By Gary Kraftsow
Life is inherently stressful, and the effects of that stress cause suffering. The ancient yogis understood this very well. Although it’s hard to imagine what daily life was like for them thousands of years ago, what is clear is that they created and handed down a systematic approach for overcoming the effects of stress on the mind and body: yoga.
The ancients brought forth profound insights into the nature of the human condition. Their extensive teachings and powerful practices cover all aspects of experience along the full spectrum of human life and reflect a deep understanding about how to transform suffering at every level. These teachings and practices remain highly relevant and applicable for reducing stress and mitigating the effects of chronic stress on the human system.
The effects of chronic stress
Chronic stress creates a broad spectrum of symptoms that can impact structure, physiology, mood, cognition, and behavior. These symptoms can vary from individual to individual. When we live in a state of constant stress, stress hormones, including cortisol, are continually released into the bloodstream, which can create musculoskeletal tension and pain and contribute to a number of long-term health problems, such as high blood pressure; elevated blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels; digestive problems; suppressed immune function; sleep disruptions; memory loss; anxiety and depression; and weight gain. Chronic stress impacts our emotions, thinking, and behavior, and it places us at greater risk of chronic disease and premature death.
Stress is the body’s physiological response to perceived threat or danger. The stress response–also known as the fight-or-flight response–is a survival mechanism that prepares the body to fight or flee from harm’s way. When we perceive that we are threatened, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, hormones (including adrenaline and cortisol) are released into the bloodstream, and energy is redirected to organs and muscles needed for emergency survival (such as the heart and voluntary muscles) and away from those not needed for self-defense (such as the digestive and reproductive systems).
Unfortunately, psychological stress produces the same physiological effects on the body. Our modern-day stressors–worry about work deadlines, financial concerns, or anxiety about relationships–can trigger the fight-or-flight response. And when the fight-or-flight response is triggered again and again, the body comes into a state of constant tension or hypervigilance, leading to disregulation in our physiology between the stress response (the sympathetic nervous system) and the relaxation response (the parasympathetic nervous system). Together, the systems associated with each response form the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
Yoga’s tools for managing stress
The good news is that yoga offers tools to cope with the stressors in our lives and bring the body back into a state of balance. The yoga tradition affirms that who we are in essence is purusha, an unchanging source of pure awareness that dwells within a changing, multidimensional, material universe (called prakriti ). The material universe includes aspects that we normally consider to be part of our self (with a lowercase “s”), such as our thoughts, feelings, and physical body, as well as those things that we normally consider external to our being, such as our family, social networks, and the natural world. According to this view, the entirety of manifest existence–beyond our essential Self of pure awareness (with an uppercase “S”)–exists only as temporal convergences within a vast field of ongoing change. Fundamentally, yoga affirms that we are not these changing internal conditions or external circumstances, and that our suffering comes from our mistaken identification with and attachment to them.
The ancients devised methods and a practice-based process, sadhana, to help us break our identification with our changing experiences, see things clearly as they are, and therefore gain the insight that leads to freedom from suffering. Yoga sadhana does this, in part, by restoring physiological balance, which in turn impacts mood, thought, and behavior. The hallmark of the Viniyoga tradition, which I teach, is the adaptation of yoga to the unique condition, needs, and interests of the individual. We differentiate the individual’s specific condition from all others, adapt specific tools of yoga to meet that condition, and appropriately apply the tools for the individual. We can also develop group-oriented programs for specific conditions, based on common characteristics of the condition, and then individualize within the group experience while teaching .
A pilot study/stress reduction program offered at Aetna, Inc.
I was invited by Aetna, Inc. to create a condition-specific program for stress management–the Viniyoga Stress Reduction Program–as part of a randomized, controlled pilot study for workplace stress reduction. The study was done in collaboration with Duke Integrative Medicine, Aetna, and e-Mindful and included 239 Aetna employees in Hartford, Connecticut, and Walnut Creek, Calfornia, who volunteered to participate in either the Viniyoga Stress Reduction Program, Mindfulness at Work Program, or a control group.
Participants in both mind-body interventions showed statistically significant improvements compared to the control group on perceived stress, sleep quality, and the heart rhythm coherence (HRC) ratio of heart-rate variability (HRV). Current pain level and diastolic blood pressure also improved in the Viniyoga group compared to controls.
The Viniyoga Stress Reduction Program is a 12-week worksite yoga program that meets once a week for one hour. The goals of the program are to relieve muscle tension in the back, neck, and shoulders; improve sleep; increase feelings of well-being; improve coping strategies; and motivate participants to adopt yoga practice tools for stress reduction. The program includes on-site classes, home and office practices, and reinforcement of class lessons through e-mail.
The program uses a specific methodology to address stress and the symptoms of stress, including:
• Breath-centric asana – Breath is the primary tool for restoring physiological balance. Movements in and out of the postures that are paced to the pace of the breath, rather than just staying in postures, increases circulation, improves dysfunctional movement patterns, and relieves tension and pain.
• Asana adaptation – Adapting the form of specific postures relieves musculoskeletal tension and pain that are often present with chronic stress.
• Breath adaptation in asana – Controlling the breath in postures directly impacts the nervous system and helps the practitioner gain mastery over the breath–this is of particular importance.
• Pranayama – Seated breathing practice, in addition to breath adaptation in asana, helps the practitioner directly impact the functioning of the ANS to create sympathetic/parasympathetic balance and gain control over his or her reaction to stress in order to impact the symptoms of stress.
• Guided relaxation – Guided relaxation provides an additional tool for ANS balance.
The findings from the initial pilot are encouraging. Aetna is now offering the Viniyoga Stress Reduction Program beyond the original pilot sites. We hope that our continued collaboration with Aetna and the other pilot partners will contribute to a growing evidence base in mainstream health care for the efficacy of yoga for managing stress and mitigating the potential health effects of stress-related illness.
Future Directions and Opportunities
Just as the ancients brought us a systematic approach to managing stress, we in the yoga community have the opportunity to contribute to preventative approaches to health and wellness care. Our ability to deliver effective stress reduction programs to individuals, corporate environments, health-care settings, and other wellness settings depends on a variety of factors. Our understanding of the science of stress, a knowledge and understanding of yoga and how to adapt the methodology for stress, and training programs can bring competent yoga teachers and yoga therapists into a broader variety of settings. Not only can we help individuals gain mastery in regulating their own nervous systems, we can help society adopt preventative approaches to health and wellness.
This article was originally posted on Yoga Chicago.
Find DVD’s by Gary Kraftsow on Pranamaya
Gary Kraftsow, the leading proponent of viniyoga therapy in the US, has been a pioneer in the transmission of yoga for health, healing, and personal transformation for 30 years. After studying in India with T.K.V. Desikachar and his father T. Krishnamacharya, Gary received a special diploma from Viniyoga International in Paris. In 1999 he founded the American Viniyoga Institute where he is currently director and senior teacher of the Institute’s teacher and therapist trainings.
To learn more about Gary Kraftsow, check out his DVDs here at Pranamaya.