Managing Chronic Stress
by Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami
Almost everyone these days is challenged by the growing intensity of life. Here are some tools to maintain balance.
On a regular basis I meet Hindus who, like most of the world, are emotionally distraught and mentally agitated due to the constant stress of their daily activities. This seems to be especially common when both husband and wife are pursuing demanding careers under employers who expect them to perform at exceptional levels for long hours. It is not uncommon to learn that they are also raising two or more children. The daily demands of work and family are more than can realistically fit into a twenty-four day. In some instances, after many years of constantly having too much to do on a daily basis, serious stress results.
Some types of stress are self-correcting. We are laid off from our job and after being in that situation a few months experience the stress of no monthly income. However, when we find a new job, the stress automatically goes away. A hurricane destroys our home. The stress is immediate and significant but once we have built a new home, it again resolves itself. The incessant demands of daily activities creates a kind of stress that is different, one that no event takes away. In fact, it can grow more intense from year to year. Faced with this kind of chronic stress, it is prudent and healthy to find ways to reduce it.
My guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, gave a number of helpful practices for stress management. The first was breath control. He wrote: ”The mystic’s goal is to control awareness while he is in the conscious mind (the external world)—to know where he is in consciousness. When he finds he is aware in the conscious mind and the five senses have become his ruler, he then controls his awareness within the conscious mind itself. He does this in a number of ways. One way is through the control of breath. Breath is life, and life is breath. Breath is the controlling factor of awareness. Awareness rides on breath. Breath is also a controlling factor of our willpower. A seeker must develop a dynamic will to walk the path of enlightenment, so that he does not stumble or falter, but continues onward no matter how difficult the path seems to be.”
When it comes to breathing, the fundamental practice is to be sure you are breathing from your diaphragm and not from your chest. This is the natural way to breathe. It is how babies naturally breathe. However, once we take on life’s tensions, the diaphragm tightens and we tend to expand the chest when we breathe. The diaphragm can be felt right below your solar plexus, in the area where the ribs separate. To locate it, place your fingertips on the diaphragm and cough. When your fingers are directly on the diaphragm, they will jump as you cough. An easy way to learn diaphragmatic breathing is to lie on the floor and place a book on your tummy. When you inhale while relaxed, the diaphragm will extend itself downward in the abdomen, causing the book to rise. When you exhale, the diaphragm completely relaxes and the book returns to its starting position. In this way tension is released and stress is reduced. Gurudeva commented on this: “You will experience that when the nerve currents are quieted through diaphragmatic breathing, it is impossible to be frustrated, and it is possible to absorb within yourself, into the great halls of inner learning, into the great vacuum within you, all of your problems, troubles and fears, without having to psychoanalyze them.”
Once you grasp the basics of diaphragmatic breathing, you can practice it while sitting upright, even in a chair, or when walking. Whenever you need to relax, such as before (and during!) an important meeting or exam, just take one minute to breathe deeply from the diaphragm.
A second practice for reducing chronic stress, the yoga break, also involves breathing. Lie on your back on the floor or any flat, firm surface. With arms at your sides, take a deep breath and command your body and mind to relax, to let go of all thoughts and tensions. Visualize yourself floating on a cloud, above all the troubles and turmoils of daily life. With eyes closed, inhale, breathing from the diaphragm while visualizing a powerful light flooding into your solar plexus that fills your body and mind with energy. Exhaling, feel this light energy moving out from the solar plexus into every part of your body, and visualize it expelling all of your thoughts and tensions. Repeat this for five minutes and you will feel less stressful, for as the body relaxes, so does the mind. Gurudeva wrote: “Freedom from worldly tensions is only achieved to the degree in which people are able to control the forces of their own mind. In this control they are able to lean upon the power of their own inner security, found in the eternity of the moment. In that moment, your inner strength is found. So, take your yoga break whenever you feel even a little tired physically, a little nervous, a little distraught. That is the time, not when you have time.”
A third practice for managing stress is taking time each morning for a short spiritual/religious practice. Gurudeva called this a daily vigil and gave this comment on it: “Devout Hindus perform daily vigil, called sandhya upasana, usually before dawn. This sacred period of puja, japa, chanting, singing, hatha yoga, meditation and scriptural study is the foundation of personal life.” Holding a daily vigil in the morning helps center us and deepen a sense of religiousness for facing the coming day.
I outlined a simple format for a daily vigil in my January/February/March 2014 Publisher’s Desk entitled “A 10-Minute Spiritual Work-Out.” It describes an abbreviated daily regimen designed for those who find that today’s busy life allows little or no time for introspection. It is now available with various chants and practices as a free mobile app designed by the monks and entitled “Spiritual Workout.”
A fourth practice is that of hatha yoga, a yogic system of bodily postures, asanas, done in specific sequences and with coordinated breathing. Postures range from simple to difficult. The simple ones are sufficient to practice for reducing chronic stress. Gurudeva gave this description of the benefits of hatha yoga: “The purpose of hatha yoga today again is the same—to keep the physical body, emotional body, astral body and mental body harmonious, healthy and happy so that awareness can soar within to the heights of divine realization. Each asana carefully executed, with regulated breathing, the visualization of color and the hearing of the inner sound, slowly unties the knotted vasanas within the subconscious mind and releases awareness from there to mountaintop consciousness. Hatha yoga opens up the consciousness, because when the height of the energy, the zenith, is reached in each posture and we change to the next posture, a small or large adjustment occurs within the physical and astral nerve system.” See the article on hatha yoga in the March, 2001, issue of Hinduism Today for details on the system of 24 postures taught by Gurudeva.
My guru also spoke of a totally different approach, suggesting that we change our relationship with stress, turn its inevitability to our advantage. He counseled, “People are confused about stress these days. There is a solution, and that is a change in consciousness, changing the way we are programmed…. This means accepting stress as a ‘yes-yes,’ not a ‘no-no.’ In the old days, yoga wasn’t just an Indian anti-stress pill. It made the mind and nerve system more intense, not less so. Stress is a natural reaction to intensity. Stress is our teacher, helping us to withstand intensity. Look into the bathroom mirror and mentally say to yourself, ‘Stress is making me strong.’ It really does. Try to believe it. Begin to enjoy stress and the strength that it is giving you. Where would our world leaders, our religious leaders and parliamentarians, be if they did not accept and transcend stress? … Accomplished businessmen, fantastic athletes, high-strung artists and fine musicians are asking for more. They want it. They thrive on it. They know it is making them perform at a higher level than normal. They know that weaker souls can’t take it, and that gives them a special place in the universe, at the top.”
Gurudeva gives us our fifth practice: “But you have to handle stress. How do you handle it? Like anything else. You go to God on the inside; you go to God in the temple and finally you get rid of your stress, from the inside out, and you are a better person because of it, because you have had to expand your nerve system. You have had to stretch your nerve system. You have had to use brain cells that you never used before, to stretch out your mind, awaken new capacities. It is not easy.”