Seen or heard anything lately about the stress relieving benefits of yoga and meditation? As more mainstream media begin to cover yoga, the lauding of yoga for stress relief is hard to miss -- google "yoga and stress relief" and you'll get more than two million hits. But let's take a moment to look at this seemingly logical progression:
Stress is bad. Yoga and meditation relieve stress. Doing yoga and meditation to relieve stress is good.
Why question what's obvious? In the words of Bertrand Russell: “In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” So, let's hang that question mark and see where we end up. Spoiler alert: it may surprise you.
If the feeling of peace and calm at the end of your yoga class is something you can't get enough of, then you aren't alone: people are flocking to yoga for stress relief, and it works. According to a recent Yoga Journal survey, stress relief is the second biggest reason Americans start yoga, just behind flexibility. Of those who practice yoga, 53% cite stress reduction as a motivation to continue the practice, and 94% of all practitioners find that their practice does, in fact, reduce stress.
Science corroborates practitioners' experience. In recommending yoga as a healing modality, the Mayo Clinic noted that a number of scientific studies have shown that yoga and meditation may help reduce stress. And whenever stress is reduced, mental and physical health tend to improve. So, it's no wonder that we're hearing a loud course of "hurrahs" for the stress-busting benefits of yoga.
While the surface results of yoga for stress relief are certainly hard to argue with, their benefit becomes outweighed over time: when stress relief becomes the goal of yoga (and if you look at the way classes and retreats are being themed and marketed, that certainly seems to be the case), then the practice actually allows you to perpetuate a harmful lifestyle by reducing the impact of that lifestyle's negative effects. Practiced for stress relief, yoga doesn't get you out of the muck; it only makes you more ok with the muck you're in, and being stuck like that is not a good thing long-term.
The Source of Stress, in Yogic Terms
Guess what! You're very well connected. You hold inside a spark of the universal intelligence and love that created the universe. That spark is the truth of who you are, and it fully knows your role in the "big picture." (This has been tested and corroborated, by the way, by millennia of spiritual experience, and uniting with the source of this spark has been the primary goal of classical yoga throughout the ages.) If what you live on the outside does not match the truth of who you are on the inside, then your life is based on, and perpetuating, a fundamental disharmony (which is a more pleasant way of saying "a lie"). Living that disharmony will always, always, always be stressful.
So, from a yogic perspective, your stress is telling you in clear terms, "You are not connected to or living your truth!" When your only response to this message is to continually alleviate, numb, or lessen your stress by external means, yoga included, you are like the willful child who who sticks her fingers in her ears when her parent gives wise counsel. And if you continually ignore the message and refuse to find out who you truly are, then you will be, at most, what the world has told you to be. Your life will be a form of bondage to a rather arbitrary definition of happiness and success imposed by your culture, education, experience and conditioning. The life you were meant to live will remain hidden, waiting and untapped. Is having a moment of chill really worth it?
Case in point: I spent 15 years pursuing a legal career, ultimately working my way to partnership in a firm specializing in courtroom litigation, because it seemed like a logical way to get what I believed I wanted. My belief was based on my externally referenced understanding of what creates happiness. After all that study, work, and time in the courtroom, I had a career and a bunch of stuff that I felt no connection to -- I was living what most everyone said was the dream life, but it turned out that it wasn’t MY dream. It was a definition of success I had learned and was good at, but not who I actually AM. The result? Stress, and a lot of it, which I relieved with frequent and intense visits to the gym. So I had money and was buff, and everybody acted like I had won the lottery. I, however, dreaded getting up for work every day. And to think, I could have just used more effective means of stress relief (like a sweaty yoga class) to keep living that charade.
So, I may be in the minority here, but I don’t think yoga for stress relief is a good thing in the long run. It’s palliative care instead of healing, like taking a blood pressure pill as you continue to ingest massive amounts of salt, or taking painkillers as you continue to jog on that blown-out knee, or . . . well, you get the picture.
In short, don't do yoga to relieve your stress. Do yoga to discover and live your truth, so you don't have anything to be stressed about.
I know that may be easier said than done, so here are three recommendations to get the ball rolling:
1. Stop believing that stress is a necessary and natural byproduct of life.
It's a testament to how out of balance we've become that high stress levels are actually admired in modern culture; after all, being anxiety-ridden must mean you are on the go, getting things done, and living life to the fullest! (How proud we are to exclaim, "I'm so busy!!!") And have you noticed the phrase "stress relief" is being replaced by "stress management," as if we just have to accept stress as part of life? Living your truth is admirable; creating increasingly busy versions of a false life, not so much. Open to the possibility that a complete and accurate expression of your self will create a fulfilling and abundant outer life without the stress, and that your inner wisdom knows what you should do more than anything you will ever read, see or hear.
2. Embrace yoga's stress-relieving benefits, but don't stop there!
If you've been reading this and thinking, “That's all well and good, but I’m just trying to make it through my week without exploding, and yoga is really helping me,” -- and we’ve all been there – then by all means go to a yoga class and decompress. Revel in yoga’s physical, mental and emotional benefits -- they’re awesome! Be grateful for the feeling you have at the end of class, hold on to it as long as you can, and do what you can to return to it as often as possible.
BUT . . . stay attuned to the deeper message of yoga and start to cultivate a practice that’s more than a bunch of postures. That's just the outer work (no matter how deep it feels). In Purna Yoga (the method I study and teach), we always begin class with a technique that pulls the mind and senses back from the outer world’s message of who and how we should be. We then lead the mind to the deeper truth we hold inside, and we start class from that connection. The focus of the physical practice is not simply removing stress or creating calm, but opening your body to the transformative power of your deepest spirit, and using its wisdom to improve your life choices. The goal is to leave class a different person prepared to create a different life, not just a less stressed person going back to the same old life.
3. Remember the message of stress.
When you start to get stressed, pause, step back, and take a moment to remember that within the stress is a message that you have a bigger and better story than the one you are living. Unlike the way stress feels, that message is actually a very kind and loving one, as it seeks only your progress. Drop all self-judgment around the message, and hear it as the voice of potential beckoning you forward.
Having worked with this practice for over a decade, do I have stress? Of course. But when life throws me curveballs, I respond much differently now. I understand that stress is a call to bring more of my truth into the situation in front of me, and by doing that I will reach a better resolution for everybody involved. Just knowing that dissipates anxiety. The stress that I used to experience as a constant, energy sapping, health-wrecking effect of living life is now a brief but effective reminder that I have a better choice to make and better outcomes to experience. My yoga practice is how I access the wisdom, clarity and power to live that choice.
And that, I believe, is a very good reason for doing yoga.