By Susanna Kilty
Why is it that as technology and its instant access progresses at an epic pace, people find that they have less time than ever before? In a society rampant with multi-taskers, plugged into digital gadgets 24/7, living a fragmented life of instant gratification, communication, and consumption, is it any wonder that stress-related disorders are more prevalent than ever? With our brains over-crowded, resembling the Buddhist “monkey mind,” and with the instant availability of information at our fingertips, North Americans have become more sedentary than ever. Many suffer from the fatigue and imbalance that comes from chronic stress without sufficient recovery. In fact, as reported in an article by Michelle Trantina, 70-90% of all visits to practical physicians are due to stress related problems. In our quick-fix society, a visit to the doctor and a fix of anti-depressants or sleeping pills prove to be the solution for many. As the general public searches for answers of their own to decrease stress in their lives, they often seek out Yoga as a natural approach to stress release, and give it a go. People in Yoga practice soon discover the healing benefits of soothing mind and body, initiating the release of a constant state of overdrive.
Brain research, as reported in the work of psychologist and researcher Elizabeth Gould in an article by Jonah Lehrer, scientifically supports the harmful effects stress has on the brain. “From the brain’s perspective, stress is primarily signaled by an increase in the bloodstream of a class of steroid called glucocorticoids, which put the body on a heightened state of alert” (Lehrer 2). Glucocorticoids are toxic for the brain, and when stress becomes chronic, the hippocampus, a part of the brain essential for learning and memory, begins to deteriorate. Although the brain and human body are designed to be able to deal with stress in terms of survival, failure to deal with stress can deplete the prana stores (Vishnu-devananda 200-201) and lead the body into an alarmed state, known as flight or fight (Trantina). Because stress is such a huge part of the lives of North Americans, it is important to look at the impact it can have on people’s lives. The fact that the nervous system is under constant pressure when stress is present leads to the body producing extra stress hormones over an extended period of time. “This can wear out the body’s reserves, leaving us feeling depleted or overwhelmed. Over time the immune system weakens causing illness and fatigue, mood swings, lack of focus, and irritability” (Trantina). Many health problems stem from stress in modern society, including headaches, muscle soreness, migraines, insomnia, poor digestion, weight gain, high blood pressure, and even heart attacks. Stress can be said as one of the main factors in diminishing our quality and enjoyment of life.
In addition to living in a society where people perceive themselves to be busier than ever before, Westerners develop shallow, chest breathing, which also negatively affects health (Hewitt 68). When people begin a Yoga program, they need to learn how to breathe all over again. Deep pranayama breathing is a basic foundation to all Yoga. “Yogic breath control operates at several levels, from the exoteric boosting of vitality and health to esoteric approaches to mystical states of consciousness” (Hewitt 56). Through practice, this deep breathing begins to become habitual for Yoga practitioners, and their minds and bodies function more efficiently, dissolving tension, relaxing mind and body. “Through controlled Yoga breathing you will raise your level of vitality, clarify consciousness, tone your nervous system, brighten your eyes, put bounce in your step, feel light and buoyant, and float along with the flow of life, in harmony with Nature and the Universal Energies” (Hewitt 68). Yogic breath is the pathway to other aspects of Yoga practice, and breath control is so vital to a Yogi’s life as to elicit the philosophy that: “The yogi’s life is not measured by the number of his days but by the number of his breaths” (Iyengar 23). A simple technique that can reduce stress immediately, and be practiced anywhere, is to lengthen out the exhalation or Rechaka in relation to the inhalation or Puraka (Hewitt 72-82), working toward a ratio of 1:2. This in turn will stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which increases relaxation and decreases the ‘fight or flight’ response (McCall).
As newcomers stroll into Yoga classes, often as a way to deal with stress in their lives, they soon experience the benefits of pranayama breathing and stimulation of the central nervous system through asanas. Soon after beginning regular practice, Yoga practitioners report feeling less stressed and more relaxed to the point that any physical ailments connected to their stressful lives dissolve away. “Asana brings steadiness, health and lightness of limb” (Iyengar 20). Programs of asanas are designed to stimulate the central nervous system and work every muscle, organ, nerve and gland in the body, reducing fatigue and calming the nerves. By stimulating the central nervous system and maintaining spinal flexibility through Yogic postures, practitioners experience increased circulation, an increase of the supply of nutrient and oxygen to the nerves, and hence a more youthful body. According to a Chinese proverb: “Truly a flexible back makes a long life” (Vishnu-devananda xi). Asanas awaken key pressure points to increase the flow of energy and massage and stimulate internal organs to have them work more effectively. Heart disease, stroke and respiratory illness are among the leading causes of death in America (“Leading Causes of Death”), and Yogic exercise can help keep arteries clear and the blood flowing efficiently (Visnu-devananda 52).
The Yoga Journal is helpful in outlining many postures that can be presented to the Yoga practitioner as stress relieving. Some postures with the therapeutic benefits of relieving stress include; Savasana or Corpse Pose, Sukhasana or Easy Posture, Marjaryasana or Cat Pose, Bitilasana or Cow Pose, Setu Bandha Sarvangasana or Bridge Pose, Balasana or Child’s Pose, Halasana or Plough Pose, Utthika Trikonasana or Extended Triangle Pose, Uttanasana or Standing Forward Bend, and Salambia Sirsasana or Supported Headstand (“Poses: Therapeutic Focus”). According to the ancient Indian healing system known as Ayurveda, everyday stress can lead to ‘vata derangement,’ an excess of nervous energy (Levy). This imbalance, often caused by stress and stress disorders, call for Yoga practice that is calming and grounding (Halpern 3-4). This includes most of the postures listed above.
Yoga, however, is certainly not limited to breath and posture. Iyengar outlines the eight stages of Yoga as introduced in Patanjali’s work. These are: “1. Yama (universal moral commandments); 2. Niyama (self-purification by discipline); 3. Asana (posture); 4. Pranayama (rhythmic control of the breath) 5. Pratyahara (withdrawal and emancipation of the mind from the domination of the senses and exterior objects); 6. Dharana (concentration); 7. Dhyana (meditation) and 8. Samadhi (a state of superconsciousness brought about by profound meditation, in which the individual spirit (sadhaka) becomes one with the object of his meditation – Paramatma or the Universal Spirit)” (Iyengar 3). The first three stages are the outward quests or bahiranga sadhana which prepare the body for inner quests through moral and clean living, and strengthening and purifying the body through asanas. “He conquers the body and makes it a fit vehicle for the soul” (Iyengar 3). The next two stages, breath control and withdrawal of the senses, help control and clear the mind, and are known as inner quests or antaranga sadhana. The next three stages of Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi represent the quest of the soul or antaratma sadhana (Iyengar 3-31). The Yogi looks within through deep concentration and meditation in order to find God within himself. When Samadhi is achieved through asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana and dhyhana by an individual who lives a yogi lifestyle: “The yogi has departed from the material world and is merged into the Eternal. There is then no duality between the knower and the known for they are merged like camphor and the flame” (Iyengar 31).
For practitioners new to Yoga, the concept of letting go through sense withdrawal, concentration and meditation can be difficult. The mind and external distractions can get in the way of the path to self-realization. One of the most difficult postures for newcomers to Yoga practice is said to be Savasana or Corpse Pose, because it involves relaxing the body and letting go of any tightness anywhere. Relaxation and meditation are often taught in Yoga classes in this posture, and once a practitioner is able to embrace the art of completely relaxing, the mind will follow (Hewitt 227). Practitioners can also be guided to meditation outside of class, whereby they set aside 20 to 30 minutes of uninterrupted time during the day to sit with a long, neutral spine and meditate on an object (Tantra or Yantra Yoga), function (drumming or dancing, for example), or sound (Mantra Yoga) (Jerard). “You can be the creator of your own manifest destiny through daily meditation and focus on changing your life for the better” (Jerard 8).
Thus, when a 21st century stressed-out person ‘gives Yoga a try’ to reduce stress and stress-related illness in their lives, they will be rewarded ten-fold and keep coming back for more. The new Yoga practitioner will soon realize that Yoga is much more than ‘exercise’ in releasing stress, and that a Yoga lifestyle of moral and clean living, combined with asanas, Yogic breathing, and the path to release and meditation, will ultimately unlock the soul and lead to a stress-free life of harmony and well-being.
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