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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 January, 2004, 05:17 GMT
Indian stress-busters target Iraq

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News Online correspondent in Delhi

Iraqis undertake Art of Living Foundation exercises
Stress-busting sessions include exercise and Indian medicine
If any country's citizens needed de-stressing it would be those of Iraq.

Now India's Art of Living Foundation is bringing yoga, meditation and breathing exercises to try to soothe a people rattled by war and continuing violence.

The Bangalore-based foundation whose stated goal is to "eliminate stress, create a sense of belonging and restore human values" has added Iraq to its 140 countries of operation.

About 15 volunteers, including doctors, are running medical camps using traditional Indian alternative medicine, and meditation and yoga classes to ease the strain on Iraqis.

The initiative began in September when seven volunteers arrived in Dillad, a farming village near Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit, and began an introductory session for residents.

About 30 participants signed up for meditation and breathing exercise classes - held in a private hospital in the area.

Introducing a guru to the Iraqis was hardly a problem. They all want some relief, some spiritual direction
Vinod Kumar,
foundation leader in Iraq

Since then, volunteers have set up medical camps in two rooms borrowed from a municipality office in al-Qadisiyah on the outskirts of Baghdad, and a meditation and breathing exercise centre in a Baghdad neighbourhood.

The response, say team members, has been very encouraging.

At one of the al-Qadisiyah camps, 200 Iraqis queued up every day

"After the bombings, trauma and anxiety levels among people in Baghdad were very high," said Vinod Kumar, the leader of the group in Iraq.

"Though the war is over, we found many residents were unable to sleep or even eat. The residents go through mood swings and depression. The majority of the men smoke heavily and a large number of women have begun smoking," said Mr Kumar.

Treating children

The volunteers also found that people were taking pills indiscriminately to get to sleep or forget their worries.

"If they have a headache, they pop a valium. If they feel pain, they take steroids. There's a lot of reckless self-medication," said Mr Kumar.

The volunteers conduct stress-busting sessions - two-hour-long special breathing exercises over four days - and the doctors recommend traditional Indian herbal medicines.

Children queuing for food in Baghdad
Children are taught exercises and games to ease the nightmares

The volunteers found that Iraqi children were among the worst affected by the continuing violence and insecurity in the country.

"Children in schools break into tears whenever they hear an explosion. They suffer from nightmares," said Mr Kumar.

The children are being put through breathing exercises and play stress-relieving games.

The foundation, which claims to have four million converts around the world, says 12 leading doctors in Baghdad have endorsed its programmes.

"They are sure that these breathing techniques have the ability to cure psychosomatic diseases," a group spokesman said.

The foundation's volunteers have not found it easy to work in Iraq, although being Indian has helped.

"Iraqis are fond of Indians. So they have been very open to our healing techniques. They also have a spiritual thirst," said Mr Kumar.

Tough tasks

The foundation's HQ is a makeshift office in Baghdad.

Art of Living Foundation volunteers in Iraq
More volunteers arrive next month to take up the baton

"It's not easy for our volunteers with noisy choppers flying over our office all day and night, blackouts at night, and explosions every other day," said Mr Kumar.

Still, the volunteers vow to work on. Next month, a team of 15 new volunteers and doctors will arrive in Baghdad to expand operations and open more centres.

The foundation has a history of taking on tough tasks.

It has operated similar de-stressing courses in Macedonia, Kosova, Croatia, Gujarat and in New York after the 11 September attacks.

The foundation was begun in 1982 by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a Bangalore-based religious leader.

It is the largest organisation of its kind in India and is hugely popular across the country.

The 48-year-old Ravi Shankar has become a modern-day spiritual icon among many in India's middle and upper classes.

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