The Application of Yoga in Managing Stress

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Address to Police Academy, Mumbai

Yoga is a science of life. The concept of life which yoga deals with is not limited to interactions between the physical body and the world, but includes the total personality and building up of character. Take the example of a tree. The roots are underground and cannot be seen. What you see in the form of the tree is the tree trunk, the branches, the leaves, the flowers and the fruit. But it is not the tree trunk which is important, nor the branches, nor the leaves, nor the flowers, nor the fruit. If you want to maintain the tree and keep it strong, then you need to take care of the roots, because the roots are the very basis of its life.

In the same way yoga does not consider the body to be everything. Rather it considers the body to be a medium through which you can progress on the path of evolution in this world. Yoga also does not consider the mind as everything, but it accepts that by developing awareness and concentration you can awaken the dormant potential which can be used to develop and attain success in your life.

Need to become aware of the inner nature

However, the basis of life is neither body nor mind. I am pointing towards yoga philosophy, because without philosophy we cannot understand yoga psychology and applied yoga. The effort of yoga has always been to become aware of the inner personality. In religious language this inner personality is known as atma, the soul, the spirit. Of course, we have to realize, to know, what the role of our inner nature is in day to day life. The role of the inner nature is very important for the survival of humanity, in the sense that most of the basic impressions in life, samskaras, are contained in the dimension of spirit. The samskaras decide what our approach, views and performance will be like in the course of our lives.

The experience of life begins with awareness of our inner nature. In order to discover the inner nature, many different paths of yoga have been defined, including raja yoga, hatha yoga, jnana yoga, karma yoga, and many other yogas involving the use of mantra, yantras and so forth. Before the concept of yoga can be understood in its totality, we have to begin the practice of yoga externally. Today when we are all subject to tension and stress it becomes imperative to direct and manage it properly. When we are unable to control stress, whether it is work, society, family or personal, then those stresses are recognized as distress.

Stress and the body

When distress affects the physical body it manifests in the form of a disease such as high blood pressure; such as sleeplessness, insomnia; such as disturbances of the digestive system, acidity, constipation, accumulation of toxins in the body; such as displacement of the natural behaviour of the body which affects the performance of the internal organs due to a sedentary lifestyle. Modern medical science tells us that the majority of the diseases we face are psychosomatic in nature.

Of course, medical science has said that there are different causes of disease. Some factors are environmental, such as pollution, which can be seen in the form of respiratory disorders, asthma, bronchitis, sinusitis, headache, reddening of the eyes, feeling of lethargy, lack of dynamism and motivation of the body. Some factors are genetic. Other factors are due to the kind of lifestyle and routine that we live, with uncertain meal times and sleep times. As police officers, when you have to be on duty and active, many of the daily routines are disturbed. That leads to the creation of stress, hypertension and related symptoms.

The management of such disorders becomes the prime aim of yoga. If one has to define yoga, I would say that for those people who are suffering from illnesses and diseases, yoga is a means to experience health. For those people who are suffering from mental fatigue, tiredness, anxiety and stress, yoga is a means to find relaxation. For those people who lack concentration and clarity of mind, yoga is a means to concentrate. For those people who aspire for some creativity in life, yoga is a means to find that creativity. For those people who are interested in awakening and knowing their dormant nature and personality, yoga is a form of meditation. We can give various definitions of yoga, but we have to consider the physical aspect, the psychological aspect and the spiritual nature of an individual.

Research into yogic management of disorders

Research has been carried out in different parts of the world into the effects of yoga on the physical body and the management of various disorders. This research was initially carried out in Western countries because they have the facilities and equipment available to do these investigations. It was found that the practice of very simple and basic postures known as asanas can alleviate many different diseases and illnesses of the body.

In the Indira Gandhi Cardiology Institute at Patna, research has been carried out to see how heart attacks can be averted or managed through the practices of yoga. KEM Hospital, Mumbai, has experimented with the practices of yoga to lower high blood pressure. In Burla Medical College, Orissa, yoga has been found to be effective in the control and cure of diabetes. In the Medical College, Raipur, MP, certain asanas were found to be very effective in curing bronchial and respiratory problems, specifically asthma. The Cancer Research Foundation of Australia has taught yoga to cancer patients and has found that some forms of cancer are better managed through different practices of yoga than with chemotherapy or radiotherapy. At present work is going on in London hospitals into the effects of yoga in the management and treatment of AIDS.

I am giving you these example to show the facts, because yoga has always believed that disease in the body generates due to our sedentary lifestyle. When our lifestyle begins to affect the performance of the body then the stamina and the immunity of the body decreases. Through the practice of asana and pranayama you can build up that immunity and physical force. Then many of the natural weaknesses in parts of the body again become strong, because research has also found that stress always tends to affect the weakest parts of the physical body.

Building up immunity to stress

If you are under stress and your lungs are weak by nature then the stress will affect the lungs. If you are under stress and your heart is weak by nature then the stress will affect the heart. If you are under stress and your digestive system is weak by nature, the stress will affect your digestive system or liver or kidneys or cardiovascular system. Each one of us by nature has a weak organ. Of course, we are not aware of that weakness. Only when that part is affected by our lifestyle, our work, our environment, by the tensions in the family, by the tensions in the mind, do we experience disease in that weak organ. This has been the conclusion of medical science. Therefore, when yoga was applied it was found to be an effective therapy to increase the immunity, the stamina and the strength of the different systems within the body. Today one of the major applications of yoga is in therapy.

Similar investigations have been conducted in the management of mental and psychological disorders. Many different types of stress management through yoga programs have been conducted in this country and also abroad. These programs are not only confined to people living in society but also to people in other situations.

Applying yoga in the army and prisons

When General B.C. Joshi, Chief of the Army Staff, was in command, he expressed his desire to bring yoga to the jawans of the army, especially those in high altitude areas and in desert areas. In high altitude areas army personnel suffer from isolation and lack of communication with their families and head office. If you are on duty at 2,100 feet on Siachen glacier for days and days, you see nothing except snow, no other soul. Such conditions create a lot of psychological problems due to isolation and deprivation of communications. Our swamis went to the base camps to experience what the men at arms were undergoing. They went to camps in the Bikaner area to experience what the soldiers feel when they are on duty inside a tank, when they are on exercises in simulated conditions. In this way it was possible to devise a yoga program to manage the mental states of anxiety and frustration experienced by the soldiers.

In different drug rehabilitation centres we have seen that yoga can be a tool through which you can reform your mental habits. For the last two years we have also been teaching yoga to life-term inmates in 24 prisons of Bihar. Substantial data has been collected by the authorities in Bihar. They found that the feelings of revenge, hatred and guilt, were reduced substantially, and the prisoners were able to experience joy, happiness and contentment and to accept their conditions and their crime with a positive attitude and approach. These are some of the applications of yoga for the management of psychological, mental and emotional tension.

Awakening the dormant centres of the brain

At the same time yogis have felt that there is the possibility in every human to awaken the dormant faculties of the mind and brain. Scientists have said that only 10% of our brain is active today and 90% of the brain is in a state of dormancy. What are the possibilities and what would be the results of awakening those dormant centres of the brain? Now, some of it may be speculation but there is no denying the fact that only part of the brain is active and that the major part is inactive. I am not saying that by doing yoga you can adjust your brain a bit here and there, but it is possible through our sadhana or our efforts to create an awakening so that our creativity develops more. Psychoanalysts have also said that our mind is not fully active, that there are more possibilities of awakening the human mind. However, in order to understand the possibilities of human nature we do not have to think at a higher level about what is going to happen or how we can awaken our shakti or energy. Rather it is important to manage the day to day conditions.

It is this aspect of yoga which is important to understand because today those are our actual requirements. We live in a dynamic society, a dynamic world, where as responsible citizens we need to be continuously aware of the many things that are happening around us. This participation of consciousness with the environment does not allow us to relax and focus our attention. There are always distractions, many things to do.

Need for relaxation and concentration in daily life

One of the prime needs of today is to learn how to relax. Sleep is not relaxation. According to yoga, sleep is wilfully and consciously becoming aware of how the mind and consciousness are interacting with the body, senses, objects and experiences and not allowing ourselves to become tense. Maintain clarity of mind, maintain sajagta. When we attain this awareness then naturally existing turbulences and distractions will settle down. In yoga, experience of relaxation means moving from the outside to the inside, becoming aware of this introversion and maintaining balance and stability. Psychology says that activity and stimulation is the nature of the mind. Relaxing this disturbed, agitated mind is done through the relaxation practice of yoga nidra.

The second thing needed in our lives is concentration in order to channelize the dissipations of the mind. For mental health it is necessary that we practise both relaxation and concentration. All yogic practices help this process. Asanas relax the body and mind, and by meditation one attains relaxation and concentration and develops awareness.

Simple practices to relieve tension

How can you control a situation you are passing through which generates excitation and tension in your mind? We have not come here to make you sadhus, but to make you yogis so that you can understand the application of yoga.

The first thing is to learn a few simple asanas. When you have to stand for long periods of time, especially when on duty, the joints accumulate tensions and become stiff. To remove that stiffness the practices of tadasana, tiryaka tadasana and kati chakrasana are very useful.

In tadasana the joints are stretched and in tiryaka tadasana and kati chakrasana the joints are contracted, so this alternate movement relieves the tension.

The muscles also accumulate stress because when there is no movement of the body then a chemical accumulates called lactic acid. At night when you sleep your body generates lactic acid which causes the feeling of stiffness when you wake up in the morning. When there is a movement for some time then that stiffness slowly fades away. The toxins which accumulate in the joints prevent free movement. The adjoining muscles also have minute spaces in which circulation stagnates. So these postures stretch the muscles and expand the joints. As a result circulation improves and toxins are drained away. Some other useful practices which take only a short time are the head and neck movements of pawanmuktasana part 1 (refer to BYB publication Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha).

Become self-aware

Now we shall do a short concentration practice for two minutes. Close your eyes. Listen to me carefully. First, mentally watch the breathing process. Observe your breath, be aware that you are breathing in and breathing out. At the time of inhalation you will feel a slight coolness in the nostrils. At the time of exhalation you will feel a slight warmth as the breath goes out. Watch this process carefully for some time. Now open your eyes.

This is a practice which you can do for up to 5 minutes either in the morning or afternoon or evening or at bedtime. Slowly you will experience that your powers of concentration and relaxation have increased. Those mental and emotional tensions which are generated in day to day life will slowly settle down. It is here that yoga begins. Yoga does not begin by standing upside down. Yoga does not begin by wearing geru clothes. Yoga begins by becoming self-aware.