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Meet Vishal Biala: A doctor blending the best of Eastern and Western medicine in the Berkshires

Accents: The voices of our immigrant neighbors in the Berkshires

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PITTSFIELD — Vishal Biala deals with one similarity between Punjab — his home state in India — and the Berkshires that he rather wouldn’t have to.

“It’s a big mess, the drug abuse that’s going on in the northern part of India,” Biala says. “Similar to what we are seeing in the northeastern part of the US, especially the Berkshires.”

Biala, 32, is a first-year resident in the psychiatry department of Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield. He came to America two years ago. Both because “this is the place with the most advanced medicine if you talk about mental health sciences,” and because Riya, his wife, was already living in West Virginia.

“In India, I was practicing as a rural physician and I would feel the pain of families who saw their sons and daughters going through this severe drug problem and the families were getting destroyed,” he said.

He grew up in the city of Amritsar. The Golden Temple there is the holiest place for the Sikh religion. Pilgrims from all over the world visit. In the Accents-podcast on berkshireeagle.com Biala talks about the temple’s serenity and about the meditative Gurbani music played there day and night.

“It’s a very soothing place. Just sitting there you get into a different realm altogether.”

Biala describes Amritsar as a diverse city, a mix of Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and Christian people.

“I am originally a Hindu, but I don’t necessarily identify myself with any religion,” he said. “I am more a spiritual person. I take good things from all religions.”

His spiritual teacher is Sadhguru, who not only has an ashram in India but also in McMinnville, Tenn. In the living room of the Biala’s Pittsfield apartment with a wide view over Lake Onota, Vishal talks about the unexpected, “very powerful” transcendental moments he experienced with Sadhguru.

He explains that he really cannot explain those moments properly, but then does.

“People in the US and most western countries think that a transcendental state only can be attained by drugs. But what do drugs do?” he asks. “They alter chemicals in your brain….

“Spiritual experiences can do the same,” he continues. “The only difference is that you are not dependent upon an external source but on an internal source. And that’s what happened to me and that’s a beautiful experience.”

His father Subash is an Ayurvedic doctor in Amritsar. Ayurveda is, “a form of alternative medicine, a very holistic approach,” Biala clarifies.

Watching his father’s interactions with his patients and his own curiosity about the mind made him want to become a doctor specialized in mental health medicine.

“I wanted to understand what goes on in the mind and how does that affect the physical body,” he says.

It has brought him and his wife to the Berkshires. Riya is the manager at the Trustco Bank branch on Park Street in Lee. They both love the opportunity in the summer to rent a boat from Onota Boat Livery right next door to them.

As a psychiatry resident at BMC, Dr. Biala deals with the whole spectrum of mental health issues. But he uses addiction treatment as the example for what he feels he brings as a doctor from India to the Berkshires.

He talks with passion about integrating conventional western medicine with mindfulness practices, such as meditation and yoga.

“Mindfulness means becoming aware of emotions and compulsions without engaging with them,” he says. “People with addictions lack this awareness. Their mind is hijacked by the addiction.”

Biala says that he feels very fortunate to be part of a program in which both patients and doctors are open to bringing yoga and other mindfulness exercises to modern psychiatry, “so that, for example, addicts can eventually regain control over their mind.”

“This is what I as an immigrant bring from the East to this culture,” he says. “It’s my way to give back.”


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