The Power of the Two: Integrating “Spiritual Medicine” with the Physical

In an acute phase of illness such as COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) exacerbation, we have to use all our might to overcome the challenge.  In this post I share my experience of how I was helped by combining the power of the physical medicine with the core strength of my total being, the body, mind and spirit for which I have chosen a fanciful name, the “spiritual medicine”

In my last visit to India I had to travel by train during the winter when colds, coughs, and flu were endemic.  Everybody in my train compartment was sneezing and coughing.  I did my best to protect myself but the bug got me!  I have COPD with asthmatic component.  Common colds and flu often result into an episode of COPD exacerbation.  As I reached home I began to experience violent coughing, wheezing, excessive mucus, congested chest, breathlessness, fever, sinus inflammation with allergic rhinitis, post nasal drip and all other “goodies” that can come with COPD exacerbation.

To borrow a southern folksy expression “I was sick like a dawg!”  I went on the full complement of the physical medicine including Avelox (a strong antibiotics), Advair (steroid inhaler), Spiriva (inhaled prescription to open the airways), nasal spray, decongestants, antihistamine, Tylenol, etc. but the 800-pound “Dawg” was still sitting on my chest and refusing to get off!

I do Yoga for about two hours a day in the morning which includes asana (poses), stretching exercises, breathing techniques, chanting (mantra recitation and prayers), systematic progressive relaxation (Shavasana or Yoga Nidra) and practice of mindfulness and meditation.  When I fall sick I change my morning Yoga routine to practicing mini-sessions of milder, gentler Yoga spread throughout the day which support and nourish me.  I make various adaptations as I deem fit.  For example, when I feel too tired to sit for meditation, I meditate lying down. Even if I fall off to sleep meditating at least I feel rested and replenished.

Here are other physical and mental benefits I receive my from modified Yoga practice: it soothes my fatigued and aching body; takes the edge off of the aggravating symptoms; diffuses the building up of apprehension and worries about the sickness and sometimes can keep me mentally calm in the middle of the bouts of coughing and other troubling symptoms.

However, in this phase of exacerbation, even after ten days of aggressive treatment and modified Yoga practice there was no relief in sight.  Weakness and breathlessness were making me nervous.  So, I said to myself, “When going gets tough, the tough get going!”  Right?  I thought to myself “But I am not feeling so tough right now so what can I really do?”

Here were some more thoughts which continued in that vein: “I am already put on yet another 10-day course of Avelox.  I am taking all the prescribed inhalers and all the decongestants and antihistamines;” “I have reached the maximum benefits of the current treatment;” and “Given the risks of potential side-effects I don’t really want to take more aggressive treatment.”

Then, as I was lying down, slowing my breathing, silently repeating my mantra, working on physical and mental relaxation, I found myself thinking that my insomnia, weakness, shortness of breath, and coughing were surely a big nuisance but they didn’t present a life- threatening situation. I didn’t want to step up on the physical medicine anymore but I could step up on the “spiritual medicine.”  I smiled to myself thinking that escalating the “dose” of the spiritual medicine can only have positive effects with little risk of negative side effects.

I experienced a renewed sense of determination and resolve.  Instead of doing just a few mini Yoga sessions I decided to do “24-7 spiritual practice,” which in fact is yet another form of Yoga.

My 24-7 Spiritual Practice during the COPD exacerbation

Note:  My physical medicine continued as prescribed

Here are some of the things I did almost for the entire time I was awake, sitting, standing or lying down:

  • Praying for the well-being of others and sending energy to everyone that would come to my mind at that moment. Sometimes these prayers were for my loved ones or, for people currently afflicted by natural disasters or other calamities.  Other times I prayed for the health and happiness of the strangers I had seen on the street
  • Imagining the cosmic breath (Prana) flowing throughout my body by visualizing Prana in the form of thin streaks of light, white dots or solid white or blue light coursing back and forth in my body from toes to head and head to toes
  • Experiencing and re-creating in my mind feelings of love, joy and compassion for people connected with me in the past or present or even for people with whom I had no personal relationship or association.  Sometimes I would make myself laugh audibly or smile with the eyes imagining people who just received awesome news or were celebrating a festival or some other joyous event.  By the way, it can be a rewarding exercise provided you don’t become self-critical (however, go ahead and laugh at yourself for engaging in a ‘’silly” behavior). Seriously, there is something very nice about feeling happy for others’ happiness.
  • Silently repeating a mantra coordinated with breathing (1)
  • Visualizing God in the form of white or blue light or Shiva in the human form (2) in my heart, throat or head and sometimes outside me in the mountains, over the horizon or the body of water or land.
  • Seeking blessings from the Higher Power whenever I took medicine or food.
  • Often reflecting on the biblical line, “Thy will be done.”  Let the truth be told there were times when I felt nothing was working and that there was no point of going on with it.  In those moments I would take my ego out of the equation and surrender to the Higher Power.  This was a healthy surrender with hope and trust.  My bhavana (sentiment/feeling) at these times was the following: “I don’t have the power or the wisdom to turn it around.  Only YOU have the infinite wisdom and power so let me hand it over to you!”

How spiritual medicine benefited me?

I committed myself to not judge my spiritual practice against any physical criteria such as faster recovery or cessation of the symptoms.  Sure, I wanted rapid relief from aggravating symptoms but I needed to give the spiritual medicine a chance to work.  As I mentioned earlier I would closely watch myself for thoughts such as, “I am doing all this (the prayers, mantras and visualizations) I should’ve gotten rid of these symptoms by now.”  Allowing such self-doubts to continue would’ve only weakened my resolve to persevere.  So I tried to dismiss the negative thoughts as quickly as I could by reminding myself I had nothing to lose by giving the spiritual practice a chance.

These spiritual practices which filled most of my waking hours helped me to manage and often soften the intensity of my symptoms.  The following is an example: In the morning around 5.00-5.30 when coughing would get worse it would make it almost impossible for me to stay in bed.  So I would sit in the chair next to my bed and start reciting my mantra on my fingers or with a mala (rosary of beads).  Usually in 10-15 minutes calmness and peace would prevail and coughing would subside. I don’t know why it worked so well in the morning but not so well at other times.  However, I always had cough medicine handy to help control the coughing.

To give another example, at night when I couldn’t fall off to sleep or woke up due to troubling symptoms, I would utilize any of the following spiritual tool: seeing the divine light in the heart center; exhaling and inhaling as if from the heart center; sending prayers for someone who might be hurting more than I did; reciting my Guru mantra (I kept a mala under my pillow) or imagining the healing breath moving from head to toes as I inhaled and exhaled.  These actions would bring me calm.  I didn’t necessarily expect to fall off to sleep and yet at some point sleep would automatically slip in!

Worry thoughts such as these posed a big challenge: “Suppose the coughing never goes away;” “If excessive mucus becomes a permanent symptom:”  “If I can’t clear the mucus now and it gets too thick and solid and gets “plugged” in the lungs;” or, “What if shortness of breath gets totally out of control?” In order to shake off these worries I would recite my mantra silently or out loud at a very fast speed so the worry thoughts couldn’t get in edge-wise.  I would continue in this way until the worries faded away.

Do you sometimes have hard time shaking off your worries?  Try rapid recitations of your favorite mantra or affirmation. (3) Let your mantra or affirmation shower on your worries like a torrential rain or a volley of missiles, not leaving any “space” at all for worries, concerns or depressive thoughts.

All I wanted from my spiritual practice was relief from pesky worries about the illness and other thoughts of gloom and doom.  My wish was more than fulfilled! I received many moments of peace and calm in spite of, and in the middle of the agitating symptoms. Also, intermittent awakening at night decreased and overall quality of sleep improved. Gradually, moments of peace, calm and relaxation began to occur more frequently and for longer duration.

In the following days my recovery was complete!

The Bottom Line

From the onset of the COPD exacerbation to the final recovery was an arduous journey.   I believe I needed BOTH medicines the physical and the spiritual in order to get past the hurdles on the way.  Physical medicine not only controlled the symptoms but also made it possible for me to do my spiritual practices. Without the spiritual practices I wouldn’t have had those moments of peace and relaxation much needed in order to travel the long and hard road.

Note that my COPD exacerbation was of mild to moderate intensity.  Had it been a severe episode would I have had the strength and the concentration or the “mind-over-matter will power to do my spiritual practice so intensively?  I don’t know.  That remains to be seen.

May you find something here that resonates with you and serve you in sickness or health!


(1)    Mantra, a Samskrita word, literally means “That which liberates and expands the mind.”  Mantras originally were embedded in Vedic and Hindu religion in India.  However, in the contemporaneous International Yoga community mantra and chanting refer to vibratory sounds or words that can be utilized in any culture for positive physical, mental and spiritual effects.

For detailed discussion on how to utilize mantras for health objectives, please refer to the following Yoga Living and Chronic Illness blog posts

i)       “My Experiences with Mantras and Prayers (August 7, 2012)

ii)      and “More on My Experiences with Mantras and Prayers (August 27, 2012)

(2)    I visualize God either as pure light or flame or as meditating Shiva in human form representing cosmic intelligence, unlimited awareness, infinite compassion, unlimited joy, unselfish love, strength, tranquility and peace.  Whether I visualize God in the abstract or the concrete form I try to imagine and feel some of the above mentioned emotions and qualities.

(3)    If you so prefer, instead of a mantra, use an empowering affirmation such as, “I shall overcome,” “I am more than my body” or some other of your choice.

About sharma

Vijai Sharma, PhD, certified Yoga teacher and Yoga therapist from the American Viniyoga Institute (AVI) and retired clinical psychologist with special interest in mind-body medicine. Thanks primarily to Yoga, I have enjoyed great quality of life learning and living with three major illnesses, Emphysema/ Chronic Bronchitis (also called "Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease- COPD) since 1994, Quad Bypass Cardiac surgery 2007, Prostate cancer and radical prostate surgery in 2010. My experiences and insights into the illnesses, Yoga, psychology and mind-body medicine provide me a unique opportunity to put them into practice and learn further more. Through this blog I share with you how exactly I manage to have a satisfying and fulfilling life. I do so in the hopes that you will do the same with the challenges you may have. I invite you to join me!
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