• Decolonizing and Demystifying Anxiety and Depression

    Yoga is not a feel-good practice; it is a practice of self-accountability. It asks us to be responsible for our inner experience and learn to divorce it from the outside world (vi-yoga). It further propels us to grow rather than to remain stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking (vikalpas) and behaving (vasanas).

    The past year has been a reckoning for most of us as we faced:

    1. A life-threatening global pandemic, lockdown, and quarantine
    2. Global economic meltdown because of businesses shutting
    3. A rapidly worsening climate crisis that puts all life on the planet in peril
    4. A tipping point in the collective awareness of the ravages of racial oppression, white supremacy, and colonialism
    5. An ever-widening political divide that put the US on the brink of civil war
    6. The growth of extremism, conspiracy theories, and fringe cult groups unable to deal with these realities, perhaps as a form of counterphobia

    There is plenty to be anxious and depressed about, and data shows that anxiety and depression rates skyrocketed early in the pandemic lockdown. To top it off, the SARS-CoV-2 (or Coronavirus 19) also seems to have neurological and psychiatric impacts on those who have been infected, with 1 in 5 people who have had COVID meeting criteria for a mental health disorder after the infection. Given these facts, I propose that we cannot center problems in the individual without addressing also the social, cultural, economic, and political realities that influence people’s fears and hopelessness. Healing must happen in community.

    The year 2020 has challenged many of us to question in what unconscious ways colonialism, white supremacy and white privilege have shaped us personally and professionally. Asked to write a blog on yoga for anxiety and depression, I struggled to identify a context that felt satisfying. Finally, I understood that I wanted to bring a new perspective to these very real and disabling, but also all too common human experiences.

    Disease, according to Yoga Sutra 1:30, is one of nine obstacles that obstruct progress on our path to experiencing the state of yoga. The yoga tradition understands disease as a misalignment with the rhythms of nature. We are increasingly out of harmony with the natural universe. After industrialization, even less so. The planet’s rhythms and our individual circadian rhythms are out of sync. Conditioned by a white supremacist culture that tells us our worth is dependent on performance, achievement, and amassing material wealth, we resist rest. The brain then sends us signals that something has gone awry, and we become anxious and depressed.

    Anxiety and depression are not new phenomena. They have affected humans through millennia because they are natural responses to an over-taxed nervous system. In a way, they are both a warning, and an attempt to re-regulate the human organism when it has become dangerously imbalanced due to extreme stressors. Anxiety is the mobilization of metabolic energy towards necessary action, and depression is a demand that the system rest, so it goes into shutdown for energy conservation. These processes will be explained further in subsequent blogs detailing the neurophysiological and psychological or cognitive components of these experiences.

    Unfortunately, 20th century psychiatry, to categorize these phenomenological experiences as mental illnesses, began to reify these constructs and give them a life of their own—so we are no longer human beings having a transitory experience, but we become defined by our anxieties or our depressions. For many, their diagnoses begin to define their identities. Instead of seeking more complex explanations and taking corrective lifestyle actions, we look for a simple external agent (i.e., medications) to rapidly fix our distress. Our locus of control is outside of us, rather than within us. The yoga path, on the other hand, asks us to do self-study (svadyaya) and to engage in practice (sadhana) to shift states of consciousness and overcome the causes of suffering (kleshas).

    Yoga is not a feel-good practice; it is a practice of self-accountability. It asks us to be responsible for our inner experience and learn to divorce it from the outside world (vi-yoga). It further propels us to grow rather than to remain stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking (vikalpas) and behaving (vasanas).

    Another disservice of modern psychiatry has been the simplification of solutions, so people (including some physicians) now commonly believe that depression is “a serotonin imbalance” to be rapidly resolved by a selective- serotonin-reuptake-inhibitor that will flood your brain with “feel good” neurotransmitters. But if that were the case, wouldn’t psychotropic medications have reduced the incidence and prevalence of anxiety and depression, and put a dent in the number of suicides recorded annually? Instead, what we are seeing are skyrocketing rates of all of these issues, especially in the more industrialized nations. And health and mental health professionals are bracing for a post-COVID wave of all of these “diseases” including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Clearly, our angst is a lot more complex than this simple neurotransmitter.

    Medications are fine as an adjunctive support, especially during times of extreme stress, but they will not “cure” the underlying causes and conditions that led to our “disordered” thinking, feeling, and behaving. They work best as a short-term salve to help us do the necessary work of change. In fact, most research done to get drugs approved is short term, and the bulk of the data shows that antidepressants, for example, only work better than placebo in cases of very severe depression. And many of these medications have undesirable effects and are difficult to withdraw from. Some Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), for example, have FDA black-box warnings about the potential increase in suicidality in certain age groups. Education on the pros and cons is imperative before agreeing to introduce psychotropic medications.

    The reality is that we are complex, multi-faceted beings whose unique and individual experiences require multi-faceted solutions. To decolonize therapy, we must humanize our experiences and bring back ancestral ways of healing in community by creating “communities of care.” We must de-mystify our experiences and put them in the context of social, cultural, economic, and political experiences and not “broken brains.” We must acknowledge the role of current and transgenerational, individual, and collective traumas. We must acknowledge all the ways that racist, sexist, fatphobic, transphobic, ableist, and capitalist ideologies impact individuals and communities – increasing anxiety and depression rates due to realistic fears and hopelessness regarding change. We must bring healing  (the process of ecoming whole) to the center of treatment.

    Decolonization is now used to talk about restorative justice through cultural, psychological, and economic freedom. Racial equality and eliminating wage disparities, for example, would do more for reducing depression and anxiety in certain groups than psychotherapy and anti-depressants. Decolonizing therapy means empowering individuals rather than making them dependent on a medical infrastructure designed to profit from illness. It means offering solutions that work for people within their cultural contest, even if they are not “evidence-based.” And finally, it means we must establish systems and institutions that understand dis-ease as just that: an attempt of the body and psyche to return to ease, flow, and coherence.

    This is part 1 of a 3-part series. Subsequent blogs will deconstruct anxiety and depression as well as outline how yoga has been proven by research to help with these conditions. Inge Sengelmann is a licensed clinical social worker and certified ParaYoga teacher who specializes in disorders of extreme stress and is committed to anti-oppression practices and decolonizing mental health.

    By Inge Sengelmann

    Inge Sengelmann, LCSW, SEP, RYT is a licensed psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher who promotes a practice of embodied psychology and spirituality. Visit her website at www.embodyyourlife.org.

    Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash.

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  • The Covid Crisis in India

    In India, we are fighting the government AND Covid. There is a pandemic that involves a virus however, it is exacerbated by the toxic social environment, that results from an authoritarian fascist government.

    India has been rocked by a deadly second wave of the virus (double mutant variant or B.1.617). Indians are facing a tsunami of infection that has pushed the country to the brink of collapse.

    The latest wave is sparking a health crisis & human tragedy in India. It is far surpassing anything seen, anywhere in the world.

    A string of missteps has dogged the Central government’s response to the pandemic. Policy paralysis, politics, huge religious gatherings & election rallies gave heft to the start of the rolling second wave. These occurred on the backs of already existing issues like the lack of transparency in the usage of the Rs.1.3 Billion PM Cares Fund, building a new parliament costing Rs. 20,000 crores & a temple in a pandemic year, when the huge surplus allocated should have been invested in upgrading the healthcare – building oxygen capacity, hospital beds, paying doctors, ramping up vaccinations etc. The government also failed to act adequately in response to news of the double mutant variant in October 2020.

    An air of ignorant complacency, lack of empathy & denial has been evident in every response from the Central government.

    At this point, India is literally gasping for air. Hospitals are running out of oxygen & bodies are stacking up in crematoriums and grave sites, that have been running round the clock.

    There are major disparities between official death counts and the actual reported figures. Reports suggest the actual fatalities may be upto 20 times what the authorities state.

    Regular folk must now sift fact from fiction, relying on independent journalists (who are often risking their lives) to report true facts and information.

    As local volunteers scuttle around on social media raising awareness, finding hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and more, a year after the pandemic first hit India, it is difficult to see any evidence of any real plan or work done by those elected, to run this country. Public memory will recall being told to bang ‘thalis’(steel plates),  study ‘cow science’ and offered Ayurvedic treatments to beat the virus.

    Simultaneously, any criticism directed at the central government is treated with contempt at best and, armies of social-media trolls at worst. These efforts to hide inadequacies and mismanagement are directed at anyone, who dares speak truth to power, whether they are doctors, journalists, members of political parties, activists or influencers.

    Result? A truly polarised population.

    Hyper-nationalist voices attack anyone drawing attention to bureaucratic incompetence using lynch mob tactics and name-calling – ‘anti-India’, ‘tukde-tukde gang’(gangs breaking up India) ‘negative’, anti-national just a few of the names that can be printed.

    Why am I writing this? In India, we are fighting the government AND Covid-19. There is a pandemic that involves a virus however, it is exacerbated by the toxic social environment, that results from an authoritarian fascist government.

    Our ‘pandemic’ of hate and vitriol has slowly been consuming this country for about 7 years now. It is as lethal as the virus itself.

    Indian citizens are dying of Covid but we are losing and have lost many lives to the political tussles between the Centre and States. Oxygen supplies are subject to political whims. Hospitals in the national capital, New Delhi, have had to shut admissions at times (leading to several deaths) for want of oxygen even as the neighbouring state led by the BJP government, blocks oxygen trucks on their way. It beggars belief that major private hospitals like Max Hospitals have had to approach the Delhi High Court for oxygen. Doctors have made heartrending pleas on Twitter to have oxygen trucks released. Private hospitals keep having to post the depleting status of their oxygen reserves and are moderating oxygen flow between patients. Many Covid patients have died because the oxygen supply was just cut off, as the hospital had run out of oxygen. Many patients are just dying in ambulances outside of hospitals as admissions are closed for those who need ICU beds or oxygen beds.

    One of the leading party’s politicians has been accused of hoarding life-saving Covid-19 medicines, denying State governments and hospitals access to it.

    The mental trauma of what we have had to endure, given that many of us have been following the science, and have been sheltering-in-place and locked down in cities like, Mumbai and Delhi, is just difficult to explain.

    As we struggle to protect ourselves, our personal and public channels of information inform us that so many people we know have Covid; relatives friends, people in the yoga community, entire families including little children. The biggest myth that if you are fit and have immunity and that you will be spared of Covid-19 has been busted – the virus has spared no one! Except those who were vaccinated-they have had less severe infections or didn’t require hospitalizations.

    India spends less than 2% on health care. The last one year could have been spent on building healthcare infrastructure, providing PPE to doctors, building oxygen supplies and most importantly, vaccinating the entire population of 1.3 billion Indians. India has successfully vaccinated for polio in the last century because of the primary healthcare initiatives of previous governments. The centre just did not leverage the system and instead gave away vaccines to other nations when its own population needed it the most.

    As a person of privilege, it has been mind-numbing to realise that a hospital bed would be difficult to get, or oxygen impossible to procure, or if something were to happen to me or my family we would not be guaranteed help. Suddenly, we the privileged didn’t have access to a hospital bed, oxygen or life saving medicines. Patients are being accommodated in the lobbies of major private hospitals in Mumbai. Patients have been turned away, ambulances have been accused of fleecing customers… testing kits have turned scarce, results delayed.

    What the poor, those without contacts, Internet, money are going through, I cannot even fathom. It feels like living in a dystopian fiction. Sadly, it is reality. The collective mental health of many of us here in India, has taken a severe beating. We are feeling grief, anger, rage, helplessness and fear.

    The government is taking down tweets of those asking for help or seeking accountability from the centre. Countries around the world are closing their borders to India. That almost makes us feel like we have no escape. Many of us have questioned our own reasons for staying here in India, when we had opportunities to move overseas in the past.

    Our beloved country, India, is unrecognisable. To admit that there is a voting majority that would still make excuses for the incompetence, nay callousness, of this current government is a bitter pill to swallow. The fact that for much of this majority, the blind belief comes from Hindutva is even more depressing.

    Still, in all of this despair, what we are holding onto is – each other. Strangers turned comrades. Everyday folk across cities, cultures, creeds have bandied together on social media and on the ground; helping source beds, medicine, food, funds, in some cases, just a shoulder to cry on.

    Humanity is finding its most reassuring expressions on Twitter and other social media even as, predictably, we’ve had to deal with blackmarkets and opportunistic scamsters. Despite it, the kindness has still managed to shine through.

    Regular folks are crowd sourcing funds for oxygen cylinders and concentrators, PPE kits for doctors, food and help for those affected by those affected by Covid. It is important to keep in mind that India’s economy had also taken a beating due to the lockdowns last year, with the migrant and daily wage labour having been the most impacted by it. The economy was barely spluttering to life, when the second wave hit us.

    If you wish to help India, here are some of the ways that you can:

    1. If you are a yoga teacher do consider doing free group meditations, guided visualizations classes for Indians around the world. (Many from the diaspora are panicking as their families are back in India, and they feel helpless. Do check in with them too.)
    2. If you are a qualified mental health professional do consider offering sliding scale fees/ free therapy to Indians. Do share with us on True Bay India, if you are able to so, so we can amplify your handles on social media for people to reach out to you.
    3. Ask the elected representatives in your country to help with equipment, vaccines etc.
    4. Raise awareness about the Covid crisis and the lack of the Indian government’s response to it.
    5. Read up about Hindutva politics and the violent nationalist groups and Brahmin supremacy/casteism in India and create awareness of the human rights issues in India.
    6. Donate – If you wish to donate, the links mentioned in the website of https://www.truebayindia.com/covid19relief are organisations/hospitals and citizens doing actual work on the ground.

    Please do not feel compelled to only, donate for oxygen. The poorwith no access to medical aid/food, tribals, marginalised women with no access to menstrual products, migrant labour hit by lockdowns etc, also need your help.

    1. Independent Indian Media Outlets and Journalists to Follow and Support:








    Views expressed are in a personal capacity of the author of this article.

    By Protima Rodrigues

    Protima Rodrigues is the founder of www.truebayindia.com.

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