For an average human, the next thing worse to death is perhaps the thought of losing a loved one. So, when the entire family of Rashmi Rekha Das, an Odisha-based journalist, was down with COVID-19 last year, she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Barely having reconciled with the loss of her father a few years back, Rashmi was terrified for her three-year-old daughter. “My heart sank to see a perfectly chirpy baby getting bedridden within a day. She was my responsibility and I cursed myself for being an irresponsible mother,” she says.
It was then that a close friend taught Rashmi to chant four phrases to calm her nerves – ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you and I love you’. The mantra known as Ho’oponopono, an ancient Hawaiian practice, when said to oneself, is believed to cleanse and heal the mind through feelings of love, forgiveness, repentance and gratitude.
For Rashmi, it worked like a charm, encouraging her to join an online meditation group. Rashmi says, ever since, she has not only seen improvement in herself, but is also able to deal with people and situations with more clarity.
“The four phrases cleansed my mind of all guilt and misgivings. I was able to nurse my daughter without the fear of losing her and she recovered soon. The meditation, on the other hand, helped me flush out all pent-up bitterness, guilt and dissatisfaction with my personal and professional life. Today, I am a more forgiving person and at peace with myself and my surroundings,” she says.
Many like Rashmi have found safe anchorage in spiritual practices like meditation, yoga and chanting during the pandemic, which besides wreaking havoc in lives and livelihoods has pushed many to the bottomless pit of depression.
The summary sacking of colleagues at office, and sudden deaths of five close friends and three relatives, came as a brutal shock to Rajesh Patel (name changed), a telecom engineer based out of Mumbai.
“Earning has been heavily cut and I have a family to fend for and rent, taxes, loan EMIs and school fees to pay. The deaths around me, the fear of being fired from my job, reduced income and the callous attitude of the company towards us was too much to take at one point of time,” he says.
Meditation not medicine
As the burden of stress grew heavier, Rajesh found himself growing insomniac. He reached out for psychological help when doses of homeopathy failed to address his misery. The psychologist recommended meditation over medicine.
“I have been meditating and walking twice a day for the past two months. I won’t say I have completely recovered, but I am beginning to feel better,” he says.
A recent study found that 66.2 per cent of 649 adults who practised both yoga and meditation during the COVID-19 pandemic had a normal mental wellbeing as opposed to 50.6 per cent of the individuals who practised none of them. The study, published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, associated the practice of yoga and meditation, or preferably both with “higher level of mental wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic”.
However busy her day might be, Devleena Chakravarty, a government consultant in Chennai, squeezes an hour out to join her peers at a Buddhist chanting group. Although she took up the practice in 2013 to de-stress herself of PhD blues, Devleena says the chanting has helped her tackle emotional stress and keep negative thoughts at bay.
A typical session involves a group of participants – known as a sangha – sitting together and chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō (loosely translated as ‘I devote myself to the universe’), a mantra from the Nichiren school of Buddhism.
“It is a verbal meditation that aims to give you absolute happiness in spite of your circumstances. You are supposed to look at a script or stare at a blank wall and chant the words. There is no time limit, you can end it whenever you want. At times, I have even chanted for hours at a stretch,” she says.
She recounts her horrid experience last year when she was stranded in the middle of a vacation when the country was locked down due to the pandemic.
“I and my parents were stranded at my brother’s house in Hyderabad for two months. It was a great time to bond, but also a trying one when emotions ran high and you had nowhere to go beyond the 2BHK flat. It was then when we started chanting together. We experienced fewer confrontations and more understanding. The relationship between my mother and sister-in-law underwent a sea change,” she says.
Healing power of vibrations
Many others have fallen back on music therapy to block the noise.
Dr Kummar Chatterjee, who runs Music Mantra, a Mumbai-based organisation that provides therapy through music, says vibrations of music and mantras (chants) have tremendous healing powers.
“The sound of ‘Om’, a lullaby or even film songs have healing powers,” he says.
Chatterjee employs Waltz Music, which has a rhythm of three beats in each bar, as a standard. “The particular pattern is called Shasti Taal in Indian music. The rhythm has the power to create vibrations in the brain. Music like the Shiva Tandava Stotra or Raj Kapoor’s Jeena Yahan Marna Yahan have been set to this rhythm. Our brain gets stimulated when we chant these mantras or sing these songs. And a stimulated mind has no place for toxic thoughts,” Chatterjee says.
Chatterjee says he customises the therapy based on the medical condition and social background of every individual.
“First we study an individual and then try to heal them. If it is a Hindu, I may ask them to recite the Ganapati Mantra or the Gayatri Mantra, and if it is a Muslim patient, it would be one of the Quls from the Quoran for them,” he says.
Chatterjee, who doesn’t believe in the treatment of depression with medication, feels the disorder has grown during the pandemic mostly due to fear mongering. He says people with severe depression who come to his therapy sessions have confided about feeling numb after twilight. “There is a saying by Saint Kabir that words hurt the most. So, it is not the fear of COVID, but what is being spoken about it that is frightening people. I ask my patients to avoid watching or reading any news or rumours related to the pandemic, neither talk about it,” he says.
Dr Sumathi Chandrasekaran, psychologist and founder of Mind Café in Chennai, agrees that no medicine can keep the body and the mind as integrated as these spiritual practices can.
Quoting a study that after surveying 10,000 Indians found that 43 per cent suffered from depression after the COVID-19 outbreak last year, Dr Sumathi says it is time people understood that mind and body are connected and that a frail mind makes the body vulnerable to diseases.
She ascribes the spread of the pandemic mostly to panic. “If COVID is a trigger, the way you respond to it matters. The pandemic spread like wildfire because most Indians went into panic mode. When the mind is threatened, the reptilian brain, which controls heart rate and body temperature, gets activated and secretes unhealthy hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This causes anxiety, making the stomach to churn, the heart to beat fast and wheezing to set in. This is where it becomes easier for the virus to infect the body,” she says.
Dr Sumathi says the trick is to put the brain into a zone of awareness instead of danger. “When you do yoga, chant the Gayatri Mantra or listen to therapeutic tunes like Indian classical music, they bring you to a state of consciousness, preventing the mind from wandering. This helps you become aware of the pandemic and protect yourself instead of panicking and falling prey to it,” she adds.
The joy of sharing
As most of these practices are group activities, the members say one of the most therapeutic parts is sharing their thoughts with group mates and listening to their stories.
“The beauty of my Buddhist group is its non-white collar nature. When I was in the US before the pandemic broke out, we had former drug dealers and homeless mothers chanting with us. The realisation that my miseries are minuscule compared to theirs gave me a new perspective towards life,” Devleena says.
Rashmi, who credits meditation and yoga for having put her life back on a disciplined track, says the changes in her own life has inspired her family, particularly her mother to embrace the practice. “She became depressed and an insomniac after my father’s death and wouldn’t sleep without popping pills. But now she is totally off medication and looking forward to life,” Rashmi says.
Swami Suyagna, monk and full-time volunteer at Coimbatore-based Isha Foundation says there has been an increased sense of awareness among people towards their mental and physical health after the pandemic. Sharing an account of a volunteer from Sathyamangalam in Erode, Suyagna says a school field in the former’s village which once was empty has now at least 20 walkers making the rounds in the morning.
The monk says the past months have also seen an uptick in clicks on Isha’s free meditation videos like ‘Isha Kriya’ and ‘Simha Kriya’ on YouTube.
“Everyone has lost someone to the pandemic and people, cautioned by this, are beginning to turn inwards. The major changes that I have noticed among people is the change in outlook towards life and the practise to eat and exercise consciously,” he adds