Meditation is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress. In the following interview with Sister Usha, a senior nun from Self-Realization Fellowship, founded in 1920 by Paramahansa Yogananda (Autobiography of a Yogi), she offers practical guidance for how to face head-on the challenges of everyday life that are the main causes of stress and emerge victoriously peaceful.
What is the most effective way of managing stress and creating a calmer “inner environment”?
Sister Usha: Meditation is one of the greatest panaceas for overcoming stress. When meditating, one’s energy is turned inward, and the mind and heart are stilled, bringing the meditator to a haven within. You realize you are not a harried creature victimized by your outward circumstances. You are the soul. When you meditate, you enter an inner sanctuary where stress cannot take hold. It is through meditation that you gain a new perspective, free from the daily drama and trauma, and can then return to the world with renewed energy. The problems do not go away, but you are better able to face them as you cultivate a growing awareness of the infinite potential hidden within you.
What is the most effective way to use meditation as a stress-relieving tool?
Sister Usha: It is very difficult to go from a state of extreme activity and stress to one of stillness as in meditation. To prepare the body and mind for meditation, a person can walk, read, do a few Hatha yoga poses or practice any activity that promotes relaxation.
As a person becomes more regular in meditation, he or she also begins to intuit that we are not this body but the soul. It is through this growing awareness that we are able to rest the mind in identification with our true nature as peaceful and joyous, and worries and negative thinking naturally drop away.
Paramahansaji said in his book Inner Peace, “Try to remain for one minute at a time without thinking negatively, fixing the mind on the peace within, especially if worried. Then try to remain for several minutes with a quiet mind. Following that, think of some happy incident; dwell on it and visualize it; mentally go through some pleasant experience over and over again until you have forgotten your worries entirely.”
How can we fit meditation into an already demanding schedule?
Sister Usha: When we really want to do something, we usually can find a way to fit it in, especially if we start with baby steps. Sri Daya Mata, one of Yoganandaji’s foremost disciples (president of Self-Realization Fellowship from 1955 until her passing in 2010), always encouraged people to meditate, if only for five minutes each day. Once you experience the peace of meditation, you will somehow carve out time for it – you’ll feel you can’t live without it!
You can start by waking up 20 minutes or a half hour early, and before the day gets rolling, take that extra time in seclusion and meditation. If you have a lunch hour, take 10 minutes to give yourself a real break and meditate. Before you go to sleep at night, again take 15-20 minutes to meditate and reconnect with who you really are and relieve yourself of the stress that has built up throughout the day. This simple practice will enable you to handle daily pressures with greater equanimity. In Inner Peace, Yogananda wrote, “When we have too much to do at one time, we become very discouraged. Instead of worrying about what should be done, just say: ‘this hour is mine. I will do the best I can.’ Practice the presence of peace. The more you do that, the more you will feel the presence of that power in your life.”
What are a few common causes of stress and methods of coping with them?
Sister Usha: Thinking too many thoughts at once is a major cause of stress and the solution is to train yourself to focus on one thing at a time. Many people have an “I have to do it all now” attitude which causes anxiety, but the remedy is to prioritize, make a list in the morning of your highest priorities, and give yourself brief conscious breaks.
When you are sitting on top of the mountain, your burdens don’t look so horrendous from there–keep on regaining your perspective. What happens with stress is that everything speeds up, but just slow it down. Doing deep breathing exercises, slowing the breath, has a tremendous effect on dealing with stress.
Yogananda offers us this suggestion: “The trouble with us is that instead of living only in the present, we try to live in the past and in the future at the same time. These loads are too heavy for the mind to carry, so we must restrict the amount of the load. The past is gone. Why continue to carry it in the mind? Let the mind take care of its burdens one at a time.”
We learn a lot from each other, so choose a friend you like to talk with and they can give you a different perspective on the situation. Talking to a friend or family member can be very helpful in expanding your awareness and understanding. You begin to realize that it is normal and natural to feel stressed, but you don’t have to be overcome by it. But most importantly, take some time to meditate. The peace that comes from meditation can do so much to alleviate stress and build an inner fortress of calmness and joy.
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Yoga Magazine.