I’ve been practicing meditation for several years now. But, do to my body’s longstanding inflexibility, I have avoided practicing yoga as a compliment to my meditation and overall spiritual practice. I recently decided to give yoga the old college try.
Rather than flipping through the local Yellow Pages for nearby yoga studios, I did what any other late-twenties, moderately tech-savvy, do-it-yourselfer would do: search for a decent YouTube channel. It didn’t take long to find a few videos that appeared to match my skill-level (aka, complete beginner). So, for the last four weeks or so, I’ve been fumbling my way through 10-20 minute sequences 2-4 times per week. (Hey, I had to start somewhere.)
Each of the videos I’ve learned from end with a relaxation exercise in the savasana (“corpse”) pose. It’s basically a form of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), which involves tensing the muscles in some area of the body for a few seconds and then relaxing them. It goes something like this:
“Lift up your right leg, contract your leg… drop.”
“Lift up your left leg, contract your leg… drop.”
“Lift up your hips, contract your buttocks… drop.”
“Lift up your arms, make fists… drop.”
“Lift up your chest, contract your upper-back… drop.”
… and so on, and so forth.
I assume that – as is the case with PMR – the purpose of contracting the muscles prior to relaxing them is to become aware of their location in the body, and also how they feel when contracted or relaxed. With awareness comes the potential for greater influence over these muscles, which means that one can learn to contract or relax muscles that they never knew they had. The result of this training in everyday life becomes quite clear when situations arise which we’ve learned to react with muscle tension rather than relaxation. In other words, it teaches us a lot about stress.
For example, during my commute home from work a few days ago, I looked into my rear-view mirror and noticed that the man driving behind me was driving close enough to my car to count the dust particles on my trunk. Being that this is a particularly dangerous situation to encounter, due to the risk of physical injury or property damage, I immediately tensed up. However, as soon as I noticed the tension in my body – and thus, my mind – I was able to respond with a mental note to simply, “Drop it.” You know what? It worked.
A similar situation arose while I was entering my office building one morning last week. In the reflection of the glass doors ahead of me, I saw a woman walking toward the building fairly close behind me. Reflexively, I stopped as I opened the door in order to hold it for the oncoming pedestrian out of common courtesy. However, the woman slowed her pace as she neared the stairs, coming almost to a dead halt. Feeling kind of silly for stopping, I thought, “Whatever,” and allowed the door to close as I walked into the building. Yet again, along with the thought, “Whatever,” I felt my body tense up at the shoulders and in my gut. To my surprise, without any prior intentional planning for this particular scenario, the thought came – “Drop it.” And so, I dropped it. What a relief!
How often do we carry our stress around unnecessarily? It reminds me of this story told in the tradition of Zen Buddhism:
“Two zen monks were travelling. They came to a ford of a stream that was running high, and the current was strong and frightening looking. An attractive young lady was standing at the ford, looking nervous. She clearly was afraid to cross, but had an important reason to go. Without a word, the older of the two monks lifted her in his arms and waded across the stream, and placed her safely on the far bank. The younger monk looked shocked at this action, but kept his silence for quite some number of miles as they continued their journey. Finally, he blurted out “You know that it is against the rules of our order to have any contact with women. How could you do that?”.
The older monk replied “I put her down when I reached the other side of the river. You, on the other hand, have been carrying her this whole way.”
Driving home last week, even after the man in the red truck turned down a different street, I could have carried him all the way home, into my living room, or to my dining room table during dinner. Or, this I could have carried the woman at the door into my office building and to my desk, where she would stand motionless in my mind’s eye, making me wonder, “Why didn’t she just keep walking? Didn’t she see me holding the door?” I could be working with this frustrating woman all day! Of course, the man driving the red truck and the woman outside my office building were not the cause of my stress. The stress was a reaction produced by this very body and mind (aka, “Jackson”). From this perspective, guided by the insights arising from a very simple yoga practice, stress is quite simply, and most fundamentally, a bad habit. We carry stress around not because we have to, but because we’ve learned to.
That said, I think it’s true that there are innate human reflex-responses to stimuli perceived as threatening. This is built into the earliest, most basic structures of our brains. We can’t help but react with fear in certain situations, and this is actually VERY helpful for us as a species. The sympathetic nervous system is a blessing when there is an actual threat. But, how useful is this kind of response to, say, being stuck in traffic on the way to work, or when someone cuts in front of you in the check-out line at the grocery store? Probably not that useful.
When it comes to learning how to release stress and the reactive emotions that come along with it, it pays to pay attention to your body. Pay attention not just when you’re stressed, but also when you’re relaxed. Try alternating between the two within a few minutes, and notice the way the qualities of your mind (thinking, perception) in both states. This simple exercise can bring a rather unfortunate habitual pattern into light. This first step is crucial, for you can’t release something you don’t know is happening. In other words, you must know before you can let go.
 “Carrying the Woman” story borrowed from Taoist & Zen stories and Ramblings.
 One of my professors describes threats as, “lions, tigers, bears, muggers, buses, etc.” – situations that can actually harm you or someone you care about, but that we don’t run into everyday… save for buses, perhaps.