One of the “side effects” of being a wealthy nation seems to have been an increase in stress and depression levels. According to the Cross-national Epidemiology of DSM-IV Major Depressive Episode study published in the BMC Medicine journal in July, the percentage of people who reported being depressed was the highest in developed countries such as France and the US (around 30%).
According to Roy Abraham Kallivayalil, vice-president, Indian Psychiatric Society, depression can be either biological—which needs to be treated with medication—or non-biological or reactive—which can be alleviated by proper counselling, yoga and meditation.
The study, sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO), compared the link between social conditions and depression in 18 countries, including India, through responses from over 89,000 people.
Managing pressure: Non-biological or reactive depression may be alleviated by proper counselling, yoga and meditation.
In India, “increased stress, decreased social support and frustration tolerance are the main reasons for depression”, says Dr Kallivayalil. In fact, according to the study, those who suffered from major depression—a severe form of the disease—were proportionally highest in India (36%).
But depression isn’t the only thing that is plaguing Indians. According to Business Barometer, a 2006 survey by The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, or Assocham, of 270 top bosses, more than 66% admitted that they were under stress, with 70% attributing it to mental pressure.
“Long-lasting, high levels of stress elevate the stress hormones, and they weaken the immune system and make us susceptible to infections and certain kinds of cancer. Moreover, long-standing stress makes us also vulnerable to heart and circulatory diseases such as high blood pressure,” Are Holen, founder of Acem Meditation, Norway, and a professor of medical psychology at the faculty of medicine, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, said in an email interview.
Several organizations and surveys, including WHO and Assocham, have suggested meditation and deep breathing exercises as measures to prevent and alleviate stress. The positive effects of meditation are many—ranging from deep relaxation, reduced stress and depression levels, increased concentration, reduced heart rate and blood pressure and overall well-being, to boosting confidence and personality development.
But just like there are different kinds of medication for one illness, there are also different schools of meditation—and each school comes with its own ideology and techniques. We look at three schools.
The Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique was introduced in India in the 1950s by the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
The technique: TM is also called “mantra meditation” since it teaches you to silently repeat a word, sound or phrase (a mantra) in your mind. Each sound is unique and selected by a certified teacher for an individual based on age, lifestyle and a host of other criteria. The TM course is taught in three phases—a week-long basic course, a follow-up, and a lifetime programme, which includes regular interactions with TM teachers, group meditation and advanced lessons, etc. After the first phase, practitioners are asked to meditate for 20 minutes twice, daily.
Instructor-speak: “It’s a simple and natural technique,” says Jadunath Sahoo, who has been teaching TM in Mumbai for 21 years. “I just instruct my students through the steps as laid down by the Maharishi.” Sahoo says regularly practising this releases endorphins in the brain, which produce a calming effect.
Research: More than 600 research studies on TM have been conducted at around 250 universities and research centres and have been published in more than 100 journals, including Behavioural Medicine, British Journal of Psychology and The Lancet. According to a 2006 study in Archives of Internal Medicine, TM reduces hypertension, obesity, and diabetes in patients with coronary heart disease.
The practitioner: The founder of ECS Infotech Pvt. Ltd, Vijay Mandora, 40, works about 18 hours a day. His stressful and unhealthy lifestyle was taking a toll on his health so, around a year and a half back, his neighbour suggested he try TM. “Within a quarter of a year, I started feeling peaceful, decision making was a lot easier and fast,” says the Ahmedabad-based businessman, who soon introduced his core group of six managers at ECS Infotech, and his family, to TM.
Starting fee:Rs.1,500 for five days, 1-2 hours of meditation daily.
Started in Norway in 1966, Acem Meditation (AM) is a non-religious, modern, scientific and psychological approach to meditation—“without cultic elements, without guru affiliations”, according to its founder, Dr Holen. “The physiological effects of several relaxation techniques are fairly similar, but Acem Meditation is far more focused on personality development. In addition, the meditator does not get involved in a belief system, cult or a guru tradition,” Dr Holen explains.
Personality development: Nivanthee Jayaraj (right), 26, has been practising Acem Meditation for a decade, and says it has helped her come out of her shell. Photo by Priyanka Parashar/Mint.
The technique: AM also uses the technique of repetition of a unique and simple sound that is different for each individual. It should be practised for half an hour, twice daily, or for 45 minutes once a day. During AM group sessions, meditators are encouraged to share their life experiences with others—unlike most other forms of meditation—although it’s not necessary to do so. AM does not recommend lifestyle changes, and the only directive is to not meditate immediately after eating.
Instructor-speak: Kaif Mahmood, an assistant instructor with Acem in New Delhi since 2004, says: “People try it for different reasons like relaxation, de-stressing, better health— physical and psychological.” While leading the beginner’s sessions, he asks the attendees to be open to all thoughts and feelings that come to them. “It’s the opposite of the popular notion of concentrating on one thing. Even if they forget to repeat the word because of all the thoughts coming to them, it’s okay,” Mahmood says.
Research: Studies on AM have been published across journals. These include, for example, a paper titled Hemodynamic Changes during Long Meditation in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback in 2004; Effect of Meditation on Immune Cells in Stress Medicine in 2000; and others in the British Journal of Sports Medicine and Medical Science Monitor. These papers have researched the effects of AM in stabilizing heart rates, reducing the amount of lactate in the body after exercise—one of the main indicators of physical fatigue—and strengthening immune systems.
The practitioner: “I wasn’t a very social person, and Acem really helped me come out of my shell and develop my personality. It made me more confident and sure of myself,” says Delhi-based Nivanthee Jayaraj, 26, a group manager with New Era India Consultancy, a recruiting firm. “Now when work gets too stressful, I take 10-20 minutes at night and meditate. This immediately refreshes my mind and helps me relax,” she says.
Starting fee: Rs 500 for three days, 2 hours daily, inclusive of a manual and a book on AM. Subsequent weekend courses are free—this does not include retreats.
The Art of Living
Founded in 1981 by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, The Art of Living (AoL) focuses on Sudarshan Kriya, or breathing the right way. “If we attend to the rhythms of the breath, then we can change the emotions,” said Ravi Shankar in an interview with the CNN news channel last year.
The technique: There are three components to Sudarshan Kriya: 1) Ujayi Pranayam, with long and deep breathing; 2) Bhastrika Pranayam, forced inhalation and exhalations for 2-3 minutes; and 3) cyclical breathing, which includes slow, medium and fast cycles of rhythmic breathing. This is followed by 15 minutes of Yoga Nidra, or deep relaxation. After completing the basic course, practitioners are encouraged to meditate for at least 20-30 minutes a day, preferably in the morning. There are four levels to the AoL course.
Although AoL does not dictate any specific lifestyle or dietary changes, it does advocate vegetarianism. AoL also has special three-day corporate courses for professionals, which concentrate on relieving office stress, boosting confidence, encouraging clarity of thought and effective decision making.
Instructor-speak: Purnima Sharma, a Delhi-based AoL teacher, says the ideology of helping oneself and thereby helping others is what drew her to AoL, and it’s the same concept that she imparts to her students. During the sessions, practitioners are asked to “leave their problems outside”, says Sharma, adding that the simplicity of the meditation practice is what makes it so effective. Practitioners may discuss anything with their instructors or “guru”, but there are no group sessions—they can schedule one-on-one sessions with instructors to discuss problems and for follow-ups, though meditation is in groups.
Research: There is quite a lot of published research work, as well as studies, on Sudarshan Kriya and its accompanying practices. Research has been conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (Nimhans), Bangalore, and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. For example, a study conducted by Nimhans, Antidepressant Efficacy of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga in Melancholia, was published in 2000 in the Journal of Affective Disorders. Several papers have highlighted the effect in reducing depression, strengthening the immune system, increasing antioxidant protection, and enhancing the brain function, among other things. Papers have been published in journals such as Biological Psychiatry, Current Psychiatry and BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
The practitioner: Yamini Chandra, art director with Sapient, Gurgaon, was under a lot of pressure in her earlier job. “It wasn’t always just the work that would get to me, but the office politics would be really stressful,” says the 29-year-old. Chandra joined AoL in April. After the advanced course, she felt more connected with people around her, “stopped getting irritated with every little thing and...understood that there’s a reason for people’s behaviour, and that it’s not always directed at you”. Chandra meditates in the morning because the workout leaves her feeling energized and refreshed for the rest of the day.
Starting fee:Rs 1,500 for Part I or the beginner’s course, spread over 24 hours for six days.
Harmony in silence
Vipassana heightens ‘a sense of calm and compassion’
Vipassana has its roots in the most ancient techniques of meditation, dating back to Gautam Buddha, more than 2,000 years ago. In its modern avatar, it has been popularized by Myanmar-born, Indian-origin industrialist S.N. Goenka, who has been teaching Vipassana in India since 1969.
Vipassana Meditation Centres organize free-of-cost, 10-day residential retreats across the world where practitioners are taught the basic techniques of Vipassana. This is a guided form of meditation, where an audio-visual clip with Goenka’s instructions is played to a group of meditators. The technique focuses on breathing and vibrations within the body and mind called‘antarmukhi sadhana’. The practitioner is asked to focus on just the rhythm of his breath and then on different parts of his body, “connecting with himself, and thus automatically blocking outeverything else”.
“Vipassana heightens a sense of calm and compassion within you,” says retired bank official Prem Chauhan, 62, who is secretary of the Vipassana Sadhana Sansthan in New Delhi. “By the 10th day, you start feeling compassionate and calm...then the focus is releasing (good) wishes for everyone and everything around you,” he says.
The most popular Vipassana course is a 10-day residential retreat, where people have to maintain a vow of silence for nine of the 10 days. After the 10-day retreat, practitioners are asked to meditate twice a day for an hour. Chauhan says millions of people around the world practise Vipassana.
The Vipassana Research Institute has published books and research on the positive effects of Vipassana, the most well-known being the ‘Effect of Vipassana Meditation on Quality of Life, Subjective Well-being, and Criminal Propensity among Inmates of Tihar Jail, Delhi’ in 2000. This concluded that practising Vipassana over several years and doing a 20-day course had a positive effect on the attitudes and lives of inmates.