Seated in the laboratory of India’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore, I am wearing a tight rubber cap on my head. Near-infrared light transmitters and receivers are measuring the oxygen in my brain. And, for the sake of science, I’m chanting “Om” — the primal sound of creation, according to ancient Hindu scripture — as a computer monitor shows my brain’s activity levels. The test is designed to show me how chanting — a key part of traditional Indian yoga — affects the forebrain, the centre of rational thought. The institute (known as Nimhans) has devoted years to research in this field, in an attempt to determine if yoga and meditative practices are demonstrably beneficial for mental health. Despite a decade living in India, I have little yoga experience and I feel self-conscious as I take a deep breath and slowly release it in a prolonged “Om”. Straightaway, Hemant Bhargav, a physician and yoga expert, corrects my intonation. “The OO should be chan...

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