as a common base for enabling the body and the mind to grow towards its potential.
DANCE AS THERAPY
At this point, it may be argued that all exercise is conducive to good health. So what is so special about, say, the movements and canons of dance seen as simply exercise? Or about the art of creating music? To answer this fully, we need to look at the attributes of an ideal system of exercise. These, according to manuals like Roger in his Dance - a basic education technique share three elements described as the three S's, namely suppleness, strength and stamina. Further, they should fulfill the following requirements:
1. Make exercise an enjoyable experience, fulfill the urge for self-expression and lead to becoming a habit that stays with one for one's lifetime.
2. Partake of the element of play, even as it makes the body supple, tones up the muscles and the nervous system.
3. Provide symmetry of movement and due exercise to each and every part of the body in proper proportion. This should address each and every muscle, tissue and cell and do so in a speedy manner, to suit today's severe limitations of time.
4. It should strengthen the heart, improve blood circulation and increase the capacity of the lungs.
5. Further, it should involve the brain, challenge the nervous system and push both to their outer limits so as to quicken the reflexes and sharpen the development of a sound body and an alert mind.
Indian classical dances, at least, and they are the ones I am most familiar with, fulfill these criteria to the full. Children who are taught these forms develop extraordinary powers of observation, expression and stamina and stay with dance through most of their adult life. Moreover, recent research has shown that learning a classical dance style like Bharat Natyam can actually repair common eye defects like far-sightedness and near-sightedness. Most youngsters who are shortsighted, due either to genetic predisposition or excessive strain to the eyes have no relief for this condition except to wear glasses. Indeed, the condition can only worsen and lead to more strongly powered lens as time goes on. But experience has shown that the eye movements done in the course of the dance have, in many cases, made distinct improvement and many youngsters have been able to discard glasses.
Again, the question may be asked, can't simple eye exercises achieve the same results? Why not? The only problem is that unless a child's creative faculties are involved in the exercise and unless he/she is given the pill in a sugar-coated way, chances are that he will not do that exercise in a routine way. However, make it a part of play and it is a different thing altogether.
The role of symmetry and balance in dance is another aspect, which sets it apart from other exercises such as aerobics. Indian classical dance, for instance, is built along the complex lines of Yoga and both in its training as well as its performance, it uses symmetry and balance to create poise. Like the bee which vibrates its wings thousands of times a minute, the birds which fly at great height and for unbelievably long spans of time, the monkeys which climb trees and swing from branch to branch, it is symmetry which is at the heart of the motion. In Bharat Natyam and indeed all Indian classical dance styles, whatever movement is done on the left is done on the right also. There is equal involvement of the arms and the legs. In each limb, every joint is involved. There is a rhythm and regularity in each set of movements. In a 3 minute piece with which the Bharat Natyam recital normally opens, the Alarippu (literally, the unfolding of petals) there is vigorous exercise of each limb, symmetrical on both sides, complete with bending, jumping, stretching and exercising the torso, the waist, the feet, the heels and the toes, besides the face and the neck. There are a total of 238 movements of the body in this one quick piece, along with moving the eyebrows, the eyes and the facial muscles in synchronicity with the rest of the dance. A child of six or seven can easily perform this while enjoying the crisp beat and the joyous movements, finishing with a sense of enjoyment and accomplishment.
Bones and muscles never degenerate when used regularly and their growth slowly accelerated. Popular prejudices offer a black-and-white picture of the brain versus brawn. We are often told that exercise develops the body while reading, writing and thinking are meant to develop the brain. Nothing could be more flawed. “A sound brain in a sound body” is not just a saying. It encapsulates the wisdom of our traditional societies. On the one hand, we know now that every cerebral activity, like reading and writing, solving a mathematical problem or participating in an intellectual seminar like this may be primarily concerned with the brain but it is also of clear relevance to the body and has a direct impact on it. Certain emotions, feelings and sensory reactions created by this activity have a bearing, however subtle, on the body and its health. Similarly, every kind of exercise has an impact on the brain and the nervous system. There is the direct effect when we need to plan and think about the exercise to be performed. At the same time there is the indirect effect due to the release of adrenalin, certain enzymes, hormones and other chemical substances in the blood due to these exercises.
Classical dance involves both the physical and the neurological halves of the body and dance students develop such a high quotient of ability to remember, calculate and plan that their academic record, too, improves significantly. In Indian dance training, the skills that are imparted are almost universal - from control of the body in every position and movement, except climbing, to a heightened sense of the body in space and overall alertness. There is also the refinement of reflex arcs, which control equilibrium and muscle tone, such as posture and the refinement of the fine neuro-muscular adjustments of a whole host of cooperating nerve fibres that belong to both the autonomous and the central nervous system. Now, the autonomous nervous system connects with the involuntary organs like the heart muscles, blood vessels of the respiratory system and the muscles of the digestive tract. Through connections that dance creates between the autonomous and the central nervous systems, the exercises of the skeletal muscles bring to bear a tremendous influence on them and heighten the balance between the reciprocal nerve fibres regulating the heart muscles, blood vessels and the intestinal tract. This indirect effect is very important in helping a child grow into a healthy adult, free from disease.
In his book, “The function of the Human body”, Guy A.C.C. says: “Repetition is the great secret of success, to allow the whole coordinated performance to become smooth and satisfactory.” He is talking only of sports and such like activity. Dance scores over them because it combines in itself a host of skills like speed, stamina, dexterity, endurance and grace, normally attained by different exercises such as building stamina by stamina exercises and speed by another set of exercises. This not only saves time but, as mentioned earlier, also comes with a high degree of genuine enjoyment.
Moreover, the source of the drive to dance is in the emotional mechanism, an age old and invaluable mechanism in the nervous organization of man.
In the course of one simple phrase, say “ KITA THAKA THA DINGINATHOM” of Bharat Natyam, the ear listens to the gait, the eye follows the hands, the mind correlates the hands and feet to work together with the eyes and through repetition and intense practice a synchronization of the body, the mind and the soul, the atman, is achieved which is truly phenomenal. Since these dance styles are all danced in close contact with the ground, the well-known benefits of acupressure, achieved through a vast variety of steps, are also part of the healing effect of dance. Together with the emotional and expressional part of our classical dance tradition, known as Nritya and Abhinaya (the pure dance is known as Nritta) there is a great enhancement of dance's power to bring about neural integration. It is for these reasons that Indian dancers enjoy exceptional health, fitness and a disease-free body. Several cases of poor eyesight, low or high blood pressure and similar problems have been known to get cured within a few months of training.
While dancing, a dancer does not open her mouth. This enables the body to release the exhaled air, which is richer in carbon dioxide, through the nose only. However difficult the steps, the dancer keeps a cool, calm and pleasant face and tries to distribute the strain to all parts of the body. Over a period of time, she develops the ability to get more energy from less food and spend less energy doing the same kind of work that people usually do. She is relaxed all the time. Her movements are tension-free, smooth, without jerks. This is the quality that the dance imparts. Control of unnecessary movements leads to control of expenditure of energy, again the route to good health. Above all, the balance between vigorous dance alternated with moments immediately thereafter of relaxation, as in a walk back or in the start of an abhinaya or an expressional segment, allows muscles to relax and to enhance the oxidative capacity of skeletal muscles. The more the muscle fibres metabolise alternative substrates like fatty acid ketones, replacing in part carbohydrates (blood glucose and muscle glycogen) as the major source of energy for maintaining prolonged contractile activity, the more the capacity of the dance to do a lot more with much less. That is why it is said that a dancer's endurance is far superior to that of even the best athletes!
MUSIC AS THERAPY
Coming now to the healing power of music, again. I will take the case of Indian classical music, with which I am most familiar, as an example. But of course the same principles apply to all traditional music systems and the traditional Korean music that I have heard is obviously very rich in these therapeutic qualities.
In the beginning, the Hindus believe, there was Nada Brahma, sound as God. Almost all the great religions of the world talk about the Word that was there when the universe first appeared. In Patanjali's Yoga Darshan, divinity is defined as a special Being and is expressed by the original word (Pranav), What this original word was, nobody is sure, but in major Yoga commentaries it is called OM. Recent scientific discoveries have also confirmed that very soon after the Big Bang and before anything else appeared in the universe, primordial sound waves were produced. This has been the basis for the Indian belief that Sound is God, Nada Brahma. Hence the veneration for music and those who create it.
The corpus of Indian classical music, its theories, philosophies, methodologies and texts are both varied and vast. Its core is occupied by the belief that while at the surface level music affects moods, emotions and states of mind, at a deeper level it is a vehicle of worship and meditation. Just as sound has been with us through the evolutionary process and is an integral part of our activities, music, too, being a part of sound, is a natural outcome of this evolutionary process.
Recent Positron Emission Tomography (PET) studies conducted by scientists have shown that certain types of music activate neural pathways similar to those associated with euphoria and reward. These same pathways are activated in response to other pleasurable activities like eating and sex, giving rise to emotional happiness.
In classical music, as in deep meditation, the mind focuses on a single thought for a long time. When contemplation, reflection and concentration, samadhi (together called Sanyam in Patanjali's works) are done on a single thought, it produces a sense of well being and relaxation that stimulates or “tickles” the pituitary gland and releases those chemicals into the body which produce a sense of pleasure.
Though this process is not fully understood as yet, it is similar to what we feel when we hear soul-stirring music. It is known as the principle of equivalence. The major portion of the 100 billion neurons of the brain act like a laser on the sound waves of music and create much the same effect as happens during meditation. Different types of music, sung at different times of the time cycle and in different seasons stimulate feelings of sadness, anger, joy and peace.
According to a great contemporary Indian singer, Pandit Jasraj, he has managed to control blood pressure with music. He knows two doctors who have used music to control diabetes, to a significant extent. Music, he believes, has the power to cure insomnia, headaches, depression and other mental problems of mankind.
Swami Vasudevananda, a monk of the Gurudev Siddha Peeth, Ganeshpuri, near Mumbai, explains the purifying force of chanting of Mantras and of music thus: “Like everything in this universe, our body is made up of vibrating energy. Even though our body appears to be dense, every cell of the human body has its own frequency. There is a sound present in each tiny cell, however minute the cell might be. Wherever there's movement, there's vibration, there's sound. The body's inclination is to be in harmony with itself. All the different parts of the body, all its cells, want to move in unison, the way a shoal of fish or a flock of birds does, always moving but never bumping into each other. When this natural rhythm and harmony is disrupted in the body, that's when disease and disorders arise. However, when the vibrations of the chant sound within our bodies, the cells themselves respond; they resonate with the pure vibrations of the mantras (ancient ritual phrases) so that harmony can be restored…. Chanting calms and clears the mind and actually rejuvenates it. Everything that we listen to leaves its residue in the mind. Chanting the pure syllables of the names of God breaks through this mass of varied thoughts and impressions and opens us to a higher awareness, a clearer perception of ourselves and the world.”
In normal life, we utilize only five to ten percent of our total mental potential. The rest remains untapped due to our inattention to the vast untapped source of consciousness. In this context, music, like meditation, can be redefined as a process of becoming increasingly familiar with our deepest layers of consciousness, from where thought processes originate and where it merges in the end. Like an ethereal balm, music eliminates psychological, social and cultural conditioning gathered consciously or unconsciously over the entire period of the evolution of humankind.
In New Delhi recently, Dr. Richard P. Brown, a top scientist in the field of advanced experiments in the ways in which Yogic techniques of breathing, Pranayama, relieve stress, enable people to connect better and be healthier, said that these techniques of rapid breathing activate a nerve, Vagus, that connects with the diaphragm and some of the organs, including the heart and the brain. As a result of this stimulation, messages are sent along three different pathways to tell the body to shut off areas of worry - in the frontal cortex and in the brain stem - and then to the limbic system, which controls positive emotions, awakening it. At the same time, says Dr. Brown, hormones like the Cuddle hormone, experienced during sexual activity and the birth of a baby are released, encouraging bonding. Amazingly, he says, these Yogic techniques even control eating disorders. “People often soothe themselves by eating. But after this course (of special exercises of Yoga) as the tension drains off, people can actually begin to lose weight. The hormone that promotes connectedness also has a relationship with a peptide hormone. Controlling the release of this hormone can in turn influence hunger and the body's ability to take only the required amount of food.”
Is it any wonder that one of our oldest texts, the Skanda Purana, contains a verse that emphasizes the value of dance and music thus:
“Uttering the name of God once, by yourself, is equivalent to hearing His name being chanted one crore times;
Offering havan (sacrificial fire) to His glory once is equivalent to uttering His name one million times yourself;
Singing and dancing to His glory once is equivalent to offering havan one million times;
Geyam Geya Samam Vidhuhu: There is no possible equivalent to the act of Geyam (a composite word which includes gayan, i.e. singing, vadya, instrumental music and nritya, dance) for the glory of God.”
Shanta Serbjeet Singh is the Chairperson, APPAN-INDIA (Asia Pacific Performing Arts Network)