Take a moment to consider the stress you face during the winter holiday season. What stressors show up in your own life during this time?
The longer you sit that question the longer the list probably gets. For some its a list of too much (too much travel, too much food, too much money being spent, too much time with family), and for others it is a long list of not enough (not enough money, not enough connection, not enough time), and for most of us its a combination of too much and not enough. There are so many potential stressors that arise for people this time of year, but the stressors, the things that cause you stress, are not what I want to talk about here.
Take a moment now to consider these stressors and how they might affect you:
eating too much
not getting enough rest
Those are purely physical stressors, now imagine yourself under psychological stress:
pressure to perform at work
an overbooked schedule
And what about unresolved issues from the past like:
longstanding familial arguments
being forced to be cordial to past abusers
grief (of loved ones now gone)
grief (of places and situations of the past)
The holidays are a nexus point of stress for many folks, even those who enjoy this time of year. Stress is a natural function of a living human. It cycles in and out of everyone's lived experience. It changes and adapts to the individual in their unique environment. Every field of study approaches it a little bit different and it can be easy to get lost in the biology, neuroscience, physiology, and/or psychology of the human stress response, but for the sake of this sort blog let's not go there (he tells himself so as to not get carried away.
What can *you* do with the stress that arises in your life this time of year?
Really take a moment to consider that question for yourself before continuing. How does your body respond to the events of the season (traveling, family gatherings, etc.)? How does your body respond to the types of food commonly consumed? How much do you rest not just not going to work, but actually rest?
Stress can be seen as a problem in our lives to overcome, an enemy that we must “self-care” away to the outskirts of our lives. I’d like to offer an alternative to that approach.
The physiological and psychological stress responses are not some flaw in evolution as the cultural story we tell about it might suggest. What if our stress response wasn’t out to get us, but rather our body’s way of adapting?
I find it helpful to consider stress as the body’s call for action. In yoga philosophy there is a concept called Kriya Yoga, which means something like “how to approach action in your life in a way that leads to integration.” The Yoga Sutra outlines ways of approaching yoga for the individual practitioner, Kriya Yoga is described as the way see and interact with the world more clearly and openly by reducing and eliminating all the things that get in the individual‘s way of seeing the truth. The nature of The Sutras is to hold the outline and it’s up to practitioners and their teachers to discover and embody the meaning. Let’s look at the three aspects of Kriya Yoga in reference to The Holidays and our stress surrounding that.
(Note: I am no Sanskrit scholar, nor did I grow up in the Vedic culture. This is my interpretation and extrapolation from what I’ve been taught and what my own experience has revealed.) Tapas: Accept Change
Tapas is related to the element of fire. It has the potential to burn and destroy. Kriya yoga asks practitioners to not resist or avoid this energy, but rather cultivate and embody it. Much like forest dwelling Indigenous cultures would regularly enact controlled burns to maintain a hospitable environment.
This practice might look like disciplined training. The things you do regularly that keep you alive and well. Things like a daily walk outside (no matter the weather), a consistent work out routine, a daily meditation practice, or whatever things you do that consistently stoke your inner fire. During the stress and overbooked schedules of the holiday season, this practice asks us to make time for the practices that help us stay resilient and open in the face of stress.
This practice may also look like directly facing hard situations with compassion and integrity. The practice of tapas asks the practitioner to accept the purifying power of fire wherever it shows up, not only when and where you cultivate it yourself but wherever you happen upon it. It is setting boundaries and maintaining them. It is choosing to Sit in the Fire of hard conversations. It is allowing yourself to be made uncomfortable for the sake of long-term health and well-being (of you and your community).
Svadhyaya: Choose Your Direction
Svadhyaya is the practice of “checking in” with yourself and your actions. It is self-inquiry, “what have I done and how is that affecting things? What am I doing right now and how it that affecting those around me?” This practice asks practitioners to enthusiastically acknowledge when they are wrong and when they are right. This is the practice of observing the relationship between intent and impact.
This practice is listening deeply to opposing points of view to hear the truth at the core of what is said. This practice demands that you acknowledge and engage with the possibility that you are wrong about something, and that you may be being gaslit or manipulated into action.
Often people claim that they “revert to who they were in childhood” when the holidays roll around, svadhyaya, as a practice, asks that you acknowledge and allow this, even as you hold on to who you are currently and who it is that you want to become.
Isvara Pranidhana: Allow the Growth The previous two aspects of Kriya Yoga discussed here are hot and intense practices. Isvara Pranidhana could be described as the cool and easy aspect of the practice. The barrel of water a blacksmith uses to temper steel. This is the practice of surrender, relaxation, of taking it easy.
Isvara Pranidhana is often translated to mean “surrender to God” which, thanks for Evangelicals is probably more triggering than it is helpful for a lot of people. I like to think of it as “sinking into the flow of nature.” It is the acknowledgment that rest days are important for growth. It is allowing yourself to take a nap or go to bed early in order to recover.
This practice might look like actually taking some time off land not filling it with a flurry of tasks and engagements. This does not mean to not do anything, but rather allow yourself leisure time in addition to deliberate rest. It is easy to get pulled into the “you have to rest in order to serve other people” or “you have to rest in order to be productive long term” which is not what this practice is. This practice is more relaxing into the flow of life, it is allowing what arises in your personal experience to arise and be present. It is a radical practice of presence: “this can be here too!”