Managing Stress with Yoga

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Intelligence is unique to a human being, and it has to be guided and nur tured. We think of the intellect as a function of the brain, inputting information into our life. What goes into our mind and brain is known as knowledge. Knowledge comes through understanding, experience, study. It remains within us in the form of an impression. However, there comes a time when we are unable to apply that knowledge in our daily life because it has simply remained within us without being actualized.

Wisdom is being able to actualize that knowledge. Applied knowledge is wisdom. The highest form of intellectual expression is wisdom, not bookish knowledge. In times of confusion, we are not able to discriminate between right and wrong, positive and negative, despite knowing what is good and bad. Intellectual confusion and conflict leads to stress and tension, and we are guided by it. Cerebral stress can be seen in those competing in the workplace to get ahead in their careers. A person may be intellectually very sharp, but the cerebral activity can create so much tension that ulcers develop. When we have this kind of block, where does our understanding or knowledge go?

If we look at the heart, at our emotional personality, we find a similar situation. Human beings cannot live without desires, but there comes a time when, in the process of fulfilling our desires, expectations and emotions, there is a block because we are not able to clearly define the path to fulfilment. People talk about falling in love, not rising in love, and this reflects confusion of the heart. Expectations related to our personal life create conflict in the heart leading to emotional distress. Similarly, there is stress in our active life.

When stress accumulates and is not relieved, it becomes distress, which becomes the cause of physical and psychological ailments and problems. Cerebral stress stimulates the centre of the vital force in the body, the abdominal region, manipura chakra, leading to abdominal and digestive problems. Emotional problems affect the respiratory system; for example, emotional suppression can lead to asthma. In the majority of cases, this is the trend. Stress is a must; it should not be avoided. What should be avoided is the negative outcome, which is distress.

Avoiding distress

To manage stress, it is important to confront yourself naturally, to be yourself, to identify not with the situation or the environment but with the source of your being. Human beings interact in two areas: the area of concern and the area of influence. However, we are not able to influence all the areas we are concerned about. For example, if an atomic test is being carried out in the country next door to you, it becomes an area of your concern, but it is not the area of your influence. Generally, we get so caught up in the areas of concern that we forget those areas we can actually influence. This applies to everything in life, from major to minor, from big to small.

We blame the environment, the circumstances, saying that they are beyond our control, and that they affect us. But we have never looked at our own responses, which should be in the area of influence, where we can act. This recognition has to be generated through the process of yoga in which we become aware of ourselves.

When we become aware of our areas of influence, we will find that going through life becomes very smooth and easy, because our area of perception is focused on one little area. There will be less conflict and confusion, and we will gain the ability to manage our responses. Stress remains stress; it does not become distress. Stress becomes a motivating force, without being negative and restrictive. In today’s society this recognition is the beginning of yogic awareness.

Yoga is a vast subject with different traditions, systems and practices. Just as in medical science there are many different branches and forms of specialization, it is the same with yoga. Some people have become experts in the area of the body, in the performance of physical postures only. Others have become experts in the area of meditation only. In the world of yoga today we find groups of people who teach what they know as yoga. But real yoga deals with the integrated development of the human personality, and that is the Bihar or Satyananda Yoga tradition. We do not represent only the physical or mental or spiritual dimension of yoga, but an integrated approach to yoga, which incorporates all the aspects, including how to develop physical well-being.

Yoga and ‘dis-ease’

What we know as ‘disease’ is actually the ‘disturbed ease’ of the body. To experience well-being, the body must be at ease. If the ease is disturbed, that is known as ‘dis-ease’. How many times have you looked at your body in an intimate way, looked at the condition of your body and what it is feeling? We become aware of the body only when there is a problem like backache or high blood pressure. We treat any symptom that manifests with medicine, but we have never tried to treat the cause of the problem. The cause can often be realized once we begin to internalize our attention. Then we realize that tensions and stresses have accumulated over time.

In the 1960s Dr K. K. Datey carried out an experiment at K.E.M. Hospital in Bombay on managing hypertension utilizing shavasana, the pose of deep relaxation. Most of the patients had been under observation for two years while their drug therapy was being stabilized. Any attempts at reducing the drug dosage had led to an increase in blood pressure. After practising shavasana for one month, more than half the patients showed a significant reduction in drug dosage and blood pressure. Of the other half, those with evidence of hardening of the arteries showed no response, demonstrating the importance of early treatment. A significant proportion of the remainder had not done shavasana properly and when they did, they too showed improvement. So, the overall majority showed an improvement in symptoms and a sense of well-being, indicating that the use of relaxation techniques such as shavasana can stabilize high blood pressure and reduce or eliminate drug requirements.

Shavasana is a very simple practice in which you lie down, become aware of the breath, the movement of the abdomen and relax each and every part, joint and muscle of the body. Nervous, emotional and muscular tensions are reduced. Nervous stress is very subtle. Muscular stress is another form of tightness. We sit without knowing there is tension in the shoulders or back. Sometimes the postural condition creates stress. Become aware of it and let it go.

The third stress is cerebral, overworking of the brain. There are four main types of brain waves being generated: beta, alpha, theta and delta. These waves represent the different frequencies of electrical activity inside the brain at the time of action, relaxation and concentration. Beta waves are related to our external activities. When we are driving a car, or riding a bike, or working in the office, beta waves are predominant. Alpha waves are related to a relaxed tension-free state. When we are sitting, with nothing to worry about, sometimes alpha waves come. If we become focused, theta waves become predominant. This is the state of concentration. As you go deeper into states of focused awareness, another frequency is generated which is slower and more introverting, known as delta waves. Cerebral tension is experienced when beta waves become hyperactive and there is no relaxation of this activity. The brain becomes tired and we just want to relax. Sometimes there is also sensitivity to sound, light and touch.

The fourth type of stress is emotional, which can happen due to an underlying thought related with the family, with your security or with fulfilment and satisfaction.

Dr Datey found that all four kinds of stress were balanced by practising shavasana. Once there was a release, there was no need for a hypertense condition to influence the body. This example shows that many problems can be eliminated or avoided by simply deepening awareness of the body. For this reason yoga has been effective in managing many physiological and psychological diseases and problems, because the practices allow the body to move into a state of ease from a state of ‘dis-ease’.

Hatha yoga is commonly identified with the practice of asana and pranayama, but it has a deeper purpose than awareness of the body. Hatha yoga involves balancing, managing and directing the energies that control the body and guide the mind. When we look at our body, we do not see any form of energy except what we experience in the form of muscular vitality or heat. According to yoga, however, there are four more bodies, existing together: the body of matter or physical body (annamaya kosha), the body of energy (pranamaya kosha), the body of mind (manomaya kosha), the body of higher intelligence (vijnanamaya kosha) and the spiritual body (anandamaya kosha). Hatha yoga specifically aims at releasing the blocked physical and mental energies, leading to absolute well-being of the body.

Developing good habits

Another dimension of yoga is providing yourself with positive or good habits. Our life is governed by habits, which can be as simple as smoking or as complicated as a mentality, a belief or a way of looking at things. Habits have a material gross aspect and a subtle internal aspect. Habits are meant to satisfy the needs we feel are important for our fulfilment and happiness. You can develop good habits by recognizing what you require in life. One good habit is knowing how to relax. Another is knowing how to release the accumulated stuff from the mind. Another is becoming self-aware. Another is converting that self-awareness into a process of self-analysis. Another is then knowing through self-analysis the areas in which to improve one’s life.

One simple yoga practice can help to develop such awareness and habits. At night, before you go to sleep, for five minutes review your entire day from the time you woke up to the time you went to bed. Recognize those situations, conditions and people who influenced you in some way, either positively or negatively. If something positive happened, be appreciative of that, but if you encountered problems and conflicts in some situations or interactions, ask yourself: “If I encounter the same situation again is there any way I could handle it differently?” Try to find a better way of dealing with it. Make an intelligent choice because there are no simple solutions in life. It is up to us to choose the right ones.

Becoming a positive human being

Through this daily process of self-reflection and self-analysis, you will find that your interactions, responses, perceptions and wisdom improve. You will become more connected with the positive rather than the restrictive, negative you. Yoga is not only a physical or a meditative practice, it is an effort to realize, to transform and to change. If you can do this for one month, you will become a yogi. A yogi is one who lives yoga every moment with awareness and clarity, with optimism and positivity, using the qualities that are present in all individual beings. Some people think that yoga ends with the awakening of kundalini. However, rather than awakening the kundalini, there is more use in becoming a positive human being, with optimism and greater clarity and wisdom.

The purpose of yoga has always been to realize the nature of body, mind and spirit, to connect with ourselves, with our environment and with humanity of which we are a part. Start this process by learning how to be serene and regular. Self-discipline and self-control leading to a developed personality is the purpose of yoga. Some people may think that is too difficult, but you will find freedom in discipline and the moment you do, you will have fulfilled and lived yoga.

Let us make an attempt to walk the path together, supporting, encouraging and guiding each other with sincerity, simplicity, affection and compassion. If we are able to take this first step, there will be no stopping us.

Barcelona, Spain, May 2001