Several years ago I received a call from the managing director of investment banking of a very prestigious banking firm. The caller, my brother, had been experiencing such significant stress that his body was beginning to react adversely. Knowing I was well versed in meditation, yoga and related calming skills, he asked how I thought the situation should be handled.
Two options, I replied: either take an anti-anxiety medication or learn some yoga and meditation. Interestingly, a psychologist gave him similar advice. So, he bought a plane ticket, came to Minneapolis and spent the weekend learning basic self-care techniques for stress management. It was a successful experience and the efficacy of skills vs. pills impressed him significantly.
For many, the words "relax" and "de-stress" are vague terms that reference generic feelings of ease. Little is understood about the body/mind/spirit nature of stress, much less relaxation and how to achieve it effectively. To remedy this, I want to examine tension and stress more precisely.
In classical yoga, physical tension results when life force is held in specific body parts. Usually this occurs as people engage in unconscious stress-holding patterns. For example, do you grind your jaw, have tight shoulders or get low back pain? If so, you’re not alone. These are just a few of what I call "automatic deposit sites" for aggravations which may occur daily. But generating tension can be induced consciously, and that is a key to releasing it as well.
Try this: Make a gentle fist and clench it until your forearm vibrates. As life force is willfully directed through motor nerves to specific areas – in this case the fist – the quivering result is a manifestation of tension. The flip side is relaxation, a state achieved by withdrawing life force from the body. Again, notice as you release tension from the vibrating fist that it drops to your side. What happened? Life force brought through the motor nerves caused tension and its withdrawal induced relaxation.
Next time you feel tense and want to relax quickly try this:
Take a deep breath; hold it, tense the entire body until it vibrates
Then, exhale and relax completely
Repeat 3-6 times, focusing on the after-effect sensation of release
Do throughout the day as needed
Most people are unaware how much tension they hold. That is why, when asked how to relieve tension, I advise using the above exercise for quick relief, like a Band-Aid, yet suggest hatha yoga for greater impact. Why? Hatha yoga is specifically designed to unblock the body’s energy systems, allowing life force to flow unimpeded. Because physical conditions impact mental states, the energetic balance caused by hatha induces body/mind harmony. When agitated, try stretching for five minutes and then notice how you feel. It may surprise you.
This brings me to address mental components of stress. The "Fight or Flight" syndrome is familiar to many: We assess our environment and, when necessary, the body is flooded with chemicals that let us confront threats or flee them. In modern society, however, causes of stress are seldom life-threatening and primal responses must be managed civilly. Yet, high-agitation events can still trigger reflexive chemical cascades. What to do? Mind the mind.
Perception is often automatic, but responses can – and should – be trained. Excess excitement upsets the nervous balance, sending too much energy to certain areas and not enough to others. The lack of proper nerve force distribution is, yogically speaking, considered the sole cause of nervousness. Because energy flows through the heart chakra into the nervous system, learning to calm the heart is vital for keeping a balanced mind. One way of doing this is through attitudinal training, learning to see the world in ways that reinforce equanimity.
Can you be less judgmental, confrontational or peevish? Learn to see the good in every life situation rather than the negative. Both exist, but why fixate on manure when we can enjoy the flowers rising from it?
Another nerve force/heart management tool is regulated, observational breathing. It slows cardio-pulmonary functions and helps establish even flows of energy.
Lastly, I’d be a poor meditation/yoga teacher if I didn’t include a word about Spirit! In the final analysis, we are often tense because of poor perspective. Life is a mystery, a school, a play. Why let it beat us up? The soul already possesses the joy and calmness we seek, but we must pursue it properly to find it successfully. By harmonizing thoughts and desires with all-fulfilling soul realities, the harmony of life and nature is revealed. When you are able to renew yourself in this fashion, when you are able to know yourself as a child of God and resolve to be calm regardless of what happens around you, the delusion of matter and mortality are gradually replaced by realization of the Self and its eternal Serenity.
Meditate. It’s worth it.