The present day world is changing with incredible rapidity. Established customs, traditions and values are becoming insignificant. The children are no longer adopting the culture of their parents. Life styles have undergone a sea change from a simple and content life to an extravagant, flashy and self-centred fast life. However, this new development requires diverse adjustments both for individuals and for groups, so that we appear to conform to the current social, cultural, ethical and moral changes that everyone is forced to make today. This correction is against the basic nature of the human beings, which is inherently divine. The result is stress, strain and tension at three levels, psychological, physiological and social. In the burgeoning metro cities, the effect of stress is felt more than in rural areas, though the strain experienced by those people is of a different kind. The rich and the successful are forced to pay an exorbitantly high price for their so-called achievements and triumphs. The higher income group people are susceptible to stress twice that of the lower income people. This is also true for the more educated and those at the top of the ladder in the corporate hierarchy. The managers, executives and professionals suffer much more heavily from stress than others.
Stress is a vague term and the western scientists have not clearly understood or properly defined it so far. Some of them look at stress from a purely physiological point of view, while others approach it from a purely psychological angle. Even those who have taken an integrated approach are yet to provide a clear definition of all the aspects of stress. This is the reason why the remedies suggested for stress management have also been inadequate. This is in sharp contrast to the thoughts and enunciations of the ancient Indian saint-philosophers of the Sanatana Dharma or Hindu Religion, who were able to take an integrated approach to stress and its management. In this context, it would be interesting to note an observation by the World Health Organisation on the physical health of human beings. WHO has given this definition: “Health is not only the absence of disease or infirmity, but also a state of physical, mental and social well-being.” A brief study of both the modern theories and our ancient Sanatana Dharma philosophies on stress will help us in understanding the basics of stress and in coping up with the same in an effective manner.
A major category of stress is termed as occupational stress, since a vast majority of the modern population is engaged in one type or another of paid employment nowadays. This occupational stress is classified as five types, namely,
1) Job stress: factors that are directly related to workload, physical working conditions, decision making opportunities, etc.
2) Role-based stress: factors associated with responsibility, role ambiguity and role conflict.
3) Work place relationship stress: factors that are involved in the relationship with superiors, colleagues and subordinates, as well as the interpersonal demands.
4) Career opportunity and development related stress: Factors connected to promotion, demotion, job security, job changes, etc.
5) Constitutional structure and climate related stress: Factors linked to relative freedom or restriction on behaviour groups or class conflicts in the working environment.
The response or reaction to stress is also classified or determined on five principles. They are,
1) Stress reactions are holistic.
2) Stress reactions are economical.
3) Stress reactions are either automatic or planned.
4) Stress reactions involve emotions.
5) Stress reactions have both inner and outer determinants as their components.
It is generally accepted that frustration leads to anger, danger brings forth fear and threat elicits anxiety. However, it has to be noted that the stress reactions vary widely from individual to individual. The cognitive appraisal and coping abilities of the individuals are always different and hence their response is also dissimilar. Given the same type of stress, some respond in an aggressive manner, while others retreat into depression. Anger usually comes out as aggression, while fear induces depression. This is known as ‘fight or flight’ reaction. On the other hand, when both fight and flight become impossible, then exhaustion sets in, resulting in collapse or even death.
The environment aspects of stress are determined by potential source of stress and its actual demand on a person along with the background and situational factors involved in that particular stressor. On an individual basis, the attitudes, needs, values, traits, past experiences, age, sex, education, etc. that constitute one’s individual ability as well as the judgement of threat or cognitive appraisal, which includes both perceived demand and perceived ability, play an important role in the handling of stress. When a person has successfully coped up with the stress, the stressor disappears. On the other hand, when a person has not been able to cope with the stress, then an imbalance arises, which leads to pressure, stress and distress. The effects of this imbalance can be physiological, psychological or behavioural and further these effects can be either short term or long term. Researches have proved that stress is correlated directly or indirectly to coronary heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidental injuries, cirrhosis of lever and suicide. As such, effective management of stress is of prime importance in modern day world.
One of the most effective methods of stress management has been Yoga, the biggest and most significant contribution of Sanatana Dharma or Hindu Religion to the world. Even though the Patanjali Ashtanga Yoga has not been clearly understood or interpreted, several schools of yoga have mushroomed all over the world, offering instant remedies for all types of stressors through yoga. Even many modern scientists and philosophers have not comprehended the completeness of the Patanjali Yoga Shastra and they assume that the approach of Patanjali is purely physical or understand it as exclusively psychological. Patanjali starts his postulation with the dictum “Yogah chittavritti nirodah,” that is yoga is the removal of mental modifications. However, he insists on both physical and mental exercises for climbing the ladder of yoga. The eight steps of Patanjali Yoga consist of both internal and external exercises and practices that provide stability to the body-mind complex for achieving a blissful state. The five Yamas come first, negative codes, namely, Ahimsa or non-violence, Satya or truthfulness, Asteya or non-stealing, Brahmacharya or sensual continence and Aparigraha or non-acquisitiveness. They are followed by the five Niyamas, positive codes, viz., Saucha or purity of thoughts, words and actions, Santosha or contentment, Tapa or austerity, Swadyaya or self-study and Ishwara Pranidana or surrender to the Almighty.
Asanas, Mudras and Pranayama are the next steps in the Ashtanga Yoga. It is said that there are eighty-four lakhs asanas, corresponding to the eighty-four lakhs species. However, only eighty-four major types of asanas are followed nowadays. The asanas are mainly intended to firm up the body, so that the practitioner maintains a sound health. Pranayama is literally what it means. Pran means breath and Ayam means pause. Even though pranayama is normally considered as a cleansing practice, it is said that one can control the entire cosmic forces, if prana is controlled. Patanjali himself says that pranayama helps in removing the barriers to knowledge. Mudras are also bodily poses like asanas but they are highly advanced processes and they require considerable technical expertise. Hence, they are usually not suitable for non-professionals. In the higher realms are the nadis and chakras. They are considered to exist in the subtle body, which most of us are unable to perceive due to our strong bondage with the gross body.
The fifth step in the Patanjali ladder is Pratyahara, the withdrawal of the mind from the senses. Pratyahara is not the withdrawal of the senses or their incapacitation but complete mastery over them through the mind or the total mastery of the human psyche. A psyche that has been mastered is not affected by the senses but is able to use them effectively whenever required.
The final three steps of Patanjali Yoga are purely internal. Dharana is the holding the mind in a focussed state in a restricted manner. Steadiness of mind and concentration are the two major aspects of Dharana. Dhyana is the unity of the mind with a particular object, where all the external and internal stimuli vanish. Samadhi is the final state of bliss or beatitude, where the practitioner, the object of concentration and the process of concentration become one. Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are quite inseparable. However, care should be taken before venturing into these final steps.