Tag Archives: wellness

Rare Stroke Survivor Shares His Story of Resilience in His memoir ‘One Fine Day’


In One Fine Day, Sameer Bhide sends each of us a reminder about the preciousness of life. Bhide had an extremely rare hemorrhagic brain stroke which required two different brain surgeries and  30 days in a medically induced coma before he could even begin the years-long hard path to recovery. During this difficult period, he had to quit his work and he went through a divorce. At the age of 47, his life came crashing down and changed dramatically…But he chose to overcome and embrace his new normal with “grace and gratitude.”

One Fine Day recounts the traditional well-accepted scientific protocols and atypical treatments he used to heal his mind, body, and spirit. At the end of each chapter, Sameer shares the relevant lessons learned from his journey which he calls “Sameerisms”. One Fine Day is a good positive read for people to overcome any adversity or life changes and want to turn their life around and heal. He believes his memoir will help people to build resilience, express gratitude, find possibilities, and adjust to a new life that they may not have chosen. This book also looks at the unexpected benefits of supplementing cutting-edge Western medicine and care with holistic Eastern practices to heal.


Now, I was ready to get back to my new normal with my family. I was working to heal my mind and spirit, as well as my body. My regiment now consisted of a combination of Western and Eastern medicine, care, and practices. I took what I’d learned at Nimba and continued to use Ayurvedic medicines and oils. Meditation became part of my regular routine. Beyond specific treatments and therapies, the holistic approach to health and life itself influenced me in lasting ways, without overdoing it, though. I also continued with the daily journaling habit I’d begun at Nimba, along with writing down three things I was proud of and grateful for every day. Before I started doing this, I had been a big to-do list person but never documented my feelings on paper. I was surprised by how cathartic this simple practice was. To date, I continue to do it.

I am very grateful to be the beneficiary of both Western and Eastern systems of medicine and care. But I don’t believe one system is better than the other. Just as some people are overly dependent on Western medicine, there are people who only use alternate medicines, practices, and care, and shun cutting-edge medical innovations and technology. I am absolutely convinced that you need both in balance. Also, because I’m Indian, some people, both in India and in the States, assumed that I am in total support of Eastern medicine and care, especially Ayurveda. Nobody said so specifically, but I could sense it. I have to be honest: Ayurveda is not the answer to all the ills, as many folks believe, nor is Western medicine and technology. You need both. They complement one another well. I am living proof. 

Upon my return, I also resumed visits with my neurologist, Dr. Manem, and went to my internist, Dr. Rachel, for a blood test. I was happy with the results and sent them on to Dr. Shyam since I wanted to keep him informed about my progress. I got evaluated at Inova Fairfax Hospital for further physical and occupational therapy. I also started seeing my clinical psychologist, Dr. Susan, again. I shared with her what I’d done at Nimba and what I planned to do now that I was back home. She didn’t offer her opinions or judge me in any way. She listened and allowed me to confide in her. I’d never done that with anyone before. At Nimba, the meditation and holistic treatments had given me a stronger ability to accept destiny and relinquish the need for control. Back home, that process continued. I realized I had to accept a situation the way it is, not the way I might want it to be. My “it is what it is” mantra continued to develop further. I used to get angry over little things, like paying bills or dealing with bad equipment. Now I was becoming more patient and accepting while learning to look for realistic solutions to everyday problems.  The mantra “it is what it is” applies to so many things. It can be a difficult message to follow, but it has gotten easier over time.

For many years, I had been part of a reactive and competitive business world. In business, generally, you don’t look calmly at a situation and acknowledge how the other party sees things. Being empathetic is just not part of the business culture. Because of my stroke, I was beginning to take a very different view of life. I was becoming calmer and more compassionate and empathetic. When I return to regular work in the future, it will be interesting to see what my reaction will be. Maybe my sense of acceptance will flow into the business world.

Sameer Bhide is originally from Mumbai, India and migrated to the US 31 years ago. Currently, he is on Long Term Disability and lives outside of Washington DC in Vienna, Virginia.

Srishti Prabha is the Managing Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.


Vaccine Myths Debunked By Science

Mahi Wants You Healthy and Happy – A column using science to focus on physical health and myths associated with disease. 

The modern age has seen a surge in popularity and support of the controversial “anti-vaccination” crusade. The study that gave rise to this movement was conducted by ex-physician, Andrew Wakefield, who claimed the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to autism. While this study and various other claims about the negative effects of vaccines have since been discredited by the scientific community, the perceived fears still exist today. As an effective coronavirus vaccine has been developed, it is critical that it is administered to the majority of the population in order for herd immunity to be achieved and spikes of new cases to be avoided.

Source: National Center for Biotechnology Information 

Myth #1: Vaccines cause autism

A flawed study in the Lancet by Andrew Wakefield claimed that autism could be directly linked to the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. An incorrect association between vaccines and autism continues to be used as a major argument against vaccines. However, this misconception has no rigorous scientific backing and the evidence from Wakefield’s study is intentionally skewed. For example, the study claimed that each of the twelve children were “normal” prior to the vaccine. However, five children had pre-existing developmental concerns. Wakefield’s study was proven to be biased because he cherry-picked data that supported his hypothesis. Wakefield has since lost his license to practice medicine and his research has been disproved. Even he admitted that he was not able to find a causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism. The causes of autism stem from genetic and environmental factors, not vaccines.  Spontaneous changes in genes that increase the risk of developing autism can be passed from generation to generation. 

Source: Autism Speaks, The British Medical Journal, The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, The Lancet

Image from the Medical Daily

Myth #2: Vaccines weaken your immune system

Anti-vax parents believe that vaccines have the potential to increase the likelihood of contracting other diseases not targeted by the vaccine. This misconception is refuted by a case study that tested children’s immunity to hundreds of different infections. The study examined diseases not preventable by vaccines among children aged 2 to 4. The exposure to vaccines for each child was measured by summing up the number of antigens received in each vaccine dose through the first 23 months after birth. After comparing the cumulative antigen exposure (i.e. how many vaccines have been received) of children who contracted the infections to those that did not, it was determined that vaccines have no statistically significant effect on contracting these infections. In reality, the children who did not contract the diseases were found to have received greater doses of vaccines compared to the children who were infected.

Source: Journal of the American Medical Association, NCSS Statistical Software, Medical Daily

Myth #3: Natural immunity is more effective than vaccines

Some claim that natural immunity is safer and stronger compared to the immune response from a vaccine. Natural immunity occurs when you become immune to a specific disease after contracting it. It is risky to have exposure to the actual disease because there is no telling who will recover quickly and who will have serious complications (with death as a possibility). Vaccines are carefully developed by scientists to ensure that it contains the smallest dose possible that still provides effective immunity. In fact, the HPV, Tetanus, Hib, and Pneumococcal vaccines actually induce a more effective immune response. 

Source: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Myth #4: Vaccines can cause the disease it is supposed to prevent

Because the majority of vaccines involve injecting a form of the disease into the body, many believe that vaccines cause the very disease they are meant to prevent. Inactivated vaccines like those for Hepatitis A, Polio, Flu, and Rabies, can’t cause the disease or symptoms because the bacteria or virus is killed beforehand. Live-attenuated vaccines (e.g. MMR, Rotavirus, Chickenpox, Yellow fever), which use a weakened form of the bacteria or virus, rarely cause minor flu-like symptoms such as chills, fatigue, or headache. It is likely the body’s immune response to the vaccine, signaling that it is working. The Johnson and Johnson vaccine uses a more traditional approach of inserting a disabled adenovirus. Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are mRNA-based which are unlike either vaccine mentioned above; mRNA vaccines use encode protein to induce an antibody response.

Sources: Center for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

Image from Village Point Pediatrics

Myth #5: Vaccines contain harmful chemicals

Paul A. Offit and Rita K. Jew’s study reassures that the risk for harm from substances in vaccines – thimerosal, formaldehyde, aluminum, antibiotics, and gelatin  – is low to none. Based on exposure studies, the quantities of mercury (ranging from approximately 65-425 micrograms per dose, aluminum (ranging from approximately 0.17-0.85 milligrams per dose), and formaldehyde (less than 0.1 milligrams per dose) are far too low to be harmful. 

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics

COVID-19 – the pandemic

Combatting the misinformation about vaccines has never been more important. With the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, the development and widespread usage of a vaccine is paramount to returning to normalcy. Please share this article and help us in our effort to educate others and save lives. 

Here are 3 places to get your vaccine:

  1. Rite Aid 
  2. CVS 
  3. CDC 

Why wait? Don’t hesitate. Get your COVID vaccine today – for free! 

Mahi Ravi is a senior at Saratoga High School who is dedicated to getting more vaccinators in line for the COVID shot. In her free time, Mahi leads a website The Corona Page (thecoronapage.com) for coronavirus research simplified to bite-sized nuggets of science. For a personal chronicle of the coronavirus pandemic, visit bit.ly/tcp101

Alicia Loui is a biology major at the University of Pittsburgh minoring in chemistry and music. Outside of class, she is involved in leading the Healing Harmonies club and finding ways to volunteer in the community. She loves the outdoors, traveling, and trying new restaurants! In my free time, She enjoys playing the cello, running, and spending time with friends and family.

Reviewed by Dr. Amy MacNeill and Dr. Sanjay Mishra


The Asian Penchant For Boiled Water

Engage! – Discussions on active involvement in personal health and global wellness.

Bhageeratha performed austerities for a thousand years to bring goddess Ganga down from the heavens to Earth to purify and release his ancestors from a curse. Varuna, Poseidon, and Neptune are deified as Gods or Kings of the oceans by Indians, Greeks, and Romans respectively. World mythology attributes over 200 gods, goddesses, kings, and queens as rulers of this precious element that is Water, be it in the form of an ocean, sea, river, spring, stream, lake, tide, rain, or even their inhabitant serpents, dragons, and nymphs. 

At a less celestial level, water is required for earthly life as we know it. Human existence and biology are predicated on it, and all early civilizations were settled around access to water. But it had to be drinkable, and human ingenuity was put to the test again. 

This painting showing Lord Vishnu asking Lord Varuna, God of the waters to recede to make land known as Kerala from Kanyakumari to Gokarna for the Brahmins. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Enter the ‘hot water and alcohol’ cultures. Early civilizations found two ways to make water potable, with the aim of disinfecting it and in some instances just making it taste better. Some boiled it, while others added alcohol to it. 

Beer and wine were the earliest fermented alcoholic brews. Early cultures who concocted these are thought to be the Chinese and regions around ancient Mesopotamia and present-day Iran, but common partaking of alcoholic brews was known in Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Persian, and Babylonian societies. Beer was made by fermenting various grains including barley, corn, wheat, oats, and rice, and the fermentation of grapes with rice potentially led to the first wines.   

While these versions of alcohol probably tasted good and had a lower microbe count, it was not optimal for all and sundry, including young children, to imbibe it from the morning hours. And so, Romans and Greeks were famously known to drink diluted wine.  Although this may not have necessarily made the water microbe-free it must have made it taste better. Some historians even believe that the use of lead vessels by Romans for boiling down grapes and creating syrups led to lead poisoning unbeknownst to them, and contributed to the fall of the Roman empire. 

While early evidence of distillation of alcohol (to enable the making of the more concentrated spirits) was discovered in the Indus Valley Civilization, India is one of the ‘hot water’ cultures and keeps company with Japan, Korea, and China. Boiling water was resorted to in order to disinfect water in these societies, and the overall preference for warm or even room-temperature water over chilled water is prevalent.

In India, the positive qualities of hot and warm water are advocated in yoga and Ayurveda. Drinking several glasses of warm water is recommended in the morning to flush away toxins People undertaking a fast are encouraged to consume warm water as it promotes a feeling of fullness, and one can imagine that this could be sage advice for persons consciously controlling their diet.

Ayurveda also suggests storing water in copper and silver utensils, which are thought to possess anti-bacterial properties among other health-promoting aspects. Elders in my own family prefer hot water, decry all chilled beverages, and invariably ask for hot water in restaurants of any cuisine. However, China exemplifies the modern-day cultural preference for hot water, where it is a favorite drink of young and old. They consume it in its pure form or as tea, and this practice is thought to have arisen from ancient wisdom as well as more recent public health promotion efforts. 

Obviously, this is not meant to imply a clear divide between the so-called hot water and alcohol cultures, and alcohol was consumed in various forms in the Eastern and Southeast Asian cultures too, but they were probably indulged in for reasons other than the purification of water. While boiling water still remains a good strategy for purifying water of micro-organisms, when one is in a bind and stranded with an absence of fuel, other strategies are suggested such as filtration. An important consideration is that some impurities in the water will not be inactivated with these above treatments. 

And when I recently ordered water in a restaurant in Brazil, I was asked, ‘With bubbles, or without bubbles?’ 

That’s progress for you. 

L. Iyengar has lived and worked in India and the USA. A scientist by training, she enjoys experiencing diverse cultures and ideas, and writing. Her short story will be included in an anthology showcasing a group of international women writers, to be published in 2021 by The Nasiona. She can be found on Twitter at @l_iyengar. www.liyengar.com.


Can the Extraordinary Become Ordinary?

Poetry As Sanctuary – A monthly column where poets from the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley pen their South Asian experiences.

As a community in the Bay Area with strong roots in India, we have been befuddled in our responses to our newfound freedom from the pandemic scenario while holding onto the complexity of the continued struggles of our friends and family back in India.

I could relate to the isolation and suffering of the pandemic from when I dealt with a difficult illness for some years with no break of ‘normalcy’. I decidedly trained myself to accept my new normal, and then the days that felt really hard became just like any ‘normal’ day. It lifted the burden of “Why Me” and made it somewhat more acceptable to live through the ordinary pain of a seemingly extraordinary situation (or vice versa).

It helps to blur the line between ordinary and extraordinary, whichever end we think us to be on. When extraordinary strength is required for long-term challenging situations, it helps to remember that even ‘normal’ life feels the same periodically.

And when we think of ourselves as ordinary and normal, it helps to remember that we hold the potential for the extraordinary. When life is ‘normal’ we take for granted that only some special people have strength. We forget that they are choosing to be strong. All of us have the choice to go a bit beyond our comfort zone. Extraordinary resilience can emerge out of simple shifts in perspectives.


Choice of perspectives
Is a gift of universal views
Though reality seems tentative
Be keen on your objective

As we choose to look at things differently
Struggle becomes our responsibility
As we refuse to think at things rigidly
Change becomes an indisputable possibility
When it seems like stuck for infinity
That’s when actually life is flowing rapidly
Let go and we get unstuck very easily

Choose what you want to change
Change what you choose to change
Insist to receive from what you perceive
Find it within you to realize your view

The perceived may be turbulent
When you be present and persistent
Look at and let go of being resistant
The received is sure to be opulent

Be relentless in pursuing life
A glorious one now that you are at it
And watch how life becomes relentless
In what it has to offer you
It is up to you how much you catch it

All things big and small when dropped to the felt sense become our internal experiences. No experience is ordinary or extraordinary, in some ways. Just because it happens to everyone and is normal, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be affected. If our thoughts and emotions are taking over that means our experience is real. It is affecting the quality of our life. Acceptance is being aware of all of that.

When fear grips, it means some perceived and real experiences of the world around us have left us with no control over how we feel and choose. When our system is out of balance the fear might bring up some pain or symptoms in the body. We might feel agitation, worry, or confusion in the mind, we lose the capacity to trust and feel positive. It becomes a struggle even when we have had a taste of divine faith before. We now seem to have lost the ability to be congruent with the core of our original being.

It is helpful at such times to create experiences to influence our system in the direction of balance. This can be done in various ways. A breathing practice that brings the body and mind to a calmer & clearer state of being, time in solitude, or nature with nurturing activities. Reading and music provide that relief for some. Sometimes we just need honest conversations with people who can act as authentic mirrors to us. Either a friend or mentor who reinforces and channels that sense of trust, faith, or divine connection back in our system.

There is tremendous rich value in this process of intentional shifts between imbalance & balance, ordinary & extraordinary, and fear & faith. I am blessed to be a receiver of such reinforcements from friends and teachers that I reach out to. I am also grateful to have opportunities to facilitate such shifts through the yoga classes that I teach in group and private sessions.

Pragalbha Doshi lives with her husband and 2 teenage boys in San Jose, CA. As a yoga teacher, she facilitates therapy & change for people who struggle with chronic symptoms of stress, physical & emotional, and who want a productive & fulfilling life www.yogasaar.com. She is deeply grateful to the community Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley and founder Jyoti Bachani for having a friendly affirmative space to read poetry aloud for a very generous audience during their weekly virtual meetings. 


Ikigai: A Roadmap for Sukham

Sukham Blog – A monthly column focused on South Asian health and wellbeing.

All of us want fulfillment, joy, and contentment – Sukham – in our lives. Who wouldn’t? Getting there often seems difficult, however.  As we go through life, one thing or another seemingly thwarts our attempts to reach that goal.  Sometimes we fear it’s unattainable.  Wouldn’t it be great if we had a prescription; a roadmap to guide us around those obstacles that life throws at us, and succeed in being happy and feeling fulfilled as we go about our daily lives? Attain that which seems just out of our grasp?

Many consider Ikigai –  a thousand-year-old Japanese ideology – to be just that prescription. Translated as “a reason for being,” the concept of ikigai refers to having a direction or purpose in life and obtaining a sense of fulfillment, by taking actions that give satisfaction and a sense of meaning. Ikigai refers to the pleasures and senses of life; it is that which makes us want to get up each morning. Gai, or “the reason,” is the key to finding value in your life.

Andrew Barry writes that our values are the driving force we need to live a better life, to be happier, and to make better decisions. “Clarifying your values is more important than setting goals,” he argues. Clear identification of one’s values is central to the Ikigai concept.  Noriyuki Nakanishi of Osaka University Medical School, also quoted by Barry, explains it this way:

The word ‘ikigai’ is usually used to indicate the source of value in one’s life or the things that make one’s life worthwhile (for example, one might say: ‘‘This child is my ikigai’’). Secondly, the word is used to refer to mental and spiritual circumstances under which individuals feel that their lives are valuable. There is a difference between ikigai and the sense of well-being. Ikigai is more concerned with the future: for example, even when one feels that one’s present life is dark, possessing a desire or goal for the future allows one to feel ikigai. Ikigai gives individuals a sense of a life worth living. It is not necessarily related to economic status. 

People willingly do things for which they feel ikigai, Nakanishi says; they do not need to be forced. Ikigai is personal; it reflects the inner self of an individual and expresses that faithfully. It establishes a unique mental world in which the individual can feel at ease.

How do you go about finding your own ikigai? 

Ken Mogi’s book – The Little Book of Ikigai

In The Little Book of Ikigai, Ken Mogi, a neuroscientist, and bestselling author describes five pillars that help embed ikigai in our daily lives and actions: 

Pillar 1: Start small

Start small with whatever you do; dedicate time and effort through each step until it reaches the best shape. This mindset is influenced by the Japanese culture of Kodawari that emphasizes and highly values pride in what we make, always striving to create the best.

Pillar 2: Release yourself

Release yourself to sensory beauty, flow, and creativity. Develop the ability to break free and open up to the sensory universe and its beauty. The Japanese pay close attention to detail and recognize the time and effort devoted to a task. Paying attention to the sensory experience is key to enhancing your work, whether it be craftsmanship, high-tech manufacturing, or just about any task you carry out. That attention to sensory experience releases flow and creativity. You derive pleasure when you are so much into the activity, that everything else ceases to matter. In this state, recognition for your work, payment, or other rewards cease to matter; the satisfaction you derive from the task becomes paramount and enhances your wellbeing regardless of other outcomes. 

Pillar 3: Harmony and sustainability

Japan is a collectivistic, group-oriented society that values sustainability over self-fulfillment, personal autonomy, and freedom of choice. This cultural mindset places a high value on nature, and on the need to be in harmony with both people and the environment.

Pillar 4: The joy of little things

This pillar emphasizes deriving pleasure and value from little things –watching the sunrise, savoring a favorite dessert, observing children at play, and countless other things. 

Pillar 5: Being in the here and now

Staying focused and mindful on the present activity without distractions of the past or concern about what is to come is a well-understood and valued concept.

A common, ‘western’ interpretation of ikigai is to find the Venn-diagram intersection of what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.  True ikigai is about striving for the best in everything you do, regardless of reward or recognition, pouring yourself into the task at hand, unleashing your creativity, finding beauty and harmony in things big and little, and being in the here and now. Ikigai seeks to cultivate a mindset that opens the pathway to happiness. It’s not about money or achievement. Taking care of the little things will lead you to your bigger goals. Ikigai is unique to each of us; we will discover it once we know and understand ourselves really well. Embedding it in our lives will strengthen our enthusiasm and zest for life, and help us find fulfillment, joy, and happiness in our work, our relationships, and our lives. Each of us needs to discover the passion and talent that gives us meaning, and then live it accordingly.  

García and Miralles describe 10 “rules” to follow in Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life: stay active and don’t retire; take it slow; don’t fill your stomach; surround yourself with good friends; get in shape for your next birthday; smile; reconnect with nature; give thanks; live in the moment; follow your ikigai.  

The Japanese are well known for their longevity. Okinawa – once called the land of immortals – is one of five places in the world named Blue Zones, where people live longest and are healthiest. Okinawans possess the driving force of ikigai; despite hardships, they have a reason to live, purpose in life, strong social networks, and a lifelong circle of friends. Ikigai is embedded in their lives, careers, relationships, and hobbies.

Ikigai is about attitude, purpose, activity, simplicity, focus, connection, and an understanding of self. It is an integral component of health and wellbeing.

Nakahashi says the desire for ikigai is a universal human experience. What’s your ikigai?

Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides curated information and resources on health and well-being, aging, and life’s transitions, including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death, and bereavement. Contact the author at [email protected]

With sincere thanks to Ken Mogi and to Oriento at Unsplash for the use of their images.


Zoonotic Infectious Diseases: Local Origins, Global consequences

Engage! – Discussions on active involvement in personal health and global wellness.

On December 31, 2019, twenty-seven cases of pneumonia of unknown origin were reported in Wuhan, China. By the second week of January 2020, the first case outside China was reported in Thailand. On January 30, 2020, the WHO declared an international public health emergency. Since those events transpired none of us have escaped the effects of the waxing and waning of SARS-CoV-2 as it has raged around the world over the past 18 months. 

If there is a positive fallout from this event, it is the explosion of international scientific efforts to find a way to control this deadly virus. The first sequence of this coronavirus was publicly available in January 2020, and vaccines were created within the next six months, both achievements as epic as the urgency created by this unprecedented (at least in our lifetime) international crisis. Simultaneously, the origin of this virus is being investigated, and expanding upon the knowledge that bats are the natural host of previous coronaviruses that caused human epidemics, namely SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, it appears that SARS-CoV-2 managed to jump to humans from bats. In order for the jump to human infectability to occur, mutations occurring in the virus genome create a viral surface protein that can bind specifically to a human cell surface protein; in the case of SARS-CoV-2, this could be a mutation that allows the viral Spike protein to bind the human cell surface ACE2 protein and cause infection. 

COVID-19 structure
COVID-19 structure

This process of zoonosis, involving the adaptation and transmission of infectious agents from a primary host that is either a mammal or a bird to humans, is an evident aspect of over a hundred infectious diseases known to afflict humans. The infectious agent involved could be bacteria, fungi, parasites, or viruses and in addition to known diseases, there is a continuous roster of emerging zoonotic diseases as these opportunistic microorganisms try to find new hosts to live and breed in. Transmission from animal to human may be through direct contact through potential scratches or bites, airborne through droplets for instance, through vectors such as mosquitoes, ticks, and lice, ingestion of contaminated food or water, and by contact with infected vegetation, soil, water, wild animals, etc. Transmission of pathogens across oceans and borders after they have adapted to humans can, unfortunately, become a reality with the ease of international travel, especially if they can achieve efficient human-to-human transmission and become highly infectious, as in the case with SARS-CoV-2. 

Commonly known extant zoonotic diseases include rabies, plague, chagas disease, brucellosis, anthrax, bovine tuberculosis, Japanese encephalitis, zika virus, ebola, and AIDS. All these, and many more, are of direct relevance to India and other tropical and sub-tropical countries including south-east Asia, Africa, South America, western Pacific islands, and parts of Australia where they can be a burden on the public health system and economy. In India, 13 zoonoses are associated with 2.4 billion cases of human disease, and 2.2 million deaths per year. The National Center for Disease Control in India coordinates efforts at early diagnosis and effective containment, and a specific focus is in the handling of animals and regulation of human-animal contact. Peri-urban areas have grown rapidly in India, and are a link between agricultural areas and densely populated sites. They present a risk as there is unregulated livestock-based food production in these areas to meet the increased demand for food products. 

In addition to these existing illnesses, it is estimated that 60-80% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic diseases. Change in land use is thought to be a major underlying cause of this especially in Southeast Asia and in tropical and developing countries, coupled with wildlife diversity. Depending on the use that the deforested land is co-opted for, be it monoculture forests, crops. poultry, livestock. housing, etc., different groups of zoonotic species came to the fore. For instance, strong associations of vector-borne diseases were found with monoculture plantations (for instance, rubber), and bacterial and viral diseases are among others associated with livestock farming. In India, which is one of the hot spots for emerging zoonotic diseases, potential reasons for the emerging disease include changing land use, dairy farming, rodent infestations, wild-animal trading, climate change, and improper farming practices. Coupled with these conditions there is a lack of awareness, poverty, and poor access to medical and diagnostics services. Endemics, epidemics, and emerging zoonotic diseases in Australia have been a constant presence between livestock, horses, and humans. These are mostly viral and vector-borne diseases, and a few examples are Nipah virus, Menengle virus, and JE virus

Examples of zoonotic diseases and their affected populations.
Examples of zoonotic diseases and their affected populations.

Triggered by the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the World Wildlife Fund has published a report on the zoonotic disease risk posed by wildlife markets in southeast Asia that are involved in wildlife trade and consumption. They urge governments to impose regulations on these activities and reduce demand for high-risk wildlife products. Other comprehensive and phased efforts to prevent and control known and new pathogens have been reported from Congo (monkeypox virus), Ethiopia (rabies), and Georgia (a new zoonotic virus). Of particular concern to India is the potential for it to become a hotspot for future variants of SARS-CoV-2, with global consequences. With its density of population, a priority is to exercise COVID19-related behaviors of masking, social distancing, and vaccination. A second priority is sequencing variants as they arise and following them epidemiologically with outbreaks of COVID19. 

In urban settings, most contact with animals is relegated to pets, household pests, and the consumption of meat and dairy products. Obviously, food needs to be handled with care and cooked well, and pests ranging from rats to mosquitoes and flies need to be eradicated. Although specific viruses can infect dogs and cats, there is currently no evidence that these transmit to humans and cause disease. However, there is some evidence that pets can test positive for SARS-CoV-2, with infection transferring from infected humans. Import and close continuous contact with exotic and wild animals as pets is not recommended. 

L. Iyengar has lived and worked in India and the USA. A scientist by training, she enjoys experiencing diverse cultures and ideas, and writing. Her short story will be included in an anthology showcasing a group of international women writers, to be published in 2021 by The Nasiona. She can be found on Twitter at @l_iyengar and www.liyengar.com.


Gopika practicing Kalaripayattu.

Kalaripayattu: Indian Martial Arts Harnessing Female Power

Shakthi! Power! Feminine Energy!

In today’s world women have broken the frontiers of space, air, and water. There is no mountain that they have not climbed, no desert they have not explored. Women have become world leaders; they hold important political and corporate posts. Take our very own Kamala Harris, a woman of Indian descent from California, who has broken the male legacy in our political system in the United States!

Is this just a modern phenomenon? Or has the world failed to see the power of the woman in legends, history, and mythology the world over? 

Bringing this power to the fore in every woman is Shakthi — a special self-defense program for women that focuses not just on the training of the body, but the mind as well. It helps women find that inherent deep spiritual power that made women like Kaplana Chawla, Kamala Harris, Indira Gandhi, or Mother Teresa had in order make a mark in the world.

Offered by Dr. S Mahesh Gurukkal of the Agasthyam Kalari, Shakthi is a program that is not geographically limited. It is within the reach of every woman who wants to discover her inner strength. Not just for self-defense, but to transcend that inner barrier to rediscover herself. Dr. S Mahesh designed this program to capture the fearless feminine essence of women that has been celebrated in folklore and ancient texts. This half-day workshop with hands-on Kalari-based techniques focuses on the mind as well as the body. Confidence and presence of mind are just as important as the lightning-fast reflexes that the trainees are equipped with. 

There is one such story of Ahalya, a demure 18-year-old, who enrolled in Dr. Mahesh’s class three years ago. It was a balmy summer evening when she first set foot in the Agasthyam Kalari in Thiruvananthapuram. Demure Ahalya stood silently staring at the floor. Her father was talking to Dr. S Mahesh about admitting her along with her two younger brothers to regular Kalaripayattu training. She did not think it was going to work.

Today, Ahalya has transformed into a vivacious, vibrant 21-year-old who is the National Champion in the senior category of Kalaripayattu Chuvadu. She receives a monthly scholarship from the government of India and is treated at par with the national champions in all other sports. The dynamic transformation that Kalaripayattu training has brought about has incited her interest in training those all over the world and of all ages via online classes offered by Agasthyam Kalari.

Coming from a very prestigious and traditional lineage of Kalaripayattu maters, Dr. S Mahesh carries a deep spiritual connection to this ancient martial art created by Sage Agastya. His grandfather Krishnan was an extraordinary exponent of the ‘choondani viral marma vidya’, a technique using yogic powers through pointing a finger at opponents that immobilized them. His father is the legendary Kalari master and Sidha expert Sanal Kumar Gurukkal. 

“Fear and alertness cannot coexist actually,” admits Suchitra, a Kung Fu blackbelt in her student days who has recently taken up Kalaripayattu. “Fear shrinks our sense of space. It leads to freezing when there is an actual danger. Martial arts help the mind become fearless. Kalaripayattu is considered the mother of martial arts. Such training must be included in schooling.”

Suchitra practicing Kalaripayattu.
Suchitra practicing Kalaripayattu.

“Thanks to many popular movies, everyone knows about Unniyarcha, the legendary female warrior of Kerala,” Dr. Mahesh Gurukkal smiles, “But the fact is that boys and girls were trained together in Kalaris centuries ago. The gender gap appeared only after the British crackdown on Kalaris and the subsequent revival in the 20th century. But we are quickly gaining lost ground. It is important not just from a physical preparedness point of view, Kalaripayattu transforms the mind to deal effectively and calmly with today’s working woman’s professional stress and work-family imbalance.”

Other than Shakthi, Agasthyam Kalari offers Nalludal, a unique Kalari-based health and fitness program for all age groups; Prana – a breathing-based energizing and rejuvenating program; Akam – Agasthyam kriya for awakening the mind; and Nithyam – a daily program based on authentic Kalaripayattu techniques. 

Sreedevi Pillai had worked in the IT industry around the world for over two decades before taking a break. “Though I had continued by Bharatanatyam training, I wasn’t sure I could start Kalaripayattu training in my 40s,” she says. “So I was surprised at the meticulously individual attention with which the Aashans (trainers) eased us into the different steps and routines in the Nalludal program. Kalari has helped me with my dance as well.”

Sreedevi as part of the Nalludal program.
Sreedevi as part of the Nalludal program.

The online classes are conducted in small batches so that individual attention is not compromised. There are participants from all over the world. The rising popularity of Kalaripayattu, along with the opportunity to start at any age, has led to the opening of Agasthyam offline city centers in different locations.

A lasting testimony to the power of the Shakthi program is Ahalya. In the Kalaripayattu performances that Agasthyam Kalari regularly gives at different venues, Ahalya fearlessly confronts three male opponents armed with swords with her bare hands. Though the action is choreographed, the danger is every bit real. As she brings down the opponents one by one into a pile and takes the victor stance in the end, there is a glimpse of a great future of fearless women being born in Kalaris across the world.

Shakthi! Onward! 

Dr. Arun Surendran is the Director of Agasthyam International Kalari. He holds a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from the Texas A&M University and is the Principal of Trinity College of Engineering Trivandrum. He is also the founder of Adcy.io Cybersecurity Solutions. He was awarded the prestigious Eppright Outstanding International Student Award, the highest honor given by the Texas A&M University to any international student.


The Microbe Connection: Disease, Health, & Ayurveda

Engage!Discussions on active involvement in personal health and global wellness

Part 1 of this article was published in India Currents in May. It highlighted the establishment and development of the human microbiome through infancy into adulthood and described the role that the environment plays in this. In this article, we explore the many facets of health that the microbiome is involved in. 

Sometimes termed the second genome, the idea that microbes are involved in the regulation of our physical health including digestion, cholesterol, and chronic disease may be more intuitive than the possibility that they also play a role in modulating mood, stress response, and psychiatric conditions. While these studies include those performed in the laboratory as well as the field, they serve the practical goals of initially understanding the mechanisms by which microbes interact with human physiology, and secondly the conversion of this knowledge into human therapeutics. 

Microbiome effects on gastrointestinal (GI) health are not surprising. As an example, scientists sequenced the microbiome (including bacteria-bacteriome, viruses- virome, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria- resistome) of urban and rural/tribal populations around Nagpur, India, and found distinct associations of bacterial species with individuals suffering from diarrhea and those that were normal. This included Clostridium difficile (C. diff) which can cause symptoms ranging from diarrhea to inflammation of the colon. Diarrhea was associated with a move to urban locales and with environmental changes such as antibiotic use. 

Your gut biome.
Your gut biome.

Bacterial species associated with good GI health seemed to cross cultures, and the same species were also reported in studies conducted in Africa, the Americas, and Mongolia, providing impetus to use this knowledge to promote GI health and function. 

As mentioned in Part 1, chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity are associated with urban microbiome profiles. While most of these studies analyze fecal samples to study disease demographics, others have focused on vaginal health. Just as in the gut, there is an optimal microbiome in the skin at this site that serves a protective function. Dysbiosis (disruption of microbial communities) causes susceptibility to other infections including sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS. 

These direct effects of the microbiome arise from the manipulation of resident populations and out-competition by unwanted organisms. Longer range effects are also seen on distant organs resulting in physiological disturbances that contribute to disease. 

Fascinating studies of the soluble molecules and alkaloids that the microbes secrete are ongoing, along with their effects on local and distant cells. The so-called gut-brain axis is a prime example of this. The stress response is primal and important for survival and is mediated by a well-studied pathway involving the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal gland. It is also thought to be involved in stress-related diseases such as anxiety and depression. Several studies, including a pioneering Japanese study, have shown that microbiota in the gut influence this pathway in a way that affects behavior, possibly at the very basic level of regulating neurotransmitters in the brain. The link between autism and GI problems is well known, and other studies have suggested that gut microbiota may be involved in Parkinson’s disease, and even in the regulation of mood and personality

Cancer also seems to have several potential dependencies on microbes. The best known is cervical cancer which is commonly caused by human papillomavirus infection. More recently a bacterial species have been found associated with colorectal cancer, and may be implicated in the growth and spread of these tumors, and other gut bacteria create conditions in the large intestine that are more conducive to cancer growth. About 700 species occupy the oral cavity, and some of them are thought to influence head and neck cancers, and also other GI tumors. Microbiota are known to alter the immune response to a tumor, and on the flip side, dysbiosis of the oral microbiome is seen in several GI cancers, and this could become a tool for early detection of these cancers.

The microbiome is known to change with age, and this aging microbiome could contribute to cardiac insufficiencies seen with age. The maintenance of biodiversity along with regular exercise is thought to slow the aging process. Other studies suggest that microbes influence basic physiological processes such as inflammation and immune reactions that underlie such manifestations as bone loss and allergies. In fact, these broader effects may be orchestrated by the microbiome that colonizes a human at infancy, and which plays a role in instructing the body on how to recognize ‘self’ from ‘non-self’ and react to the environment. 

As one can imagine dissecting these complex interactions is very nuanced, and is a work in progress. Thus, therapeutic interventions that are currently being explored may seem unsophisticated, although they have provided relief. Fecal transplants are being explored with some success for the treatment of recurrent C. diff infections, and more experimentally for inflammatory bowel disease and immune dysregulations. The idea behind this approach is that the re-introduction of microbial diversity, when this has been compromised, restores a healthy microbiome. Here encapsulated fecal material from healthy individuals is administered orally to patients, or transplanted directly into the colon. More recently, fecal transplants have been shown to improve the efficacy of cancer immunotherapy treatments. Although donors are extensively investigated for their own microbial flora among other medical tests, and recipients closely monitored, these therapies are considered experimental and are administered when tested treatments have not produced results. 

Microscopic view of a virus.
Microscopic view of a virus.

Information about the balanced existence of human microbiota including bacteria, viruses, protozoans, bacteriophages (viruses that attack bacteria), and even parasites continue to emerge. While we are still learning the complexities of this dynamic organ, we can proactively work towards maintaining it, in the same way that we try and maintain good heart health. Regulation of diet and the conscious incorporation of pre- and probiotic foods is an easy start. Prebiotics are comprised of indigestible fiber and are present in fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain, and are important for the growth and maintenance of the gut microbiome. Probiotics are fermented foods that contain beneficial microorganisms and include yogurt, kimchi, and tempeh. The incorporation of spices such as turmeric, black pepper, and ginger have the ability to modulate gut communities and gut health. Ayurveda follows a holistic approach to optimal health, and maintenance of a healthy microbiome is an integral part of this. Understanding its relevance in terms of the doshas (vata, pitha and kapha) is one approach, and so is its modulation by diet, sleep, exercise, and regular purging of the bowels. 

A recent mega-study conducted across 60 cities in 6 continents over 3 years studied the ‘urban microbiome’ and identified thousands of as yet unidentified species of bacteria and viruses in mass-transit systems. While there may be several practical uses for such an atlas, it gives credence to the concept of madi that was, and probably still is, followed in orthodox South Indian families, where extreme importance is given to cleanliness in terms of both personal hygiene and the home, combined with strict observance of dietary regulations. At a personal level, the rigorous COVID-related cleanliness regimens that I am currently following are very much in line with this!

Good and bad microbes exist, and we need to nurture the ones that are necessary and be cautious of the rest. Our co-evolution with these ancient organisms has a design, and while their empirical value was recognized by ancient systems of medicine including Ayurveda, we are still unraveling the details of their complexities. 

L.Iyengar has lived and worked in India and the USA. A scientist by training, she enjoys experiencing diverse cultures and ideas, and writing. Her short story will be included in an anthology showcasing a group of international women writers, to be published in 2021 by The Nasiona. She can be found on Twitter at @l_iyengar. www.liyengar.com



Fading leaves signify Dementia (Image by Tolga Ulkan)

Amma Has a Dementia Diagnosis. What Now?

Sukham Blog – A monthly column focused on South Asian health and wellbeing.

Last month, we talked about what we should do if we were concerned about Amma’s recurring memory lapses. In this article, we explore options and describe the steps to be followed if Amma receives the diagnosis we were dreading – tests that confirm she is in the early stages of dementia. Her symptoms are consistent with an underlying progressive and irreversible illness that is causing damage to the complex system that controls cognitive function: the neurons or nerve cells in her brain, and the networks they form with other neurons. These symptoms could be caused by any one of a half-dozen diseases; Alzheimer’s is the most common one to affect older people. Parkinson’s disease also often leads to symptoms of dementia.

It is never easy to receive such a diagnosis. The news is earth-shattering, not only for the patient but also for the entire family circle. A vibrant individual will slowly but surely lose his or her identity, mind, and sense of self, and slowly forget all lived events; forget everything and everybody – as though that life never happened. Like a frame from which a precious photograph slowly fades until it is gone. The patient lives unaware in this wicked prison, while those around her agonize helplessly. These cruel diseases strike not just the patient, but the entire family. Perhaps we’ll find a cure one day. Perhaps we’ll find more ways to delay disease progression and reduce the symptoms, enabling a longer, meaningful life.  Science and medicine have made progress in the past couple of decades, and there is hope of more to come in the future. In the meantime, what is the best we can do to cope?

Strategies to help with the dementia diagnosis.
Strategies to help with the dementia diagnosis.

Amma’s diagnosis calls for a mobilization of the immediate family to participate in a strategy session with her. You should look at Amma’s circle to decide if any of her close and intimate friends should be included. The objective of this effort should be to develop short and long-term plans that address several different issues, including: dealing with the emotional impact of the diagnosis on Amma and the rest of her circle, understanding the diagnosis and treatments available, making financial, legal, and personal plans, addressing safety and living arrangements, understanding all available support, and developing a comprehensive care plan that puts Amma at the center, and considers the impact on her family and very close friends.

Some excellent tips provided by the National Institute of Health and the Alzheimer’s Association serve as a guide and starting point for this strategy session. While the main focus is the newly diagnosed patient, much of this applies to his or her circle as well. I’ll describe in brief what’s available to Amma in these two resources. It is very important for all involved to be open and honest with Amma, and with each other about what lies ahead; to share and understand one another’s perspective.

When one hears of the diagnosis, the gamut of emotions covers a range that includes denial, anger, resentment, depression, fear, loss, grief, and a sense of isolation.  These emotions will be with you for a while, and you’ll need to find healthy ways to deal with them. The Alzheimer’s Association provides many excellent suggestions. Know that you are not alone; that there is a large community out there living and coping with dementia and its impact, and you can draw on them for learning and support. Talk to the doctors to learn more about the disease and its likely progression and the available treatments. Find out if any clinical trials might benefit you. While a cure is still not in our grasp, the medical profession is learning more and more about the disease and how to handle it.

You will have to learn to live with this disease, and an important step is to share the diagnosis with those who matter in your life. Continued interaction with them is an essential part of your life, and knowing about your diagnosis and normalizing it is the healthiest way to maintain and grow your relationships with them. Be prepared for varying and unexpected reactions from others. Take your time doing this; the sharing will raise new emotions. Remember that there is no more stigma associated with dementia than with a diagnosis of heart disease or cancer. Know that this is not your fault! As the disease progresses, your abilities will change. Accordingly, you will need to prepare yourself for role changes, for gradually becoming more dependent on others.  This reality can be very difficult for many; however, it is the new reality.  Openness, honesty, and trust on all sides are essential.  

Develop a detailed plan for your future that covers legal, financial, living, and end-of-life decisions. Make sure that those legal and financial affairs are in order, and prepare an updated Advance Health Care Directive as soon as possible. Get a good understanding of the resources that may be available to you. Take a deep look at your living arrangements. You live alone right now. Do you need to plan for a different arrangement, either now or sometime later? 

Safety and the ability to take care of yourself should be prime considerations. Prepare to give up your independence, and accept that it is okay to get help from others. Make plans for a transition to living arrangements that best suit you and your family, one that will provide the support and care that you need. Proactively build your own care team that could include family, friends, neighbors, and medical professionals. Avoid isolation and stay socially connected. Learn about all the support services in the area where you live. Get educated on all the treatments and clinical trials that may be available for your particular condition. Understand what drugs are available to delay cognitive decline, and ease any symptoms that you have. Find out if any alternative treatments or medications are available.

Another source of support to consider is Palliative Care. This medical subspecialty is available in most large hospitals and medical clinics. A multi-disciplinary palliative-care team works alongside the medical care team to help the patient and family address their psychosocial, spiritual, and medical needs. They can help improve the overall quality of life, manage symptoms like agitation, poor or altered sleep, pain, and distress, advise families on what to expect over time, and provide guidance for decision making.

Amma, you have a life-changing diagnosis, but with a detailed action plan ready, with a good support system and a self-care plan in place, you can live well and look forward to a healthy life in which you focus your energy on what matters most to you! 

Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides curated information and resources on health and well-being, aging, and life’s transitions, including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death, and bereavement. Contact the author at [email protected]

With sincere thanks to the Alzheimer’s Association and Tolga Ulkan at Unsplash for the use of their images.


The Intersection of Parenting and Mental Health During a Pandemic

When Shruti got the chance to relocate to the U.S. at the end of 2019, little did she know that her life-changing decision would be one of the hardest she ever made. Cradling a two-year-old and a teenage boy in tow, the recently-divorced IT professional shifted to Silicon Valley with the hopes of starting afresh in January of 2020. A few months down the line, everything came crashing down.

When the lockdown happened in the US, after the country faced devastation with the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across states, Shruti had barely settled down. She had to get her elder son into a school and got a friend to help take care of her younger one as she geared up for office. Things did not go according to plan and suddenly Shruti found herself stuck at home with a teenager who had no friends in the new country and a youngster who needed constant attention as she tried to reshuffle her home and work-from-home environment. She was not the only one.

For 32-year-old single-mother Neha (name changed on request), life changed drastically when in March 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world. Her younger son, Viraj, was 15 at the time and was studying in the 10th grade. Starting March 16, schools in Maryland were closed and the world descended into uncertainty. Her son was stuck at home, cut off from social life. The sight was uncanny and like us, everyone was unaware when the normalcy would return.

For Neha, seeing her son Viraj at home was especially difficult. Prior to the pandemic, Viraj used to meet his friends, played outdoor sports, and preferred engaging in co-curricular activities. Many like Viraj were forced to be in isolation indefinitely. Thankfully, Viraj had friends in the neighborhood, so despite having inhibitions, Lucia allowed him to play basketball outside with a few other youngsters from around her house.

There are thousands like Neha across the U.S. for whom the pandemic brought about fresh challenges. It has been particularly strenuous for single parents trying to work and care for their youngsters. Everyone has been more anxious and worried during the pandemic. Younger children may not have the words to describe their feelings but are more likely to act out their stress, anxiety, or fear through their behavior. This in turn can upset parents, particularly if they are already stressed.

A study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry finds that lone fathers and lone mothers have higher rates of mood disorders and SUDS (Subjective Unit of Distress Scale) than their married counterparts, which is indicative of the disadvantages of this sort of a family structure that might have negative consequences for all parents.

Let’s face it, the ever-shifting demands of parenting in a pandemic are leading to stress, anxiety, and depression, not to mention economic hardship for those forced to leave their jobs to care for their children.

According to the American Psychological Association, home in the age of COVID-19 has become the office, the classroom, and even the gym. Parents are struggling to not only keep their children occupied, but also to oversee their education as they continue to do their daily chores, finish office work and take care of other necessities in their family life. Daycares have shut down amidst the pandemic and parents or a single parent has to simultaneously take care of their youngsters while they are online fulfilling their professional obligations. 

Shruti, has since then, flown back to India with her children, thanks to one of the many government-sponsored flights bringing back ex-pats to their native countries. She looks back at those fear-riddled stressful months when she and her children were stranded within four walls, she notes that, while it is normal to feel fearful, anxious, or stressed given the current situation, there are ways one can de-escalate the mental-health issues of parenting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

So what should parents do to ensure proper mental health for themselves and their children?

For starters, the APA suggests that parents should set boundaries within the home space since they tend to blur when work life and home occur at the same place. Setting specific boundaries that separate the work from the home environment helps the child and parent have a safe haven within the home. 

Experts also opine that while it is impossible for either parents or their wards to put in normal hours during such stressful times, one has to maintain a routine, even if it entails a child to stay up later than usual to finish a particular work. Routines enable families to cope with stress and be more resilient.

Finally, relaxing screen time will allow youngsters to stay connected with their social circle and ease parental stress. 

Hope these tips help you during this transitional time!

Umang Sharma is a media professional, avid reader, and film buff. His interests lie in making the world a better place through the power of the written word.


Quest of a Modern Day Yogi in America

Come walk with me

I’ve been revisiting the rich teachings and wisdom of my Vedic heritage as I traverse my golden years. Examining them through the lens of the world around me today, I realize the need to re-interpret Vanaprastha and Sannyasa for myself, for the present day in which I live. Back in those ‘golden-olden’ days, society looked after an individual entering Vanaprastha; he or she did not have to worry about the next meal or a roof overhead.  Today, so many of our fellow seniors cannot see beyond a meal for the day. How can they possibly contemplate transitioning from the obligations of a householder? How can they detach from society to enter introspection? How best can the more fortunate among us – those who have enjoyed a decent life, and are now reasonably secure in their circumstances – deal with the ‘emptiness’ of the transition from Grihasta?

Come and walk with me for a while on my quest to be a modern-day Yogi in today’s America, and I’ll tell you.

Historic path to self-realization

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a collection of around two hundred statements, observations or truths that describe the science of Yoga in its entirety. The Yoga Sutras describe the Raja Yoga, or Ashtanga Yoga – the eight-step practice that enables individuals to attain self-control, discipline, internal clarity, peace and ultimately self-realization or Samadhi – the ecstatic union of the individual with the cosmos. Scholars believe these primary scriptures of Yoga were written around the 2nd century BCE. Through the intervening centuries, philosophers and learned sages have been pulling at the threads of Patanjali’s work, translating and explaining them for our consumption.  

Each stage or limb of Ashtanga Yoga builds naturally on those that precede it. The first four limbs are designed to help us gain control over our bodies and become aware of ourselves. When you or I talk about ‘practicing yoga,’ we are referring to Asana, the third limb which follows Yama and Niyama.  The postures we practice – often referred to as Hatha Yoga – help us maintain physical health and well-being.  In addition, they promote self-discipline, focus and concentration, and prepare us for meditation. Pranayama, which literally means life-force extension, is the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga, and consists of breath-control techniques to rejuvenate the body and extend life. It is either practiced on its own, or integrated into Hatha Yoga routines. 

The next three stages, Pratyahara, Dharana and Dhyana are preparation for the last, ultimate stage: Samadhi. They involve a conscious withdrawal from the outside world and an effort to transcend external stimuli to focus increasingly inward. This cultivation of detachment and an increased effort to concentrate and singularly focus inward, while leveraging the training in posture and breath control leads naturally to Dhyana: meditation or contemplation.

Meditation or Mindfulness?

In Eastern philosophy, cultures and tradition – whether it be the scientific path of Yoga or one of the more monastic forms of Buddhism, meditation is a practice that combines inward focus and concentration with controlled breathing, allowing individuals to follow their breath to an inner harmonious state. Harmony, peace, tranquility, and compassion both for self and others should follow.

The prevalence of meditation in other cultures and religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has traditionally been described by scholars as self-administered techniques for inner transformation. Attempts to link meditation and spirituality have created controversy. Western meditation typically involved the reading of religious texts, prayer, and contemplation.  Worldwide interest in Eastern forms of meditation and their adoption began in earnest around the middle of the 20th century as travel increased. The same period witnessed a rapid decline of religion, especially Christianity, in the US, Europe, and most of the Western world. This trend, coupled with a marked increase in stress and mental-health issues induced by the unrelenting pace of modern life and work began to drive people to seek other sources for comfort and healing; to the practice of meditation and the health benefits that accrue from it.  A growing body of scientific evidence verifies what Patanjali taught centuries ago: regular meditation improves physical and mental health; it reduces blood pressure, helps with digestive disorders, eases the symptoms of anxiety and depression, improves sleep, and promotes physical changes in the brain that promote better overall health.

We often hear the term mindfulness these days; some use it interchangeably with meditation. There are differences, however. Meditation is a practice, while mindfulness is a state or quality. 

Dr. John Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) program defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” 

Mindfulness is a cultivated behavior, the process of focusing one’s attention. We can derive a lot of value by making it part of our way of life. Mindfulness and being in the moment are key to building resilience and overcoming adversity and stress. The essence of mindfulness is embedded in the practices of Ashtanga Yoga. 

Whether you are on the Ashtanga path towards the ultimate goal of a Yogi, an agnostic, or a disbeliever; whether you practice this or that religion or are an atheist, whether you are on the modern-day treadmill seemingly getting nowhere, or attuned with Mother Nature with days filled with purpose, the regular practice of meditation is good for your body, your mind, and your soul. Regardless of what terminology you use – mindfulness or something else, the ability to focus your attention and be in the present moment with equanimity is worth developing.  Attributions to East or West and distinguishing between shades of meaning may be interesting philosophically or may make for a robust debate, but they do not change the individual outcome. Meditation, pranayama, and mindfulness transcend culture, religion, and national or political boundaries. They have intrinsic value. Pranayama and meditation should be part of all stages of our life journey. I’m trying to make them part of mine.

Heading towards Liberation

In Vedic culture, the path of Ashtanga Yoga weaves through the four Ashramas or stages of spiritual life.  Beginning with Brahmacharya or student life, the Ashramas set a living framework and define spiritual practices based on the duties and responsibilities required at each stage of life, as the individual progresses on a path towards ultimate self-realization or Samadhi.  Brahmacharya sets the foundation, provides learning about family life and community, teaches spiritual practice, and provides yogic training. The second stage of life is spent as a Grihastha or householder – raising and supporting a family, following one’s worldly interests, continuing to drink from the fountain of Jnana, and carrying out the teachings of Bhakti and Karma Yoga. Once these responsibilities are fulfilled, the individual begins to withdraw from the world into the transitional stage of Vanaprastha, counseling the family and community while becoming increasingly more detached, with decreasing attention to the world and surroundings. Attention instead turns inward in preparation for the final stage: Sannyasa or renunciation, working towards the attainment of Samadhi, and ultimately seeking Moksha or salvation.

Every religion and culture addresses Moksha –liberation from the state of being human to become one with the cosmos or some higher power – in its own terms, and with its own descriptions and definitions of both the pathway and the ultimate end state. The Bhagavad Gita describes three margas or pathways: Bhakti (devotion), Jnana (knowledge), and Karma (duty or service). You will find proponents and devoted followers of each approach. The descriptions, discussions, and discourse on each alternative, and the relative merits of one versus the other would fill a small library. 

While commenting on Adi Sankara’s renowned devotional hymn Bhaja Govindam, the elder statesman and writer C. Rajagopalachari statedthe way of devotion is not different from the way of knowledge or jnana. When intelligence matures and lodges securely in the mind, it becomes wisdom. When wisdom integrates with life and issues out in action, it becomes bhakti. Knowledge when it becomes fully mature is Bhakti. If it does not get transformed into Bhakti, such knowledge is useless tinsel. To believe that knowledge and devotion, jnana and bhakti are different from each other is ignorance.

Intuitively, and from an objective viewpoint, one could argue – and I do – that ultimately all three paths overlap. I would leave the distinctions to philosophers and debaters.

Re-defining my path

This sets the stage for the central tenet I wish to present. Each of us is formed by our experiences. The older among us were born in India, growing up in an environment with traditional culture and roots, in society and familial environment that formed our values and guided our practices of daily living.  We now live – either in India or relocated in our adopted countries – in a modern world that has transformed significantly in the space of a generation. During this transformation, we’ve had to adapt to a new way of life.  We’ve changed in many ways and adjusted to different societal norms and thinking. The attitudes and practices of daily living have changed for most of us. I would argue that in either era – then or now, most people would not move all the way up the ladder of Ashtanga Yoga and attain a level of Yogic discipline and practice to be prepared and ready to renounce their way of life and enter Sannyasa in a quest for Samadhi. A few might, but not most.  To the rest of us today, I pose the question: can we adapt the guidance of our ancient Yoga Scriptures and build for ourselves the model of a modern-day Yogi?

I posit that we should embrace the conceptual basis of Vanaprastha and Sannyasa spiritually, and adapt them for our modern times. We should treat Vanaprastha not as a time for transition and withdrawal, but as a time for liberation and increased activism. During this stage of life, Bhakti Yoga provides enrichment, courage, and support as we sustain ourselves in the face of the realities of aging. Let’s leverage this support to actively pursue the path of Karma Yoga –selfless service to others – and work for the benefit of our communities, always dipping into the ocean of Jnana to learn how better to serve our fellow man. Continue to find strength and comfort in Bhakti Yoga.  By doing so, we will find our Sukham – joy and fulfillment.  As we continue our service, we will slowly but surely embed tiny fragments of ourselves in our fellow human beings, and find our own salvation through each of them. We will successfully make our transition to an ecstatic union with the cosmos.

Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents.

Nidhi Kirpal Jayadevan practicing Yoga.

My Yoga Toolkit To Ease Anxiety

Yoga has always afforded me a sort of mental vacation that helps recenter my focus and energy. It probably sounds a bit esoteric. But let me explain. I find the routine of a few sun salutations, twists, an inversion, the quiet heaviness of shavasana, and some full belly “Oms” revitalizing. After which I breathe deeply with renewed energy, ready to take on and make the most of the at times, challenge-filled fluidity of working from home and remote school, for instance.  

More recently during this anxiety-inducing pandemic, as I worry about our family’s safety in India or read about the ever-spiking cases and crumbling health care system there, my intermittent and improvised yoga practice allows me to calm my nerves and think more positively. I hope for a happy day when we are able to travel to India with our two boys, so they may be able to see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, in-person, and I, my folks.

I am by no means a certified yoga instructor – merely a yoga enthusiast who has turned to this ancient Indian practice every now and then at various stages of my life for over two decades now, reaping its wonderful benefits. Every time I surrender to my mat, I rise in a strange mind-body-soul harmony, gently yet firmly, reminding me ‘to just be’. To accept, be grateful, make the most of ‘now’, mindfully and intentionally going about my day.

While I am cognizant that everyone has their go-to activity or means to de-stress and relax, like listening to music, running, taking a short nap, or reading, yoga is mine. The reason I was drawn to it is because it made me pause and slow down my pace of life and mind. I also very quickly realized that yoga doesn’t have to be complicated or enigmatic. It doesn’t need much equipment, space, or time. It’s easy and beneficial. I can do it whenever I want and for as long as I want (or can). 

So, over the years, I have devised my own ‘yoga toolkit’. It has helped me mindfully navigate the curveballs at work and as a full-time parent. And it continues to assist me today, as I, like millions of others navigate this global pandemic, making sense of it, praying for a better tomorrow.

To stay calm, centered, rational, and in control, I often resort to the following yoga tools. I don’t necessarily follow these sequentially or attempt to go through each of them. I simply do what I can.

Breathe deeply for that much-needed clarity.

We breathe all the time. Why not make it conscious and intentional? It’s cathartic and effortless. The two things we all value, especially these days. Focusing on my breath for a few minutes magically helps me hit that reset button. And we all know, taking a pause can help us rationally re-evaluate a variety of situations – personal and/or professional.

When under stress, do the downward dog.

You may end up doing it a LOT. It’s no secret that our current reality possibly fills the most formerly self-assured people with doubts: small, big, and huge. Often! But when has a bit of stretching, sculpting, toning, and blood flowing to the brain been a bad thing? It not only helps us all take that much-needed pause but forces us to see the world from an upside-down (different?) perspective.

Create space between the ears and shoulders.

This is something we don’t even think about but can do all the time – while sitting, standing, and lying down. Just pull your shoulders down and straighten your neck to create some space between the tips of your ears and the tops of your shoulders. Not only check your posture but also feel that stress release. You’ll likely feel taller, more in control, and will look graceful too. Tip – you can add to it by tucking in your tummy, working those abs. But don’t forget to breathe!

Relax in child’s pose.

Again, a little bit of flexibility and stress/ blood pressure reduction can’t be all bad! A time to rest, and reset, and secretly build flexibility and work those abs.

Massage the top of your head and the nape of your neck.

Isn’t that what they did when physically going for a massage was a possibility? Granted, it’s not the same as getting that divine massage, but it’s certainly something. Creating some scalp blood circulation apparently helps with hair growth too.  

Lie in Shavasana for that divine sleep and mental reset.

A few minutes of Shavasana prior to a nap or hitting the sack for the night helps me breathe deeply and relax, setting me up for some quality rest time. Tip – a scalp massage with some meditation music prior only makes the sleep deeper and more restful.  

In summary

Feel free to harness the power of this ‘Yoga toolkit’ alone or with kid(s), your spouse/ partner. It’s relatively simple and doesn’t entail much. Best of all, it’s iterative. Pick what you feel like. Add to it if you want to. If a backbend or headstand is part of your practice, go for it. If you want to just lay down, massage your head, and tune out breathing deeply in Shavasana, do it! It’s also indulgent. Remember to work with your energy levels and time commitments. Don’t endeavor for that perfect pose. These tools can be hugely gratifying, relaxing, and mentally and physically centering. Something we all crave and can benefit from.  

Here’s wishing us all the very best, as we surge forward with positivity, gratitude, and mindful intention.

Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, Om…….

Nidhi Kirpal Jayadevan is an avid reader and a yoga enthusiast. Her pre-kids life was dedicated to the complex field of Communication Sciences. After choosing to be a full-time mother, reading and playing with her high-energy boys has been a fascinating journey. It has (re)kindled in her a sense of wonder in all things small. She constantly sees the world through little eyes, applying simple learnings to deepen life’s meaning for herself and her family.