Yoga and the Management of Stress

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Lecture at Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS), Delhi, October 1995

Greetings to the scientists of modern India on behalf of the scientists of ancient India. We are here to discuss the relevance of yoga in our day to day lives. I would like to make it very clear that yoga does not come into the category of either a science (although people today, including me, think of yoga as a science) or a religion (although people believe it to be a part of the Hindu system) or a spiritual practice. For me science is global, religion is social, and spirituality is personal and universal.

In this case yoga becomes the medium through which we can learn to appreciate and realize our dormant potential. With the awakening of this dormant potential we can become better scientists and better human beings. I am in favour of becoming a better human being, because this was the mandate my guru, Paramahamsa Satyananda, gave me – “Learn to stand on your own two feet.” That is what I have been trying to do. Whether I succeed or not is a different matter, but the effort is there.

Yoga as a means of self-discipline

Yoga is not a select group of practices dealing with the human body or human health, nor a group of practices dealing with the human mind or human nature. In the first verse of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali has defined the purpose of yoga as, “Atha yoganushasanam”, not “Atha yogah sharir vijnanam”, nor “Atha yogah asanam”, nor “Atha yogah pranayam”, nor “Atha yogah dhyanam”, nor “Atha yogah samadhim”. He has used the word 'anushasam' for a definite reason. Once we understand the meaning of anushasam, the process of yoga becomes clear. Generally anushasanam is translated as discipline, but if we look deeper into the meaning we will discover that it is not an imposed discipline.

This is perhaps the most vital understanding of yoga that we can gain, because normally we think of yoga as a subject or a practice which we have to impose on our present condition, situation and lifestyle, and there is conflict. We make different excuses such as, “I don't have the time to do it”, or “I don't have the inclination to do it”, while we have plenty of time for all the useless things in life. Shasan means 'to govern, to rule, to direct, to control'. Anu is a prefix meaning 'the subtle nature', the subtle manifestation of human personality, nature, mind, behaviour, attitude and life. This is definitely a very broad, and also the best, definition of yoga.

If we were able to direct, control and focus the energy, channel and activate the different faculties and components of the human body and mind, imagine what the state of our creativity, expression and lifestyle would be. If we consider yoga from this angle then we will see the relevance of the different practices, whether physical, psychological, mental or spiritual in nature.

Treating the cause

No two people in the world are the same; no two faces, are the same. There are so many different personalities and mentalities and yet yoga is applicable to each one. Why? Because in yoga we do not deal with the manifest symptoms, rather we deal with the cause. What we experience in our body as an illness or a disease is only a symptom of an imbalance that has already taken place deep in the human psyche, a stress that has already taken root in the deepest levels of human personality. But we are only treating the symptoms externally and not the cause. People talk a lot about tension and stress and say that it is the cause of all problems, difficulties, conflicts, phobias, insecurities, psychological depressions and anxieties. But I think in a slightly different way. Stress is not the cause of all our ills. The cause is our inability to cope with changing conditions. Stress accumulates and intensifies and then we feel the negative results in our lives.

What is the key here? Do we need to fight stress, or to develop and enhance our potential and capacity to cope with situations? Many people throughout the world have prescribed many different ways to manage stress. They run stress management courses teaching how to deal with physical stress, emotional stress, environmental stress, social stress. But are they successful? I think you are better able to answer that question than me. From my understanding such programs are not successful because they look at the management of stress and the imbalances from an external viewpoint, whereas the actual cause is internal.

Maintaining the physical body with asana

We have to find a method, an approach, by which we can increase our own physical mental, emotional, intellectual, psychic and spiritual efficiency and creativity. In this process a few ideas come to mind. One is maintenance of the physical structure so that proper optimum health can be experienced in the physical body. The physical body is the most misused organ on this planet. When you buy a new car you want to maintain and make the best use of it, so you make sure it is serviced regularly. If you do not then at some point it is bound to have a breakdown. How many times have you serviced your own car – the body – from the time you were born until today? Some people may say, “Oh, I go for holidays and relax”, but that is not servicing the body.

From the time we are born our physical system is continually undergoing stress, wear and tear. When it reaches the acute stage, or the chronic stage, then that wear and tear manifests in the form of disease, whether it is arthritis, asthma, diabetes, digestive or cardiovascular problems. When we become sick we resort to different medications for help.

The causes of stress in the body are diet, environment, and mismanagement of the daily routine required by the body. There are certain biorhythms in our body which become active during the day and which subside at night These biorhythms, which represent the optimum performance of different organs at certain times and their relaxation at other times, are definitely misused. This is possibly the worst kind of stress we can encounter in our lives, more so than environmental or dietary stress, because here we are altering the entire biorhythmic structure of the body.

When we practise asanas, or yogic postures, then this is precisely the area we are trying to reach. Asanas have four major benefits: (i) the internal biorhythms are harmonized; (ii) the pranic energy in our system becomes regulated; (iii) the blockages and tensions in different muscles are removed; (iv) there is harmony in the performance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic activities of the body. There are many other benefits, but these are the four main ones.

Once we attain these four benefits in our lives with the practice of asana, then there are very few chances of the body encountering or undergoing internal stress conditions. Therefore, one limits the intensity of an illness in the physical structure. Diabetes or arthritis will not come to you and you will not have to take insulin injections or tablets. If diabetes, asthma or joint pains do arise they can be managed or reduced.

Combating mental stress in the army

Mental stress is caused by the work environment, the family environment, the social environment. There are different factors and I am sure you are well aware of them. As an example, in 1993, the late General Joshi, Chief of the Armed Forces, approached the Bihar School of Yoga to train army personnel, especially in the Siachen and Bikaner areas which have extreme climatic variations of heat and cold. Two swamis conducted specific training programs in Leh and in base camps in the Siachen and Bikaner areas. While conducting these programs they also underwent similar exertions to the army personnel in order to experience for themselves what happens, how to cope with it and how to teach the soldiers to cope with it. The results were incredible, especially in the Siachen base camp. You are well aware of the difficulties the soldiers face in those harsh conditions, at an altitude of 2,000 feet surrounded by ice and snow, where their worst enemies are acute isolation as well as deprivation of communication. They suffer a lot from mental and emotional stress because for two years they live without receiving any communication from their families. At that time what is their mental condition and state of mind?

In the Siachen base camp we experimented with five practices to help the soldiers manage their physical, mental and emotional stress: (i) a group of asanas known as the pawanmuktasana series, (ii) pranayama, (iii) trataka, (iv) ajapa japa, and (v) yoga nidra.

Trataka and ajapa japa

In normal conditions the concentration practice of trataka, fixation of the gaze on the tip of a candle flame, helps to improve concentration, one-pointed awareness, but in those extreme conditions it helped to stop dissipation of the emotions and thoughts and to reduce the level of fear, insecurity and anxiety. We also taught the practice of ajapa japa, repetition of a mantra with inhalation and exhalation. Before starting this discussion today we chanted the mantra Om three times. Many of you may have seen it as religious chanting, but I can assure you that it is not, and that it has a scientific background.

In 1979 I was living in Barcelona, Spain. I was invited to a hospital by a doctor who had the brainwave to teach a yoga practice to patients as a pre-operative technique. Generally when people come for surgery they are very nervous because they think, “I am going to be given an anaesthetic,” “My body is going to be chopped up,” “Will I survive?” They are not sure if the doctor will take out the right eye instead of the left. All those different fears are there. It is an incredible condition and I am sure similar conditions exist in our hospitals.

The doctor wanted to carry out research on a very simple yoga technique which could be done in five minutes and which would lower the patients' mental resistance, making them more positive and optimistic about undergoing surgery. I suggested gathering together ten patients who had no background in yoga. We monitored them with different biofeedback instruments – GSR, EEG, ECG, etc. – while for five minutes they chanted the mantra Om with the breath. In another room we watched the graphs showing the activity of their brainwaves. At first the patients were very nervous, not because they were going to do something new and unknown, but because they were anxious about undergoing surgery and whether they would survive or not. You could imagine the state of their brainwaves! After five minutes of Om chanting, delta waves became predominant, their facial expressions had changed and they came out of the room with a more positive state of brain – I don't know about mind – but definitely their brains were in a more positive state, more relaxed and tranquil. Even today, people who are admitted for surgery in that hospital, for major or minor operations, still practise five minutes of Om chanting. It has become a routine, like pre-operative care for the patients.

This is one example. A lot of research has been done into the effect of the coordination between breath and mantra on the human brain and mind. The breath is definitely considered to be the mirror of our mental states. When we are at rest, when we are peaceful, the breath is slower and more gentle. When we are under stress, the breath comes in very shallow and short gasps, the length is reduced and there is lack of control over the autonomic nervous system. If you can simply observe your breath and combine a mantra with it, then you will notice that breath and mantra become very powerful tools to manage mental, emotional and psychic stress.

Focusing the mental energy with mantra

What are mantras? Mantras are spandans, sound vibrations which affect the different psychic centres of the body, the chakras. But for many people in this country they are words which have some form of religious connotation. For example, many of you will say that the mantra Om Namah Shivaya is a Shaiva mantra, or that Om Namo Bhagavate is a Krishna mantra. You will give different mantras different identities associated with religious beliefs. Kundalini yoga says, “No”. If you have ever looked at a picture of the chakras you will find that the six chakras from mooladhara to sahasrara have a total number of fifty petals. In these petals are written different consonants which are the mantras for the different petals of a particular chakra. Each akshara, or syllable, represents a sound vibration of a different frequency and pitch. According to the Maheshwara Sutras, in Sanskrit there are fifty consonants, or varna akshara, which are the first grammatical descriptions represented in each petal.

When we repeat the mantra Om Namah Shivaya, for example, we are not becoming a Shaivite, we are not adoring or worshipping a deity, but we are stimulating the force of these different chakras. Om is the sound of ajna chakra which is responsible for clarity, for creativity, for the intuitive faculty of mind. Ya or Yam is the mantra of anahata, Va or Vam is the mantra of swadhisthana. Similarly Na, Ma, Sha are different sounds or syllables corresponding to the different chakras.

So when we sit down quietly and become aware of the breath for a few minutes, regulate our breathing and add a mantra to it with concentration and mental relaxation, the mental repetition of the mantra creates a set of vibrations within our personality. These vibrations create a force. Does an army ever march across a bridge? The answer is no. When an army crosses a bridge it has to break step. Why? So many steps create a vibration, a hammering effect which can shatter the foundations of the bridge. In the same way, we repeat a mantra such as Om with the breath or Soham or any other mantra, whether it be an Islamic, a Christian or a yogic mantra. Yogic mantras are different because then we are creating a definite vibration in our psychic personality, in our mental personality, in our emotional personality, which helps to change the pattern.

If ten grandfather clocks are placed in a room with the pendulums swinging at random, in the evening they will all be swinging in rhythm with each other. This phenomenon happens because the frequency, the vibration, becomes uniform after a period of time. In the same way, anxiety, frustration, anger, fear, thoughts, emotions, feelings, mental projections, insecurities and phobias, whatever the expressions of the mind are at any given point, can easily be channelled with the force of the mantra.

These different expressions of mind are emissions of prana, energy, from the mind. What the mind is I will leave you to discover scientifically. What the components of the mind are I can tell you because my forefathers, the scientists of ancient India, discovered these components. Yogis have maintained that just as a body is manifest, visible, compressed energy, in the same way the mind also has a structure, a form of energy which is subtle. Emissions of the subtle mind can be experienced in the form of a thought, an emotion, a state, rationality or irrationality, positivity or negativity. What happens in the dimension of our mind ultimately influences our behaviour and performance.

The original form of the mind is energy, and the mind emits energy which is subtle. When you begin to practise mantra, whether it is verbal or subtle really does not matter because you create a different pattern of energy vibration in your body as well as in your mind. That created energy pattern then acts like a magnet to attract the mental energies which at present are being dissipated in all directions. Therefore, you will find meditation is a subjective experience. Mental concentration comes when focusing of energies has taken place. Peace, shanti, comes when dissipation, distraction, has stopped. Clarity of mind comes, in time, with the actual passive nature of mind and not the destructive, uncontrolled, dynamic state of mind. This is a very subjective experience of meditation. Anybody can have it. However, the actual reason is different. It is management of mental energy. So, we found that the practice of ajapa japa was a very efficient tool in the management of psychological problems and disturbances which the armed forces encounter in harsh climatic conditions and total isolation.

Relaxation through yoga nidra

The most important practice we taught the soldiers was yoga nidra, relaxation. I believe that if we can incorporate a component of relaxation into our life, not sleep but relaxation, our life will change drastically and dramatically. We have lost the ability to relax. Yoga nidra means 'yogic sleep'. It is the practice of sleepless sleep in which the body is relaxed and the mind is also made to relax. In normal sleep at home you are never alone – all the devils of the day go to bed with you. There are worries and tensions, whether work, family or social pressures. Although the mind cuts off, those impressions continue to alter the pattern of the mind. Therefore, the next day you feel tired, not rested, and require more sleep. In yoga nidra the opposite happens. You sleep but at the same time you are awake, therefore, it is known as sleepless sleep.

There is a computerized machine known as a BEAM, which means Brain Electrical Activity Mapping. BEAM takes a topographical picture of the brain and shows the different brainwaves not as zigzag lines, but as colours covering different areas of the brain. It is an incredible machine and we have carried out research to see how the state of relaxation affects and alters the brainwaves. In one experiment with BEAM we took photographs of a drunkard who had fallen asleep. We also took pictures of a person who was in a deep sleep but experiencing a nightmare, sweating, yelling, moving the body, fighting. If I put those two photographs in front of you and asked you to differentiate between the brain of the person who was having the nightmare and the brain of the person who was drunk and fell asleep, you would not be able to distinguish between them. The colours shown in the brain were all active dynamic ones, red, orange, yellow, meaning very high, distorted activity of the brainwaves.

We also took photographs of a person participating in yoga nidra. After twenty minutes' practice his brainwaves showed a very deep blue uniform colour, delta waves. That is the concept of sleepless sleep. We have found that those people who have perfected yoga nidra can in one hour of practice fulfil the sleep requirements of four hours. So yoga nidra was another technique that we taught the soldiers to assist them in managing stress.

Need for research into prana and pranayama

I have talked about the practices of asana, trataka, ajapa japa and yoga nidra. The final one is pranayama. Traditionally pranayama has been taken to be a very secretive practice. In fact many aspects of yoga are considered to be secret due to our lack of understanding. If we can understand something properly then it is not secret, but if we cannot understand it then it is secret. The same thing has happened with pranayama. Even in this day and age I have come across books on yoga by modern authors who say that pranayama is dangerous and should not be practised. I have to smile at such statements.

The practices of pranayama are the most effective ones to manage imbalances in the nervous system, the brain and the mind. Possibly they are the most important practices for you to incorporate into your yoga research. It is not necessary for you to do asana research or relaxation research, but definitely do pranayama research because it is the most important aspect of yoga. It links the nervous system with the brain, and the brain with the mind, physical and subtle. It links the three areas of our existence together.

Energy, prana, is probably the most vital and important aspect of our life. I would ask you to discover what prana is because I don't know. I have read many things in the scriptures, in the yogic literature, but I do not know how it can be defined scientifically. Sometimes I wonder if things can be defined scientifically because science is looking for something physical, whereas there are myriads of things in existence which are non-physical. How can one measure infinity? If infinity can be measured with an instrument, then it is not infinity.

So, it is a challenge both for you and for us to try and discover what prana is and how it relates to us. From my understanding of the tradition, prana is the life force. It is the green colour of the grass and the plants. It is the hardness of stone. It is the softness of cotton. It is the life force of a human being. Call it what you wish, because the tradition says that everything in this world is prana, the force of life, and everything is vibrating with that force, that pulsation of life, from the so-called inanimate to the animate forms. This prana enjoys a very special place in our body.

Yogis have described five koshas, sheaths or dimensions. Annamaya kosha is the sheath of the physical body – muscles, bones, nerves, blood. Pranamaya kosha is the sheath of energy. Manomaya kosha is the dimension of mind, where you find the individual picture. In vijnanamaya kosha, the dimension of cosmic understanding and wisdom, you will find the universal picture. In anandamaya kosha, the dimension of absolute attainment, perfection, you will find poornata, ananda. Science has looked into annamaya kosha, the body. Psychology is looking into manomaya kosha, the mind. Parapsychology is making an attempt to look into vijnanamaya kosha, but no attempt has been made yet to discover pranamaya kosha, even though this is the most important aspect of our life.

Awakening the vital energy

According to yogic theory, prana manifests in two forms. One is dynamism of the physical body, known as the pingala force, the solar force. The other is the ida force, the mental force. Prana of the body and prana of the mind. These pranas interact with each other and move away from each other. With the practice of pranayama we are able to awaken the faculty and potential of the vital energy in our system and in our mind.

In the USA we treated mental patients through yoga. We taught pranayama to depressed patients to stimulate and make them more extroverted. We simply incorporated the component of yoga along with their regular therapy. We taught hyperactive patients a set of pranayamas which helped to reduce the hyperactivity of the prana by balancing their energy. It was an eye-opener for us as well as for the researchers. It became a very effective therapy for the management of mental, psychological and psychiatric problems.

Pranayama is a very important practice of yoga. Incorporate asana, pranayama, relaxation, yoga nidra and the two practices of concentration, trataka and ajapa japa, your routine. You will develop the ability to manage each and every kind of stress possible in the world. You will develop the ability to maintain health in the most adverse conditions you might encounter. And you will have the strength to experience your own inner power in the most demanding situations the world can throw at you. That is the application of yoga in our lives.