Battling stress, Indian soldiers tap yoga

Following a spate of suicides, paramilitary troops are now required to 'de-stress' with yoga.

Sitting in the lotus position, his legs crossed, his eyes closed, his breath even, his arms draped against his knees, his back erect, and his tensions melting into the earth beneath him, Om Prakash is slowly putting the worries of the world out of his mind.

Om Prakash is not the latest Hollywood yoga teacher. (At least, not yet.) He's a soldier in India's Central Reserve Police Force, and he's performing yoga to take away the stress that has already claimed the lives of a half-dozen Indian soldiers this year, many of them at their own hands.

"Before yoga, there was a chance I could have died," says Mr. Prakash, who says he suffered from depression both in Kashmir and in his previous conflict-zone deployment in the troubled Indian state of Tripura. "But now, with yoga, it's much better. It is very difficult to work in such a situation, but now I find it is very easy. My mind is at peace."

Embraced by fashionable Westerners as a way to exercise and get in touch with, well, whatever, yoga has now become a necessary component of India's 17-year-long counterinsurgency effort in the disputed state of Kashmir. While the recent suicides and fratricides among Indian troops in the Army and other forces remain statistically small, the sudden string of such incidents prompted officials to act. India's main counter-insurgency police force in Kashmir has begun requiring its paramilitary troops to "de-stress" as a way to cope with the tensions of a conflict that shows no sign of ending. Soldiers in butterfly poses may not be what the ancient yogis had in mind, but it's already delivering results.

"After performing operations, our soldiers are under stress, and to get out of that and achieve health, they do yoga," says Dilip Singh, spokesman for the CRPF in Srinagar. "Yoga is adopted to keep the mind in control, so that they remain controlled in their actions."

Stress blamed in recent deaths

For a handful of paramilitary troops in the estimated 600,000 Indian troop presence in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, these yoga exercises are coming a bit too late.

•On Jan. 25, 2006, Police Constable Avatar Singh of the 96th Battalion shot dead four of his colleagues and injured another inside a security camp in the Hawal area of Srinagar after allegedly being denied leave. The sound of firing had led security agencies to believe militants had attacked the camp on the eve of India's Republic Day.

•On April 20, 2006, Chander Paul, an inspector in the Border Security Force committed suicide by hanging himself in his room inside a training center near Srinagar airport. Mr. Paul, resident of Uttar Pradesh, was reported to be tense over a family problem.

•On June 15, 2006, Lt. Sushmita Chakarvorty of the Indian Army shot herself at an Army base in the Udhampur district, of the Hindu-dominated Jammu sector of Jammu and Kashmir state. Official sources say she was depressed and wanted to quit the Army. But her mother persuaded her to return to her job after a two-month leave.

"The No. 1 killer is always stress, if you don't have stress then you don't have problems," says Sanjay Singh, second in command of the 1st Battalion, at the CRPF's ultrasensitive Hariniwas complex in Srinagar. "People will be under stress, that is part of our jobs. We can't control the rush of events. But science shows that most ailments are psychosomatic, and whatever the brain transmits, the body will receive. Yoga helps to control this and bring some peace to body and mind."

The men of the 1st Battalion meet to start their yoga – and a related practice of deep-breathing exercises called pranayam – every morning at 6:30, on mats and tarpaulins laid out under the shade of a giant Chinar tree.

Sitting in front of the 75 men, a constable shouts out commands like a boot-camp sergeant: "Breathe in! Now breathe out, saying "Mmmmmmm!" Stretch out your legs, and circle your feet in a clockwise fashion, from left to right! Now, from right to left! Now, do the butterfly pose!" And the men bring the balls of their feet together, and flap their knees up and down like so many butterflies in a meadow.

It's hard to imagine any other counterinsurgency force in the world – say, the US Army's Green Berets – adding yoga to their combat training, but according to the soldiers themselves, it's bringing results.

"Even after CRPF, I will never leave this," says Constable Suresh Chand Yadav, of Varanasi. "I lost 12 kilos in weight, and when I go on duty, I have a peace of mind that keeps me sharp."

On duty with a cool head

Constable Sanjay Roy, another CRPF officer, says that family problems at home in Bhojpuri in the state of Bihar were making it difficult for him to focus his mind at work, and he often found himself becoming angry with ordinary civilians while on duty. Now, he says he works with a "thanda dimaag," a cool head.

"Since the day I started yoga, not only have I lost 10 kilos, but also the family tensions are reduced," says Mr. Roy. "If your mind is at ease, your health is good also. If your health is good, then the relaxation is better, and the tension is less."

Sanjay Singh, the second in command of the 1st Battalion, admits that you only get out of yoga what you put into it.

"Yoga is not just about bending this way and that way," says Singh. "I tell my men to keep the negative thoughts out when doing their exercises. If you have positive thoughts, it will have a catalytic effect on your mind and body. If you have negative thoughts, then it has no effect."

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