The characterization of stress as a “silent killer,” and of yoga as an antidote to stress rests on solid scientific research. And just as prolonged stress can literally shorten one’s life, yoga as an antidote to stress can be seen as enhancing wellness.
One of the earliest definitions of yoga refers to the power of yoga to soothe mental agitation. In Patanjali’s Yogasutra, we find a definition of yoga as “the suppression of the modifications of mind.” (Yogah chitta vritti nirodha.)
In his book, Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar believes that the modifications of the mind disturb peace. “As a breeze ruffles the surface of a lake and distorts the images reflected therein, so also the chitta vrtti disturb the peace of the mind. When the mind is still, the beauty of the self is seen reflected in it.”
In 1957 Basu Kumar Bagchi from the University of Michigan conducted research for the first time that showed that yoga brings about “deep relaxation of the autonomic nervous system.” Advanced yogis can control both sympathetic as well as parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic nervous system exhibits the “flight or fight” response. The adrenal glands produce adrenalin, which inhibits digestion and makes blood available to the muscles for quick action. The parasympathetic system serves to calm the nerves, promotes the absorption of food, and curbs the flow of adrenaline. The sympathetic system thus serves as an accelerator, and the parasympathetic system as a brake. Prolonged exposure to stress can have deleterious health ramifications on the nervous system.
Harvard physician, Herbert Benson, who examined the effects of yoga and meditiaton wrote a 1975 book The Relaxation Response, which became a modern classic on undoing stress.’ Benson and his colleagues studied the phenomenon they referred to as hypometabolism—a “wakeful cousin of sleep that exhibits low energy expenditures.” He called the relaxation response “an inducible physiologic state of quietude” that healed and revitalized.
While the ancient yoga sutras of Patanjali outline the meditative traditions of yoga emphasizing concentration, contemplation and self-realization, a more modern version has become popular under the umbrella of “mindfulness.” Kabat-Zinn, a professor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has popularized the notion of mindfulness that he learned from Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. “Mindfulness means paying attention, in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally, ” he says in a video on Youtube.
My own experience has borne out much of these research findings. Though I had practiced yoga as a child, I felt what has been referred to as the “mind-body connection,” only as an adult practicing in America. Yoga became a peaceful oasis in the middle of a stressful week. Whereas aerobics classes left me energized, the sense of quietude that followed a yoga session was as if I was flooded with wellbeing and bliss. As class sizes grew, the YMCA in the Dallas suburbs where I lived offered one, and eventually, three yoga classes.
When I moved to California, I eagerly sought out the yoga offerings at the local YMCA. A “traditional” yoga class that I signed up for was different than what I had encountered. Rather than focusing on energetic asanas, it proceeded at a meditative and slow pace. My younger self found this a bit irritating, as I mentally tapped my foot restlessly, waiting for the action to happen. Focused as I was on burning calories and weight reduction, I avoided this slow pace for several years, focusing instead on the more energetic asana-based yoga styles. Eventually, I began to appreciate the restorative yoga classes more.
By this time, I had mastered the warrior poses as well as the sun salutations, but the crow pose still presented a challenge for me. Only recently have I begun to feel comfortable in these poses—crow, tripod headstand, and wheel, which prove that I am still making progress along this path. The adage that we learn something new everyday has been an accurate portrayal of my yoga experience. Without fail, though, the shavasana at the end of the class has quite consistently been the most rewarding part of the class for me.
While discussion of one’s meditation “phenomenon” is discouraged among yoga practitioners, I was quite drawn to the descriptions of other meditators, who discussed colors and lights and sounds during meditations. In my own meditation experiences, there are some distinct experiences that I can recall. One such meditation experience was when our family was faced with a very stressful decision of whether to move our family away from California. My daughter, who was then in high school, was reacting very negatively to this possibility. During one of my meditation sessions, I focused on a wish to free my daughter of her pain. During my meditation, I had a sensation of energy streaming through my body. A few weeks later, we made a decision not to move from California. The sheer intensity of my meditative experience has made this an unforgettable memory.
Another intense meditation I experienced was during a visit to the Tibetan monastery in Dharamsala. I was in a room with a large statue of the avalokiteswara, and began to meditate. Again, I felt a very strong cathartic emotion, as if the pain that I had been experiencing was being dissolved and tears began to flow from my eyes. This is the closest first hand experience I had to the melting of toxic emotions in a meditative state.
More recently, I have found that at the end of a yoga class, during the shavasana, I might experience meditative bliss. Waves of pure joy seem to course through my closed eyes and I am filled with ananda (joy). It is a disappointment when the shavasana comes to an end.
This inner sanctuary of peace can become a refuge during life’s ups and downs. It is a sanctuary to which one returns time and again. Though alcohol and drugs can induce a state of artificial happiness for a little while, ancient yogis had discovered a natural mood and creativity enhancer in meditation and it is no wonder that today many more are literally paying attention.
First published in December 2016.
Geetika Pathania Jain is a yoga practitioner. She has been teaching hatha yoga in the Bay Area for several years.