Influencing the Direction of Change: Practicing Yoga for Stress Reduction

By on September 16th, 2017 — Comments Off on Influencing the Direction of Change: Practicing Yoga for Stress Reduction



By Gary Kraftsow

Life is inherently stressful, and the effects of that stress cause suffering. The ancient yogis understood this very well. Although it’s hard to imagine what daily life was like for them thousands of years ago, what is clear is that they created and handed down a systematic approach for overcoming the effects of stress on the mind and body: yoga.

The ancients brought forth profound insights into the nature of the human condition. Their extensive teachings and powerful practices cover all aspects of experience along the full spectrum of human life and reflect a deep understanding about how to transform suffering at every level. These teachings and practices remain highly relevant and applicable for reducing stress and mitigating the effects of chronic stress on the human system.

The effects of chronic stress 

Chronic stress creates a broad spectrum of symptoms that can impact structure, physiology, mood, cognition, and behavior. These symptoms can vary from individual to individual. When we live in a state of constant stress, stress hormones, including cortisol, are continually released into the bloodstream, which can create musculoskeletal tension and pain and contribute to a number of long-term health problems, such as high blood pressure; elevated blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels; digestive problems; suppressed immune function; sleep disruptions; memory loss; anxiety and depression; and weight gain. Chronic stress impacts our emotions, thinking, and behavior, and it places us at greater risk of chronic disease and premature death.

Stress is the body’s physiological response to perceived threat or danger. The stress response–also known as the fight-or-flight response–is a survival mechanism that prepares the body to fight or flee from harm’s way. When we perceive that we are threatened, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, hormones (including adrenaline and cortisol) are released into the bloodstream, and energy is redirected to organs and muscles needed for emergency survival (such as the heart and voluntary muscles) and away from those not needed for self-defense (such as the digestive and reproductive systems).

Unfortunately, psychological stress produces the same physiological effects on the body. Our modern-day stressors–worry about work deadlines, financial concerns, or anxiety about relationships–can trigger the fight-or-flight response. And when the fight-or-flight response is triggered again and again, the body comes into a state of constant tension or hypervigilance, leading to disregulation in our physiology between the stress response (the sympathetic nervous system) and the relaxation response (the parasympathetic nervous system). Together, the systems associated with each response form the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

Yoga’s tools for managing stress 

The good news is that yoga offers tools to cope with the stressors in our lives and bring the body back into a state of balance. The yoga tradition affirms that who we are in essence is purusha, an unchanging source of pure awareness that dwells within a changing, multidimensional, material universe (called prakriti ). The material universe includes aspects that we normally consider to be part of our self (with a lowercase “s”), such as our thoughts, feelings, and physical body, as well as those things that we normally consider external to our being, such as our family, social networks, and the natural world. According to this view, the entirety of manifest existence–beyond our essential Self of pure awareness (with an uppercase “S”)–exists only as temporal convergences within a vast field of ongoing change. Fundamentally, yoga affirms that we are not these changing internal conditions or external circumstances, and that our suffering comes from our mistaken identification with and attachment to them.

The ancients devised methods and a practice-based process, sadhana, to help us break our identification with our changing experiences, see things clearly as they are, and therefore gain the insight that leads to freedom from suffering. Yoga sadhana does this, in part, by restoring physiological balance, which in turn impacts mood, thought, and behavior. The hallmark of the Viniyoga tradition, which I teach, is the adaptation of yoga to the unique condition, needs, and interests of the individual. We differentiate the individual’s specific condition from all others, adapt specific tools of yoga to meet that condition, and appropriately apply the tools for the individual. We can also develop group-oriented programs for specific conditions, based on common characteristics of the condition, and then individualize within the group experience while teaching .

A pilot study/stress reduction program offered at Aetna, Inc. 

I was invited by Aetna, Inc. to create a condition-specific program for stress management–the Viniyoga Stress Reduction Program–as part of a randomized, controlled pilot study for workplace stress reduction. The study was done in collaboration with Duke Integrative Medicine, Aetna, and e-Mindful and included 239 Aetna employees in Hartford, Connecticut, and Walnut Creek, Calfornia, who volunteered to participate in either the Viniyoga Stress Reduction Program, Mindfulness at Work Program, or a control group.

Participants in both mind-body interventions showed statistically significant improvements compared to the control group on perceived stress, sleep quality, and the heart rhythm coherence (HRC) ratio of heart-rate variability (HRV). Current pain level and diastolic blood pressure also improved in the Viniyoga group compared to controls.

The Viniyoga Stress Reduction Program is a 12-week worksite yoga program that meets once a week for one hour. The goals of the program are to relieve muscle tension in the back, neck, and shoulders; improve sleep; increase feelings of well-being; improve coping strategies; and motivate participants to adopt yoga practice tools for stress reduction. The program includes on-site classes, home and office practices, and reinforcement of class lessons through e-mail.

The program uses a specific methodology to address stress and the symptoms of stress, including:

•  Breath-centric asana – Breath is the primary tool for restoring physiological balance. Movements in and out of the postures that are paced to the pace of the breath, rather than just staying in postures, increases circulation, improves dysfunctional movement patterns, and relieves tension and pain.

•  Asana adaptation – Adapting the form of specific postures relieves musculoskeletal tension and pain that are often present with chronic stress.

•  Breath adaptation in asana – Controlling the breath in postures directly impacts the nervous system and helps the practitioner gain mastery over the breath–this is of particular importance.

•  Pranayama – Seated breathing practice, in addition to breath adaptation in asana, helps the practitioner directly impact the functioning of the ANS to create sympathetic/parasympathetic balance and gain control over his or her reaction to stress in order to impact the symptoms of stress.

•  Guided relaxation – Guided relaxation provides an additional tool for ANS balance.

The findings from the initial pilot are encouraging. Aetna is now offering the Viniyoga Stress Reduction Program beyond the original pilot sites. We hope that our continued collaboration with Aetna and the other pilot partners will contribute to a growing evidence base in mainstream health care for the efficacy of yoga for managing stress and mitigating the potential health effects of stress-related illness.

Future Directions and Opportunities 

Just as the ancients brought us a systematic approach to managing stress, we in the yoga community have the opportunity to contribute to preventative approaches to health and wellness care. Our ability to deliver effective stress reduction programs to individuals, corporate environments, health-care settings, and other wellness settings depends on a variety of factors. Our understanding of the science of stress, a knowledge and understanding of yoga and how to adapt the methodology for stress, and training programs can bring competent yoga teachers and yoga therapists into a broader variety of settings. Not only can we help individuals gain mastery in regulating their own nervous systems, we can help society adopt preventative approaches to health and wellness.

This article was originally posted on Yoga Chicago.

Find DVD’s by Gary Kraftsow on Pranamaya



Gary Kraftsow, the leading proponent of viniyoga therapy in the US, has been a pioneer in the transmission of yoga for health, healing, and personal transformation for 30 years. After studying in India with T.K.V. Desikachar and his father T. Krishnamacharya, Gary received a special diploma from Viniyoga International in Paris. In 1999 he founded the American Viniyoga Institute where he is currently director and senior teacher of the Institute’s teacher and therapist trainings.

To learn more about Gary Kraftsow, check out his DVDs here at Pranamaya.


How to Thrive- 7 Simple Steps

By on August 31st, 2017 — Comments Off on How to Thrive- 7 Simple Steps

by Tracee Stanley

If you feel like everyone around you is thriving or taking their life to the next level and that you are getting left behind take that as a signal from the universe for you to stop comparing and competing. Leave any jealously and envy behind and use that FIRE to get to work on YOU, your gifts and your passions.

Here’s how:

1. Ask for Help

Most friends are happy to give you advice or a reference to that amazing assistant or web developer who helped them refine their business or life. Take your friend out for a meal in exchange for their time.

2. Recognize Your Worth

Understand and honor what your unique gifts. What does the world look like through your lens? What do you see that other’s don’t? What tools have you used in your life that work? What is the most important thing for you to share with others before you leave this earth?

3. Create a List of Goals

When you are busy comparing yourself to others your attention is not where it needs to be. Create your own blueprint of thriving. What does it look like to you? For some it might mean getting rid of all of the unnecessary items in life and becoming more minimalistic. For someone else it may be moving out of an apartment and into a home. It might be having the freedom and time to travel. Connect to your personal thrive.

4. Imagine a Time When You Were Thriving.

Can you remember the last time you were thriving.. I mean really in flow? I remember the first time I did this contemplation with my teacher Yogarupa Rod Stryker in his Four Desires Workshop. I connected to a time in my life when I truly felt superhuman. Find your thrive moment- see what you were doing then, how you were feeling, even what you were eating back then. You still have that fire in you and the power to activate thriving. What did you learn from revisiting that thriving moment?

5. Find Inspiration. Go There Often.

Write a list of all the people and places that inspire you. Make a point to visit them at least once a month. Not just when you are feeling uninspired but especially when you are feeling energized. You might just get that extra push towards a great idea. Be sure to visit places that are new to you. Get out of your normal routine, drive or hike an extra 30 minutes to a vista or sacred site.

6. Practice Silence

We have so much energy that is constantly going out all day that we barely have a chance to be with ourselves. Practicing 30 minutes of silence before bed and 30 minutes upon waking is a wonderful way to balance and be with our thoughts and feelings in a way that feels spacious and peaceful. Inspiration often happens in the stillness of silence.

7. Act On Your Inspiration

Pandit Rajmani Tiguniat says that the best time to act on inspiration is as soon as you hear it. Not acting on your inspiration is a form of carelessness. You are basically ignoring whispers from the Divine. Whispers that are meant to propel you to your greatness. Who cares what anyone else thinks about it. The whisper was meant for you. Let your heart lead the way and allow magic to unfold.

Tracee Stanley is a meditation and yoga nidra teacher who teaches in the ParaYoga lineage. She is the creator of the Empowered Life Self-Inquiry Oracle and Empowered Life Journal. Find out more about her and her teachings at

Stress and Disease- Your Mind is A Key Factor

By on July 17th, 2017 — Comments Off on Stress and Disease- Your Mind is A Key Factor

Child's PoseBy Gary Kraftsow

The bodily response to stress initiated in the hypothalamus, known as the fight-or-flight response, involves a chain reaction of chemicals released into the bloodstream, as follows: corticotropin -releasing factor (CRF) is released from the hypothalamus ; CRF then triggers the release of adrenocorticotropin hormone (ATCH) from the pituitary gland; and, finally, ATCH triggers the release of adrenaline and Cortisol from the adrenal glands. The results of this chain reaction are an increase in alertness, muscle tone, heart rate, and blood pressure; a heightening of all sensory reflexes; a deepening of respiration; an increase in the peripheral circulation of blood to the skeletal muscles, as digestion stops and the flow of blood is directed away from the stomach and intestines; a release of red blood cells from the spleen into the bloodstream in order to help supply increased oxygen to the muscles and to aid in the removal of residual carbon dioxide; and a whole range of other complex bodily changes.

Through this mechanism, the body is able to cope with stress and, therefore, to survive. However, if, through chronic physical and/ or mental stress, this mechanism is habitually engaged, the result is a depression of the immune response and a weakening of the entire system . * In each of us there exists a unique set of triggering devices, related to how we perceive any given situation. This explains why people respond differently to the same situation because, as Patañjali points out, each of us comes to our experiences with a different set of memories and associations . Depending on those particular memories and associations, any experience can elicit a whole range of emotion— from pleasure to fear. For example, I remember being relaxed and comfortable one night while walking in a dark and quiet but familiar wooded area with a friend from the city, who, unlike myself, was extremely anxious at being in an unfamiliar place and away from the lights and sounds to which he was accustomed. But, whether the source of stress is internal, external, psychological, physical, or some combination of these factors (which is usually the case), it is clear that the link between conscious mind and unconscious body responses work in both directions. On the one hand, cerebral activity can directly trigger emotional response, and emotion can stimulate response in the autonomic system. On the other hand, changes in our physiology— due, for example, to hormonal cycles, illness, toxicity, or drugs— can trigger emotional responses that, in turn, influence thought.

Recognition of this fact has led to the development of the relatively new field of psychoneuroimmunology, which studies the links between mind (including thought and emotion), physiology (beginning with the nervous and endocrine systems), and the immune system. The results of the research carried out in this field point to a strong link between state of mind (including habits of thought and emotional response) and physical health; and there is mounting evidence to suggest that people who remain in chronic states of stress and emotional disturbance have a significantly higher incidence of disease, including digestive, respiratory, and cardiovascular.

Excerpt from: Yoga for Wellness: Healing with the Timeless Teachings of Viniyoga by Gary Kraftsow. Available on Amazon

To learn more about Gary Kraftsow and Viniyoga check out his DVDs here at Pranamaya.

KraftsowGary Kraftsow

Gary Kraftsow, the leading proponent of viniyoga therapy in the US, has been a pioneer in the transmission of yoga for health, healing, and personal transformation for 30 years. After studying in India with T.K.V. Desikachar and his father T. Krishnamacharya, Gary received a special diploma from Viniyoga International in Paris. In 1999 he founded the American Viniyoga Institute where he is currently director and senior teacher of the Institute’s teacher and therapist trainings.

To learn more about Gary Kraftsow, check out his: Yoga of Anxiety and Depression DVDs here at Pranamaya.

Yoga Therapy: A Living Healing Tradition Part 2

By on March 13th, 2017 — Comments Off on Yoga Therapy: A Living Healing Tradition Part 2


The City Dweller and the Nine Cities

By Gary Kraftsow

As the ancients recognized, human experience plays out on a vast multidimensional field characterized by change. These dimensions—thought, mood, behavior, the body’s physiology, the physical body itself, family, society, the physical environment, and the surrounding cosmos—can be thought of as “cities” and represented as spheres that overlap and interpenetrate one another. This nine-city model is my extrapolation and synthesis of teachings implicit in Upanishadic and Western models of the human system. Each sphere carries the potential to affect and be affected by each of the other spheres. The innermost essence of who we are—purusha, or pure undifferentiated awareness—dwells within and pervades each of these nine cities.

The first three overlapping cities constitute svabhava, our basic human character or personality, our sense of self. The ancients devised methods and a practice-based process, sadhana, to help us break our identification with changing experience, see things clearly as they are, and therefore gain the insight that leads to freedom. As our sadhana advances, svabhava becomes progressively purified and transparent until it becomes emptied, revealing svarupa, our true nature, the power of pure awareness.

Until then, our self-identity and our self-image is this interface, svabhava, formed by three interpenetrating aspects of our mind: thought, mood, and behavior. When an event triggers a reaction in one dimension, it can drive activity in another. This is understood clearly in Western psychotherapy.

Looking at each dimension separately, the thought sphere represents our self-concept, our values, our priorities, and all of our cognition about the world in which we live, including our relationship with those ideas. Our goal in yoga practice is to attain clarity of thought, which requires wisdom and discrimination. Traditional yogic methods of cultivating wisdom and the ability to discriminate include vichara (inquiry), svadhyaya (self-reflection), and the study of sacred texts.

The mood sphere represents our changing emotional responses in relation to internal and external changes. Our moods are also profoundly influenced by our conscious memories and, even more significantly, by our unconscious conditioning. This sphere of our emotions is further influenced by our changing thoughts and behavior and can, in turn, influence each of these spheres as well. Traditional yogic methods of working within the mood sphere include meditation, chanting, mantra japa (repetition of mantra) with an emphasis on artha (meaning) and bhava (feeling or attitude), and prayer; sangha (right relationships); and satsanga (association with what is ultimately true). These methods help cultivate prema (love) and ananda (bliss).

The behavior sphere represents all of our habitual addictive patterns as well as intentional activity. As with the other spheres, our behavior is profoundly influenced by our conscious memories and unconscious conditioning. It is also influenced by our changing thoughts and moods and, in turn, influences our experience in each of these spheres. Intention and strength of will underlie behavior. Sankalpa, determination, implies the ability to strengthen our will and to set and activate an intention. Sankalpa is the foundation of all yogic practice. Determination is what helps us overcome our habits and develop our capacity for impulse control. Traditional methods of activating intention and strengthening the will involve practices that are done consciously through sustained effort with an emphasis on tapas (discipline) and self-restraint. This could involve, for example, giving something up that we are habituated to, such as a particular type of food. These methods may also include mantra japa and ritual.

One of the fundamental goals in yoga and yoga therapy is to become free from the twisted journey of our thoughts, feelings, desires, conflicts, distractions, and habitual and dysfunctional behavioral patterns, all of which dissipate our energy.

All three of these spheres interpenetrate and influence each other and each is profoundly affected and even driven by our conscious memories and unconscious conditioning. One of the fundamental goals in yoga and yoga therapy is to become free from the twisted journey of our thoughts, feelings, desires, conflicts, distractions, and habitual and dysfunctional behavioral patterns, all of which dissipate our energy. Toward this end, yoga places a great deal of importance on purifying our memory and elevating our unconscious conditioning to the level of the conscious mind. Making these unconscious impressions and impulses conscious is the first step toward freeing us from their influence. The integrated practice of linking breath, sound, meaning, and feeling through pranayama, meditation, and mantra japa powerfully helps us harness and direct the totality of our undissipated energy toward this deep transformation.

The dynamic interplay among the three internal spheres (thought, mood, behavior) influences and is influenced by the next sphere: physiology. The physiological sphere represents the various bodily systems, including, and of particular importance to yoga, the sympathetic/parasympathetic function of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS, along with the endocrine system, regulates the other physiological functions of the body, such as digestion, respiration, and cardiovascular rhythms. The sympathetic function is the “fight or flight” response, activated when we perceive danger. The parasympathetic function is the “rest and repose” response activated when we are at rest. The yogic insight about the mind-body relationship coincides with the modern field of psychoneuroimmunology and shows how our ANS responds profoundly to the inner spheres, which represent our changing thoughts, emotions, and behavior, as well as the outer spheres beyond our physiology.

The most potent traditional methods of working with the physiological sphere are controlled breath in asana and pranayama, and forms of relaxation, including yoga nidra. In the dimension of physiology, breath work can, among other things, help to increase respiratory fitness, balance cardiovascular rhythm, stimulate immune function, and promote sympathetic/parasympathetic regulation. In addition, there are teachings and practices about the conscious use of dietary restrictions, as well as the use of cleansing techniques and herbal preparations.

The next sphere comprises our anatomy and represents our physical structure, encompassing the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems. This includes the somatic nervous system, also called the voluntary nervous system, which enables us to react consciously to environmental changes. As with the physiological sphere, the condition of our anatomical sphere is profoundly influenced by all of the inner spheres as well as the outer spheres beyond our anatomy.

Asana is the traditional primary yogic method of working with the anatomical sphere. Among other benefits, asana can help improve structural or skeletal alignment, increase structural stability, release chronic muscular contractions, strengthen what’s weak, and develop functional movement patterns.

The remaining four spheres represent increasingly external dimensions of human experience. These include:

  • our most intimate family relationships;
  • our social circle, including colleagues at work and political and economic cultures;
  • the natural world, including the environment, climate, and changes in the weather; and
  • the larger cosmos, encompassing the influence of the stars and planets.

Whereas the primary work in the inner spheres includes asana, pranayama, meditation, and mantra japa, work on the outer spheres includes:

  • forms of svadhyaya, self-reflection, that help us understand svadharma, our deeper purpose in life;
  • sanga, our right relationship to the people in our family and intimate society, as well as our relationship to the physical environment in which we live;
  • study and contemplation that helps us set a direction for our future;
  • personal and collective rituals to support our individual and collective intentions; and
  • study of our relationship to the greater cosmic environment through the science of Jyotish and the use of gems, mantra, and ritual to support benefic planetary influences and reduce malefic planetary influences.

There is an ocean of teachings that come from Vedic sources that address the outer cities. However, the full elaboration of these methods is far beyond the scope of this article.

For most of us, the influences from these various spheres are all mixed together (sankirna), and we don’t realize their mutual influence on each other or how to separate them. The yoga tradition offers methods for helping us recognize and separate them, and understand and apply appropriate methods to influence the direction of change in each dimension.

To learn more about Gary Kraftsow, check out his DVDs including Yoga for Anxiety and Depression on Yoga of Low and Upper Back here at Pranamaya.

This article was originally posted on Yoga International.

KraftsowGary Kraftsow

Gary Kraftsow, the leading proponent of viniyoga therapy in the US, has been a pioneer in the transmission of yoga for health, healing, and personal transformation for 30 years. After studying in India with T.K.V. Desikachar and his father T. Krishnamacharya, Gary received a special diploma from Viniyoga International in Paris. In 1999 he founded the American Viniyoga Institute where he is currently director and senior teacher of the Institute’s teacher and therapist trainings.


Simple Abdominal Twist- Yoga for Digestion

By on March 6th, 2017 — Comments Off on Simple Abdominal Twist- Yoga for Digestion


Jathara Paravritti: Abdominal Twist

Under pressure because of looming deadlines? Feeling stressed because your to-do list is daunting you and seems to be growing by the minute? It happens. Life is filled with ups and downs which is why we have our yoga practice to keep us balanced, soulfully serene and vibrantly connected to our inner-self. While we cannot control what happens outside of us, we CAN and DO control how we react to such circumstances. A wonderful twisting asana that thrives to destress is jathara paravritti: abdominal twists.

Jathara Parivritti stretches the lower lumbar spinal muscles while simultaneously stretching and strengthening the hip abductors to keep you mobile. The emphasis here is to gently twist and compress belly, reducing and effectively relieving back pain caused by every modern living while also progressively increasing the number of breaths while surrendering into posture. Asanas involving twists are mentally and emotionally uplifting as they help one deal with anxiety. Poses that involve stretching and lengthening the mobility of the spinal column in a twist open the chest, shoulders and back which help to decrease sensation of emotional unsteadiness and anxiousness. Such emotional baggage is stored in the hips, thus, as with jathara paravritti the hip abductors are opened, strengthened and stretched which releases stored up emotional tension and results in a positive state of mind. Maintaining that the function comes before the form of the asana, when twisting slowly, methodically and guided solely by the breath, the benefits of such twists are felt even deeper and stronger through the physical, emotional and mental bodies.

Twists offer a physical detox as well; therefore, aiding in digestive function. And we all want to have our digestion working in optimal form! As you twist, the blood supply to your digestive organs is hauled and then upon releasing the twist and placing your back into neutral position, fresh blood is re-introduced to your abdominal organs which overall, helps to cleanse the cells of any built up waste.

To go into jathara paravritti, begin by lying on your back and with your inhale, lift and bend your knees towards your chest while extending your arms out from the shoulders in a T-shape with the palms facing down onto the floor. On your exhalation, slowly lower your knees to the floor on your right side, twisting through the abdomen and not the thoracic spine as you simultaneously turn your neck to the left. If this rotation in the cervical spine discomforts your, feel free to maintain neutrality in the neck as you look upwards with your chin gently tucking in towards your chest. On your inhalation breath, lift and return your bent knees to center towards the chest and if your head was turned to the left, return the neck and gaze back to center. Again, use the entire duration of the exhalation breath to lower the bent knees over to the left side while glancing over your right shoulder with a soft dristi beyond your right fingertips.

Founder of the American Viniyoga Institute, Gary Kraftsow introduces you to the sensational benefits of jathara paravritti in his Viniyoga Therapy for Anxiety practice.