Fusing “The Best of the East and the West” in Mental Health Care

We tend to think that our understanding of mental health is only way to understand the mind, but learning about various cultural perspectives on health and mental wellness can benefit us all.

Dr. Arun Garg describes himself as “a global physician with a passion to lower the burden of chronic diseases, based on integrative thinking, which is the fusion of best of East and best of West.” Born in India, Dr. Garg left at nineteen and moved to Saskatchewan, where he met his wife and earned a PhD in Biochemistry. Amongst his many achievements and accolades, he co-founded the Canada India Network Society, a non-profit society in B.C. that strives to improve the health of people of India and Canada and aims to fuse philosophies of the West and East. His expertise and worldview are informed by both Canadian medicine and Indian philosophy, including yoga philosophy, giving him a unique insight into various aspects of mental health.

In the West, we tend to think of yoga as downward dogs and nice stretches to relieve stress and tone our abs. But the yoga tradition and philosophy are much more complex. As Arun says, “Yoga isn’t an exercise program of postures and movements, it’s a system used to reach the inner mind. All these physical stretches are really designed to take you into your inner self.” This mastery of the thought process is considered to be the foundation of mental wellness. “To understand who you are,” Dr. Garg elaborates, “you need to understand internally how you function, in the sense of internal knowledge. This is yoga, and it’s described in the context of the mind.”

In India, there are many different words for “mind”, so it’s hard to express all the nuances of just how complex this word is. For the sake of clarity, Arun describes the mind as the place where thoughts are generated. Yoga allows a person to have greater internal understanding and control over their thoughts and how they process everyday situations. “Mental wellness is related to your own thoughts,” he adds, and these philosophies allow us greater control over our thoughts and therefore over our mental wellness.

Dr. Garg believes that modern medicine is brilliant for giving us a detailed, reductive understanding of how things function in the body, and for providing what he calls “external interventions” such as medication, where the person is often more of a passive passenger in their health. Ayurveda is another example of an external intervention or system of medicine that originated from India. Yoga is one way of practicing an “internal intervention,” something that an individual must practice and understand themselves. Nobody can do this for the person, and answers are sought within rather than from experts or health professionals. This kind of inner awareness can be very empowering, as it allows people to master their thought process and feel confident in their own ability to support their health and wellbeing.

Arun says we need both external and internal interventions, especially when it comes to chronic conditions. “It’s not one or the other,” Arun asserts. Yoga philosophy, which is more about searching internally, can complement the medical approach to mental health challenges. Arun added, the “internal intervention is a process which empowers the individual to be self-reliant. To be self-realized, to not only do selfies but also practice self-care. And that only comes when there is an understanding from inside oneself.” But he observes that internal interventions such as yoga, meditation and mindfulness are more difficult as they “require discipline and practice, practice, practice,” made more challenging by our dependence on technology and instant gratification.

Of course, yoga doesn’t resonate with everyone and won’t necessarily prevent or manage mental health challenges. But the concept of applying both external and internal interventions, whatever that means to the individual, can foster agency and wellbeing. Both reaching out for help and looking inwards to find balance and self-awareness can be a powerful combination.