(First published 6/9/09)
“The practice of asanas and pranayama is not only the most effective, but also the most natural therapy for stress,” says yoga master BKS Iyengar.
Stress has been with us since the beginning of civilisation. Our ancestors might have had different pressures and worries to deal with, but the inner turmoil they experienced would have been the same as it is for us today. And they would have searched for solutions as we do today.
‘Balance’ is a key word when understanding stress. Or rather it is the lack of balance that reveals the causes of stress.
‘Reaction’ is also another key word with regards to stress. It is our reaction to stress, or rather improper reaction to stress that can lead to more suffering, anxiety and illness.
Yoga teaches us how to react to stress and restore balance.
Stress leads to a shortening of the breath, an increased heart rate, loss of appetite, headaches, sweating, illness, disease, and so forth.
And at the heart of this stress is usually our mind, which can become tied up in knots over something that is causing the stress.
It is also our senses that are caught up in our drama. Some would argue that, as part of our masochistic tendencies, we actually enjoy stress.
This can vary from subliminal to extreme levels of stress, but we still hold onto our experience however damaging it might be.
It is not that we really want to remain stressed, but we sometimes lack the knowledge of how to get rid of stress or the strength to reduce it. Yoga offers both solutions: a route out of stress and a manual on how to achieve it.
Our mind and our senses are interdependent. The senses are controlled by the mind. So to control the senses we must control the mind.
This can be achieved by relaxing our senses through yoga practice, turning them within, so that we can detach them from the mind – and from the cause of our stress.
When we become calm, with our mind in a meditative state, the senses are under our control. At that point, the outside causes of the stressful experience start to fall away and, hopefully, cease to have an influence upon ourselves.
Yoga is, of course, a gradual process of stress reduction, so do not expect instant results with all types of stress. It depends upon the depth of our practice and also the nature of the stress – a beginner will undoubtedly feel less stressed after the first lesson. We are learning to manage our stress levels and transform their negativity into positivity.
As yoga master BKS Iyengar points out: “The yogis and sages of the past have emphasised that emotional turmoil or anxiety have to be faced with calmness and stability. Yoga can help you to internalise those positive attitudes which allow you to face stressful situations with equanimity.”
While practising asanas and pranayama the five senses of perception that divert the mind to the external environment are drawn inward. When the restless mind is stilled, your entire being becomes calm and steady.
The practice of asanas and pranayama can be varied to deal with different levels of stress: from gentle restorative to energetic exercises, the practice can be tailored to suit your needs.
Your practice can be active, passive or both. For example, the active poses such as standing asanas and back bends help to build up stamina, vitality and flexibility, plus in winter help build up immunity, while reclining asanas and resting asanas slow the metabolism and conserve energy.
As the harmful effects of stress are reduced through yoga practice, your body builds up its resilience and flexibility – in the nerves, organs, senses and mind; creating a healthy mind and body.
As your practice develops, clarity, sense of purpose and self-discipline follow, and this leads a peaceful balanced life, in harmony with your environment – and stress free.