According to the American Medical Association, 80 to 85 percent of all human illness and disease can be attributed in part to stress. Over two-thirds of all office visits to physicians are for stress-related illness. Stress is a major contributing factor either directly or indirectly to the six leading causes of death in the United States. In a recent study, 75 percent of yoga students reported attending yoga classes for stress management.
Yet despite yoga's reputation for stress reduction, yoga classes regularly exhibit a lack of understanding about the nature of stress or how to effectively address it. Often, people talk about stress as though it were a lactic acid in their muscles that just needs to be stretched out. Surely, one of the great boons of an appropriate yoga practice is its capacity for alleviating some amount of musculoskeletal tension. And there is some interesting science being done on the release of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). However, this is merely scratching the surface when it comes to dealing with stress in the sort of epidemic proportions that we currently face.
Stress cannot be measured on a scale, detected in a blood test or viewed in a MRI exam. Generally defined, stress is a feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual requires to deal with them. As much as we might like to avoid it, if we are going to de-stress ourselves then we have to do more than just stretch our muscles. We must be willing to examine feelings and perceptions.
Another interesting and disturbing aspect of stress is that it is addictive. For all the ubiquitous expressions of being "stressed-out", the body's fight-or-flight response to stress can easily become like a drug. We become accustomed to an exaggerated production of adrenaline and endorphins in our system. So much so that, even when stress does abate, we unconsciously seek out more to fill the void. In this regard, there is a woeful irony to a lot of what is happening in the name of yoga.
An example is the emergence of the "express" yoga class. Back when I first started attending yoga classes, the standard was a one hour and forty-five minute class that included a fifteen minute final relaxation period. Over the years, largely due to logistical and financial reasons, centers have adopted a ninety minute format with a five to ten minute final relaxation. Nowadays, many centers drop the final relaxation altogether and offer forty-five to sixty minutes of action-packed stress reduction: "express."
Even in regular classes, the most "stressed-out" people will commonly opt out of a final relaxation period, thinking it a waste of time. The irony is that regardless of how proficiently someone might execute an intensely physical yoga class, until someone can simple lie on their back for a few minutes, without doing anything, and feel relatively at ease with themselves, there is little chance that they will ever feel at ease when doing things and being with other people.
In my own attempts to mitigate stress and be at ease in myself and life, I have found the only thing that truly helps is to counter stress with a feeling of intimacy. As Mark Whitwell, author of The Promise, puts it: "We might have the fastest smartphones, age-defying beauty treatments, or a plethora of pills to deal with the chaos of our modern lives. We might follow a most sincere religious or spiritual path, or we might take an atheistic or agnostic position in life. But in the midst of this busy world, we have lost touch with the gentle truth that what we really need is something more potent and direct: intimacy."
Learning to be intimate with my own breath and body is how I know to be intimate with the things and people in my life. When I feel intimate with what is happening, be it my breath and body, my daughters laugh, or the first morning glory to blossom in our fledgling garden, then my mind is not consumed by sources of anxiety. And the small gestures that I cherish as most meaningful become enablers for my resolve.
Of course, when it comes to feelings and perceptions, there are no answers save for the ones we discover in ourselves. There is no glossing over hard truths. Times are tough. Horrible things happen. People behave poorly. Sometimes we can change circumstances of our own accord and lessen the demands. But sometimes we cannot. Despite the shitpile that life sometimes stinks of, I say there is no shortage of unabashed, celebratory joy to be had.
Only with the fierce burning desire for and belief in all that is good will we ever cut through the wash of stresses and disappointments. Therefore, we need tiny beautiful things. Lots of them. So many that darkness is relegated to the corners and we can see life not only in its turmoil but in its splendor.