Yoga and Stress Yoga minimizes the impact of stress on the individual. Yogic science believes that the regular practice of asanas and pranayama strengthens the nervous system and helps people face stressful situations positively.
We have all experienced the way unrelieved tension results in both mental disorders and physical ill-health. This is not a modern phenomenon. In the centuries-old Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali attributed the causes of mental affliction to the ego, spiritual ignorance, desire, hatred of others, and attachment to life. He called these kleshas or “sorrows”.
Origins of stress Through advances in science and technology, modern civilization has been able to conquer ignorance in many fields, but its pride in technological achievement is excessive and misplaced. It has triggered widespread feelings of competitiveness and envy. Financial tensions, emotional upheavals, environmental pollution and, above all, a sense of being overtaken by the speed of events have all increased the stress of daily life.
All these factors strain the body, causing nervous tension, and adversely affecting the mind. This is when feelings of isolation and loneliness take over.
To deal with this, people turn to artificial solutions to cope with the pressures of daily life. Substance abuse, eating disorders, and destructive relationships are some of the substitutes people grasp at in their desperate search for consolation. But while these measures may provide temporary distraction or oblivion, the root cause of unhappiness – stress -remains unresolved.
Yoga is not a miracle cure that can free a person from all stress, but it can help to minimize it. The worries of modern life deplete our reserves of bioenergy, because we draw on our vital energy from the storehouse – the nerve cells. This can, ultimately, exhaust our energy reserves and lead to the collapse of mental and physical equilibrium. Yogic science believes that the nerves control the unconscious mind, and that when the nervous system is strong, a person faces stressful situations more positively. Asanas improve blood flow to all the cells of the body, revitalizing the nerve cells. This flow strengthens the nervous system and its capacity for enduring stress.
Relieving stress The diaphragm, according to yogic science, is the seat of the intelligence of the heart and the window to the soul. During stressful situations, however, when you inhale and exhale, the diaphragm becomes too taut to alter its shape. Yogic exercises address this problem by developing elasticity in the diaphragm, so that, when stretched, it can handle any amount of stress, whether intellectual, emotional, or physical.
The practice of asanas and pranayama helps to integrate the body, breath, mind, and intellect. Slow, effortless exhalation during the practice of an asana brings serenity to the body cells, relaxes the facial muscles, and releases all tension from the organs of perception: the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin.
When this happens, the brain, which is in constant communication with the organs of action, becomes shunya, or void, and all thoughts are stilled. Then, invading fears and anxieties cannot penetrate the brain. When you develop this ability, you perform your daily activities with efficiency and economy. You do not dissipate your valuable bioenergy. You enter the state of true clarity of intellect. Your mind is free of stress and is filled with calm and tranquility.
Yoga and Fitness Most types of exercise are competitive. Yoga, although non-competitive, is nevertheless challenging. The challenge is to one’s own willpower. It is a competition between one’s self and one’s body.
Exercise usually involves quick and forceful body movements. It has repeated actions that often lead to exertion, tension, and fatigue. Yoga asanas, on the other hand, involve movements that bring stability to the body, the senses, the mind, the intellect, the consciousness, and finally, to the conscience. The very essence of an asana is steady movement, a process that does not simply end, but finds fulfilment in tranquility.
Most diseases are caused by the fluctuations in the brain and in the behavioral pattern of the body. In yogic practice, the brain is quietened, the senses are stilled, and perceptions are altered, all generating a calm feeling of detachment. With practice, the student of yoga learns to treat the brain as an object and the body as a subject. Energy is diffused from the brain to the other parts of the body. The brain and the body then work together and energy is evenly balanced between the two. Yoga is thus termed sarvanga sadhana or “holistic practice”. No other form of exercise so completely involves the mind and self with the body, resulting in all-round development and harmony. Other forms of exercise address only particular parts of the body. Such forms are termed angabhaga sadhana or “physical exercise”.
Stimulative exercise Yoga asanas are stimulative exercises, while other endurance exercises are irritative. For instance, medical experts claim that jogging stimulates the heart. In fact, though the heartbeat of the jogger increases, the heart is not stimulated in the yogic sense of being energized and invigorated. In yoga, back bends, for example, are more physically demanding than jogging, but the heart beats at a steady, rhythmic pace.
Asanas do not lead to breathlessness. When practicing yoga, strength and power play separate roles to achieve a perfect balance in every part of the body as well as the mind. After such stimulating exercise, a sense of rejuvenation and a fresh surge of energy follow.
Exercise can also be exhausting. Many forms of exercise require physical strength and endurance, and can lead to a feeling of fatigue after 10-15 minutes of practice. Many such exercises improve energy levels by boosting nerve function, but ultimately, this exhausts the cellular reserves and the endocrine glands. Cellular toxins increase, and though circulation is enhanced, it is at the cost of irritating the other body systems and increasing the pulse rate and blood pressure. Ultimately, the heart is taxed and overworked.
An athlete’s strong lung capacity is achieved by hard and forceful usage, which is not conducive to preserving the health of the lungs. Furthermore, ordinary physical exercise, such as jogging, tennis, or football, lends itself to repetitive injuries of the bones, joints, and ligaments.
Such forms of exercise work with – and for – the skeletal and muscular systems. They cannot penetrate beyond these limits. But asanas penetrate each layer of the body and, ultimately, the consciousness itself. Only in yoga can you keep both the body and the mind relaxed, even as you stretch, extend, rotate, and flex your body.
Yoga, unlike other forms of exercise, keeps the nervous system elastic and capable of bearing stress. Although all forms of exercise bring about a feeling of well-being, they also stress the body. Yoga refreshes the body, while other systems exhaust it. Yoga involves the equal exertion of all parts of the body and does not overstrain any one part.
In other forms of exercise, the movements are restricted to a part or parts. They are reflex actions, which do not involve the intelligence in their execution. There is little space for precision and perfection, without extra expenditure of energy.
Yoga can be practiced at any age With advancing age, physically vigorous exercises cannot be performed easily because of stiffening joints and muscles that have lost tone. Isometric exercises, for example, cannot be practiced with increasing age, as they lead to sprained muscles, painful joints, strained body systems, and the degeneration of organs. The great advantage of yoga is that it can be practiced by anyone, irrespective of age, sex, and physical condition.
In fact, yoga is particularly beneficial in middle age and after. Yoga is a gift to older people when the recuperative power of the body is declining and resistance to illness is weakened. Yoga generates energy and does not dissipate it. With yoga one can look forward to a satisfying, healthier future, rather than reflecting on one’s youthful past.
Unlike other exercises, yoga results in the concentration of immunity cells in areas affected by disease, and thus improves immunity. That is why the ancient sages called yoga a therapeutic as well as a preventive science.