Yoga and the Stress Mandala

I have found that in order to create meaningful changes in my life that create freedom and newness I must have a close relationship to stress. Stress that comes on strongly and suddenly can be transmuted into accomplishment and success only if I am able to recognize it and dig into the sensation of it. However, if the world and my situation pushes down upon me too much and I do not turn toward my stress in time, I am easily split into failure, depression, and anger.

I used to climb a lot when I was a in my teens and early twenties. I am still paying for some of the hardness this brought to my body. I was mystically obsessed about the line of friction that I could sustain in order to creep slowly past those moments where falling meant injury or death. The hypervigilance required in those moments and the many failures in those states taught me that falling, even when bodily harm was an outcome, was part of my communication with stress. The slow pace of climbing allowed me to methodically overcome my own fear. The repeated failure helped me to step closer and closer to my weakness, and the release of mental and physical stress was tied directly with overcoming fear. It was an ecstatic experience.

Now I don’t climb as much. I’m getting older and risking my life is not as fun as it used to be. I started doing yoga in 1999 and 10 years after that became intensely aware of my own stress. In graduate school, the penultimate dissertation was the biggest consistent stress in my life (for five years). It was a boulder’s peak with an unmarked route and questionable footing. At times I had fallen so much, that I did not understand how next to approach the climb. The stress was immense enough, or I had gotten close enough to my stress that I was starting to fragment. I felt I had failed more than once. The end of the dissertation was so out of sight, how on earth was I going to accomplish all of this work if a lot of the little pieces were not working out? My ideas had failed and I would have to start over. If my ideas had failed, I must not have known enough, must not have learned enough, and was not good enough, and surly the people around me, particularly my advisor, now new this and I would be kicked out, or drug along for years and would fail my final examination. The slow pressure of this stress was deflating me–the energy I could put forth was without strength or vigor–I was depressed. In some moments I would get pissed off, occasionally lashing out and letting that anger out at situations in my life that bothered me. Never actually expressing my anger toward myself, but in a way, I was angry with the whole situation I was in and every small dissatisfaction became a nuisance to deal with. Not the most picturesque yogic state.

A physical yoga practice is not stress reducing in itself. Calisthenics are designed to stress the body in specific ways to challenge the integrity of the muscular, skeletal, and neurological systems so that it can adapt and improve. Having a practice, meaning the regular practice of those calisthenics, puts another stress on ourselves–the push required to get on the mat and put the time in. In my opinion this is the biggest stress of a yoga practice and is one that inherently requires us to systematically stress ourselves and is the big hurdle for students to get over and into a regular practice. It does not immediately seem de-stressing. A nap, a drink, a movie, sex, and shopping are just a few other options that are more immediately associated with a release from stress. I’m not going to say that these are bad things, but it is interesting to see what additional stress I put on myself to stay away from these specific things in order to be a better person, whatever that means. I’ve tried to see these types of activities as buffers, not necessarily vices, something I still struggle with. These activities are extremely important, without which my life would end up being so ridiculously serious that I would for sure collapse under the weight of the importance of everything. I have found that buffering stress in this way lets me hold my stress still so that I can hopefully start to look at it without being overwhelmed. It delays the need for an immediate response to the stress. However, this eventually must end and the stress must be overcome, otherwise the thing I have come to hold at arm’s length will stay there forever.

Eventually I can convince myself to get on the mat–usually because it is an important part of how I define myself because I feel obligated to practice when I continue to teach others about yoga and because I know I eventually enjoy it during the practice and I feel much better afterword.

There is a miscommunication about research on yoga and how it effects stress. Yoga practice, as an intervention, is most often studied as a treatment. The study then is on how yoga addresses the effects of stress, but not the underlying cause. This is not a fault in research, but reflects the incredible difficulty in defining stress properly and avoiding untrue common definitions to run wild. The scientific approach to the problem of stress developed from the publication and case study background of individuals that had problematic symptoms, such as ulcers or sleep disturbance, and the goal of such research was to ask why this occurred. Stress has been attributed to something called ego challenge in one psychological field and particular physiological responses resulting from chemical changes in catecholamines, such as increased pulse rate and blood pressure. This kind of physiological response has been associated with the progress of diseases, most notably infectious disease susceptibility by stress induced immune function disruption in ulcers. The exact biochemical link of these diseases has been mapped to the drastic dysregulation of cortisol and the catecholamines (adrenaline being one). The miscommunication from all this research is this: the chronic dysregulation of stress hormones causes the long term adverse diseases we attribute to stress (for example, heart disease). That is simply not true.

This interesting underdeveloped social definition of stress is commonly perpetuated and highlighted easily. We don’t expect a mountain biker, who regularly catapults himself into dangerous adrenaline inducing situations to suffer from the same type of affliction that a day in and day out stressed out middle management accountant would. However, these two people are experiencing a very similar biochemical response. I have not done the experiment, but I would imagine that when we use the catecholamines to monitor the stress or other physiological markers, the banker and the mountain biker would most likely be indistinguishable. If anyone is thinking of doing this experiment I would gladly volunteer to be the mountain biker, just saying.

Yoga gives us the brakes by monitoring our breath and allows us to work with the slow moving and incessant forms of stress. Getting into a lunge is more similar to the accountants stress in intensity, duration, and quality, but our attention to the breath and defined sequence gives us a similar level of control that the mountain biker has. Doing eastern calisthenics may mitigate some of the ill effects of stress, but the change in mind resulting can transform our slow yoga-accountant’s experience of stress into elation, ecstasy, and fun, like the mountain biker.

Here is kind of an old video now of Dave Graham climbing a famous boulder called Mandala. Inspiring!

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