Stress is a buzz word today. Everyone from executives and factory workers to housekeepers and even children deal with stress in their daily lives. Even yoga teachers are not free from the effects of stress. We wouldn’t have to worry about stress too much if it didn’t have such insidious effects. While a certain amount of stress is normal and healthy, too much stress can lead to burnout and inefficiency at work, troubled relationships, and nagging feelings of anger and anxiety. Since stress, when unmanaged, can drain the joy from our lives, we need not only to pay attention to it, but also take steps to deal with it.
The Yogasutra is the most complete and authoritative work on yoga, written by Patanjali, and believed to be around two thousand years old. This work offers simple yet practical advice for handling stress, that is still relevant today. In chapter one, verse 33, Patanjali advocates that sometimes a small change in our attitude may be the way to reduce our agitations.
maitri karuna mudita upeksanam sukha dukha punya apunya visayanam bhavanatah citta prasadanam”| Yogasutra I.33 |
nurturing friendship towards people that are happy, compassion towards those suffering, appreciating those who do good, and staying away from those who don’t will bring us peace of mind.
The message here is very simple. Sometimes we feel a tinge of jealousy of people who are happier than us. We laugh at or don’t even care towards those who are suffering. We talk ill about those who do good things by saying, “They have a business motive behind”. This does no good to the people involved or not even us. Ultimately we feel distressed or stressed because of our own reactions.
This is why Patanjali in his sutra’s is giving the opposite message. Nurturing attitudes that are the exact opposites of these. Friendly attitude towards those who are happier, compassion towards those who are in difficulty, appreciation towards those who do good and staying away from those who are not doing good. These may lead us to a more peaceful state of mind and bring warmth in our hearts that will heal us. Not only that even others who feel our attitudes will be nice towards us.
A recent incident is proof of this sutra. Auto rickshaw drivers in India are the equivalent of taxi drivers in NYC. They have a reputation of being greedy, aggressive and not at all friendly. A few months ago my father and mother came to send me off at the airport. It was late in the night and as my mother went to park the car, my father bade me good-bye and started searching for my mother. Ultimately they lost themselves and my father decided to return home thinking my mother had already left. He took an auto-rickshaw driver (who was apparently drunk) and returned home as he had little choice.
On the way home he put his hands in his pocket and found that he had no wallet. So he told this guy the entire situation and told him that once he reached home he would get the money from the home and give it to him. As he reached home, my father found out that my mother had not yet come home and it was well past mid night. Another issue was that my mother had the keys to the house and hence he could not enter the house to give the driver the money. Hence he and the driver had to wait for my mother to come and she came home after waiting for a long time at the airport for my father.
When she returned, my father took the house key and brought money to pay the driver. The driver spoke for the first time and said “Sir I don’t want money from you. I was only waiting to see if your wife returned safely.” My father was surprised and asked him the reason for this. The driver replied “Sir, when I was young, my mother used to work in your house as a maid and I know that you and your wife were nice to our family. Your wife took compassion on my mother who was tortured by my father and its because of your help that we are now doing well. You may not remember me, but I do and that’s why I waited to make sure your wife returned safely.” This struck my father very deeply. An act of compassion shown many years ago showed itself now, at a time when my father needed it most, but did not expect it.
Similarly, other attitudes suggested in the above mentioned aphorism can also be beneficial to us. Even if its not in the short term, they definitely will bear fruit long term. Often the reason we are tense is because our attitudes aren't appropriate. And cultivating right attitudes is one way we can reduce stress and its influence. Thus it seems that Patanjali's mantra to beat stress is to stress on these attitudes and implement them in our lives.