Jeff Masters Weather Blog

I’m a doctor. Here’s what Western medicine misunderstands about nature. » Yale Climate Connections

I still flush with embarrassment when I relive the moment.

It was 20 years ago. I was a shy medical student. In class, we were learning about heart disease — its causes and the drugs that could be used to treat it.

After the lecture, I quietly approached the professor. I asked him, what about yoga? Could incorporating yoga be beneficial for heart patients?

His response was swift and dismissive, dripping with skepticism. Yoga, he said, is nothing more than a New Age exercise, far removed from the realm of serious medicine.

The ridicule in my professor’s tone taught me that the worldview I’d grown up with was not welcome, not even worthy of inquiry or further study. Not if I valued being a respected member of the medical community.

photo of a deer swimming in a river
A deer swims in the Chattahoochee River on a misty autumn morning. (Photo credit: Alla Kemelmakher / Unsplash)

In the Indian immigrant family of my childhood, yoga was not seen as fringe or even as exercise. Our ancestors viewed health as the embodiment of a comprehensive lifestyle imbued with reverence for not only our bodies and our minds, but also the natural world around us — the food we ate, the breaths we took, the connections we made not only with others but also with the Earth, plants, and rivers around us. The movements of yoga were just one piece of a legacy passed down for generations to maintain health.

But this ancient knowledge, rigorously tested and preserved, had been shared in a language distinct from what the modern scientific and medical community respects. So rather than publicly discussing the mental and physical health benefits of a worldview that sees mental, physical, spiritual, and planetary health as one, I silenced myself.

The irony, of course, is that medical science — obsessed as it is with claiming credit for dissecting and addressing the underlying pathophysiology of smaller and smaller pieces of a whole being — started to catch up. Specific health benefits were “proven” within a Western paradigm with new technologies like MRI scans. Yoga is now routinely prescribed to manage and prevent or reduce the risk of a variety of health conditions, including anxiety and depression. And yes, there are even potential benefits for heart disease. For me, it is a bittersweet validation of ancient wisdom through the lens of modern science.

photo of a woman with two children posing in front of a tree-covered mountain ridge
The author and her children at Tallulah Gorge in Georgia. (Photo: Courtesy of Neha Pathak)

Now, I hope for a bigger shift. We must recognize that beyond simply exercising our bodies, the yoga of Bhakti allows us to exercise our sense of awe and reverence for the world around us.

In a recent editorial published by the editors of 200 medical journals, health leaders across the globe sounded the alarm that the intertwined climate crisis and nature crisis present a global health emergency. As one part of the solution to these existential crises, these health leaders call for “shifting values related to the human nature-relationship.”

In our current paradigm, our view of nature is largely utilitarian. It is a resource to be used, a means to an end. We value nature when our scientific papers show that time in nature slows our heart rates, lowers cortisol, and lengthens our telomeres. We argue that the biodiversity of species is important because it may one day be a source of medicines to treat human diseases. Even in our fight against climate change, we measure the benefits of protecting nature in the gigatons of carbon these areas can store.

This perspective, while pragmatic, is dangerously myopic. It fails to recognize nature’s intrinsic value, its inherent divinity, and its interconnectedness with our well-being.

In countless languages and cultures across the globe, millions of us recognize the natural world as sacred, worthy of reverence and protection. Rivers are not just water bodies; they are goddesses. Forests are not just timber reserves; they are the abodes of the deities. This understanding of the divine in nature fosters a relationship of care, respect, and sustainability.

Though I have worked desperately to speak the language of modern medicine in my professional life — quietly, almost secretly, at home I pray to rivers. I am moved to tears by mountains.

I teach my children to ask for Mother Earth’s blessings every morning before they place their feet on her to do their daily tasks. My father teaches them that the sacred geography of our ancestors translates to the New World where our family has traveled. He grew up saying “Tapi Mata Ki Jai,” or “long live Mother Tapi,” referring to the river that feeds our native Gujarati towns in India. In our home in Georgia, he teaches us to say, “Chattahoochee Mata Ki Jai” as we walk along the banks of the Chattahoochee River. We walk together, recognizing that our health and happiness are inextricably linked to the health of these sacred rivers.

In hushed tones, a physician colleague recently shared that in her home village, the community used to recognize the divinity of the nearby jungle. This understanding prevented them from destroying or trespassing unnecessarily — a worldview that functioned as a guardrail against encroaching in the natural habitat of a vast array of species and likely protected the people from infectious diseases spread from animals to humans.

As part of our cultural and spiritual inheritance, millions of us connect with our natural world with a sense of awe and reverence, not merely for extraction or utility for economic benefit. This connection has mental, physical, and spiritual health benefits beyond the scope of our current understanding.

As health professionals who have maintained these ancient practices in our personal lives, our perspectives, once dismissed, are now more important than ever to protect the health of our patients.

When we live in a world where we are not disconnected from nature — when we can see revered mountains in the distance, drink from the holy waters of rivers, and bathe in the sacred tree canopies around us — this means that the air we are breathing is clean, the waters we are drinking from are not polluted, and the trees we are surrounded by will cool us, even as the Earth warms.

We saw this firsthand during the COVID lockdown. People shared awe-inspiring images of the Himalayas standing steadfast in the background of their everyday lives, clearly visible for the first time in decades. To be able to view — or have darshan — of these mountains served as a barometer for the massive decline of health-damaging particle pollution, many of them the result of burning fossil fuels.

After just a few short weeks, millions of people across India saw massive improvements in air quality, lowering their short-term risk for flares from asthma and other lung conditions. At the same time, this reduction in air pollution improved the snowpack and prevented the melting of more than 27 million metric tons of snow and ice from the Himalayas, protecting the water source that more than a billion people on the subcontinent rely on.

The cleansing and protection of the natural world should not come through lockdowns. It can come with transformation. When science and technology are coupled with humility and reverence for nature, we can ensure sustainable development that does not pollute, warm the atmosphere, and obscure the sacred world around us. This reduction in pollution, in turn, provides massive improvements in human health.

Given the urgency and scale of our planetary crises, those of us who recognize the power of the yoga of Bhakti must make our voices heard. Just as the medical community has embraced yoga for physical and mental health, we must share the power of a reverence for nature that can transform planetary health.

Though we may have once faced ridicule, though we may have internalized that ridicule, we cannot allow ourselves to destroy a worldview that has been passed down for generations — one in which the health of the divine beings in the world we live in are just as important as the health of the human beings in the communities around us.

Our worldview does not constitute an argument of science versus faith, but a fight for science grounded with reverence.

Nature is not just medicine, and nature is not just a carbon sink. Nature is divine and we need to say so to protect the health of our patients and the planet.

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