Dealing With Stress

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Before we move on to the subject of how to deal with stress in day to day living, there is one thing I would like to explain to you about the mantra Om. Traditionally, and in yogic scriptures it is believed that Om was the original sound and responsible for creation. The chanting of Om brings about a feeling of closeness to our inner nature,

A few years back in Barcelona, Spain, research was conducted on mantra at one hospital, and a Sannyasi from our ashram went there. The researchers attached electrodes of the EEG machine on his scalp and while he was chanting the mantra Om, they recorded his brainwave frequency. The swami chanted the mantra for ten minutes, not more, and during those ten minutes' the frequency of his brainwaves underwent tremendous changes.

There are four major brainwaves, beta, alpha, delta, and theta. When beta waves are predominant in our brain, then the area of external activity (physical, muscular, nervous, emotional and intellectual) is dynamic in our personality. We can relate that activity with the state of wakefulness. As the swami chanted the mantra Om the frequency of the beta brainwaves gradually subsided, and slowly alpha waves took over. Alpha waves represent a state of physiological as well as psychological relaxation. If somebody were to record our brainwaves after Om chanting or meditation practice there would be an increase in the alpha waves, because in those conditions we are not facing the distractions of the external world. There are no Cars, no roads, very little noise and very little sensory distraction.

If we reach a state of mental concentration, then these alpha waves change to delta waves, which represent the state of concentration, one-pointedness, awareness, receptivity, clarity of mind. This state generally predominates in our brain just before sleep. When we are drifting from the state of wakefulness to unconsciousness, there comes a moment, even if it is only fleeting, when the mind attains full concentration and there is complete relaxation and tranquility, and within that tranquility there is vitality.

If we totally engross ourselves in one action or one thought to the extent we forget the environment, we even forget that we are a body sitting somewhere and finally our concentration becomes so acute that there is no concept of time and space then theta waves take over.

I have lived in Western countries for more than half of my life, and there I had the opportunity to do a lot of scientific research with many eminent scientists, doctors, researchers and personalities. We found that people who want to develop their creative intelligence have to undergo a process of self-evaluation of which there are many aspects. One aspect is the technique of biofeedback, in other words electronic relaxation. In biofeedback we use different tools to monitor the physiological and psychological conditions, the level of anxiety, stress and tension (muscular, nervous and emotional).

Modern psychology tells us that we are influenced by three types of tension. One is muscular tension which is purely physiological, although the cause may be psychological or emotional, For example, if there is too much work pressure and we are fully involved in the work then often our hunger disappears. This is the case with many students who at the time of examinations, when they have to study a lot seem to lose their appetites.

This causes certain changes in the functions of the internal systems. Lack of hunger is an example but with that many other symptoms come up: constipation, acidity, gastritis and abdominal problems. So if this type of tension is continued for an extended period of time, certain muscular tension may arise, and some disease can take birth in our body and or mind, because nervous tension can also lead to an imbalanced state of mind.

In biofeedback, the first thing that researchers do is to check the muscular tension. They use a very effective machine, having two tiny electrodes which are attached to the fingers. When you put the machine on it gives a high-pitched whistling sound. Then you have to concentrate, you have to make the effort to bring down the pitch of the whistle until it disappears completely. The name of the machine is EMG, electro-musculograph, and it monitors the level of tension in the muscular system.

Even while we are sitting, a part of the body is under stress in one way or another. By utilising that machine we do not remove the stress or the tension, but we can adjust the body position, so that there is less tension in the muscular system. There are many positions that we adopt during the day, while sitting, sometimes we lean back in our chair, sometimes we bend forward on the table, and although we take it for granted that our body is a perfect machine, slight changes can affect it very much. If I am sitting in such a way as to create a level of tension and I simply straighten my back, the pitch of the machine will practically disappear, because the tension being registered has been eliminated.

Another machine used is the EEG, electroencephalogram. Measuring the brainwaves in EEG when our mind is distracted, when the mental faculties are dissipated and when there is an influx of thoughts, (maybe rational, maybe irrational, maybe useful, maybe useless) shows that a certain type of activity in the brain also induces certain changes in our physiological system. By thinking positive thoughts or by relaxing the nervous system we can also influence the brainwaves.

In Yoga there are many different types of asana, many different positions, some simple, some complicated, which by creating a change in the vital energy within the body bring about a state of very deep relaxation. Of course nowadays, people have many different ideas about the use and the benefit of asana. Some use them for maintaining the health of the body, some for helping certain physiological diseases such as asthma, diabetes, rheumatism, arthritis, gastric problems and even cancer, and some practise them as a preventive measure.

If you look at Yoga from the practical point of view, even if a healthy person practises, not for any mental or spiritual benefits, but purely for the physiological benefits, they will harmonise the nervous system, the endocrinal gland system, the skeletal system, the cardiovascular system, the respiratory system etc. It is like a servicing of the whole body. Just as we take the car every couple of thousand kilometres to the service centre, in the same way we service our body with the help of asana. This is where the aspect of asana comes in regarding managing the level of tension in the body, and gradually it works up to managing the level of tension in the environment and in world situations.

There are some types of pranayama which can gradually reduce nervous tension. Bhastrika pranayama, a revitalising pranayama, is excellent for people suffering from depression, who are very introvert and self-centred, also if you are feeling sleepy, do bhastrika a few times and you will feel that you have just woken up, completely fresh. But if you are feeling over active, do sheetali which is a tranquillising pranayama.

Now let us look at emotional tension. Paramahamsaji says about the mind: "The mind is a very sensitive instrument and from the mind all the thoughts and actions are controlled and directed". Mind has many different areas of action, namely two major ones, intellect and emotion. Psychology has divided the personality into four categories: the dynamic, the emotional, the intellectual and the mystical. Some people are highly intellectual, some are highly emotional, some very dynamic, while still others are very spiritual, mystical, whatever you may want to call it. When we get hurt physically, even if it is a very slight cut, we immediately take care of it, we put a bandage on it; this happens to practically everybody. However, when we get hurt emotionally, we are unable to treat this condition.

When we work in the office, and when we retire home, we carry the office with us in our mind. Paramahamsaji laid down a very simple principle: 'When you are in the office, work; when you are at home, forget about the office'. For leading a healthy life it is essential to follow this principle. When you carry the problems of the office home, you are unable to enjoy and develop the sense of well-being and fullness. This can lead to deep states of frustration, which in turn leads to states of neurosis, deep nervous depression and complete mental break down. The brain completely stops working due to a prolonged period of tension and pressure, for a few moments you do not know what to do, you just want to be away from everything for some time, or you want the help or guidance of another person, who can tell you what to do to overcome your problems.

The cessation of activity of the brain and mind is just like a physical heart-attack, only it is a mental-attack. A heart-attack we can take care of because it is something physical. A mind-attack however, we cannot take care of because we do not know what it is, or how to treat it, and we are not really aware of what harm it can do to us. For this we have the practice of Yoga Nidra, which not only brings about a state of psycho-physiological relaxation, but also induces and re-establishes mental, emotional and intellectual strength and well being.

We have found that to have a progressive and creative mind it is necessary to have a certain amount of stress and tension in life, because when we are confronted with a conflicting situation, we will try to find a solution for it. If there were no conflict, we could not find any creative solution to overcome that conflict. It is necessary to have stress and tension, but we can reduce the intensity of it, by becoming aware of how it influences our personality and mind, how we can cope with it and still maintain clear headedness, a clear-cut perception, where we can still utilise all our mental faculties and qualities fully.

Finally, as a last resort, when we find that tension is pressurising us, and we have no means of getting away from it, we cannot sleep, and the whole situation is reducing our efficiency, then we perform the practice of visualisation, imagination, fantasy. You know how children fantasise before they go to sleep that they are travelling to some unknown destination and they are the hero, the centre of everything. In fantasy children totally divert their minds, and then fall asleep.

We also have to fantasise, but in a different way. In order to divert our mind from day to day happenings, from day to day problems, which we carry with us to bed, in Yoga we utilise imagination. We go through a whole process of imagination where we create our own objects for visualising, our own scenery. We see a snow-capped mountain, a flowing river, golden beaches, we move the mind constantly from one symbol to another. There is no end to imagination, if you apply your mind. That will help you overcome many types of tension and anxiety. Simply by this diversion tactic, you will be able to rest fully and deeply, and be refreshed.

So, in brief, we looked at the four aspects of Yoga: the practice of asana, the practice of pranayama, the practice of Yoga Nidra, and last the practice of mental imagination, visualisation, which can all be utilised to combat stress and enable us to lead fuller and richer lives.