November starts with International Stress Awareness Week and offers an opportunity to stop and think what 'stress' means to you.
Stress is a very personal experience. What is stressful for one person may be enjoyable for someone else (the prospect of a long-distance flight for example). Different people react differently to the same stressful events, and even the same person may react differently to the same situation at varying times.
The stress we experience can manifest itself in numerous ways, from being grumpy or tearful to having a short temper or not being able to sleep well. Understanding how stress affects you is the first step to managing the symptoms and finding coping strategies.
The yoga toolbox for stress relief
Yoga offers a comprehensive set of tools to help us deal with the daily challenges of life. These include:
breathing techniques (pranayama)
relaxation techniques (yoga nidra)
guidance for personal conduct and lifestyle (yamas and niyamas)
An important historic yoga text, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (written at about 400 CE), describes how our mind contributes to everyday stress. It lists five 'kleshas' as the sources of stress and suffering. Klesha is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘afflictions’. For me, kleshas are misconceptions which stop us from leading a fulfilled life.
What is stress?
Have you ever thought about what exactly stress is? Maybe you are thinking about too much work, feeling overwhelmed or going through a rough patch in life. These are the external circumstances. Yet stress is a complicated process: It involves physiological changes (the release of stress hormones into the blood stream), physical symptoms (such as an accelerated heart beat), emotions (anxiety or anger, for instance), behaviours (crying, drinking alcohol), and thoughts (‘I can’t cope’, ‘this is too much’, ‘I’m useless’) – all triggered by this stressful event.
Put as an equation, it might look like this: Stress = potentially stressful event + significance to us + our response
Stress is not always avoidable and not necessarily bad (it can motivate us to find solutions or to work harder). However, too much stress for an extended period of time can leave us feel overwhelmed and can undermine our health.
The five kleshas as sources of stress
Maybe we find it easy to pinpoint an external event or another person to be the source of our stress. Often it is not that simple. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras look at the way how our mind plays an important role, too. It is interesting that a similar approach is taken now in stress management counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (something I explore in more detail in my Yoga for Managing Stress workhshops).
Avidya – Ignorance. I understand that avidya refers to not understanding our own true nature on one hand, and to not assessing a situation correctly on the other. We are (mis)guided by our lack of insight, by conditioning, prejudices and assumptions. We might not ‘see the wood for the tress’, we may stubbornly maintain that we ‘know best’, we may fret over something which is quite unlikely to happen, or we simply don't have enough information. As a result, we may take actions which cause difficulties for ourselves or others.
Asmita – Our ego. It is our ego which pushes us into thoughts like ‘I have to be better/wealthier/more popular/more successful than others.’ Or ‘I’m the greatest.’ Or ‘I’m right.’ Our ego strives for superiority and power. In the practice of yoga asanas, asmita may cause us to push ourselves in such a way that we injure our bodies in an attempt to impress others or stand out.
Raga – Attachment. Aren’t we all attached to worldly pleasures, possessions, likes and comforts? There is a fine balance to strike though between healthy attachments, which allow us to feel fulfilled, and unhealthy attachments, which leave us dependent and insecure. Because of our attachments we may demand that certain things (or people!) ‘should be’ in a particular way. We become judgemental. We hold on. We do not share. Or we long for things we do not have, feeling discontent.
Dvesa – Rejection. We take a dislike to something or expect some sort of negative consequence and therefore avoid the experience at all cost. A phobia would be a good example of this, and also other forms of anxiety. Prejudices would be another example, as well as disengagement from family, work, and society.
Abhinivesa – Fear of death. We all share the fear of death, and the fear of dying. It kicks in when we encounter a real threat to our wellbeing and survival. On the other hand, if there is no real danger to life, this fear gets out of hand and leads to unnecessary stress and worries.
How to overcome the kleshas
The kleshas point to the measures we can take to restore balance and happiness: Self-awareness. Gathering all the information needed to assess a situation. Stepping back from our own ego. Looking at the bigger picture. Letting go of unnecessary attachments and unrealistic expectations. Asking others (family, friends, a health professional) for help and advice. Staying engaged and in contact with other people. And looking after ourselves.
Staying active by attending yoga classes or practicing yoga at home can play a powerful part in this process.
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“Serenity of mind is achieved when one shows friendship towards those who are happy, compassion for those who suffer, delight towards those who are right, and indifference towards the wicked” (Yoga Sutra)