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Thriving in a Stressed-Out World

by Dinabandhu Sarley

Your work has been exceptionally stressful, the kids need your attention, your spouse/partner is emotionally unavailable, and you have your aging parents’ care on your mind. To make things worse, the world at large is less healthy and safe—global warming, war, and the weakening economy that is threatening your financial security. With these types of pressures and worries, is there really a way to stay healthy and happy?

Yoga is the science aimed at answering this very question. Though it’s an ancient inquiry, the depth and breadth of yoga can shed much light on the human search for health and happiness, even (perhaps especially) in modern times. The word yoga means “union.” From a yogic perspective, our struggles, fears, and anxieties are indicators that inner union is broken and we are disconnected from some aspect of ourselves. Because the human organism is so deeply interconnected, when one area of our life shifts out of balance, other areas suffer, too. If I am working long hours, not exercising or doing yoga, and eating unhealthy foods, I not only feel less physically healthy, but I also feel cranky with others, like a failure at work, and at a loss for real purpose in life. It’s a vicious cycle.

The costs of leaving this cycle intact are substantial. Stress carries significant health risks. Digestion becomes impaired, our hearts work too hard, our blood chemistry gets imbalanced, our sleep is disturbed, and our resistance to disease erodes. These health risks are then often amplified when our attempts at coping with this stress lead to poor choices in relation to food, alcohol, drugs, relationships, and lifestyle.

The good news is that we can address these challenges through a three-part yogic process.

One: Breaking the Cycle

The first and most important step is to break the physical cycle of stress and hyperstimulation of the body’s health-maintenance systems. Yoga postures, meditation practice, breathing exercises, and physical exercise all work to change the blood composition and “reset” the system at a lower level of stimulation. What each of these activities has in common is some form of breath awareness and regulation—this is important. The breath maps our state of mind and the state of our emotions; these states then get reflected in the patterns of the breath. When we interrupt and regulate these patterns, we influence the persistently held patterns of the mind and heart.

Swami Kripalu, the inspiration for Kripalu Center, taught that “without the breath, there is no yoga.” Even if you can’t find time to have a regular yoga or meditation practice, learning to consciously change your breathing patterns can powerfully counteract the habitually held stress response. Remember, you can always find a time and place to take several long deep breaths since you have to breathe anyway! Incorporating some form of activity that changes the breath patterns is almost a prerequisite to going deeper, since we need the resulting “breathing space” to consider other dimensions of being disconnected.

Two: Listening Within

The second step for thriving amidst stress means shifting our frame of reference from the roller coaster of external events and people to the soul-nourishing prompts of our inner worlds. Despite our best efforts, we will never succeed in controlling all the events and people in our lives, so change and struggle will never go away. Amidst the hurly burly of modern life, some of us pay less attention to that voice than others, but every human being knows deep down that the eternal spirit lives within.

Think of this inner voice as a melody that is always playing inside us. Certain activities turn the volume up and help us recognize it. Cultivating an ear for our soul’s music is a powerful antidote to the stress that comes from living in a constantly changing world. Whether it is watching a sunset, reading a spiritual book, doing yoga, caring for a loved one, or actively praying, each of has experiences that attune us to the inner life.

In order to be of use in dealing with stress, we must make such practices regular and intentional. Only by repeatedly and deliberately turning up the volume of the soul’s inner voice can we hear that melody as we navigate our everyday circumstances and struggles. When we have a moment-by-moment awareness of the eternal in our lives, the pressures, threats, and disappointments of the changing world have less of a hold on us.

Three: Committing to Personal Growth

The third step to thriving amidst struggle is the hardest yet most rewarding of the three: commitment to personal growth and character development. In the deepest sense, our struggles, challenges, and times of turmoil are windows through which we can see our character defects most clearly. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us can see that the true source of our struggle isn’t outside circumstances but our conscious or unconscious patterns of insecurity, fear, dependence, and the protection of our self-image.

Sometimes these habitual patterns are described as something we can willfully change, as if we could just decide to be different. In reality, this is only partially true. What this approach misses is the need for an energetic shift in our whole self—body, mind, and emotions. Where do we get the energy to make such a fundamental shift? This is the true gift of struggle. Even though we constantly complain about our challenges and the inequities done to us, with reflection we can see that as we struggle we are gradually increasing the energy within us. Without this uncomfortable process, we never accumulate the energy necessary to change the status quo. Learning to tolerate this gradual increase of inner energy as it builds toward a climax of breakthrough is the true art of yoga. Too often when things get too painful, we look for ways to turn down the heat of transformation. When water is heated, if you keep the lid on, the water reaches a boiling point faster and undergoes more quickly a change into steam. This same process happens in personal growth.

What is the key practice that “keeps the lid on”? In effect, it is seeing clearly—focusing on the message that life is bringing to us rather than the circumstances we are struggling against. Unfortunately, this often involves facing moments of crisis, despair, and a sense of helplessness. Though painful, these are the moments in which we can actually see our imperfections. These moments of truth and self-knowledge are the gift of struggle and stressed-out times.

Yoga is an incredible and accessible discipline that offers us a way to study the patterns of struggle and stress. Inquiring into how this works in the unique circumstances of our own lives takes practice—and non-attachment to the results of our practice. Sometimes we are too determined to “stick with it,” so we miss the signals that a loving retreat may be called for. On the other hand, we may retreat too early and never find the measure of our true strength. Self-love and holding one’s self accountable are the two halves of a paradox that each of us must work with in our lives if we are to gain the fruits of personal growth.

The three parts of this process—breaking the cycle, listening within, and committing to personal growth—work together in an ongoing way to contribute to creating the conditions for freedom. Through this yoga practice, on and off the mat, we can learn to harness the power that life’s challenges provide us in order to live a healthy, more meaningful—and actually thrive in a stressed-out world.

Garrett Sarley (Dinabandhu) has been a leader in the field of spirituality and human development for more than 30 years. Kripalu’s former Chief Executive Officer, Garrett has a passion for applying the principles of integrated functioning—the foundation of yoga—toward organizational growth and vitality. He is coauthor, with his wife, Ila, of Walking Yoga and The Essentials of Yoga.

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