Most of us experience stress in our day to day life. It has become one of the biggest problems for us; more dangerous than cancer! Stress is adversely affecting everything; our working capacity, relations, physical and mental health. Stress has become one of the important factors in reducing our lifespan. Let us explore how Yoga and some of the natural Yogic ways can help us address this subtle yet daunting disease?
चिंतायाश्च चितायाश्च बिन्दुमात्रं विशिष्यते |
चिता दहति निर्जीवं चिन्ता दहति जीवनम् ||
ciṃtāyāśca citāyāśca bindumātraṃ viśiṣyate
citā dahati nirjīvaṃ cintā dahati jīvanam
In Sanskrit, there is only one difference in the spelling of the words चिंता (stress) and चिता (funeral pyre); just an extra dot. The pyre burns the dead body, and stress burns down the whole life!
चिंता और चिता इन शब्दों में केवल एक बिन्दु का फ़र्क है | किंतु चिता निर्जीव शरीर को जलाती है, और चिंता जीवन को ही जलाती है |
This verse perfectly defines the effects of stress on our life.
What is stress exactly?
Stress is defined as the state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. Stress is basically a physiological and psychological response to an event that upsets our personal balance in some way.
When one experiences a threat, physically or emotionally; the body’s defenses start working for the rapid response to that threat; known as fight or flight response.
How stress changes your body?
Many changes take place in our body in this process. When the threat is sensed, a small part of the brain called the hypothalamus sets off a chemical alarm, and stress hormone is secreted. It makes the person ready for the response to the threat. The response can be of fight or flight.
During this process, all the energy in the body is used for reducing the reaction time for the response. At the same time, body processes not essential for immediate survival; such as the digestive system or reproductive system slow down.
This happens when a physical threat is there. Nowadays, most of the people experience the threat to emotional balance, rather than a physical one. There are many reasons for this; such as small things like an argument with a friend or family member, monthly bills, traffic jam, etc.; or big things like an accident, death of loved one, etc. These are the main causes of stress.
The problem with the stress response is that, the more it is activated, it becomes harder to shut off. Instead of levelling once the threat is passed; the stress hormones, heart rate, blood pressure remain elevated.
Moreover, extended or repeated activation of stress response affects physical health adversely. It increases the risk of everything right from heart disease, obesity, depression, memory problems, etc. It has a strong impact on our physical, as well as mental health. Here are some of the effects of stress, according to this study
Effects on the body
Headaches or backaches, muscle tension, and stiffness, diarrhea or constipation, nausea, chest pain, rapid heart rate, weight gain or loss, frequent colds, etc.
Effects on cognition
Memory problems, indecisiveness, inability to concentrate, seeing only the negative, constant worrying, poor judgment, etc.
Effects on emotional health
Moodiness, agitation, restlessness, short temper, irritability, impatience, inability to relax, sense of loneliness or isolation, depression, in general unhappiness, etc.
Effects on behavior
Eating more or less, too much or too little sleep, using alcohol, cigarettes or drugs to relax, nervous habits like nail biting, overdoing activities (exercise or shopping, etc.)
In this way, stress has serious effects on our health in all aspects. Therefore, it is very important to manage stress and deal with it in a more positive way and reduce its impact on our lives.
How to reduce stress using Yoga?
There are many ways to deal with stress. But, our rich culture gives us a simple and cost-effective way! And that way is Yoga. Yoga is useful for us in many ways and is also a very effective stress-buster.
If all the causes of stress are observed carefully, the common thing among them is a disturbance. The threat may be physical or emotional, it disturbs the stability of mind which is the basic cause of stress.
For example, when you throw a stone in the still water of a lake, its stability is lost and is regained after some time. Similarly, when a threat is experienced, the stability of the mind is disturbed. And it leads to stress if the threat is major, or repeated.
Yoga helps in increasing stability, as well as the strength of the mind; which is beneficial in dealing with the stress.
The definition of the word yoga is, युज्यते इति योगः | (The one which unites, is Yoga). Yoga is the union of mind, body, and the spirit. This union is achieved through eight steps, which are called Angas (limbs) of Yoga.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras 2.29
तत्र प्रत्ययैकतानता ध्यानम् | (पातञ्जलयोगसूत्र – ३.२)
tatra pratyayaikatānatā dhyānam | (pātañjalayogasūtra – 3.2)
जिस स्थान पर चित्त को स्थिर किया है, वही स्थान चित्त में अनेक क्षण कायम रहने का अर्थ ध्यान है|
Anga 8 – Samādhī (Deeper concentration)
तदेवार्थमात्रनिर्भासं स्वरूपशून्यमिव समाधिः | (पातञ्जलयोगसूत्र – ३.३)
tadevārthamātranirbhāsaṃ svarūpaśūnyamiva samādhiḥ | (pātañjalayogasūtra – 3.3)
जिस स्थान पर चित्त स्थिर किया है, वह स्थान अर्थरूपसे भासमान होना, और उसके स्वरुप का भी ज्ञान न होना, इस अवस्था को समाधी कहते हैं |
When only the essence of that object on which the mind is concentrated, appears before the mind; and the appearance is devoid of its form, then that state is called deep concentration (Samādhī).
Which Angas (aspects of Yoga) should you focus on?
Among these eight, the Āsana, Prāņāyāma, and Dhyāna are most practiced ones. They mainly focus on the physical body and mind. This physical activity helps us in relieving stress. Because of the concentration required, our small-large troubles tend to melt away when you practice yoga Yoga.
When one concentrates intensely on what the body is doing, brings calmness to the mind. The meditation techniques in Yoga increases the concentration on one thing. It helps in disengagement from the thoughts, which makes the mind calm, thereby reducing the stress. It also increases your productivity
How do Āsanas (Yogic postures) help reduce stress?
The Āsanas, or Yogic postures; are useful in the reduction of stress. these postures work mainly on the brain and nerve connections. There are two functional parts of the brain which are involved in the process of stress. One of them is ‘emotional’ part; which serves the emotional function of the brain. Another one is a ‘logical’ part; which serves the cognitive function.
The emotional part is able to initiate the stress response, while the logical part always tries to turn off the stress response. it also tries to restrain the emotional part of the brain. When the stress response is turned off, the signals from the part of the nervous system which conserves energy and helps in increasing normal body functions (parasympathetic nervous system); are activated. These signals help in relaxing the body.
The stress response and relaxing signals travel through the body along a particular path. There are some switch -like structures along this path, which are located in the neck.
Every time one holds a posture, the logical brain is activated. Also, the movements involved in the postures cause the relaxation signals to turn on. This ‘stress circuit’ gets trained when these postures are practiced regularly for a longer period of time. This helps in the reduction of stress.
Which Āsanas will help in reducing stress?
Here are some of the easy-to-do Āsanas that can greatly help you in reducing stress. SavĀsana, MakarĀsana, VajrĀsana, BhujangĀsana, TrikonĀsana, VirabhadrĀsana, PadmĀsana, etc.
MakarĀsana or the crocodile pose (5 – 7 mins a day)
VajrĀsana or the diamond pose (2 -3 mins a day)
BhujangĀsana or the cobra pose (4 -5 mins a day)
TrikonĀsana or the triangle pose (2 -3 mins a day)
SavĀsana or the corpse pose (8 -10 mins a day)
Similar changes take place in the body in case of yogic deep breathing and meditation. When these are practiced properly for a long period of time, they lead to the optimum functioning of the nervous system. It helps not only in reducing stress but also in the development of hidden mental energies which are latent in all individuals. In this way, Pranayamas like Anuloma-Viloma or long breathing can make one stress-free.
Hence, such techniques are being used by many Japanese and American companies to improve the productivity of their employees.
With this, the Bhagavad Gītā uses the word ‘Yoga’ in many different ways. In the second chapter of Gītā, Lord Krishna has explained the state of ‘Sthitaprajňa’; the calm or stable person. (Gītā- 2.54 to 2.72). He is the person free from all the mental conflicts, and unaffected by whatever happens around him. That is the highest degree of calmness and a stress-free mind.
To attain that stage, Gītā states three prominent ways, namely Jňanayoga, Karmayoga, and Bhakti yoga. Jňanayoga means, attaining stability through the knowledge of the ultimate spirit; Karmayoga means, attaining the stability through desire-free actions; and Bhaktiyoga means, attaining stability through implicit faith in the divinity.
Gītā gives some different definitions of Yoga such as, समत्त्वं योग उच्यते | (samattvaṃ yoga ucyate) which means the feeling of equality between accomplishment and non-accomplishment of any action is known as Yoga.