From stress to savasana: How yoga can help you create calm
How ancient yoga philosophies can help you create calm amid modern calamity.
As I write these words the world is in chaos. Never in my lifetime have I experienced so much global uncertainty and fear, and we feel this deeply as individuals. The anxiety may come in the form of a dull, constant hum, or a feeling deep within your bones, but it’s there, to some extent, for all of us. In a world where we’re constantly connected to our devices, social media incessantly screams for our attention and giant machines transport us to the other side of the globe in a matter of hours, it’s easy to feel bombarded by the world’s woes.
Stress is nothing new. Once upon a time we stressed about the threat of predators and lack of adequate food for survival, and now we stress about the news, never-ending email lists and, you know, doing our grocery shopping. And stress has its place. Cortisol levels motivate us to get out of bed in the morning and stop us from doing dangerous things. But stress can also be debilitating, preventing us from experiencing life in a balanced way.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to tell you that yoga and its philosophies can be hugely valuable to us during times of anxiety and uncertainty. When people were first practising yoga there wasn’t even a word for stress, so you wouldn’t expect to find any modern-day stress-busting strategies in classical texts such as the Yoga Sūtras. However, the yogis were onto “mind-expansion” way before the rest of us, so you don’t need to dig very deep to stumble upon ancient gems of wisdom that can easily be applied to modern-day life.
Traditional yoga philosophy
The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali is one of the most influential yoga texts, written between 200 and 400 CE. According to The Sūtras, stress or anxiety arises when the mind is interrupted by obstacles. The causes of these obstacles, explained in Sutra 1.30, are: disease, mental inaction, doubt, carelessness, laziness; inability to withdraw, compose, and rest, hallucination, inability to reach, grasp, or comprehend the goal, and inability to remain grounded. If we can overcome these obstacles, then we can move towards a place of clarity, enlightenment and, you guessed it, calm. Through the practice of yoga and meditation we can begin to address these obstacles. However, practising for the hours a day required to begin this work is not always conceivable in a modern-day context.
For Dr Lauren Tober, a yoga teacher, clinical psychologist and the creator of Mental Health Aware Yoga — a training course for yoga teachers — one of the greatest lessons to come from the Yoga Sūtras that can easily be applied in a modern environment is the concept of ahiṁsā. Ahiṁsā is one of the yamas: guidelines for interacting with the world around us. She says, “As a clinical psychologist, I see on a daily basis that a lack of self-compassion underlies many of the emotional challenges we face. It is frighteningly common to have a very loud and vocal inner critic. Many of us speak to ourselves in a way that we would never speak to anyone else, and would never tolerate from anyone else, and we don’t even realise it. It’s no wonder we feel stressed and overwhelmed when the voice we carry within us is putting us down on a moment-by-moment basis. Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras highlight the importance of ahiṁsā, or non-violence to all living creatures, and I believe that if we extended this to ourselves, and turn our kindness, gentleness and compassion inwards, we would be happier, calmer and much less stressed.”
Easier said than done? Lauren suggests that to cultivate ahimsa towards yourself, you could develop the habit of asking yourself daily, “If I loved and was compassionate towards myself right now, what would I do?” She explains, “These small steps of compassionate words and acts help us to drop the habit of the inner critic, and rewire the brain for self-compassion, so eventually it becomes the new normal.”
Ayurveda is widely known as the sister science of yoga. Originating in India more than 5000 years ago, this holistic health philosophy places great emphasis on prevention, and encourages the maintenance of health through diet, thinking, lifestyle and herbs.
With its emphasis on the mind as an important component of healing, Ayurveda acknowledges that stress itself is not really a problem, as human beings will inevitably find themselves in situations that arouse tension. However, how we respond to life’s stresses will ultimately determine how much of an impact they have on us.
Samantha Doyle is a qualified Ayurvedic nutritionist and the founder of Live to Serve Academy, with more than a decade of experience in the health and wellbeing industry. She explains that the key to managing stress, from an Ayurvedic perspective, is “to live life in a manner that supports inner harmony, enabling us to handle the stresses of life with a sense of equanimity.” In other words, it’s totally possible to be in the midst of a storm and to feel that energy without blowing a gasket.
Samantha explains that modern-day society is largely ruled by the guna (quality) rajas — a nature fuelled by ambition, drive, and the desire for reward, which often leads to discontent, agitation and stress. She says, “In order to counterbalance the modern-day stress inducing lifestyle, we need to take a proactive approach to stress management by fortifying our lives with habits that create a foundation of peace, or sattva [the guna/quality of goodness]. By adopting a sattvic lifestyle, we reduce unnecessary stress on the mind and body, as sattva by nature invokes qualities of calm, clarity, balance and harmony. When we are in a calm and clear state of mind, we become thoughtful, responsive, and less reactive. It allows our mind to be at ease so that we can hear guidance from within when faced with a stressful situation.” That doesn’t mean that we need to abandon life as we know it and spend our days meditating in caves, we simply need to invite in practices that help us to navigate stress in a more mindful way.
Samantha’s sattva-infused daily practices for stress management
- Take time for pranayama (mindful, controlled breathing). Conscious breathing will help to calm the nervous system and the mind.
- Practise mantra meditation to unclutter and purify your mind and reawaken a higher state of consciousness.
- Choose activities, environments and stimuli that promote the kind of mental state you want to live in. Just like the saying goes, “you are what you eat” — the same applies for what we consume and digest on a mental level.
- Eat sattvic foods such as vegetarian wholefoods to reduce toxins, promote sound digestion, and induce a sense of mental clarity.
- Exercise daily to relieve stress and induce clarity.
Although it’s impossible to eliminate all sources of stress from our lives, and indeed to always be the “calm yogi” in the midst of chaos, yoga philosophy encourages us to reframe the way we see things. We can’t stop the storm, but we can learn to calm our inner critic. And, we can’t control the chaos, but we can learn the daily practices that put us in the best position to respond with clarity. In turn, we may come to a place in our lives where we can enjoy a sweet savasana without the to-do list on mental repeat — if only for a few conscious breaths.