How Yoga Can Reduce Stress
by Michael W. Smith
From our book Bypassing Bypass, published in 2002.
In a 1980 survey, I asked a group of people “How do you personally deal with stress?” I received answers such as “eat Cadbury Bars, jog, panic, cry, play the piano, churn inside, get a headache, go to a movie, get into a hot tub, blow up, get sick to my stomach, take pills, overeat, scream. These are actually not ways of “dealing” with stress, but show reactions to stress. The usual ways of responding to stress are with food, drugs, alcohol, and television. Other responses might be to quit one’s job, move, divorce, or become chronically ill and dependent. At work one might hide in one’s office, fail to communicate openly, not confront a problem, take frequent “mental health” days, gossip, or work at one’s job halfheartedly. By failing to confront stressful situations or by tranquilizing and repressing the symptoms of stress, the true sources of conflict might remain unchanged, and tension will continue or probably increase.
There are six helpful ways to deal with stress, each more dynamic than the one before:
- Ventilating. Getting it out. Crying, shouting, getting angry, and vigorous exercise might dissipate tensions, but might not provide any insight as to their underlying cause. Talking with an insightful friend might do both.
- Diversions. Diversions are methods to manage stress by “changing gears” usually through recreations and hobbies. One might go swimming or play tennis. Diversions, however, can be negative or positive and should not be just the substitution of one stressor for another. Getting into an all-night poker game with drinking, smoking, and very high table stakes would not be a good diversion. Better ones might be to relax in a hot tub, take a leisurely walk in the country, or work in the garden. The best kinds of diversions are ones which are essentially calming and also contribute to a greater awareness of the relationship one has with the situation felt to be stressful.
- Changing the Situation. Something in the environment causes stress, and one seeks to eliminate it. In the workplace this might include repairing a noisy ventilator or adjusting one’s chair. If one is in a dangerous neighborhood or an abusive relationship, the best strategy might be to get out.
- Efficiency Engineering. Because people identify so much with their job, stress seminars generally promote such things as how to become more efficient at work. Companies like these strategies because they increase profits. The mind-set is: “I am stressed because I am not productive enough.” But to see oneself only as a worker does not respect our multi-dimensional nature.
- Values Clarification and Self-transformation. The actual source of stress might not be outside circumstances at all, but might lie in one’s values and attitudes, in one’s choice of goals and habits of thought. When a person ceases to project his inner conflicts onto the external world and decides to take responsibility for them himself, then a total shift occurs. Instead of saying, “I wish I could organize outside things better, a person says, “I wish I personally were better organized.” Quite a bit of soul-searching might have to take place here because the blame can no longer be shifted to externals. If one’s relationships with others creates tension, one looks first at oneself. The blame factor would be replaced by examining how one might have contributed to one’s own difficulties. An illness might bring a person to the awareness that a major change has to take place in his personal lifestyle, and one might start on a physical fitness program and change his diet, learn relaxation techniques, etc. The important thing to realize here is that often nothing significant can be done insofar as eliminating stress if a person thinks that the cause is entirely “out there.”
- Centering. To be able to change one’s attitudes and lifestyle requires a process of self-examination. It is at this point that hatha yoga and meditation might be very useful because such techniques not only provide the means for alleviating the symptoms of stress, but also permit the exploration of any underlying conflicts. When the mind is not preoccupied with outside distractions, then a certain stillness can be established from which to view emotional fluctuations. “When the breathing is regulated and the mind stilled, one can then begin to observe and investigate the irrational thoughts and self-talks that have acted to initiate, strengthen, and maintain any upset.” (Harvey)
Do not rush about trying to multi-task, especially when eating.
Do not overdo caffeine, sugar, alcohol, drugs, and junk food.
Do not play the “Ain’t everything awful” game with people.
Do not let your job run your life; do your job with the small toe of your left foot.
Do not judge yourself by what you have, who you know, or what you do.
Do not compare yourself to others. You are the best you there is!
Do not catastrophize.
Do not create stories and label people as villains and heroes.
Do not overexpose yourself to the negative elements in our society, as laid out in newspapers, TV, movies and magazines.
Slow down, be patient.
Rest, relax, get enough sleep at night.
Do one thing at a time.
Center yourself by letting your breath be smooth and rhythmic.
Take 2-minute breathing-breaks about once an hour.
Learn a systematic relaxation and meditation method.
Maximize your exposure to the positive things in life (nature, children, flowers, and animals).
Take time to contemplate what is truly valuable to you in life and make adjustments.
Schedule regular times to be with those you love and to be alone by yourself.
Forgive others; forgive yourself.
Love is the answer. (No matter the question.)
The Quiet Mind by Andrew Harvey
Eight Weeks to Optimum Health by Andrew Weil
Feeling Good by David D. Burns
Local Resources (in Minnesota)
The Meditation Center, 631 University Ave. NE, Mpls., MN 55413 (612) 379-2386
Institute of Himalayan Tradition, 1317 Summit Ave., St. Paul, MN 55105 (651) 645-1291
The Meditation Center: www.themeditationcenter.org
IHYTA Web Site: www.bindu.org
Michael W. Smith is one of the fine instructors
at the Meditation Center in Minneapolis
and can be reached by calling 612.379.2386
or by visiting their web site: