Ayurveda for Mental Health

Over the past year and a half, COVID has taken up the spotlight and it continues to do so. We have seen the country go through a variety of troubles with COVID and one among the lot is mental health issues. The first case of COVID-19 in India was reported on January 30th, 2020 following which the virus has been spreading fast with an added impact on mental health. The psychological impact of COVID has spanned across multiple generations. Students are under constant stress over their education and parents stress over their children’s future. Loss of a dear one, unemployment, detachment from society, fear of contracting the virus were some of the common factors that most of us have had to go through. There are many who continue to battle such issues every single day.

According to the WHO, 7.5% Indians suffer from mental health disorders, depression and anxiety being the most common, and this number has risen over the years. The other contributing factors to mental health disorders include early marriages, work stress, poverty, alcohol and substance abuse, loss of a dear one and physical and emotional abuse. Last year, India and the United States of America reached an agreement to address mental health, providing the required support and care to those inflicted by it. The United States was open to adopting Indian therapies such as Yoga and Ayurveda.

It is hard to admit but India has a poor mental health workforce. For every 100,000 people, there are only 0.3 psychiatrists, while WHO recommends 1 psychiatrist per 100,000 people. Apart from the qualified psychiatrists and psychologists, we see a multitude of guidance counsellors also being sought by many youngsters. Even with a greater number of people stepping in to deal with mental health, the existing models of care and treatment fail to adequately address the crisis.

Ironically, the US has the largest health budget, but metabolic and mental instability is also large. In Belgium, 25% of teens are suicidal. If modern medicine is unable to handle it correctly, can we turn to traditional methods of medicine?

Ayurveda does play a role in the management of mental health disorders. According to Ayurveda, mental health is a state of equilibrium of the tridoshas, sapta dhatus and the homeostasis of the sense organs and the mind. Of the eight branches in Ayurveda, Grahachikitsa deals with psychology and psychiatry to aid in the prevention and management of mental health issues.

The mind that is at the root of any mental problem. As is said in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the mind is like a monkey, hopping from tree to tree. The mind is never at ease. We hop from one thought to another, one desire to another. This constant jumping tires you out in the form of mental health problems. Yoga has prescribed meditation practices, asanas and Pranayama to bring the mind under control. Meditation is not just closing your eyes and sitting in silence for a while. The process is much deeper. While you meditate, the fleeting thoughts must be brought to rest and at a point, there must be none.

When your mind is at rest, your physical body functions at its highest capacity. The three characteristics or Gunas of the mind are Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Sattva is the state of purity, where your mind is in complete balance. Rajas represents activity. Tamas represents lethargy and darkness. Mental health issues occur due to the disorders of Rajas and Tamas. Your mind drives you to do everything. Ayurveda says that the mind is a sensory and a motor organ. The impulse from a sensory organ like the eye and the motor function like speech are due to the mind. The sense of touch is present throughout the body and it yields both painful and pleasurable sensations. The mind also has an impact over metabolism.

The tridoshas – Vata, Pitta and Kapha – are responsible for normal physiological functions. A disturbed mental state can disturb the balance between the tridoshas. If this disturbance is not treated, it may lead to various chronic mental health disorders. In Charaka Samhita, Acharya Charaka says that the effectiveness of traditional mental health- promoting factors lies in health regimens, good behaviour and Yoga.

Ayurveda recommends three types of approaches: Daiva-vyapasrya (divine or spiritual therapy), Yukti-vyapasraya (logical therapy) and Sattvavajaya (psychotherapy). The word Vyapasraya means to take refuge.

Daiva-Vyapasraya is where the therapy depends on Daiva and it involves chanting, wearing precious gems that can align one’s energies or chakras, performing fire rituals (homas), taking up vows (niyama), practising upavasa (fasting), and taking up pilgrimages (gamana) and more. This approach is administered to those patients only after considering their nature, faith and culture.

Yukti Vyapasraya deals with the usage of Ayurvedic oushadha (medicines) and ahara (food). Yukti means union but in the medical context, it refers to diagnosis and treatment. As said before, mental disorders arise from the abnormality in Rajas and Tamas. There are foods that can aggravate Rajas and Tamas in one such as onion, garlic, certain types of meat, uncooked food, food that is stale. Patients are usually administered rasayanas (tonics) and oushadhas that can bring the deranged mind to normalcy. Shodhana or purification is also done to cleanse the body and eliminate the aggravated doshas.

Sattvavajaya comprises two words- Sattva and Avajaya (conquering). Sattvavajaya thus refers to conquering or having control over the mind. Interestingly, this word was used in the Charaka Samhita once only by Acharya Charaka. He laid emphasis on the mind being under control and to not stray towards unnecessary thoughts and desires.

This approach deals with speaking to a therapist who would be able to restrain the mind from any negative thoughts. The therapist must be compassionate and he must bear in mind that he is only assisting the patient in realising their own potential rather than trying to solve the problem. The patient must be given words of moral support that helps calm them, to remove any phobia, to keep them involved in many activities and to make sure they are given guidance to make the right decisions.

Along with management of mental disorders, it is also important to prevent them. Practising Ritucharya (seasonal regimen), Dinacharya and Ratricharya (day and night routine), Satsang and Sadvratta (virtues) and Roganutpadana (prevention of diseases). Ayurveda also recommends one to not indulge in greed, grief, fear, anger or jealousy. Consumption of sattvic food, refraining from harsh words and being compassionate are the keys to a happy life.

About the Author

Ms Varsha Venkataraman

Varsha Venkataraman is a graduate in Applied Microbiology and Cancer Studies. Currently she is the Senior Researcher for the Centre for Soft Power with an avid interest in Ayurveda and wishes to focus on the integrative approach of Ayurveda and modern medicine in the treatment of cancer.

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