It is well accepted that yoga is a systematic way to reduce stress. Those not interested in spiritual aspects of yoga need to know that the benefits from reduction of chronic stress are considerable and this should be enough to get them going into yoga. No further discussion necessary. But this article is about spirituality and seeks to answer the question why is yoga spiritual? Why is it that by doing yoga stretches that we tend to become more spiritual?
Why are we stressed?
To understand connection between yoga and spirituality we need to first answer the question: why are we stressed? The stress system answers to life-threatening situations. When a tiger is chasing the deer, the fight-or-flee situation kicks in. This is a perfectly tailor made situation to be stressed if you are the deer! While crossing a road if you are about to be run over by an approaching car, it is not the time to ponder on existential questions or have loving feelings towards the driver of the approaching vehicle. It is time for the stress response to kick in. It is time to flee and jump out of trouble! But in modern times life-threatening situations are rare. So this begs the question: Why are we stressed?
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This is a story about the Ramana Mahrshi. In this story he is referred to as “Sri Bhagvan”:
For most of the day Sri Bhagavan used to sit on his sofa, which was adjacent to a window. Squirrels would occasionally come in through the window and run around near him. Sri Bhagavan would often respond to them by lovingly feeding them cashews or other foodstuffs with his own hand. One day Sri Bhagavan was feeding the squirrels when a devotee, who had been watching him, gave him a note in which was written: “The squirrels are very fortunate because they are getting the food from your own hands. Your grace is so much on them. We feel jealous of the squirrels and feel that we also should have been born as squirrels. Then it would have been very good for us.”
Sri Bhagavan couldn’t help laughing when he read this note. He told the man, “How do you know that the grace is not there on you also?” And then, to illustrate his point, he started to tell a long story.
One saint had the power of correct predictive speech. That is, whatever he said came true. In whatever town he went to, the local people would come to him to see him and to get his blessings. The saint, who was also full of compassion, removed the unhappiness of the people by blessing them. Because his words always came true, the blessings always bore fruit. That is why he was so popular.
During his wanderings he came to a town where, as usual, a lot of people flocked to him to get his blessings. Among the blessing seekers there was a thief. He went to see the saint in the evening and asked for his blessings. When the saint blessed him, the thief was very happy. He felt certain that because of these blessings, when he went out to steal at night, he would be successful. But it turned out otherwise. Whenever he went to break into a house, somebody or other from that house would wake up and he would have to run away. He tried in three or four places but he could not succeed anywhere.
Because of his failure, the thief got very angry with the saint. Early the next morning he went back to him and angrily said, ‘You are an impostor! You are giving false blessings to the people.’
It is well accepted that yoga is a great tool for countering stress. Yoga helps calm the mind body down and de-stress it. But how does it work? To understand this we need to know what Biofeedback is.
Biofeedback is a technique that is used to train people with conditions such as high blood pressure, headache, migraine, chronic pain, and urinary inconsistence. Biofeedback is generally used to control bodily processes that are not normally in our voluntary control. Electrodes are attached to our skin to measure heart rate, brain waves, skin temperature, skin moisture, stress in muscles, etc., The information collected by the various instruments is processed and displayed to the patient as a signal, usually on a monitor. This signal usually represents the stress levels of a patient. The patient is asked to mentally work towards moving the signal in a particular direction that indicates lowering of stress level. Biofeedback allows the patient to understand her current stress levels and figure out what thoughts and actions increase it and what lower it, allowing her to voluntarily control her stress levels. When this happens blood pressure reduces, muscles relax and chronic pain subsides.
Biofeedback shows that it is possible to voluntarily reduce stress levels by countering its effects.
Impact Of Stress On Us
Here is what stress does to us:
1. It makes our muscles tense.
2. It shortens our breath making it shallow and quick.
3. It puts our mind in a tizzy of circular thoughts of worry and anxiety.
This means that if we counter each of these effects of stress, we should be able to trigger a response from our body that de-stresses it.
The fun theory: “The easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better is by making it fun to do.” Watch this short video and see the power of this theory in action.