Nowadays many people come to yoga because of stress; the popularity of yoga can be directly related to the normalisation of stress. Being stressed, overwhelmed, or exhausted after a day's work has become totally normal; it is part of the so-called 'modern man ethos'. Today, the medical profession agrees that stress is the source of many diseases.
We will examine how a certain approach to yoga can help reduce stress and eventually eliminate it. But first, we need to understand what we mean by stress. Basically, it is the natural ability that the human system has developed over millennia to withstand environmental challenges and strains. By activating the sympathetic nervous system, it produces a 'fight or flight' response which relieves the effects of stress by resolving the situation. This normal phenomenon is called 'eustress'; it’s a normal and effective defence reaction. However, modern man cannot fight or flee the huge demands of his hectic life. When the level of stress increases and no real solution is presented, 'distress' appears; this is what we usually call bad stress and can lead to psycho-somatic disorders of various kinds. Distress occurs when an environmental demand exceeds the natural regulatory capacity of an organism.
To quote Pujya Swamiji Gitananda Giri: “If you were face-to-face with a saber-toothed tiger in prehistoric times, you either fought it, fled the scene, or ended up in its tummy! This led to the relief of stress. Nowadays we have the same 'stress response' yet we are not facing saber-toothed tigers anymore, but rather obscure threats and fears we can scarcely comprehend. We have nowhere to run, no means to fight and in fact sometimes do not even know what it is we are afraid of! Thus, no mechanism exists to relieve the stress. Our enemy is often invisible. This leads to 'distress', which is imbalance of the system.”
Hans Selye (Austria/Hungary, 1907-1982), one of the first scientists to study biological stress, developed a model of the stress reaction, known as "General Adaptation Syndrome" (GAS), in which the stress reaction is the result of three phases. First, an "alarm reaction" appears due to a physical, psychological or emotional stimulus, which leads to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, so that the body is ready to respond. Second, in the phase of "resistance", the body and the mind try to cope with the threat. If they are successful, the body returns to normal, but if the stimulus persists and the situation is not solved or dissolved, the subject enters the third phase, known as "exhaustion". The body has failed to overcome the threat - be it real or not, chronic stress sets in, placing a constant load on the neuro-endocrine adaptive mechanisms, and leading to distortion in the homeostatic mechanism, thus weakening the response of the organism to environmental challenges. The disorders we associate with stress start to manifest.
Therefore, controlling or strengthening our resistance abilities can help us to avoid that third phase of "exhaustion". What usually creates stress is the way we react to a certain situation; in other words, it’s our attitude. Usually there isn't any tiger on our doorstep, but we act as though there is one! Cultivating the correct attitude is an important part of the yogic philosophy: we call it Bhavana or the yogic art of being. In fact, what we believe becomes true; our attitude towards life and events shape our reality. And from this reality - or 'ego reality', stress and difficulties emerge. Yoga teaches us that the only freedom we have is our attitude towards life. We cannot always control our environment; many factors which do not depend upon us can be a source of stress, like natural disasters, an unhealthy family, a stressful work or social environment etc. How can we cultivate the right attitude? One of the Ananda Ashram students in Pondicherry once defined yoga as a methodology to “go through life with softness”. How is that possible?
We now get to the practical side of things. We can comprehend what has been said up to now, but we do not always know what to do in order to get over the state of stress, or even where to start! The flourishing of the so-called 'industry of well-being' testifies to this. In my opinion, the eight limbs of yoga - Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga - can give us some behavioural and ethical guidelines.
First of all, the Pancha (five) Yama and Pancha Niyama provide a strong moral and ethical foundation for our personal and social life. The Yamas are basically the don'ts of any yoga practitioner, the restraints which allow us to grow in spirit and cope with life. Cultivating Ahimsa, non-violence, Satya, truthfulness, Asteya, none-stealing, Brahmacharya, the right channeling of our creative impulses, and Aparigraha, non-greediness, enables us to create harmonious relationships with our environment and avoid many stress factors. The Niyamas are the do's of the yogic tradition; they are Shausha, cleanliness, Samtosha, contentment, Tapas, discipline, Svadhyaya, self-study, and finally Ishvara Pranidhana, gratitude to the divine. By cultivating them, we build a better environment around us and develop the tools to live our lives fully. Often, stress occurs because we live wrongly, we are too demanding on our body and our mind, or do not make use of our full potential, which also creates imbalance. The Yamas and Niyamas remind us of what it is like to be human, of how to live in harmony with ourselves and with others. Attempting to restore this harmony is the first step towards the dissolution of stress reactions and cultivation of Bhavana.
Then comes the third limb of Ashtanga Yoga: Asana (the pose). It is what comes to most people's mind when talking about yoga today. By practicing yoga postures or Hatha Yoga, the stressed person can release physical and psychological tensions stored up in the body. The human body has a tendency to store traumas and stress in body parts, like in the intestinal area, hips, shoulders etc. A regular Hatha Yoga practice can release those tensions. Moreover, the body becomes stronger and more flexible, so it is more able to face daily situations. We mentioned psycho-somatic reactions, but somato-psychic reactions also exist; the body influences the mind the same way the mind does the body. When the body gets stronger, the mind too gets stronger, more confident and more flexible. Of course, this subtle aspect of Asana is only possible if the practice is done properly within the yogic scheme, and not like simple gymnastics. By practicing Hatha Yoga, one learns the boundaries and aptitudes of one's own body; these are also a precious tool for preventing and fighting stress. Asana literally means 'position', and it includes the mind and the body, which is why Asana and Bhavana are so intimately related.
The fourth limb is Pranayama, the art of channeling the Prana through the breath. As previously said, the stress reaction stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. By practicing left-nostril breathing, one can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to balance one's metabolism, and get closer to a state of homeostasis. Pranayama practices help regulate our emotions and stabilise our mind, which are the main causes of chronic stress.
Let’s now talk very briefly about Pratyahara; it is usually translated as 'withdrawal of the senses', and is the first step towards meditation. Regarding stress management, this echoes the key yogic concept of Vairagya, which means 'distance'; taking a step back to open up our perspective. The human mind has a tendency to identification. It identifies with the situation, with the surrounding objects, with the external stimuli, etc. But by practicing, for example, Pratyahara Kriyas, one can cultivate a 'distance' from the sensory objects and counteract the attraction which is said to be the initial step in the causation of stress in man. One learns how not to be affected by external stimuli, neither attracted nor repulsed by them. Pratyahara is also about letting go; stress is often fed by rumination, the human mind has such a tendency to hold on to bad memories, to think about them again and again. We should learn to let them go. Ammaji once said that memories are like dreams; yoga teaches us that they are not real, we make them real in our very own mind, we nourish the Chitta Vrittis and dive blindly into the vicious circle of stress. By understanding and experiencing the depth of Pratyahara, the yoga practitioner can eventually develop equanimity towards his life events. This ultimate state where stress could not exist, is called Sama Bhava.
One reading of the sixth limb, Dharana, can be the right concentration, trying to be fully present, focusing on the presently experienced moment. By channeling one's attention on the present moment, one can avoid many stressful reactions and get out of old patterns of thinking. Usually people get stressed or sad because they are still stuck in the past which doesn’t exist anymore, or they project themselves into the future which doesn’t yet exist. The power of the 'now' is essential in yoga. In the same perspective, Dhyana (meditation) brings focus and leads the mind to an 'a-stress' state. But we cannot really talk about meditation as a practice, the state of meditation occurs and in that state the problem of stress is simply dissolved. It is the complete cessation of the whirlpool of the mind, the cessation of Chitta Vritti, which is the ultimate state of Patanjali's yoga.
Even the last limb, Samadhi can be very inspiring when we talk about stress management. As with every classical yogic concept, the experience of Samadhi has many layers, from the broadest experience of union to the most refined cognitive absorption. Yoga means 'to yoke' or 'to unite', and the stress reaction is often due to this lack of union with oneself, with one's environment or with one's own nature. Being human, fully human, is not an easy task, and it is humankind's beauty as much as its curse. Yoga gives us tools to cope with our refined nature, and when one is in touch with one's own nature, in harmony with one's environment, stress vanishes.