Stress and the Modern Man

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Today stress is considered as being one of the prime causes of disease. A great deal of research has been done on this subject by scientists throughout the world and they have concluded that tension, anxiety and disturbed mental conditions can cause serious physical ailments.

There is a long list of diseases, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases and asthma, which are known as stress-born diseases. Today 89% of all the ailments are stress-born. Science is beginning to relate psychological behaviour to these stress conditions, and therefore, it is necessary to study what stress is, and how it can affect the various aspects of human life. In order to do this one has to understand the nature and origin of stress.

One of the most important factors that can be concluded from our studies, of ancient yogic literature and modern scientific texts, is that there is not one but hundreds of causes of stress. There are doomsday prophecies and these prophecies are pessimistic. Does that not cause stress? It may not consciously cause stress, but it does cause stress in the unconscious mind.

Psychology maintains that when one suppresses the experiences, they recede into the unconscious and emerge in the form of nightmares. Whatever stress one experiences in the family, society or life, can be accumulated in any part of the mind. Sometimes the stress is conscious, sometimes it is subconscious and many times it is unconscious.

Stress which affects the conscious mind is not dangerous. Stress that is stored in the subconscious mind comes out in the form of dreams. However, the stress which is unknown, which one does not understand, goes into the unconscious mind and can create havoc in the body, mind, emotions and personality.

Stress, however, is not a surprise condition of the mind; it comes through a particular mechanism. Stress arises out of tension which is a condition of the nervous system. This tension created in the nervous system finally travels to every atom and particle of the body.

Three kinds of tension

According to yogic philosophy and modern psychology, there are three kinds of tension. These three typical tensions can be classified as muscular, mental and emotional. The threefold tension originates in the physical and mental structure and affects all other systems of the body. People have experienced that whenever they are under tension they make a lot of mistakes. This happens due to an imbalance in the nervous system which causes erratic behaviour.

As tension ultimately culminates in stress, it is important to understand these three kinds of tensions. Muscular tension is caused by overly critical actions. The physical body has limited resources of energy and when people work exceedingly hard, this energy is diminished. They are then compelled to balance this decrease in energy by an extra intake of food or medicine to accelerate or accentuate the energy for overworking. For example, sportsmen require a great deal of energy to combat the strain of overusing their bodies. They are given hormones and drugs in order to maintain a regular flow of energy in the body. These physical or muscular tensions are not serious or difficult to eliminate. With adequate rest and proper diet they can eventually be worked out.

The next form of tension is called mental tension, and most people in the world are suffering from it. They do not allow the mind to rest. The mind is always engaged in thoughts, and this over-thinking causes mental tension. Excessive thinking leads to confusion in the mind, which results in further tension. As a result there is loss of memory and if mental tensions become acute, one cannot make accurate judgements, thus causing many disasters in life.

It is a well-known fact that the senses, mind, brain and nervous system are interconnected. The five senses are intimately connected to the brain and mind, as well as the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Therefore, any perception and cognition that takes place in the mind involves the nervous system, the five senses and the brain.

Every process of thinking is responsible for producing some type of secretion or hormone in the body from the endocrinal system. When one thinks of fear, anger or any strong emotion, the adrenal glands begin to secret potent hormones, such as adrenalin. Thoughts should not be considered as mere psychological action. Every thought is psychological, but it also produces a physiological effect on the body. It can accelerate and excite the adrenal glands; it can create hyperactivity; it can cause an increase in the respiratory rate of the body; it can excite the kidneys and bladder. This is what scientists are saying and one may testify it from personal experience.

The third type of tension is emotional tension. Man is perhaps the only living creature that has emotional tensions, and these arise from the relationship with people, objects and events. When people have a certain philosophy, and most human beings are philosophical, they begin to relate themselves to people, objects and events in life. These relationships develop on the basis of raga and dwesha, likes and dislikes. For example, one relates to a person because one either likes or dislikes him. Similarly, one relates oneself with events or objects on the basis of personal likes, dislikes and attachments.

As a human being, one is emotionally interacting with each and every thing around, but everything is not according to one's wish. When something happens according to one's wish, there is positive emotional tension and when something happens against one's wish, it creates a negative emotional tension.

These emotional tensions can eventually cause peptic ulcer, asthma, heart attack, or even mental insanity. They can make one a sinner or a saint. They can make one violent or they can simply transform a person into a selfless servant of humanity. Emotional tension is a powerful factor in human life and one must not underestimate it. These threefold tensions cause stress which eventually spreads throughout the body and mind, passing through physical, pranic and mental channels.

Fields of energy in the body

According to hatha yoga, there are two forces in this physical body known as ida and pingala. They represent the sun and moon, Shiva and Shakti or consciousness and life. These two channels flow throughout the body and in modern scientific terms, they are known as the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Ida carries the force responsible for thinking and mental activities; pingala carries the force representing prana or vital action. These two forces are spread throughout the body, but the main channel flows within the spine intersecting at four main junctions or chakras.

These chakras are vortexes of energy or prana and the first of these four junctions is the swadhisthana chakra which corresponds with the sacral plexus. The second is the manipura chakra or solar plexus, the third is the anahata chakra or cardiac plexus and the fourth is vishuddhi chakra or cervical plexus. From these four junctions thousands of channels carry prana and consciousness throughout each and every part of the body. In hatha yoga it is said that 72,000 channels carry pranic and mental force in the body. Modern science speaks almost the same language.

Besides these four junctions, there is a point where these two forces of prana and consciousness originate and another where they terminate. In hatha yoga the point of origin of these two forces is known as mooladhara chakra or the coccygeal plexus, and the terminating point is known as ajna chakra or the medulla oblongata in the brain. These two points where the two forces originate and terminate are most important for the awakening and sublimation of this energy.

Hatha yoga claims that in order to create harmony and eliminate stress, these two forces are to be harmonized. It is when there is no harmony between these two forces that the problems begin. The balance can be created through the hatha yoga kriyas such as asana, pranayama and trataka. In Hatha Yoga Pradipika, an authoritative text on hatha yoga, it is said that the forces of the mind and prana, or ida and pingala, are so intimately connected with each other that control of one spontaneously leads to the control of the other. As the prana can be controlled through the breath, hatha yogis use the practice of pranayama to induce a tranquil state of mind.

Kleshas: a source of stress

Whereas hatha yoga talks of control of prana, the system of raja yoga, which is a more advanced yoga, advocates direct control of the forces of the mind. In the Yoga Sutras of Sage Patanjali it is mentioned that the mind is governed by five kinds of kleshas or afflictions: ignorance, ego, attraction, aversion and attachment to life, which are responsible for all anxieties. The purpose or aim of raja yoga is to control the mind so that these kleshas are controlled.

The entire system of yoga and tantra deals with the elimination of stress, either as a by-product of yogic practices, or as a preliminary requisite for more advanced practices.

Raja yoga says "control the mind" and thereby the pranas are controlled. This creates a balance between the two forces of ida and pingala. Hatha yoga says "control the prana" and thereby the mind is stilled.

However, in tantra there is a different approach altogether. Tantra says "Do not try to control the negative forces of the mind." Instead it prescribes such practices as kriya yoga, ajapa japa and yoga nidra, which induce a state of tranquillity in the practitioner without directly confronting the mind. Out of these, the practice of yoga nidra stands out as a powerful method for eliminating stress and tension in the individual.

Research on yoga nidra

A lot of research has been done in America and India on the effects of yoga nidra in conditions of stress and tension. It has been found that during stress periods the body secretes various types of hormones. These secretions belong to intricate systems of the endocrine glands. As a result of this endocrine secretion, various changes take place in the body, resulting in stress, which in turn alters the characteristic patterns of the brainwaves. The brain has a definite pattern of energy frequencies which are known as alpha, delta, beta and theta waves.

Each and every brainwave has a direct effect on the body and particularly on the heart. It has been found that the endocrinal secretions, respiratory rate, cardiac activity and other functions of the body alter, and have a different behaviour under each of these four brainwaves. For example, when delta waves are predominant in the brain, the rate of respiration decreases and the cardiovascular reactions, such as heart rate and blood pressure, slow down. At that time the body is found to consume less oxygen.

Alternatively when theta or beta waves are predominant in the brain, the body consumes a lot of oxygen. At that time the heart and cardiovascular system are under excitement and agitation. When alpha waves are predominant, there is a state of balance in the oxygen consumption by the body tissues. It is a state of physiological relaxation. Not only the consumption of oxygen but the metabolic and respiratory rates are also stabilized. As a result of this the pressure on the heart and the workload upon the heart is diminished. Therefore, it has been found that in order to decrease the cardiovascular tension, it is important that the patient should develop alpha waves in the brain.

The science of yoga nidra is systematic; there is no hypnosis and no sleeping. During the practice one has to maintain consciousness or inner awareness throughout. In that state of heightened inner awareness the brainwaves develop alpha patterns.

Elimination of samskaras

Elimination of tension is not such a simple matter. There is yet another problem which has not been solved. Hidden deep within the recesses of the mind are the samskaras or archetypes which influence the emotions, personality and life of each and every individual. Problems arise from this inner store of experiences. Happiness and unhappiness lie deep within and these experiences are stored in the form of samskaras. They are accumulated in the form of particles. From particles they become waves of energy and these waves develop into a force which later emerges as an experience. The experience of happiness or unhappiness arises in the form of a wave that is born of one particle. That particle is known as a samskara or archetype.

There is another name for it and that is karma. These archetypes collectively form the karma of an individual. It is on account of them that the mind, emotions and personality are formed. If one suffers in life, it is on account of the deep-rooted karma; or if one happens to enjoy life, it is also on account of karma. Now how is one going to deal with karma?

Karma cannot be dealt with by a rational process such as psychoanalysis or psychiatric treatment, rather it has to be understood as a subtle force underlying each and every action or event that one encounters. It has been found that the practice of concentration on a symbol is effective in purging out these archetypes from the unconscious mind. In yoga the practice of concentration is known as trataka, and should be done prior to the practice of yoga nidra.

When one practises trataka on a symbol, these particles or samskaras in the brain are stimulated. There are hundreds of symbols prescribed in yoga and tantra, out of which some are considered more powerful than others. For example, concentration on a yantra or mandala is powerful depending on the quality of the yantra or mandala. Trataka done on the kali yantra or mandala will bring out repressions more quickly, often in the form of nightmarish experiences. Concentration on different yantras and mandalas brings out a different quantity and quality of repressions. These repressions can be experienced in dreams, or in the state of meditation, and it means that everything is being flushed out. Therefore, side by side with yoga nidra, concentration should be taught, according to the quality and resistance of the aspirant.

The people of ancient Greece and Egypt had several different mandalas, but they have long been forgotten, for the West has turned its back on them. They were wrongly misinterpreted as forms of gods and goddesses, instead of being related to human consciousness and psychology. If the conditions of stress and tension are to be eliminated systematically and scientifically, these ancient mandalas will have to be revived and used as a treatment for the deep-rooted ailments of the human mind.

In the final analysis, it has to be understood that the cause of stress can be related to several factors, some external, others purely internal. Whatever the cause may be, yoga has given us an answer by showing us an effective way to eliminate stress, not through drugs or psychoanalysis, but through a profound and accurate understanding of the human body and mind.

24 May 1984, I1 Ciocco, Italy, printed in YOGA, Year 2, No. 5 (September 1991)