THE BLOG
07/16/2011 10:37 am ET | Updated Sep 15, 2011

Yoga Practice: The Gentle Warrior in the Battle Against Stress

Stress must be one of the most oft-invoked words in our modern vocabulary. It is used in relation to jobs, finances, family, health and the attempt to manage them all at the same time. I used to joke about how my business was trying to kill me until I came down with a whopping case of cancer 15 years ago, so I stopped cracking wise in that way. But managing stress is still the biggest challenge in my life.

Because I am a business owner, I cannot quit my job. It would be a significant process for me to "quit" responsibly, so it can't be done quickly. At some point, perhaps out of desperation and perhaps because I know better than to allow stress or anything to control me, I decided it would be better to whip stress thoroughly before running away from it. Then I could always look back at my career knowing stress didn't chase me away. I chased stress away first, and then willingly called it a day.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not foolish enough to assume that I can eliminate stress from what I do every day. Instead, I set out to create some type of philosophy that could be implemented to protect me from its effects. Having learned some very valuable lessons about what is important from my cancer experience, I decided to become more powerful than the stress that constantly had its way with me. And I've been working on it in a small yoga studio.

For the two years prior to entering this space, I practiced Bikram yoga in a carpeted room featuring a sophisticated heat, humidity and air purification system. Optimum temperature was 105 degrees with up to 45 percent humidity and lots of bodies. I've never taken a class where the teacher had less influence, all of them using the same verbal prompts. The identical 26 postures are repeated in every class with no surprises. Bikram says the only thing that changes from day to day is you. Conformity is encouraged, although to be fair, students are allowed to rest when necessary to accomplish the goal of staying in the room. Benefits include weight loss, which was valuable to me, but I also sustained a nagging hamstring injury and experienced nearly constant lower back pain. But we were taught that we should work through the pain, even though it "hurts like hell," as we were expected to soldier on, as if these 26 postures could possibly suit every body type and ability level. Considering the heat and curriculum rigidity, class was more like a trial of endurance than a meditative exercise. I complained to the very gracious owner of fatigue sometimes for the remainder of the day after class and she suggested I check with my doctor.

At the recommendation of my spine doctor, I found my way to a smaller, more traditional studio just a mile away. It is a quiet, peaceful place with wood floors and various comfortable "props" to literally support the uniqueness of your particular body. They include blankets, blocks and bolsters and it is up to you to use them as you see fit to make your body comfortable. The teachers speak so quietly that at first you cannot imagine that they can be heard. You learn to sense what they are saying rather than listening, and there is no frustration. This becomes the first step to building a stress defense. Don't raise your voice when you get to the outside again. Live in the quiet.

In this space, you are the master of your own choices. Teachers provide a framework for the practice, but you are deeply encouraged to do what feels right for your own body at that moment, and there is no judgment or competition. It is good to remember that once class is over.

The teachers almost seem to sneak you into the most difficult poses of the day, eliminating fear and anxiety, and suddenly you realize you are doing something that you didn't believe you could actually do. Out of this accomplishment comes a new level of belief in yourself. By the time you realize you are doing it, and your mind catches up and objects, you are brought out of it and taught to "relax at a moment's notice." Imagine the value of this skill. In the middle of your worst moment of the work day, just relax instantly.

Unlike Bikram, which is a series of static poses, more traditional yoga practice involves movement, or "flow," which when connected to the breath is an exhilarating experience. Breathing, believe it or not, is a learned skill, and the more you do it with awareness, the more powerful it becomes in the fight against stress. Life is not static.

We are also taught to stay in the moment at hand, specifically encouraged to leave the past pose or movement behind as we move into the next. Every inhale is a new opportunity, every exhale a chance to get rid of the past.

Ironically, I don't believe I have ever heard the word "stress" spoken in the studio.

My favorite part of the practice is the end of class, when you have earned the blissful right to a long corpse pose. As we are moved into this position, the teacher sometimes tells a story, a parable.

A woman was walking along the beach with her teacher complaining about the struggles in her life. She claimed to have asked for help in her meditation, but no help had arrived. A lifeguard darted in front of the two, buoy in hand, heading for the water to save a drowning man. The teacher instructed the student to observe carefully. The lifeguard swam quickly to the man in distress and when he arrived, waited momentarily just out of reach. The man stopped flailing his arms and legs and quietly descended beneath the surface of the water, surrendering. The lifeguard then swooped in, placed the buoy under the man's chest and brought him to safety. The teacher looked at the student and said that in order to move past the struggles in life, you must give up the struggle. Then, and only then, can you find the peace you seek.

As I continue to practice yoga, my ability to manage the challenges that present themselves each day improves. It is rewarding to see the positive impact my new skills have on others. Not only do I feel healthier, physically and emotionally, but when I finally do leave my stressful career behind, I will already know how to live a joyful, peaceful life.