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  • Writer's pictureSeva Corps


Updated: Sep 23, 2021

Overview of mental health

Photo by Hardass Kaur for the Yoga and Negritude Project

We are going through the first global epidemic of the 21st century, surrounded by a climate emergency that is already showing its harmful effects and reinforcing the humanitarian issues that several countries in the world, many of them in Latin America, have been facing for decades. In this scenario, we deal with another hidden, but no less impactful epidemic, which is related to mental health.

Mental health has been on the agenda of the world's main health agencies for a long time, but in the present scenario, its impacts have been accelerated and are even more visible. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that approximately 10% of the world population suffers from some kind of problem related to mental health.

According to the WHO, mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with everyday stresses, can work productively, and is able to contribute to his or her community. Everyday problems can trigger mental disorders, but it is important to remember that the problems precede emotional illness, which does not happen overnight.

The global scenario we are going through has worsened the number of mental disorders in the world, creating an alert even for deaths by suicide, which according to the WHO, today kills about 10% of the world population annually and is among the leading causes of death in the world. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 29. According to the report produced in June of this year, the death rate by suicide continues to rise significantly in the Americas.

Meanwhile, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) released its Annual Report in March, highlighting another hidden pandemic, that of narcotics use among the elderly. Mobility restrictions and social isolation have caused increased stress in people with mental health and substance use problems. The INCB has even expressed its concern about the increasing numbers of overdose deaths that have been exacerbated during the pandemic.

The great progress modern medicine has made in controlling infectious and communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox, and now Covid-19 are important advances for our society. However, non-communicable diseases in which lifestyle is the main cause have reached epidemic proportions, causing the majority of deaths worldwide. According to the World Health Organization's 2017 report, 80% of deaths from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are due to the following disease groups: cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, respiratory diseases, Alzheimer's, and mental suffering. All of these health conditions can be aggravated by chronic stress conditions and other mental health disorders.

Due to the Coronavirus pandemic and isolation measures, we now face new challenges in maintaining our physical, mental, and social health, which has led to an increase in NCDs worldwide. The good news is that the overwhelming majority of deaths from these four disease groups are preventable.

Yoga, meditation and mental health

Photo by Hardass Kaur for the Yoga and Negritude Project

Since the 1970s, the World Health Organization has advocated integrative practices for the management of people' s health and well-being. Traditional and complementary medicine (T&CM), as the WHO calls it, refers to a wide range of health care therapies based on evidence and experiences from different cultures that are used for health promotion, disease prevention, and recovery, taking into account the whole being in all its dimensions.

According to the WHO, in the Americas, the integration of T&CM in national health systems happens in multiple ways: government initiatives, the actions of different entities that work in the organization and regulation of supply, training, research, promotion and provision of services in T&CM. Countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru have their own legislation, models and/or standards for the regulation of T&CM.

In Brazil, for example, the National Policy for Health Promotion and the National Policy for Integrative and Complementary Practices, both from 2006, adopt the expanded concept of health, which seeks to overcome the mere absence of disease, seeking to prioritize policies aimed at caring for life. From this perspective, in 2017 Yoga and meditation were included as complementary medicines to be incorporated into the country's National Health System (SUS).

In the United States, the Preventive Medicine Research Institute relies on simple, low-cost techniques in its lifestyle treatments, such as yoga, meditation, diet, exercise, and social support and community service. They teach in their lifestyle and mental health programs that health is a natural state of being, and that the environment, the pressures and stresses we live under, and our choices, make us sick. Therefore Yoga and meditation not only bring us health and wellness, but help us identify and change behaviors, practices and perceptions that disturb our inner peace, vitality, joy, allowing our body's exquisite mechanisms to function in ways that are ideal for dealing with the pressures and stresses of everyday life.

According to the article Yoga as a Therapeutic Intervention, a review of yoga studies published between 1967 and 2013, there has been a large increase in scientific evidence on the benefits of yoga and most of the studies are related to mental health.

Scientific evidence on the benefits of yoga

These mental health-oriented studies indicate that yoga practices, particularly breathing practices (e.g., pranayama), can have significant effects on symptoms of stress-related anxiety, phobias, and social anxiety through their influence on the autonomic nervous system. Biomedical studies, on the other hand, indicate that meditation techniques provide intense sensory, emotional, and cognitive experiences and influence the physiology of the body and brain as greater synchronization between central and peripheral autonomic systems.

Meditation can modulate the attention and emotion systems, and the common results of sustained Yoga practice range from experiencing deep relaxation, positive attitude, enhanced self-regulation, emotional stability and resilience to stress, regulation of the neuroendocrine system, the development of altruistic behavior and personal growth, which can be very favorable and useful for the primary treatment of depression among other mental health conditions.

Kundalini Yoga, a seva of these times

Photo by Bernard Machado for the Yoga and Negritude Project

There are many styles and practices of yoga, each with its own particularities and methods. Like other lines of yoga, Kundalini Yoga is composed of different elements such as physical postures (asanas), breath control (pranayama), meditation, alignment, vibration, and repetition of sounds (mantras).

Kundalini Yoga, also known as the yoga of awareness, was introduced to the West in the late 1960s, since when it has been the subject of diverse research that highlights its benefits. According to researcher Shannahoff Khalsa, Kundalini Yoga is characterized by following a sequence of exercises called Kriya, which stimulate blood flow and supply energy to the brain, nervous system, and the endocrine glands. Psychiatrist and Kundalini Yoga teacher Renata Queiroz adds that "A Kundalini Yoga class is composed of a first moment of asanas, which is Kriya, that induces a state of relaxation. Then we experience a total relaxation, where we surrender to all the work done and let the body adjust. After this journey, we are in a position to experience a deeper meditative state, so meditation is the last part of a Kundalini Yoga class."

Renata Queiroz, who is also a member of the Seva with Kundalini Yoga classes at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), concludes by explaining that "Kundalini Yoga proposes to work through the body and mind in states of relaxation that allow us to access an instance in us that is more permanent (also called soul, essence, divine self, I am) that is not dependent on what happens in the external world or in our internal emotional world.

In the pandemic scenario, many Kundalini Yoga teachers transferred their practices to the virtual world, at the same time that they came across individuals going through destructive situations, plagued by anguish, insecurity, anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions.

For many teachers, this challenging situation presented itself as an opportunity to serve and sustain the purpose of sharing tools and techniques for supporting and sustaining inner vitality and mental health. Live classes on social media, recorded lessons or through meeting platforms, thematic and focused work increased all over the world.

Check out some institutions and teachers in our network that are serving through this Kundalini Yoga technology:

- 3HO

- I.K.Y.T.A

- Sikh Dharma International

Photo by Hardass Kaur for the Yoga and Negritude project

Text written in collaboration with Jiwanpreet Singh Khalsa

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