Spiritual Approach to the Problem of Stress

Yoga and Meditation

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay explains how certain spiritual methods and approaches of Yoga, can be used to free the mind and body from physical and mental stress for peace and tranquility.

Stress is any physical or mental strain, which you experience when you deal with any demand that has been placed on you. It can be any action which you have to perform or any situation you have to deal with or any desire or expectation you want to fulfill. It increases to the extent you are averse to it. Everyone experiences stress, without any exception since we are all prone to attraction and aversion. The very process of living and dealing with daily problems is stressful enough. Since, we have limited control upon ourselves and our environment we are bound to experience it.

Just as there are many types of stress, causes of stress and stressful situations, one can cope with it in numerous ways. You will find solutions to it both in science and religion. The very purpose of spirituality is to find lasting solutions to overcome attraction and aversion and remain indifferent and detached from stressful situations to experience peace and tranquility. In the following discussion we deal with the problem of stress from the spiritual perspective.

Stress arises due to both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. They may be within your control or out of your control. If intrinsic factors are genetically related, it may be difficult to deal with them. As for the external factors, you may either avoid them, minimize them, change them or learn to live with them. In spirituality, you will find the last solution as the most effective. You learn to make peace with the factors that give you stress or make you unhappy, angry, upset or insecure.

Many people experience relief from stress when they start practicing yoga (which they often mistakenly attribute to some guru). The purpose of yoga is suppressing the modifications of the mind, by knowing their causes and dealing with them, whereby you become free from mental afflictions and experience peace. For that, first you focus upon the imperfections or the impurities of your mind and body and try to remove them. We call this self-cleansing. In this process, which requires effort, you become an expert in dealing with your own imperfections and becoming stable. The following is a broad outline of the transformative process by which you gain control over your mind and body.

1. Cultivating good habits and overcoming bad ones: In yoga, they are known as yama (restraints) and niyama (practices). The purpose is to practice restraint, cultivate discretion, improve your thinking and perceptions, strengthen resolve and develop a healthy mind and body. Eating healthy food is an important aspect of it. It revitalizes your mind and body and gives you added energy, strength and stamina, so that you not only become filled with positive energy but also use it to awaken your hidden potentials. With their help, you gain control over your dark nature, bad habits and negative behavior.

2. Learning to breathe correctly: This is another important, foundational step to improve the vital functions of your mind and body. Our breathing is faulty and irregular. Our thoughts and emotions influence our breathing patterns. Sometimes, as sleep apnea patients know, we may momentarily stop breathing and do not even know about it. Irregular breathing effects our health. When you breathe correctly, it gives your body the extra oxygen it badly needs to keep its vital functions working. Your brain gets a boost as it receives more oxygen and as the impurities from your blood stream are removed. In yoga, we learn to breathe through pranayama and mindfulness practices.

3. Becoming uninvolved and letting go: Even in science, we know that things are hotter at the center and cooler on the periphery. Be it the earth core, the solar system or the galaxy, this is true. When you are at the center of any problem, event or situation, you become totally involved with it. However, when you are on the periphery of anything, you become a witness. Therefore, it is necessary to know when to engage with people and situations and when to withdraw. Secondly, when you withdraw your mind and body from people, problems and situations, you will find time to think and explore the deeper aspects of life. You learn the importance of thinking and observing with detachment, emotional stability, mental balance and introspection. In yoga, we call this practice pratyahara.

4. Paying attention and becoming mindful and thoughtful: The world tends to disturb you because you are a product of it and deeply connected to it. In yoga you learn the importance of observing and understanding the world, without being affected by it. You learn to reflect rather than react. You do the same with the modifications of your mind. Instead of suppressing them or looking in the other direction or living in denial, you allow the emotions and feelings to surface in your consciousness and try to understand their root cause. If you are careful and observant, you will realize that most problems in your life, thinking and behavior arise due to a few factors which can effectively be controlled or addressed. Most people do not really pay attention to things and people in their lives. They take them for granted or ignore the symptoms of potential problems which in the long run may become sources of worry and stress. In yoga, we call this practice, concentration (dharana) or focus.

5. Develop insightful understanding: The world is not always what it appears to be. How we perceive the world depends upon our thinking, attitude, interests, desires and where we pay attention. With that, insightful understanding does not arise, but only a partial view of things. This in turn leads to many other problems. With right thinking, right perception, right knowledge, dispassion and detachment, which arise from virtuous living, and with mindfulness practice, concentration and contemplation, you can develop insight into the nature of things and cultivate discretion. You will gain an understanding of the essence of the thing itself in its purity, without egoism, desire, expectation and preconceived notions. The mind then becomes a mirror and reflects truth. You partake the nature of the thing with which you align. In Yoga, we call this practice Dhyana (meditation). When we combine it with concentration, we call it Samyama (thinking with control, concentration and balance).

What is the essence of all this? It is to get rid of all the negativity and bad habits and become detached from things by controlling your desires and expectations and letting them go, so that you can be in the thick of things without being disturbed or distracted by them. It is to live with awareness, knowledge, wisdom, understanding, discretion and skillfulness in observing the world and people and learning from them as well as from your experience and interactions with them. Yoga does not guarantee complete and absolute freedom from the problem of stress. However, it offers effective ways to deal with it and reduce it or remain indifferent to it. When you are at the center of things, without mentally being at the center, you will sail lightly in the ocean of life, even if you pass through the eye of turbulence and impermanence.

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