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Yoga and Mental Health

by Var­alak­sh­mi Lak­sh­mi­narayanan

With grow­ing com­plex­i­ties of the real and vir­tu­al world, men­tal health has become a sig­nif­i­cant area of inter­est and con­cern. Observ­ing World Men­tal Health Day on the 10th of Octo­ber every year is not with­out a rea­son. The World Health Orga­ni­za­tion (WHO) says that half of men­tal ill­ness begins as ear­ly as 14 years of age and has seri­ous con­se­quences on the soci­ety at large. Even promi­nent celebri­ties talk­ing about it open­ly in pub­lic, shar­ing their per­son­al strug­gles steer way for men­tal ill­ness to be looked at as a clin­i­cal con­di­tion as real as any oth­er health issue rather than a stig­ma. Sig­nif­i­cant efforts are being tak­en to include the men­tal well-being of indi­vid­u­als in the health­care pol­i­cy and prac­tices. The Men­tal Health Care Act passed in India in 2017 and com­ing to effect in July 2018 is one such. “Hap­pi­ness” of cit­i­zens is becom­ing a con­crete goal for nations.

As per Nation­al Men­tal Health Sur­vey data 2015–2016 it is esti­mat­ed that, exclud­ing tobac­co use dis­or­ders, men­tal mor­bid­i­ty of indi­vid­u­als above the age of 18 years cur­rent­ly was 10.6%. About 13.7% of sur­veyed pop­u­la­tion near­ly 150 mil­lion Indi­ans need of active inter­ven­tion. Com­mon men­tal dis­or­ders (CMDs), includ­ing depres­sion, anx­i­ety dis­or­ders and sub­stance use dis­or­ders are a huge bur­den affect­ing near­ly 10.0% of the pop­u­la­tion. A whop­ping one in 20 peo­ple in India suf­fer from depres­sion. High sui­ci­dal risk is an increas­ing con­cern and pro­duc­tive age groups are the most affect­ed. Men­tal health issues are com­plex to diag­nose and cure. The num­ber of peo­ple under­go­ing treat­ment and using anti­de­pres­sants is increas­ing on a dai­ly basis. Glob­al rev­enue for anti-depres­sants is said grow near­ly to $17 bil­lion by 2020.

While the cur­rent men­tal health care infra­struc­ture across states in India is try­ing to keep up pace with var­ied needs such as doc­tor patient ratio, reha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ters It is piv­ot to look at solv­ing the prob­lem of men­tal health holis­ti­cal­ly. The WHO rec­om­mends This invest­ment (towards men­tal health) should be linked to pro­grammes to raise aware­ness among ado­les­cents and young adults of ways to look after their men­tal health and to help peers, par­ents and teach­ers know how to sup­port their friends, chil­dren and stu­dents.

Indi­an health sys­tems such as ayurve­da and yoga have inter­est­ing insights to offer. But what is cru­cial is to uti­lize and share infra­struc­ture across health sys­tems, for which look­ing at inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research is crit­i­cal and points of con­flu­ence of tra­di­tion­al and mod­ern knowl­edge sys­tems is need­ed. Active research and evi­dence based stud­ies can help bring these tra­di­tion­al knowl­edge sys­tems into pol­i­cy for­mu­la­tion for men­tal health­care.

An inter­dis­ci­pli­nary approach to under­stand­ing Yoga through neu­rocog­ni­tive genet­ic sci­ences and expand­ing the body of knowl­edge through yog­ic prac­tices and first-per­son obser­va­tions, is an emerg­ing field that offers pletho­ra of research oppor­tu­ni­ties which will help look at solv­ing men­tal health issues non-inva­sive­ly and effec­tive­ly. One may call it Yog­ic Neu­ro­science or Yog­ic Neu­ro­ge­net­ics, to apt­ly cap­ture the mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary and sci­en­tif­ic nature of the domain.

Yoga as ther­a­py has been pre­scribed across allo­path­ic hos­pi­tals in west­ern coun­tries for issues such as post trau­mat­ic dis­or­der, han­dling anx­i­ety and stress lev­els, psy­chosis, atten­tion relat­ed men­tal dis­or­ders and many such. Glob­al insti­tu­tions like Har­vard and Stan­ford are sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly explor­ing the impact of Yog­ic prac­tices and med­i­ta­tion on the brain. Estab­lish­ing sys­tem­at­ic research in the field of yog­ic neuroscience/neurogenetics will help in answer­ing cer­tain grey areas present in the body-mind-con­scious­ness/cog­ni­tion frame­work of health. The cur­rent state-of-art research in the area of Yoga and Neu­ro­science is uti­liz­ing tech­nolo­gies such as fMRI, EEG, MEG etc., to under­stand how var­i­ous yog­ic tech­niques have a regen­er­at­ing and heal­ing impact on the brain and men­tal health. The results of these stud­ies demon­strate very high poten­tial for yog­ic prac­tices includ­ing asana, pranaya­ma and dhyana to treat men­tal con­di­tions and ensure gen­er­al well-being of prac­ti­tion­ers. These stud­ies focus both on empir­i­cal and phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal approach­es to Yog­ic Neu­ro­science. With the field of Neu­ro­science itself expand­ing to include epi­ge­net­ics, neu­ro­chem­istry, behav­ioral and cog­ni­tive sci­ences, Yog­ic Neu­ro­science has immense scope to grow in these direc­tions.

Such research is paving the way for chang­ing the glob­al opin­ion of Yoga from a mere set of phys­i­cal exer­cis­es for a healthy body to a more holis­tic approach to all-round devel­op­ment of the indi­vid­ual includ­ing emo­tion­al and cog­ni­tive health.

Recent research in med­ical sci­ence has rec­og­nized about more than 1000 neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tions and the annu­al invest­ment in them is about $800 bil­lion. While a height­ened under­stand­ing of these dis­or­ders is lead­ing to more invest­ments in bio­phar­ma, it comes with a host of side-effects and com­pli­ca­tions. Hence, there is a glob­al move­ment to more ear­ly-stage pre­ven­tive care and that is where Yog­ic prac­tices have an impor­tant role to play. Yog­ic prac­tices can have immense ben­e­fits in solv­ing men­tal health issues as they are rec­og­nized as less inva­sive, can be self-admin­is­tered under guid­ance, cater to pre­ven­tive care and impact fun­da­men­tal aspects of the body and mind that lead to mul­ti­ple simul­ta­ne­ous health ben­e­fits. What is cur­rent­ly imped­ing the large scale adop­tion at the pol­i­cy lev­el is the dearth of sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies and sup­port (mon­e­tary and edu­ca­tion­al) that explore Yog­ic Neuroscience/Neurogenetics from mul­ti­ple angles and dimen­sions, the way drug research and gene ther­a­py stud­ies are pro­gress­ing.

Yoga as a dis­ci­pline has much to offer to solve the prob­lems of men­tal health but requires both the sci­en­tif­ic and yog­ic com­mu­ni­ty to work hand in hand to pro­vide for nec­es­sary research direc­tions.

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