This report is an analysis of a series of Stress Reduction Courses conducted at Satyananda Ashram, Perth, Australia, during 1980 and 1981, using yogic techniques facilitated by the use of biofeedback. The basis of the courses evolved around training in yoga nidra, although the techniques of asana, pranayama and meditation were included where necessary. Each course was conducted over a 10 week period for 2 hours per week, with groups of 12 to 14 adults, both male and female The aim was to develop the ability to relax deeply, and to stimulate personal growth through the practice of yoga, with emphasis on the importance of sustained practice of these techniques.
The use of biofeedback was an excellent method of indicating individual progress over the 10 week training period, which gave a positive reinforcement to the effectiveness of the yoga practices. This produced a more receptive state, and consequently better results.
The courses revealed that stress problems are not always associated with over arousal and an inability to relax. Hence, yoga nidra alone is not always sufficient. The following analysis shows how other combinations of yoga techniques can be used along with yoga nidra, to create harmony and balance.
The main piece of biofeedback equipment used was an electrical skin resistance (ESR) meter which is more accurate than the more commonly used GSR. It measures the value of skin resistance in the palm of the hand, which varies in direct proportion to changes in the autonomic nervous system. The meter shows two scales. One scale indicates the basal skin resistance (BSR), which is the actual value of skin resistance at that time. Generally speaking, a low BSR indicates a relaxed or withdrawn state.
With the other scale, the needle of the meter is set at the centre from which it can swing to the right or left, and measure the percentage change in the response of the autonomic nervous system. Its movement to the right indicates arousal, mainly associated with activation of the sympathetic nervous system in response to some challenge or stress. Movement of the needle to the left indicates the degree of relaxation attained with activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
At the beginning of each course the participants underwent a number of tests using the ESR meter. While connected to the meter, the group was led through a series of instructions which involved both arousal and relaxation. The ESR readings were noted and recorded throughout the tests. This would indicate each individual's autonomic response, from which a multidimensional profile of their personal psycho-physiological responses to stress could be obtained.
As the programs progressed, it became evident that 1 of 5 general patterns of responses in the autonomic nervous system invariably appeared. Accordingly, a suitable program of yogic practices was made available to balance the specific tendencies reflected in each response pattern. These 5 types and their corresponding practises are listed below:
Although five distinct types of psycho-physiological behaviours have been described, there is actually no clear cut and distinct demarcation between each one. For example, some people begin to exhibit a normal relaxation response, only to become 'stuck' at a certain point, or sometimes even aroused, once a certain level of relaxation is attained. The first situation suggests that there is a blockage to the relaxation process at a certain subconscious level, while the second situation indicates that this blockage is actually causing fear or distress such as may occur when a repressed traumatic experience, which has not been fully resolved, is confronted. These obstructions often recur for the same person at the same stage of yoga nidra, which helps in assisting the person to recognise and assess the problem, and then 'let it go'.
"Yogaschitta vritti nirodah" (sutra 1), Patanjali's classic response to the question 'What is yoga?' states that yoga is a process of blocking the patterns of consciousness. Blocking does not mean suppression, but an ability to 'let go' and flow with the various patterns of consciousness. This is precisely the capacity acquired through yoga nidra training.
Originally the courses were intended for the typical over aroused type of person (Group 1), but it soon became apparent as the other four autonomic behaviour patterns emerged, that people who consider themselves to be living under stress belong not only to this single category. Each of the other types illustrated some form of mental obstruction to this 'letting go' process, preventing a balanced functioning of the autonomic nervous system, and hence an imbalance between ida and pingala, mental energies and vital energies.
Stress problems exist when we do not have the self-control to regulate internal imbalances. The yoga practices were shown to develop this control. In yogic physiology we know that when ida and pingala are balanced, sushumna nadi (spiritual energy) flows and the state of meditation exists, while in yoga therapy this balance is the key to health and the elimination of disease.
As was seen in the previous discussion of the courses, the person who can let go of his normal state in response to stress and then relinquish the aroused state once the stressful situation is over; let go of his normal waking state in order to relax deeply, then again emerge from that relaxed state when the situation demands, is the one who possesses a psycho-physiological maturity. He can truly cope with all life's situations with awareness and control, and live a balanced, happy and fruitful life. This is the aim and experience of yoga.