Simple Recipe for Stress Reduction

take a moment to breatheSummer is a busy time of year.  Of course, most of us are busy all year long.  Still summer seems to be a time when we feel this urge to cram as many activities as possible into this short period of time.  Some of you may be fortunate enough to live in a place where the seasons are not so pronounced.  Even where that is the case, summer still seems to present a different vibe than the rest of the year.  Perhaps it is the residue of “school is out” mentality.  Or simply that the days are longer no matter where you are and everyone wants to take advantage of all that daylight.

Those of us in the northern region who live in tourist areas feel the busy-ness of summer even more acutely.  Many businesses in our area only operate during the tourist season.  Suddenly everything is open and there is this frantic need to “make hay while the sun shines”.  People travel more and have more visitors.  Those of you with school-aged children feel a particular pressure to take advantage of the break in routine that school vacation provides.

All of this can lead to a surprising and sometimes unrecognized increase in stress.  It would seem that the promise of leisure time should enable us to relax.  But more often just the opposite is the result.  If you are working, you feel the obligation to get as much done as possible before a vacation and then you’re faced with everything that piles up while you’re gone.  The delightful anticipation of welcoming visitors can be marred by the overwhelming feeling of all you have to do to make them comfortable and enhance their visit.  Vacation time never seems long enough and travel can create additional stress.

Just reading this may be stressing you out.  But the good news is that there is hope.  And it is right within your grasp and everyone can do it. It’s called breathing.  Yup!  That mysterious process that keeps us alive which we often take for granted can also be our ally in reducing stress. Taking a few moments to focus on and slow our breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system which calms and soothes us. There are scientific and biological reasons for this which I won’t go into here.  Suffice it to say that this system is the opposite of our “fight or flight” reflex that puts us in high-alert mode.  If you’re interested you can read more about it and even check out some controlled breathing practices in a number of articles on the subject including this one from Yoga Journal.

No matter what time constraints you are laboring under, there is always time to breathe.  Since you’re going to breathe whether or not you are paying attention, why not just stop whatever it is you are doing and simply focus on your breathing.  All you have to do is notice air coming in and air going out.  Just follow the air for a couple of cycles.  You may notice that even this simple practice has a calming effect.  Most of the causes of stress and anxiety are worries about things that may (or may not) happen in the future but have not happened yet, or things that have already happened which we can’t change.  Breathing is always in the present.  When you focus on the present moment – not the past or the future – usually everything is really OK.  Not always.  But mostly.  And here’s the really good news – when the past or future starts to bring that stress back, all you have to do is return to your breathing.  It’s always there.  Even if you have trouble breathing, you can still benefit from focusing and slowing down the process.

In yoga and Pilates there is a huge emphasis on breathing as part of the practice.  Breathing with the movement is an integral part of both practices.  It is every bit as important as the movement itself.  It doesn’t take long for even new practitioners to recognize that if they focus on moving and breathing together, it is difficult to think about anything else while they’re practicing.  The other benefit that becomes clear is that the breath actually helps with the movement.  Bringing oxygen and other nutrients to your muscles when you move them enables them to work that much more efficiently.  Exhaling completes the process by eliminating everything you no longer need from your respiratory system.

Pilates and yoga further enhance the benefits of breathing by helping to improve posture.  This article from the American Council on Exercise describes how posture affects breathing.  Many of us have experienced the pain that can result from poor posture and the muscle imbalances it creates.  The most common of these are back, neck and shoulder problems, but when these persist they can lead to many other ailments. Once movement becomes difficult the tendency is to restrict moving which usually makes things worse.  How amazing to learn that breathing can actually begin the healing process!  An article from Yoga Basics shows that breathing can help with upper back pain as well as lower.

Breathing is a tool available to all of us all the time.  It’s the life force that is truly a miracle.  The yogis call it “prana”.  It is the first thing a baby does at birth and the last thing we do at the moment of death.  In between, we can show our reverence for this process by letting it help us. Let your breathing guide you toward enjoyment of each moment this summer.

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Don’t Give Up!

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Don’t Give Up !

So  you’ve finally taken that first scary step and begun your movement practice.  In fact, maybe you’ve managed to continue it for a few weeks or a few months or even years.  In the beginning perhaps you felt awkward and incapable.  But as you continued you probably began to notice improvement.  Those “lightbulb” moments when you suddenly understand something that seemed elusive begin to pile up.  Suddenly your body is actually complying with your mental requests and it might even feel easier than it did when you first started.  You may also recognize changes in other aspects of your life.  Perhaps you now have more energy or endurance.  Everyday movements that used to cause stress like climbing stairs or reaching up or digging in the garden or lifting something heavy may start to feel easier.

The big gains often made in the beginning stages of practice can become addictive.  We start to feel like we should continue to experience these gains indefinitely.  It is disappointing when this doesn’t keep happening.  We get frustrated and discouraged.  However, nothing goes on forever, including continuous rapid improvement.  An article in Yoga Journal reflecting on impermanence describes this phenomenon:

. . . in the beginning, we are on a honeymoon of discovery; we grow by leaps and bounds in ability and understanding. After a couple of decades, however, our poses change much less. As our practice matures, it becomes more about consistency, deeper understanding, and smaller breakthroughs. This is not to say we won’t continue to improve, but the improvement may be subtler.”

This is when it becomes really important to remember all the reasons you began this practice in the first place.  In my early days as a Personal Fitness Trainer many of my clients began with the goal of losing weight.  Initially they would usually experience some success.  A change in eating habits and an increase in physical activity would have the desired effect for a while.  But anyone who has ever tried any routine specifically for the purpose of weight loss will know that inevitably one encounters the dreaded plateau.  All of that initial improvement seems to grind to a halt and may even backtrack.  At times like these there is another important practice to invoke – the often difficult practice of patience. Patience is about being steadfast despite opposition, adversity or difficulty.  By the progress you’ve made so far you are already exhibiting this quality. Now is the time to acknowledge this as one more benefit of your practice.

All of the mind-body practices, of which yoga and Pilates are two, encourage cultivation of changes in your mind as well as your body.  Mental changes often mean changes in perception.  If building endurance is one of your goals for your movement practice it might help to remember that mental endurance is just as important as physical endurance.  Hanging in there in the face of obstacles is one manifestation of endurance.  So even if your physical practice seems to have stalled, you can still work on the mental part of your practice.  Standing firm in the face of challenges to your resolve is another way to demonstrate improvement.

It’s natural to want to abandon your practice when you feel that you are no longer making progress.  But just as change came to the initial experience, change will come again.  Waiting for it can be difficult.  It might help to make a realistic assessment of where you’re at right now. Recognize and celebrate the gains you’ve made.  You worked hard for them.  They are certainly worth maintaining.  Make a list of all the improvements you’ve seen in your life since you started your practice.  Look at the big picture.  You may find that the improvements go much further than the original goals you set.  Think about how you feel physically and mentally.  You made a commitment and followed through. If you take classes, focus on the connections you’ve made to others. Your practice has probably helped you to build physical strength, but you have also cultivated inner strength by continuing to practice even when you felt uncertain or insecure. You understood the importance of making time for yourself.  That effort has probably also had a positive effect on those around you.

Practice is something we never finish.  It is an ongoing effort without a foreseeable end.  So stop worrying about the end.  Yes, goals are important and we want to keep them in mind to help us stay motivated.  But once a goal is reached, there is always a new one to set.  General goals like maintaining good health can always be a carrot to dangle.  Stay in the moment and enjoy the process.  Focus on how you feel.  Being able to move in any capacity is a miracle and should be a source of daily gratitude.  Just like endurance is more than just physical, so is flexibility. Rather than trying to adhere to rigid rules, be flexible.  Adjust your expectations.  And above all be kind to yourself.  Pat yourself on the back for your many accomplishments.  You showed up.  That’s the biggest achievement of all.