Stress has its origins in the mind and is partially based on our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. Therefore all effective strategies for dealing with stress deal with it on the level of the mind, but can also encompass techniques to deal with and remedy its effects on the body as well. The reason yoga practices are so effective for stress is that they deal with it on both of these levels and therefore produce a powerful effect upon the mind body spirit triad that not only has the effect of immediately and tangibly dealing with stress in the moment, but also changing the inherent reaction to stressful situations that one has, therefore permanently changing a persons stress response in the long term. More than any other practice in life, yoga and associated techniques such as breath work (pranayama) and meditation, will give you the tools to effectively manage stress and accomplish at greater levels than you ever thought possible.
The first part of this article deals with mental yogic techniques for reducing and eliminating stress. The second half is a visual guide to physical yoga poses for stress.
Self-Control of Anxiety and Stress by Karma Yoga
Today, the 20th century phenomenon known as ‘burn-out’, which is an important concomitant of stress, has become a common experience amongst members of the helping professions such as teachers, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, nurses and welfare workers. Burnout means to deplete oneself; to exhaust one’s physical and mental resources (*1). People can simply wear themselves out by excessive striving to reach some unrealistic expectation set by themselves or by society. Often an individual, who sets out with great energy and enthusiasm to help people, eventually becomes disillusioned, exhausted and depressed. He or she becomes irritable,’ moody, and a clock watcher or work dodger. Later, chronic absenteeism is apparent.
Stress, strain and anxiety, which lead to the condition of burnout, result in social and emotional distress and pain and unhappiness in the individual. Psychosomatic diseases are also linked with stress. As modem researchers have shown, stress is a product of major life crises (e.g. a death or divorce) as well as the minor but constant worries in life (*2). The latter have a cumulative effect in terms of excessive ill health. What is also becoming evident from psychological research is that certain individuals and groups in society are more vulnerable than others given similar situations of stress.
Thus, the key to coping with stress lies in the individual’s attitude and response.
Karma yoga and stress
The stressors in the environment- the noise, the pollution, the chaos of city life, will not go away, nor will dwelling on personal problems and worries which lead to mental tension. The more one thinks of a certain problem, the greater the anxiety and worry, and the further these negative samskaras are reinforced. According to the traditional yogic teachings, mental tension is due to ego centrism and unhealthy emotional attachment to the environment.
In dealing with environmental and internal stress, yogic philosophy has pointed out the importance of karma yoga, which is based on the law of cause and effect. Karma yoga has developed in response to samsara, the never ending stressful cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Until you manage to escape from this cycle by transcending the personal self, every action, thought and feeling produces positive, negative or mixed karma and further binds you to your egoistic self. Karma yoga, selfless action with awareness, is also an important mental purification process. It alleviates the inner stressors by cleansing the mind of its accumulated debris and by awakening you to the effects of your conditioning with its attendant complexes, phobias and defensive armouring. Karma yoga is an important technique and above all an attitude of mind with which one can deal effectively with stress. Now, medical science is also discovering that this kind of psychological hardiness gives a very healthy attitude to life (*3). This same attitude as reflected in one’s behaviour and interactions with the environment is particularly appropriate, indeed essential, for those in the helping professions. Karma yoga eases one into the flow of life. When you are one with the process, you find yourself relaxed not tense, helping not hindering, accepting not fighting, showing compassion not pity.
Often, by trying to help, we are really hindering. Perhaps by learning to let people be, we can better aid them in their own growth. One has to admit that the world will remain essentially as it is; after all, it has already done so for thousands of years. To accomplish this effective non-interference and thus relieve ourselves of self-imposed stress, we have to learn to stand back and watch ourselves ‘act’ in the world.
The art of detached observation
Developing the silent, hidden observer or witness within is the essence of the practice of karma yoga. By becoming more aware of yourself, you learn to watch your actions, interactions, thoughts and feelings and your responses to them. At first this may seem a little difficult, but with practice your ability to remain mindful in all situations will gradually improve.
As this awareness develops, one of the first things you will notice is how you emotionally react in various situations. Continually getting upset, angry or frustrated whenever someone says something contrary to your own ideas or beliefs, leads to internal stress. By habitually responding with mental agitation and anxiety, you stimulate the body’s defence system and the vicious cycle of excessive hormone production. This eventually results in high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis and, finally, cardiovascular disease becomes a definite risk. Therefore, you must learn to be aware of and then limit your mental and emotional responses.
Karma yoga helps in this way by teaching us the art of detachment. This means neither being attached nor unattached to people, places and things. Detachment implies a state of disinterest; one is neither interested nor uninterested. However it is not an excuse to become cold, apathetic or arrogant. Rather, it is a way of preventing life’s hard knocks from penetrating deeply into our mental, emotional and more vulnerable selves. This is the attitude which all good doctors and nurses have. After all, if they responded on a deep emotional level each time a patient died, they would be unable to-work effectively.
By cultivating this mental attitude you reduce your susceptibility in stressful situations and this leads to greater self-awareness and knowledge of the self. You react outwardly in a natural manner as before, but deep down the peace and inner quiet remain undisturbed. Begin by practising detachment at work and then develop and apply it to your whole life. It will lead you to true emotional maturity.
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