Environmental stress or external stressors are those conditions over which we cannot have control to the degree we would like to have. Overcrowded buses and trains, the heavy traffic on the roads, exhaust fumes emitted by the increasing vehicular population, heavy industrialization close to urban settlements, spewing of poisonous gases by chemical factories, draining of effluents into natural bodies of water; all these environmental stresses and more have become part of our city life during the last quarter of the 20th century.
All that we can hope to do in the case of environmental stress is to try to minimise or modify the influences imposed by pollution and unmanageable urbanisation. If we take an antagonistic attitude, one egged on by ego or ahamkara, the stress factor would soon convert itself into a psychological problem for us.
Chemical substitutes for a natural product pose many problems, among which are the non-biodegradable nature of the substitutes and the pollution of the air and water during their manufacture. In the beginning of the chemical era, disposing of the effluents into natural waters like the sea, the river or the lake was standard procedure. Today, these industries are faced with the problems of disposing of waste. Nuclear energy, which holds so much promise for mankind, brings its own pollution problems. Nuclear wastes are riding the high seas on barges and no one knows where to dump them!
The symptoms of stress from pollution - be it noise, fumes, crowds, effluents or chemicals in food, are now showing up in the form of various disorders, both in the body and in the mind. Thousands of years ago, hatha yoga developed various body cleansing techniques, shatkarma kriyas, which systematically cleanse the body of pollution from toxins. Some of these practices like jala neti, kunjal and shankaprakshalana are part of yogic therapy practices for several disorders, including asthma, diabetes and sinusitis. Apart from the physical cleansing, these practices have a beneficial influence on the nerves and the mind on a psychic level. In heavily industrialized areas, jala neti and kunjal have been found to provide relief from nasal and throat irritation caused by pollution.
There are jobs which are known to be stressful, such as air traffic control, flying a plane or offshore drilling. These are generalizations and any job can be stressful or otherwise, depending largely on our own attitudes. Studies show that in America, air controllers have seven times the incidence of high blood pressure, twice the diabetes and three times the ulcers, compared with pilots.
The concept of 'occupational health' takes into consideration the understanding of environmental factors and stressors which are associated with a particular work or workplace. It also includes the knowledge and understanding of the effect of environmental stress factors which may result in illness or injury, discomfort or such other disturbances. The environmental stress factors are evaluated in terms of the injury or harm they may inflict on the health of the worker. Abnormalities of air pressure associated with compressed air work or deep-sea diving; decreased pressure, such as work in high altitudes or in aviation; abnormal temperature conditions; defective illumination; excessive noise and other factors can cause stress on the job.
Like his brother walking down the road, the industrial worker faces pollution in the work place, which may be more intense. The most hazardous work, involving dangerous products or hazardous work areas come under strict rules regarding special protective clothing, equipment and other safety accessories and devices. People working in nuclear installations are periodically checked for radiation exposure. In spite of all the precautions taken, pollution in one form or the other takes place, either due to an accident or due to lack of design engineering. Periodically, such disasters make the headlines, become stale news and are soon forgotten. All these prove that stress is a by product of technology, and if we have to live with technology, then we have to live with stress.
Therefore, stress management courses are becoming part of the corporate health policy the world over, as most of the people who hold jobs in industrial complexes suffer from a variety of chronic disorders, including hypertension, diabetes, asthma, and a list of gastric disorders. Most of them suffer from stress, tension, anxiety and irritability, and a mounting sense of dissatisfaction with themselves, their job, their families and their own lives.
Swamis from Bihar School of Yoga have been conducting Yogic Stress Management Courses with great success at many of the large industrial complexes, such as Indian Oil Corporation. Telco, BCCL, Brown Boveri, to name a few.
It was found that the practices of asana, pranayama, yoga nidra and meditation effectively managed the entire spectrum of physical, mental and emotional problems of people to such an extent that they themselves said that for the first time in their lives they felt that a solution for their suffering was at hand and that they could once again begin to enjoy a healthy life.
At the express wish of some of the companies, volunteers from their own staff were trained for the purpose of imparting yoga to the others. These companies are now able to carry on in-house yoga programs independently.
A psychological support group has been going deeper and deeper into the psychological aspects of spaceflight in Russia. On board a spacecraft, the cosmonaut feels as if everything is specifically designed for stress: constricted space, an artificial environment devoid of accustomed social relationships, the awareness of potential danger all the while, and microgravity which interferes with metabolism, with bio-rhythm and with the functioning of the endocrine and the nervous systems. The crew members display several symptoms of stress such as depression, anxiety, defensiveness or belligerence. Some withdraw from one another or may even show immature behavior and attitudes. It is the task of the group to teach the space crew to cope with both psychological and physiological stress through autogenic techniques (bio-feed back), to fight nausea and other discomforts when their bodies begin to adapt to micro gravity.
In his talk on 'Time and Space Relationship' at the Sorbonne University, Paris in 1984, Swamiji analysed yogically the problem faced by the astronauts which is caused by a shift in the quality of latitude, as the relationship between the object and the rational force undergoes a radical change. Our structure of thinking, our bodily processes and other functions with the bodily plane are affected by the relationship with gravity, as gravity is directly related to the object. But the emotional pattern and the mental pattern bring about a slight shift in the influence of gravity in the matter or the object.
Another important factor is that man's consciousness is bound by time and space. And if the area of time and space is altered, then the quality of feeling and thinking also changes. Sometimes, we can even go insane because the natural relationship between time and space has changed due to certain emotional factors.
When astronauts go into space, they suffer weightlessness and the experience of weightlessness is the cause of many complications in the behaviour of an astronaut. Astronauts trained in the practice of pratyahara can very easily adapt to the 'non-body' feeling brought about by weightlessness. 'Sleeplessness' is another symptom of stress in outer space.
The sleep in outer space lacks a certain quality, making the astronaut feel as if he never slept a wink. The quality of our sleep, our dreams and our thinking is based on a certain relationship between us and gravity.
If we change the principles or the quantum of gravity, as it happens in the case of astronauts, the quality of thinking and feeling will undergo a change. Yoga nidra, where the consciousness is still functioning while the body and mind are relaxed, will help astronauts to understand the state of sleepless sleep. Chidakasha dharna in space will help to compensate the realization of loss of anchorage with earth.
Another problem that confronts the astronaut, takes place because the difference between the objective experience and the inner experience is almost mitigated. The difference between the dream and the objective consciousness is so thin the astronauts do not know what is real and what is dream. Why does this happen?
Since birth, the two nervous systems, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, have been operating under the laws of gravity. When the body-system's relationship with gravity is altered, as in outer space, a third nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, becomes operative. This is exactly what happens as a result of prolonged practice of pranayama, meditation or certain practices in hatha yoga, kundalini yoga, kriya yoga and laya yoga. The autonomic nervous system in the case of astronauts, however, comes into operation far more rapidly, maybe within hours, than in the case of the yoga practitioners. In outer space, the quality of experience changes because the laws of gravity do not affect the body systems any more. As a result of this astronauts undergo stages of depression and euphoria, besides a kind of sleeplessness and reality dreams and other related disorders.
The astronauts have been facing these problems since the space project began, and they were tackled by the only manner available to the medical world; suppression of symptoms by means of drugs. If the space flights are to spread wider and deeper into space, yogic practices will have to become part of the astronauts' basic training.
During the first space flight by an Indian astronaut aboard a Russian spacecraft, the Indian astronaut taught his space-mates a few practices of yoga, and the beneficial changes in the bio-feedback of the astronauts impressed the ground control in Russia. A few years ago, a yoga teacher or a swami from India volunteered in Russia for experimentation in relation to pranayama. It is a known fact that when pranayama is practised extensively, the laws of gravity do not operate with full impact. Thus many of the disorders from weightlessness in space faced by the astronauts can be countered effectively with the practice of pranayama.
Yoga helps to develop awareness of the more subtle components of an individual's being; the prana within the body, the mind within the prana, the psychic field or akasha within the mind, and the spirit within, the psyche or the five koshas in yoga - annamaya kosha, pranamaya kosha, manomaya kosha, vigyanamaya kosha and anandamaya kosha. The development of such awareness in an astronaut will help him to balance these subtler levels of his own being, and to prepare him to face life in space - where he must come face to face with himself and with his mind at all these levels, from moment to moment.
The most outstanding contribution of yoga to spaceflights may be yet to come when prolonged flights over several years get underway. With the present space technology available with both the USA and the USSR, long distance space travel is an impossibility unless the astronauts are trained to travel in a samadhi 'sleep' during the entire period of the travel, exactly in the same way yogis become 'dead' for several days and then come back to 'life'. Only such a mastery over the body-mind complex can help the astronauts to counter years of overpowering claustrophobic influences within the confines of a spacecraft.