Stress and Modern Man

In his talk at the Italian Yoga Federation, Il Chocco, Italy, on May 24, 1984, Swami Satyananda Saraswati gave the yogic perspective on Stress.

Today stress is being considered as one of the prime causes of disease. A great deal of research has been done on this subject by scientists throughout the world and they have concluded that tensions, anxieties and disturbed mental conditions can cause serious physical ailments.

There is a very long list of diseases, such as blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases and asthma, which are known as stress-born diseases. If you study this list, you yourself can conclude that 89% of all the ailments today are stress-born. Science today is beginning to relate psychological behaviour to these stress conditions and therefore it is very necessary to study what stress is, and how it can affect the various aspects of human life. In order to do this we have to first of all understand the nature of stress and from where it originates.

One of the most important factors that can be concluded from our studies, of both ancient yogic literature and modern scientific text, is that there is not one but hundreds of causes that can create stress. There are doomsday prophecies made and these prophecies are very pessimistic. Does that not cause stress? It may not consciously cause stress, but it does cause stress in the unconscious mind.

Psychology maintains that when you suppress your experiences they recede into the unconscious and emerge in the form of nightmares. Whatever stress you experience in your family, society or life can be accumulated in any part of your mind. Sometimes your stress is conscious, sometimes it is subconscious and many times it is unconscious.

Stress which affects the conscious mind is not very dangerous. Stress that is stored in your subconscious mind comes out in the form of dreams. But the stress which is unknown, the stress which you don't understand, goes into your unconscious mind and can create havoc in your body, mind, emotions and personality.

Stress, however, is not a, surprise condition of the mind, it comes through a particular mechanism. Stress arises out of tension. Tension is a condition of the nervous system, and this tension which is created in the nervous system finally travels to every atom and particle of the body.

Three kinds of tension

According to both yogic philosophy and modern psychology there are three kinds of tension. There three typical tensions can be classified as muscular, mental and emotional tension. This threefold tension originates in our physical and mental structure and affects all other systems of the body. Some of you must have experienced that whenever you are under tension you make a lot of mistakes. This happens due to an imbalance in the nervous system which causes erratic behaviour.

As tension ultimately culminates in stress, it is important at this point to understand these three kinds of tensions. Muscular tension is caused by overly critical actions. The physical body has limited resources of energy and when we work exceedingly hard, this energy is diminished. We are then compelled to balance this decrease in energy by an extra intake of food or medicine to accelerate or accentuate the energy for overworking. For example, sportsmen require a great deal of energy to combat the strain of overusing their bodies. So, they are given extra hormones and drugs in order to maintain a regular flow of energy in the body. These physical or muscular tensions are not very serious or difficult to eliminate; with adequate rest and proper diet they can eventually be worked out.

The next form of tension is called mental tension, and most people in the world are suffering from it. We do not allow the mind to rest. The mind is always engaged in thoughts and this over thinking causes mental tension. Excessive thinking also leads to confusion in. the mind which results in further tension. As a result of this there is loss of memory and if mental tensions become acute, one cannot make accurate judgements, thus causing many disasters in life.

It is a well known fact that the senses, mind, brain and nervous system are interconnected. The five senses are intimately connected to the brain and mind, as well as the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Therefore, any perception and cognition that takes place in the mind involves the nervous system, the five senses and the brain.

Every process of thinking is responsible for producing some type of secretion or hormone in the body from the endocrinal system. When you think of fear, anger or any strong emotion, the adrenal glands begin to secrete potent hormones, such as adrenalin. This is just one example. This is why thoughts should not he considered as mere psychological action. Every thought is psychological but it also produces a physiological effect on the body. It can accelerate and excite the adrenal glands it can create hyperactivity; it can cause an increase in the respiratory rate of the body; it can excite the kidneys and bladder. This is what scientists are saying and one may testify it from personal experience.

The third type of tension is emotional tension. Man is perhaps the only living creature that has known emotional tensions, and these arise from our relationship with persons, objects and events. When we have a certain philosophy (most human beings are philosophical) then we begin to relate ourselves to people, objects and events in life. These relationships develop on the basis of raga and dwesha, or likes and dislikes. For example, you do not relate yourself to a man just because he is a man. You relate to him because you either like or dislike him. Similarly you relate yourself with events or objects on the basis of your personal likes, dislikes and attachments.

Therefore, as a human being, you are emotionally interacting with each and every thing around you. But everything is not according to your wish. When something happens according to your wish, there is a positive emotional tension and when something happens against your wish, then it creates a negative emotional tension. These emotional tensions can eventually cause peptic ulcer, asthma, heart attack or even mental insanity. They can make you a sinner or a saint. They can make you violent or they can simply transform you into a selfless servant of humanity. Emotional tension is a very powerful factor in human life and you must not underestimate it. So, these threefold tensions cause stress which eventually spreads throughout the body and mind, passing through physical, pranic and mental channels - fields of energy in the body.

Now let us study the body. According to hatha yoga, there are two forces in this physical body known as ida and pingala. They represent the sun and moon, shiva and shakti or consciousness and life. These two channels flow throughout the body and in modern scientific terms, they are known as the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Ida carries the force responsible for thinking and mental activities; pingala carries the force representing prana or vital action. These two forces are spread throughout the body, but the main channel flows within the spine intersecting at four main junctions or chakras.

These chakras are vortexes of energy or prana and the first of these four junctions is the swadhisthana chakra which corresponds with the sacral plexus. The second is the manipura chakra or solar plexus, the third is the anahata chakra or cardiac plexus and the fourth is vishuddhi chakra or cervical plexus. From these four junctions thousands of channels carry prana and consciousness throughout each and every part of the body. In hatha yoga it is said that 72,000 channels carry pranic and mental force in the body. Modern science too speaks almost the same language.

Besides these four junctions there is one point where these two forces of prana and consciousness originate and another point where they terminate In hatha yoga the point of origin of these two forces is known as mooladhara chakra or the cocoygeal plexus, and the terminating point is known as ajna chakra or the medulla oblongata in the brain. These two points where the two forces originate and terminate are most important for the awakening and sublimation of this energy.

Hatha yoga claims that in order to create harmony and eliminate stress, these two forces are to be harmonized. It is when there is no harmony between these two forces that the problems begin. From the hatha yoga point of view the cure for tension and stress is a balance between these two forces. This balance can be created through the hatha yoga kriyas such as asana, pranayama, trataka, etc. In the 'Hatha Yoga Pradipika' which is an authoritative text on hatha yoga, it is said that the forces of the mind and prana, or ida and pingala are so intimately connected with each other that control of one spontaneously leads to the control of the other. As the prana can be controlled through the breath, hatha yogis utilize the practice of pranayama to induce a tranquil state of mind.

Kleshas: a source of stress

Whereas hatha yoga talks of control of prana, the system of raja yoga, which is a more advanced yoga, advocates direct control of the forces of the mind. In the Raja Yoga Sutras of Patanjali it is mentioned that the mind is governed by five kinds of kleshas or afflictions: ignorance, ego, attraction, aversion and attachment to life, which are responsible for all anxieties, and if you reflect on this yourself, you will arrive at the same conclusion. The purpose or aim of raja yoga is to control the mind so that these kleshas are controlled.

The entire system of yoga and tantra deals with the elimination of stress, either as a by product of yogic practices, or as a preliminary requisite for more advanced practices.

Raja yoga says control the mind and thereby the pranas are controlled. This creates a balance between the two forces of ida and pingala. Hatha yoga says control the prana and thereby the mind is stilled.

However, in tantra there is a different approach altogether. Tantra says do not try to control the negative forces of the mind. Instead it prescribes the practices of kriya yoga, ajapa japa, yoga nidra, etc, which induce a state of tranquillity in the practitioner without a direct confrontation with the mind. Out of these, the practice of yoga nidra stands out as a very powerful method for eliminating stress and tension in man.

Research on yoga nidra

A lot of research has already been done in America and India on the effects of yoga nidra on the conditions of stress and tension. It has been found that during stress periods the body secretes various types of hormones. These secretions belong to intricate systems of the endocrine glands. As a result of this endocrine secretion, various changes take place in the body, resulting in stress, which in turn alters the characteristic patterns of the brain waves. The brain has a definite pattern of energy frequencies which are known as alpha, delta, beta and theta waves.

Each and every brain wave has a direct effect on the body and particularly on the heart. It has been found that the endocrinal secretions, respiratory rate, cardiac activity and other functions of the body alter, and have a different behaviour under each of these four brain waves. For example, when delta waves are predominant in the brain, the rate of respiration decreases and the cardiovascular reactions, such as the heart rate and blood pressure, slow down. At that time the body is found to consume less oxygen.

Alternatively when theta or beta waves are predominant in the brain, the body consumes a lot of oxygen. At that time the heart and the cardiovascular system are under excitement and agitation. But at the time when alpha waves are predominating, there is a state of balance in the oxygen consumption by the body tissues. It is a state of physiological relaxation. Not only the consumption of oxygen but the metabolic and respiratory rates are also stabilized. As a result of this the pressure on the heart and the work load upon the heart is diminished. Therefore, they have found that in order to decrease the cardiovascular tension, it is important that the patient should develop alpha waves in the brain.

The science of yoga nidra is a very systematic one. In yoga nidra there is no hypnosis and there is no sleeping. During the practice you have to maintain consciousness or inner awareness throughout. In that state of heightened inner awareness it has been found that the brain waves develop alpha patterns, and these alpha frequencies of the brain are considered very important in lowering the blood pressure and removing cardiovascular tension.

Elimination of samskaras

However, elimination of tension is not such a simple matter. There is yet another problem which has not been solved. Hidden deep within the recesses of the mind are the samskaras or archetypes which influence the emotions, personality and life of each and every individual. Your problems arise from this inner store of experiences. Happiness and unhappiness lie deep in you and these experiences are stored in the form of samskaras. Within you they are accumulated in the form of particles. From particles they become waves of energy and these waves develop into a force which later emerges as an experience. Your experience of happiness or unhappiness arises in the form of a wave that is born of one particle. That particle is known as a samskara or archetype.

There is another name for it and that is karma. These archetypes collectively form the karma of an individual. It is on account of them that your mind, emotions and personality are formed. It you suffer in life, it is on account of your deep-rooted karma; or if you happen to enjoy life, it is also on account of your karma. Now how are you going to deal with your karma?

Karma cannot be dealt with by a rational process such as psychoanalysis or psychiatric treatment, rather it has to be understood as a subtle force underlying each and every action or event that you encounter. It has been found that the practice of concentration on a symbol is effective in purging out these archetypes from the unconscious mind. In yoga this practice of concentration is known as trataka, and it should be done prior to the practice of yoga nidra.

When you practise trataka on a symbol, you stimulate these particles or samskaras in the brain. There are hundreds of symbols prescribed in yoga and tantra, out of which some are considered more powerful than others. For example, concentration on a yantra or mandala is very powerful depending on the quality of the yantra or mandala you choose for yourself. Trataka done on the kali yantra or mandala will bring out repressions more quickly, often in the form of nightmarish experiences. Concentration on different yantras and mandalas bring out a different quantity and quality of repressions. These repressions can be experienced in dreams, or in the state of meditation, and that means you are flushing the whole thing out. Therefore, side by side with yoga nidra, concentration should be taught, according to the quality and resistance of the aspirant.

In ancient Greece and Egypt they had several different mandalas, but they have long been forgotten, for the west has turned its back on them. This is because they were wrongly misinterpreted as forms of gods and goddesses, instead of being related to human consciousness, and human psychology. If the conditions of stress and tension are to be eliminated systematically and scientifically, then these ancient mandalas will have to be revived and utilized as a treatment for the deep-rooted ailments of the human mind. In the final analysis, we have to understand that the cause of stress can be related to several factors, some external, others purely internal. But whatever the cause, yoga has given us an answer by showing us an effective way to eliminate stress, not through drugs or psychoanalysis, but through a profound and accurate understanding of the human body and mind.