With yoga’s ancient wisdom now being recognized as complementary therapies for stress and anxiety management, more and more people are turning to the practice in search of its physical and mental benefits.
However, it is clear that most focus on a few aspects of yoga – asana, pranayama and meditation – and don’t consider the full teaching of the ancient yogic scriptures. By exploring more than simply the benefits of yoga’s physical postures and breathing, we can more fully discover the world’s most ancient stress management technique. Here’s what yoga teaches us about managing stress.
Where does stress come from?
Fundamentally, stress is our survival mechanism when we are facing a situation seen as dangerous.(1) When we perceive the universe around us as harmful, we feel threatened and our body releases stress hormones that trigger a fight or flight response and shuts down our para sympathetic nervous (aka rest and digest mode). When this happens every now and then, our bodies and mind can handle it but when we are chronically stressed, we lose mental clarity and our mind, body and soul are left running in all directions which can lead to numerous mental and physical health issues (2).
What makes yoga the most ancient and one of the best ways to deal with stress?
With a lineage over 5000 years old, yoga is certainly an ancient practice. Although in today’s Western society, the main focus of yoga is on its physical postures, it is through looking at the ancient yogic scriptures that we can better understand the mechanisms of stress.
The Sanskrit root of yoga is ‘yuk’ meaning to ‘yoke’, or unite. Essentially, yoga describes union. The union of the body, mind and soul. The union of the individual with the rest of the universe. The union of the left and right sides of our brains, of the masculine and feminine, of the sun and the moon. Through this union, the yogi can see their true self, and unite with the truth of the universe. Through this union, the mind is calmed. Without it, the mind is left scattered and in panic.
Rather than focusing solely on what happens on the yoga mat, the ancient scriptures allow us to explore how we interact with the world around us. As it is from this connection – or disconnection – with the rest of the world that stress arises, observing this relationship is often the first step towards how to manage stress.
So, how does yoga heal stress?
Whilst there are various paths to reach yoga, such as Karma (the path of action), Bhakti (the path of devotion) and Jhan (the path of knowledge), we will focus here on Raja Yoga. This physical, mental and spiritual practice aims to control the mind through concentration and meditation, ultimately calming it. As it isn’t possible to be both in a state of relaxation and a state of stress simultaneously, this calming of the mind naturally replaces feelings of stress with those of peace.
What can yoga’s ancient texts teach us about how to manage stress?
One of yoga’s most important classical texts is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In this text, yoga is defined as “restraining the mind-stuff (Chitta) from taking various forms (Vrttis) (I,2).” The mind-stuff is like a lake that contains all the instruments that allow us to perceive or react to the outside world (our sense organs, our mind, our will and our ego). When the water of the lake is blurry, we cannot see the bottom of the lake, or our true self (Purusa). When the lake is calm and there are no waves created in reaction to the outside world, then we can see our true self. A regular yoga practice can help to calm the waves or in other words, help us to decrease stress.
Yoga is undoubtedly the world’s most ancient stress management technique. But if we only focus on a narrow view of yoga as physical postures and breathing, we miss so much of its wisdom. Through creating a whole practice which includes mantra (chanting), mudra (hand positions), pranayam (breathing techniques), asanas (body postures), meditation and self study, we will better appreciate the fullness of yoga as a way to deal with stress.
If you’d like to discover how personalized practice can help you manage the stress in your own life, book a free 30 minute discovery call with me to begin your yoga journey.