From Stress to Relaxation

Gloria Alzate (Divali), Psychologist, Masters in Education, coach and teacher of Satyananda Yoga in Bogotá, Colombia

Stress has been called the disease of our time. The daily conditions of today’s world have increased the pressure, making it much more difficult to find mechanisms to allow us to live in a harmonious and balanced way. Society is governed by the clock, forcing us to follow an unrestrained rhythm to respond to its demands. Family life has become much more complex, with changes in the female and male roles, fragmented families, single parents, or parents burdened by overwork, without the support of other family members. Work is highly competitive, very demanding in skills and extended work schedules, which end up invading periods of rest and recreation.1

Likewise, increasing population in modern cities, urbanization and migration complicate the educational services, medical services and transportation, creating a polluted environment where it is even difficult to breathe. Difficulties in mobility generate long travel times that directly affect the possibility of finding spaces of calm and diversion. In addition, the electronic pollution characteristic of our time, especially with computers and mobile phones, bombards us with excessive information and messages of all kinds that overwhelm the recipient, demanding an immediate response, as if life were to end in the next minute.

Natural and unnatural stress

This scenario ends up overwhelming people and generating physical, mental and emotional tensions that block their ability to act, affecting their health and well being. For this reason the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that by 2020, stress will be the second leading cause of disease worldwide.2

However, stress is a natural adaptive response, which plays a protective role in dangerous and life-threatening situations. It was first described as a non-specific response of the organism to any demands placed upon it, by Hans Seyle (1976). This response may be psychological or physiological and is related to a harmful situation or intrusion.3

On the other hand, Dr Walter Cannon, an eminent physiologist at Harvard University, discovered that mammals have the physical ability to react to stress with a survival mechanism, called the ‘fight-or-fight response’. When faced with stressful situations, the body releases stress hormones and triggers a series of changes in the body to respond quickly to a threatening stimulus. These changes include: elevated heart and breathing rates, changes in blood flow, increased sweating, dilated pupils, inhibition of salivation, decreased digestive function, increased glucose secretion, among others.4

It is very important to keep in mind that this physiological response of the body activates the sympathetic nervous system to respond to an alarming episode, but afterwards it is necessary to return to a state of calm, in order to restore normal functioning of the body systems. Continuing to generate this stress response repeatedly can lead a person to a ’phase of resistance’, that is, to be constantly stressed, which leads to a final phase of ’exhaustion’, with significant health deterioration.5

In this context, Udupa (1977) suggests four progressive stages in the evolution of stress-related disorders: in the first stage symptoms such as anxiety and irritability appear due to an over reaction of the sympathetic system. The second stage is characterized by physical symptoms such as high blood pressure and increased heart rate. In the third stage, abnormal clinical manifestations increase in the body systems. Severe symptoms appear in the last stage and long-term medical care is necessary.6

It has also been found that in modern life the fight-or-flight response is used inappropriately, because it is utilized in situations that require a behavioural adjustment and not to escape or to face the enemy in the face of a threat. It is precisely this inappropriate use that causes the psychosomatic diseases of our time, such as diabetes, heart attack, asthma, irritable bowel, peptic ulcer and immune disorders.

However, just as humans have a natural response to stress, we are also equipped with an innate counter-response to generate states of calm and tranquillity. This response has been termed the ’relaxation response’.

Dr Herbert Benson of Harvard University demonstrated that humans have their own mechanism by which mental concentration leads to a deep state of rest. He based his work on experiments carried out by Walter Hess, a Swiss Nobel Prize physiologist, who by stimulating certain areas of the hypothalamus, generated the fight-or-flight response, but by stimulating other areas, triggered the opposite response: a restorative and protective process against the excesses of stress.7

Dr Benson’s experiments with people suffering from hypertension and other ailments showed that the relaxation response leads to physical, mental and emotional tranquillity by activating the parasympathetic system. In this state of relaxation the heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism and respiratory rate decrease, because the body requires much less oxygen.8

Enter yoga: asana

The discoveries of Dr Benson validated for Western civilization knowledge developed millennia ago by Eastern yogis. From the point of view of yoga, we have two different energetic forces: pingala and ida, known in the modern world as the sympathetic and parasympathetic system. Pingala is the force representing energy (prana) or action, and ida is responsible for thinking.9 To eliminate stress these two forces must be in harmony. The practice of yoga is oriented to create this state of balance and harmony.

For yoga, the cause of illness is not stress, but the inability to adapt to a changing situation.10 From this perspective, Satyananda Yoga works in an integral way on the five dimensions of existence: the level of physical experience, the energy field of the individual, the mental dimension, the psychic level and the dimension of happiness and bliss.

In addition, yoga is oriented to find a perfect coordination between the different bodily functions so that they work for the well being of the whole body.11

Reaching a state of well being requires counteracting the unhealthy rhythms that the body has developed, and the best way to achieve this is to superimpose new psychophysical rhythms that promote health. In yoga, these rhythms are created in a slow and systematic way, so that the structures are modified little by little. This is achieved through a daily yoga practice that includes asana, pranayama, yoga nidra and meditation.12

Asanas are specific body postures or movements, generally synchronized with breathing and consciously performed, that open up the channels and energy centres of the body. The free-flow of vital energy produced by the practice of asana leads to a state of balance and mental calm.

In the case of stress, asanas provide harmony in the functioning of the endocrine system and other systems that are closely interwoven: the circulatory, nervous, respiratory and digestive systems, which play an active role during the adaptation of the body to stress.

On the other hand, the mind and body are not separate, because the tensions or knots that accumulate in the mind are reflected in the body and vice versa. Asanas release these tensions in somato-psychic form, that is, from the body to the mind, and in this way integrates and harmonizes the body and mind.

In addition, the practice of asanas while being conscious of the body and the act of breathing temporarily leaves aside tensions and worries; over time, the relaxation achieved accumulates progressively, generating permanent changes in the mental and emotional structures of the body.

The first condition of happiness is to have a healthy body; therefore, asanas form the backbone of applied yoga. Not only are they aids to keep the physical system healthy and strong, but they also contribute, imperceptibly, in support of their complement, pranayama, to build mental resistance to disease.13

The practice of asanas has been shown to activate the relaxation response by slowing the rate of respiration and metabolism, as well as reducing oxygen consumption and body temperature. They produce specific effects on the glands and internal organs, and alter the electrochemical activity of the brain.

The help of pranayama

The second component of Satyananda Yoga is pranayama, a practice that produces an expansion of vital energy. It is through breathing that we can direct the pranic force to emerge at a certain point.

Breathing influences the function of each of the cells of the body and also all mental processes; it supplies the oxygen and glucose necessary for the integral functioning of a person. Very shallow, irregular or inadequate breathing becomes a source of stress and renders the body’s energy insufficient. Also, when people are stressed, they change their breathing pattern, which leads to a lack of proper oxygenation. Therefore, pranayama techniques are essential to restore correct breathing, generating states of calm and balance.

To counteract stress, various techniques are used such as awareness of the breathing process, expansion of respiratory capacity through abdominal breathing, complete yogic breathing and viloma pranayama. Also, balancing practices like anuloma viloma and nadi shodhana pranayama, and tranquillizing techniques, such as ujjayi pranayama and bhramari.14 These techniques restore physical health by improving body oxygenation, generating balanced and calm mental states, harmonizing emotions, preparing for meditation and leading to deeper levels of human experience.

More than relaxation – yoga nidra

The third component is yoga nidra, a systematic method of inducing complete physical, mental and emotional relaxation, which generates a hypnagogic state, intermediate between sleep and wakefulness: the body sleeps, but the mind remains alert following the instructions. Its purpose is to lead us to a higher state of consciousness.15

The state of yoga nidra seems to reflect an integrated response of the hypothalamus, which leads to a decrease in sympathetic nerve activity (excitatory) and an increase in parasympathetic function (relaxatory). Such a relaxation response is considered to be the opposite of the fight-or-flight response.

In addition, stress-related psychosomatic illnesses and afflictions are caused by excessive identification of the psyche with the physical body through the sensory channels, leading to fatigue, exhaustion, or nervous breakdown. This tendency is effectively alleviated by working from the body to the mind.

Consequently, the progressive movement of conscious attention through different parts of the body induces physical relaxation, clears the nerve channels of the brain and relaxes the mind. Thus, yoga nidra restores psychosomatic balance through the release of prana or energy, through the pratyahara state or conscious withdrawal of the senses. This energy is directed to the healing and rejuvenation of tissues, glands and organs.

On the other hand, the experimentation of opposite sensations during yoga nidra stimulates the centres located in the base of the brain, responsible for maintaining the harmony between our internal and external environment. It harmonizes the opposing hemispheres of the brain and helps balance impulses and control unconscious functions. It also develops willpower in the emotional field and can produce a deep release of emotions.

Likewise, the visualizations that are used in yoga nidra bring unconscious contents to the conscious mind, which when observed in a detached way, are released and cleaned, dislodging the latent conflicts causing the stress. In this way, by practising yoga nidra one accesses the deeper layers of personality, the subconscious and unconscious levels of the mind, which is the most powerful force in humans.

In addition, when the body and mind are relaxed, a short, clear and positive sankalpa or resolution is formulated, which is mentally repeated three times at the beginning and end of yoga nidra, with full conviction and feeling. The sankalpa acts as an order that reaches the unconscious and acts to effectively change an attitude, behaviour or destiny.

Meditation for body and mind

The fourth component is meditation, which consists of generating a state of complete rapport with a focus point. This focused concentration is a direct and effective way to control stress levels, restore mental balance, clarity and accuracy. Thus, meditation allows us to access the inner world, explore the mind and eventually transcend it.16

Consequently, meditation is a very powerful relaxation technique, with many therapeutic applications. Its power lies in the activation of the parasympathetic system, which causes a deceleration of the metabolism, a significant reduction in oxygen consumption (20%), and in the production of carbon dioxide, by lowering the respiratory rate. In addition, blood pressure drops well below the normal state, heart rate decreases and blood flowincreases.17

These characteristics make meditation an integral treatment for stress, which involves the entire mind-body system. By generating a deep state of relaxation, meditation helps the bodily processes to regain their normal levels of activity. It also reduces anxiety symptoms and emotional responses by acting on the limbic system.

Swadhyaya for everyday life

As described above, each component of Satyananda Yoga itself contributes to generating the relaxation response, but by articulating all four into an integral whole, it enhances their effects, acts at a deeper level, and becomes a very powerful system. Thus, the yogic methods for stress management approach the physical body through asanas, awaken the vital energy through pranayama, lead to deep relaxation through yoga nidra, and generate a state of harmony through meditation. These practices restore internal balance on a physical, mental and emotional level, and lead to a change of attitude.18

This has been my experience in the last five years at the Satyananda Yoga Academy in Bogotá, where we have designed eight week-long modules to transform stress. In these modules, practitioners take a weekly class of an hour and a half, and during the other days, they are encouraged to perform a daily sadhana at home.

Each of the elements of the modules has been carefully designed around a target and a sequence. In addition to the practice of asana, pranayama, yoga nidra and meditation, previously mentioned, each class has a theoretical explanation of ten minutes and a swadhyaya to practise during the week. This swadhyaya consists in developing a study of the self through observation, not only in the execution of practices, but in everyday life. It seeks to become aware of thoughts, emotions, behaviours, ways of reacting to situations and the impact on oneself and others.

For example, in the module ‘Stress in Everyday Life’, swadhyayas are oriented towards the following points: identifying sources of stress in personal life, becoming aware of how to react in stressful situations, observing personal manifestations of stress and carrying the practice of yoga to daily activities (karma yoga), in order to identify with the activity and clear up the mental and emotional turmoil. In this way, the participants in the modules have replaced the fight-or-flight response with the relaxation response and thus can live in a more harmonious way and with improved quality of life. This is the true power of transformation of Satyananda Yoga.

For complete bibliography, please contact the author.