Stress and Patanjali Yoga Sutras

What is the link between stress and Patanjali Yoga Sutras and what does he have to say about stress, if anything? If we could better understand Patanjali's sutras, could it help us today in our application of yoga as therapy for stress and stress related conditions? Read Stephen Parker's article and decide.


by Stephen Parker, Psy.D. L.P. E.R.Y.T

The notion of stress as we understand it today might best be understood as a phenomenon of the rajasic qualities of the mind, its tendency to movement, agitation and emotion which is uncontrolled. It is this tendency to excess agitation that obscures the light of Purusha and is the major impediment to our ability to be aware of the state of samadhi which is present already in all of us, according to Vyasa's commentary on sutra I.1. This quality of mind is a form of klesha or affliction. This affliction comprises more than just the list of five kleshas (avidya, asmita, raga, dvesha, abhinivesha) in chapter two (II.3). That list is not meant to be exclusive and may encompass any afflicted mental operation (klishta-vrtti).

The physical correlate of this kind of mental agitation is agitation in the flow of breath, something which is well documented in the scientific literature on stress. When Patanjali is describing the problems that accompany the obstacles to samadhi (vikshepa) in I.29, he includes in the list of illnesses the ordinary Sanskrit terms for exhalation and inhalation, shvasa and prashvasa. In other words, he defines ordinary, unconscious respiration as a mental illness! The cure of this ïllness,"identical to the Buddhist system, is the application of mindful self-observation. The use of mindful respiration in the Sutras and elsewhere in the yoga literature is described by the terms puraka and recaka. This linguistic distinction is maintained over the 16 centuries between the time of the Yoga-sutras (200 BCE) and the Hatha Yoga texts which are relatively late (1000-1600 CE).

The cure for this problem is chitta-prasadana, emotional puriifcation or making the mind clear and pleasant. This term is most often associated with the four Brahma-viharas, friendliness (maitrai), compassion (karuna), joyful good-mindedness (mudita) and indifference towards the shortcomings of others and ourselves (upeksha), which are known in Buddhism as the four great treasures. It also applies to the mindful application of many other practices: the yamas and niyamas, practices of asceticism (tapas) and to mindful practice of asana. In asana, stress which has been stored in muscular tension is released through the process of relaxation of effort (prayatna-shaithilya, II.47) in the posture. Sometimes this will even prompt an emotional abreaction in the form tears and strong emotion. Like any other mental disturbance, it is to be observed with compassion for the suffering body and mind. In that process of mindful observation there will often be associated images or memories that provide the practitioner with a clue to what issues are being expressed and how to work with it. A teacher whose student is experiencing this kind of strong emotion should remain present to what is happening without intruding or trying to fix the situation. In rare instances it may be necessary to separate a student from the class and work with them individually.

In the same way that stress is stored as tension in skeletal muscles it also affects smooth muscle in the form of cardiovascular problems like hypertension and gastrointestinal problems like irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis and ulcerative colitis. With these more internal kinds of somatic stress storage relaxation and subtle body practices are likely to be more helpful.

Stephen Parker Psy.D. L.P. E.R.Y.T.-500 is a psychologist in private practice in St. Paul, MN and a senior faculty member in the Himalayan Yoga Tradition Teacher Training Program. He also edited volume two of Swami Veda Bharati's definitive translation and commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

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