It’s All About Self-Care: The Kripalu Approach to Stress
by Chrystle Fiedler
We all talk about feeling stressed—especially around the holidays—but few of us know what’s actually happening in our bodies when we get “stressed out,” and what the long-term effects might be. This article provides an in-depth look at the causes and consequences of stress and offers techniques from Kripalu experts for alleviating stress in your day-to-day life, through the conscious use of accessible tools such as diet and breath.
When Dan Kaplan, 56, of Keene, New Hampshire, came to Kripalu for a Healthy Living program in January 2009, he was more than ready for a change. “I’d been in a pressure-cooker environment for a couple of years,” says Kaplan, who is an entrepreneur in business start-ups. “I was looking for a way to let go of that stress.”
He’s not alone. “We’re seeing more and more people who are feeling stressed,” says Devarshi Steven Hartman, Dean of the Kripalu School of Yoga. Why? “Stress is related to change, and the rate of change going on in the world right now is unlike any we’ve ever seen. It’s on every level. Technology is changing constantly, people’s jobs are changing, and the economy is changing. Nothing has a sense of security the way that it used to.”
Although everyone knows what it’s like to feel stressed—especially during the holiday season—we rarely examine its high cost. “We think of it as an inconvenience that impacts the quality of our lives, but it’s so much more than that,” says Susan Lord, an integrative physician who leads programs at Kripalu. “Stress is anything that moves us away from health and towards ‘dis-ease’ in the body.”
The High Cost of Stress
Stress activates the fight-or-flight response, which means hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released in the body to prepare us for action. But if we don’t know how to effectively deal with stress, we constantly remain in a state of high alert, damaging our long-term health. “Because we are human beings and we have a central cortex, we hold images of stress in our mind, keeping us constantly alert and chronically stressed,” says Dr. Lord. “This can overstimulate the immune system and lead to inflammation, which is the underlying process of chronic diseases like heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.”
So how do we counteract stress? Ultimately, dealing with stress comes down to self-care, says Aruni Nan Futuronsky, Life Coach and Program Advisor for the Kripalu Healthy Living programs. “Stress is a result of not having enough self-care in our lives to diffuse the inevitable tension that life brings.”
The Path to Peace
The Kripalu approach to stress takes a holistic view, examining and treating the emotional, physical, cognitive, energetic, and spiritual aspects of each individual. “At Kripalu we take a multidimensional approach,” says Kripalu CEO Garrett Sarley (Dinabandhu). “The interplay of the subtle bodies or the different dimensions of the self is critical in actually producing a change in lifestyle to reduce stress.” Kripalu’s Healthy Living programs emphasize this philosophy. “The Kripalu approach is so powerful because it addresses all these different areas,” says Dr. Lord.
In her Transforming Stress workshop, Dr. Lord asks participants, as a first step, to identify the stressors in their lives. For many people, it’s the thoughts they think. “If you have thoughts such as ‘I’m not enough,’ ‘I don’t have enough time,’ ‘I’m not loved or accepted,’ this can lead to stress,” says Dr. Lord, who also encourages students to ask the big questions: Spiritually, how isolated do you feel? Are you connected to nature? To something bigger than yourself? How many of your relationships feed and nurture you, and how many drain your energy? Do you feel appreciated at work?
“Whatever causes you stress goes into what I call ‘the barrel,’” says Dr. Lord. “All the good things you can use to counteract stress are in what we call ’the honey pot.’ To fill it up, you need to define all the different ways—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—you can feel good and connected to yourself and to nature.” Gradually “the barrel” begins to empty and “the honey pot” fills up. “When you change the ratio, you begin to heal,” says Dr. Lord. “Once you see the benefit, this new awareness enables you to make different decisions about what you’re going to do and how you live your life.”
Coming into the Now
One of the most fundamental ways to fill the honey pot is to focus on the breath. “When we’re stressed, our breathing becomes shallow,” says Sarley. “When you breathe deeply, it increases the oxygen level in your body. It makes you both relaxed and more energized. Pranayama breathing is like rebooting a computer.” One practical aspect of yogic breathing techniques, known as pranayama, is that they can be practiced preventatively and/or in direct response to a stressful situation.
Yoga, the combination of breath with movement, is a powerful antidote to stress. “Breathing and movement is a very profound way of coming into that space of now,” says Sarley. “Yoga postures also have a direct effect on the tissues, helping to remove toxins and improve nourishment of the cells of the body.”
Just as important, yoga reduces stress by helping us adjust to change, making us less anxious and fearful of the unknown. “It’s our resistance to change that really makes life more difficult,” says Hartman. “Yoga helps us to accept life just as it is. When we practice yoga, we learn to accept our bodies just as they are and our breath just as it is, and then this begins to translate off the mat. We experience peace.”
Kaplan found this was true for him. “Yoga helps you appreciate where you are. Previously, I might have allowed a stressful situation to get to me. I don’t as much anymore. In my interactions with the people I love, like my wife, kids, and family, I am less inclined to be critical and find fault and more inclined to find their strengths and celebrate who they are.”
One of the greatest benefits of yoga is that it increases our body awareness. “That’s the best preventative health practice that we can have,” says Hartman. “You can start to feel if there is any imbalance in the body. Most people are very cut off from their bodies. But we’re organisms that live on this planet, and our pleasure and pain comes through our bodies. It’s in our bodies that we can feel love and peace, and be in the present moment.”
The experience of healing touch can also help bring you into the now. “Regular massage can help people manage stress by bringing the body back to its natural rhythm,” says Fiona Young, Healing Arts Manager at Kripalu. The health benefits are profound, she says. “Regular massage relieves tension in the fascia and improves circulation, which increases nutrients and oxygen to the cells, bones, muscle tissues, and organs, and helps remove waste products.” At Kripalu, every Healing Arts client is provided with basic suggestions for home care, such as breathing exercises or a positional therapy stretch for the hips and neck. In this way, the benefits are extended beyond the session itself.
Nourishing the Body
Diet is another important aspect of managing stress. “Stress is a signal for the body to fortify itself,” says Dr. Lord, who leads a program at Kripalu called Transform Your Relationship with Food. But many of us reach for the wrong things, such as sugar and fat. That was the case for Deb Corbin, 55, a nurse from Wilmington, Massachusetts, who visited Kripalu in August to participate in Dr. Lord’s workshop. “I’m a severe chocoholic, and I self-medicated with it when I was stressed,” she recalls. At Kripalu, she found a protective and safe place in which to explore her emotional eating through drawing, journaling, and sharing exercises. “It was very cathartic.” A central focus of the program is being mindful: “Now I really pay attention to the foods I eat and really taste them. I don’t use food as a way to run away or escape from my issues.”
At Kripalu, Corbin had an appointment with Kathie Madonna Swift, a registered dietitian, the lead nutritionist at Kripalu Center, and one of the country’s foremost nutritionists. “I’m pre-diabetic and Kathie felt that through my diet changes I would be able to eliminate that condition,” says Corbin. “She really uses nutrition as medicine.”
Swift has clients complete a nutrition-assessment consultation form prior to their visit. “It includes a number of stress-related questions along with a rating scale so I can discover the role chronic stress plays in a client’s life,” she says. Next, she advises clients like Corbin on how to counteract stress by eating right. “Eating a whole-foods, ecologically responsible diet rich in plants—including vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and oils (and, if one desires, clean, safe fish, meat, and poultry)—provides the nutrients, fiber, and phytochemicals that maintain our gut integrity and provide the ‘stress-defending’ substances we need.”
The Kripalu approach to stress embraces the art of nourishment and self-care in every aspect of life—an art that is specific to each individual. “Kripalu honors each person’s uniqueness, from genetic potential to lifestyle factors that impact one’s adaptive stress response,” says Swift. Therefore each person’s “stress-less portfolio” will look different; one might include regular dancing, another journal writing, and a third might focus on spending time in nature. What is critical is to begin with one small commitment—a daily 15-minute yoga practice, for example, or a decision to increase your vegetable intake—and to explore and experiment from there as you continue the journey toward stress-free living.
Chrystle Fiedler is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Natural Remedies and writes about alternative health for many national magazines, including Natural Health, Remedy, and Vegetarian Times.
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the November 2009 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.