Stress, long considered alien to the Indian lifestyle, is now a major risk factor for various cardiac and non-cardiac ailments. The victims are not just high-pressured executives but also slum dwellers, working women, businessmen, professionals and even children. With the fast pace of modern life, stress-related disorders such as heart attacks, peptic ulcers, arthritis, allergies, sexual problems, bowel disorders and so on are greatly on the increase.
People across the country are in search of measures to cope with this menace. That is why more and more stress management workshops are being organized for executives, yoga and meditation centres are mushrooming and the demand for anxiolytic and antidepressant drugs has been escalating.
Selye and Levi have defined stress as a non-specific, conventional phytogenetic basic response pattern, the primary function of which is to prepare the body for physical activity such as fight or flight (this is eustress). If, however, the subject lacks the means of resorting either to fight or flight, i.e. of relieving the stress reaction, eustress develops into distress, which manifests in the form of psychosomatic symptoms or disorders. There are two types of stress as distinguished by Selye and Levi: eustress (healthy, essential stress) and distress (morbid stress), e.g. mental or physical strain, anger, frustration, tension, all seemingly without hope.
The causes of stress may be (a) physical: accidents, burns, major surgery, infections; (b) psychological: conflicts, wrong notions, doubts; and (c) emotional: fear, anxiety, hate, greed, anger. Irrespective of the cause, the effects of stress are seen at the highest level in the brain and travel down the body causing imbalances in the autonomic nervous system and in the endocrine system.
Stress hazards decrease the quality of life and can lead to many ailments. Four distinct stress attack stages or phases are recognized: psychic, psychosomatic, somatic and organic. Anxiolytic/antidepressant drugs are available to treat the somatic and organic phases of stress, while yoga is most useful in controlling and treating the psychic and psychosomatic phases, thereby nipping the cause in the bud in the early stages.
The basic aim of the yogic approach towards stress is not to deal with the manifest symptoms (like fear, anger, palpitation, sleeplessness, etc.) but rather to eliminate the root cause. According to yoga, stress is an imbalance at the mental, physical or emotional level. Stress is not the cause of our ills; the cause is our inability to cope with a changing condition.
What is the key here? Do we need to fight a stressful situation or do we need to develop and enhance our potential and capacity to cope with the situation? The reason why various stress management programs do not bring any lasting relief from the burden of stress is because their approach is to counteract the external influences, whereas the actual cause is internal. Stress management can be achieved by making attitudinal changes and other modifications in life.
Yogic methods of stress management include maintaining the physical body through the practice of asana, awakening the vital energy through pranayama and relaxation through yoga nidra.
Yoga balances, harmonizes, and brings integration between physical and mental health. The definition of asana, in traditional texts, is 'Sthiram sukham asanam'. The word sthiram means homeostasis, balance; sukham means pleasure; and asanam means physical posture. It is the posture that produces homeostasis in the system restores endocrinal balance, balances the inhibitors and stimulator circuits, regulates secretions and optimizes the functions of the entire system of the body. 'Sukham' also relates to the state of mind, which is relaxed. Muscles contain stretch receptors; the stretching movements of asanas send relaxing impulses to the brain, which induce a relaxed state of mind.
When we stand or sit for prolonged periods in chairs, our muscles accumulate stress and consequently lactic acid, which causes a feeling of stiffness when we wake up in the morning. To remove this stiffness the practice of simple asanas like tadasana, tiryaka tadasana, kati chakrasana, and pawanmuktasana part I are very useful. These postures stretch the muscles and massage the joints. As a result circulation improves and toxins are drained away. Thus asanas activate, tone and revitalize the organs, massage the joints, stretch and relax the muscles, optimize endocrine gland secretions, develop stamina and promote internal awareness. Concentration, awareness and relaxation are integral parts of performing asanas. Asanas are not just mechanical performances.
Pranayama is generally defined as breath control. Although this interpretation may seem correct in view of the practices involved, it does not convey the full meaning of the term. The word pranayama is comprised of two roots: 'prana' plus 'ayama'. Prana means 'vital force' or 'life force' and ayama is defined as 'extension' or 'expansion'. Thus, the word pranayama means 'extension or expansion of the dimension of prana'. The techniques of pranayama provide the method whereby flow of prana in the nadis is regulated, activated and purified, inducing physical and mental stability.
Physical activities such as exercise, work, sleep, intake of food and sexual relations all affect the distribution and flow of prana in the body. Faculties of mind such as emotion, thought and imagination affect the pranic body even more. Irregularities in lifestyle, dietary indiscretions and stress deplete and obstruct the pranic flow. This results in what people experience as being drained of energy. Depletion of energy in a particular prana leads to the devitalization of the organs and limbs which prana governs and ultimately to disease or metabolic dysfunction. The techniques of pranayama reverse this process, energizing and balancing the different pranas within the pranamaya kosha. Pranayama practices should be performed after asana.
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 and objects and experiences. Yoga aims to achieve and maintain clarity of mind and awareness (sajagata). When we attain this awareness then naturally existing turbulences and distractions will settle down. In yoga, the experience of relaxation means moving from outside to inside, becoming aware of this introversion and maintaining balance and stability. Psychology indicates that activity and stimulation is the nature of the mind. Relaxing the disturbed, agitated mind can be achieved through the relaxation practice of yoga nidra.
It is therefore evident from the above discussion that asanas relax the body and mind, and through meditation (yoga nidra) one attains relaxation, concentration and awareness.
In 1988 a study was carried out at Charing Cross Medical School, London, by Dr A. K. Ghosh (Swami Mangaltirtham Saraswati), which showed that meditation (especially yoga nidra) can modify stress-induced EEG patterns and bring about progressive and systematic relaxation by inducing a high degree of alpha brain wave rhythms. Yoga nidra has the capacity to induce deep sleep in only twenty minutes.
Change in attitude and modification of lifestyle are the two pillars on which the management of stress through yoga is based. Attitude change can be achieved by developing positive attitudes. This is explained in yogic literature on the basis of asakti (attachment), anasakti (non-attachment) and vairagya (detachment).
Asakti literally means attraction with expectation and ego involvement towards certain individuals or objects. This leads to raga (attraction), dwesha (repulsion) and ahamkara (ego involvement), which often manifests as insecurity, aggression, a high need for recognition, possessiveness and anxiety. As a result, a person high in asakti often suffers from frustration, tension, psychological stress and other neurotic tendencies. On the other hand, vairagya is the height of the nivritti way of life. It means detachment or non-dependence on worldly material things and personalized relationships. This is very difficult for the average householder to achieve. Devoted saints and seers may be able to achieve vairagya. However, for most people, who live normal social and family lives, anasakti (non-attachment) is the middle path which may be followed in order to improve the quality of life and social well-being. This provides lasting happiness and peace without being disturbed by asakti (attachment).
A person high in anasakti performs all his duties and acts with a sense of responsibility and task involvement without any additional expectation. He performs a task or serves a person or institution in the spirit of a karma yogi. Similarly, he does not decry any material benefit or support such as a good house, furniture or conveyance, yet he is not attached to these conveniences. Living in an air-conditioned house with modern amenities or in a mud house on a mat does not make any difference to him. He feels happy and satisfied in either condition. It is therefore evident that by practising anasakti (non-attachment) no stressful situation will harm or affect any individual. Probably this is the best way to remain calm, contented and happy.
Living according to the laws of the body and the laws of nature is the concept of yogic lifestyle. This includes diet, sleep, relaxation, exercise and a daily work schedule. The best way to learn the yogic lifestyle is to spend a few days in a yogashram. Yogic lifestyle does not mean just adding the practice of a few asanas and/or pranayama to one's daily schedule of activities. It actually means living a self-disciplined life of anasakti.
Short sessions of twenty minutes each, after one's bath in the morning, in the afternoon and at bedtime can be devoted to yoga practice. The effect of yoga is never evident immediately, rather it is experienced slowly. Slowly one will start to experience that one's power of concentration and relaxation has increased. The mental and emotional tensions that are generated in day to day life slowly start settling down. It is here that yoga begins. Yoga does not begin by standing upside down or by wearing geru clothes. Yoga begins by becoming self-aware (sajagata).
According to yoga one becomes a victim of stress not on account of a stressful situation but on account of one's inability to cope with it. Do not fight stress and in the effort fall prey to alcohol, cigarettes or anxiolytic drugs, rather develop and enhance your potential and capacity to cope with stress. Learn to alter your attitude and lifestyle. Practise asana, pranayama and yoga nidra regularly to bring about a change in attitude and to correct imbalances at the mental, physical and emotional levels. Anxiolytic/antidepressant drugs do not bring lasting relief, they only help manage some of the somatic and organic phase symptoms of stress, while yoga is most useful in controlling and treating stress in the early psychic and psychosomatic phases.