Cultivating Calm

We all could use a little help reminding ourselves to relax.  This seems especially true in our 24/7 world where information overload never seems to cease.  There are strident voices everywhere, all of which seem entrenched in their own particular version of truth.  We receive constant messages designed to make us fearful.  Yet we race around our lives at warp speed without really spending the time necessary to evaluate what is or is not worth our concern.  As a result it’s pretty easy to fall into a state of perpetual worry.  Even if we’re not personally affected by some of the larger dangers in the world, there are plenty of localized concerns.  No need to name them; each of you reading this has a list of your own.  It’s no wonder that so many of us find ourselves in a state of chronic stress.

Maybe your own brand of stress has nothing to do with events in the news, local or otherwise.  Yet almost all of us at some point will find ourselves worried about something.  Stress is actually our body’s natural reaction to perceived threats.  It puts us on alert and releases physical reactions designed to help us address the danger, whatever it is.  There are mechanisms within our bodies that help us recognize and cope with threats to our survival.  In small short-term doses, stress can be a good thing.  Some stress can make us stronger by training our systems mentally and physically to handle discomfort.   But too much of anything can cause overload.  Then instead of adapting, the body gets thrown out of balance and many health problems can result.  In modern times, perceived threats to our survival may be more psychological than physical.  Often, if you examine your worries honestly and objectively, you will probably recognize that they are related to something that happened in the past which can’t be changed, or something that hasn’t happened yet and, in fact, my never happen.

Sometimes we don’t even realize how stressed out we are until something happens that becomes a wake-up call.  For example, a sudden illness or injury may help us to recognize that we may need to pay more attention to how we treat ourselves.  If we’re lucky, there will be a chance to turn things around and find ways to cope.  Even for those of us who do not see ourselves as chronic stress sufferers, there are times in everyone’s life when we just need to take a time-out and release tension.

So what can you do if you find yourself all wound up in a state of anxiety? Maybe you feel like you’re lacking something you need, like time, money or control over your life.  Right now we’re entering into the holiday season which on the surface should be a time of fun and joy, of giving and receiving, festive events with family and friends.  Yet too many of us find the holiday season akin to a mine field, laden with hidden traps ready to grab us when we least expect it.

Not surprisingly, my first suggestion for relieving stress is movement.  Think you haven’t got time?  Everyone has time to get up and walk around, even if it’s only for a minute or two.  If standing too much is stressing you out, then sit in a chair and do some easy stretching.  Shoulder rolls and neck stretches can help to relax.  You can, I’m sure, come up with all kinds of excuses.  But I will contend that unless you are a medical professional in the middle of a life-saving treatment, nothing you are doing is so critical that a few minutes of break time will make a difference in the outcome.  All sorts of events may be sabotaging your usual movement routine.  But no matter where you are or who you’re with there is always time for a break.  Make it a priority.  Remind yourself that not only will you feel better, but the world is not going to fall apart as a result.

Still having trouble finding time for movement?  Try breathing.  Whether or not you realize it, you’re going to breathe anyway.  So why not try focussing on your breath for a few minutes.  Just notice.  Slow it down.  Take your inhales all the way into your belly.  Lengthen your exhales to empty completely.  Try it!  Go into another room if you need to (like the bathroom, for example).  You may be surprised to find that whatever was in your head dissolves while you focus on your breath.  It may return afterwards, but you might also find that you are less tense and better able to handle whatever it is.

Another possible strategy is to let go of expectations. A friend recently said, “Every year I tell myself that whatever gets done is fine and whatever doesn’t is fine, too.  And every year that idea goes out the window as I try too hard to do too much.”  Think about it, though.  That’s pressure that we put on ourselves.  Generally, no one else expects as much from us as we expect of ourselves. It’s fine to make plans but sometimes the best laid plans and strategies can be upended in a moment through no fault of your own.  When that happens, it may not be easy to accept a different outcome.  But when you think about it, what choice do you have?  Reality is what it is, even if we were hoping it would be different.  We can blame ourselves or someone else, but placing blame is unlikely to change the situation.  Sometimes a mistake was made that we can learn from and avoid in the future.  But even that is not always possible.  Better to focus on living with the outcome as it is, whatever it is, and moving on from there.  Sometimes you might even find that outcome leads to something even better that you could not have foreseen or anticipated.  Keep your mind open to whatever happens and you just might be surprised by the results.

There are, of course, many articles and even books full of ideas for reducing stress, but here is my final suggestion.  When faced with disappointment or anxiety, making a gratitude list is something that always works.  No matter what is going wrong, there are bound to be things that are going right.  Did that new recipe not work out so well?  Take heart – most likely no one will go hungry because of it.  Were you unable to help out at that charitable event this year?  There are people in need all year long.  Be thankful that you can be generous in a different way another time.  Did you have enough to eat today and a warm place to sleep?  Even the fact that daylight arrived when expected today and you were there to witness it is reason to be grateful.  If you really spend some time with that list, you will come up with many more things to celebrate.  When I’m tempted to regret something from the past or feel insecure about the future, it always helps me to remember that right now – in this moment – I have everything I need.  And if this moment is uncomfortable, it will pass.

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Breath of Life

By now we all know of the tragedies and struggles emerging in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.  There will no doubt be more as the days and weeks go by and people try to move forward with their lives.  Soon, too, we will be able add tales from those enduring Hurricane Irma and the storms and other events that will inevitably follow.  Our hearts go out to all the people encountering so much loss.  Many of us are trying to help in any way we can.  With these events happening over such a wide swath of our country, everyone seems to know someone who is personally effected.  These are events beyond our control.  Technological advances have helped give some warning, but ultimately these events often behave in ways that are unpredictable and difficult to foresee.  No one is at fault.  It’s just the way things are.

While Houston struggles to emerge from the watery deluge, the opposite problem has been creating disaster conditions in several northern states.  These states have been experiencing extreme drought.  In addition, years of various fire suppression policies have resulted in an abundance of fuel susceptible to any stray incendiary source. As a consequence of this volatile mix, fires are burning out of control in many areas from central Canada south to Montana and beyond.  The smoke has been drifting southward for most of the summer and is now being acutely felt in my area, the Black Hills of western South Dakota.

As I looked out my window last week, I could see the haze settling among the trees.  Each morning the sun has risen as a blood red disk in the sky, its light being filtered through layers of smoke.  Last Sunday was so bad that it was difficult to be outside.  The Rapid City Journal reported that “wildfire smoke exceeded unhealthy levels” over Labor Day weekend. The smoke stings your eyes and the back of your throat.  Locally we, too, have had small fires all summer and, in fact, there was one burning a few miles south of my town a few weeks ago that caused some home evacuations.  Still we in the Black Hills have gratefully been spared any major fires this summer and we remain quite a distance from the worst of the current burn areas.  Yet here we are, having to rely on our internal filtering systems to be able to absorb the air that we humans depend on.  Those of us with weaker systems or respiratory ailments have an even harder time getting what they need from the air.  And those living closer to the fires themselves are in real danger from the many problems the heat and smoke can cause.

All of this serves to highlight both the fragility and amazing resilience of we human beings.  These conditions also remind us of the importance of the true necessities of life.  We may be able to live without our houses and our cars, but we can’t live under water and we can’t live without air. This is true for ALL human beings.  It doesn’t matter what color you are, what language you speak, where your parents come from or any of the other ways in which we each think we are different from each other.  The basic necessities of life are great equalizers.   They are also things we derive directly from the earth and the sun.  We may think we can be independent and self-sufficient, but are all dependent on the gifts of the planet.  And we are all subject to the whims and uncertainties of the atmosphere that surrounds us.

As humans, we have specific requirements for survival.  We all need nourishment.  Although water is essential to our survival, no human can live under water for long without accommodations.  Which further reminds us that we all need to breathe.  We take these things for granted, allowing ourselves to get caught up in our small concerns and petty grievances.  Some of us even have the hubris to believe that they are somehow more deserving of the basics of life than others.  True, we each have our own unique qualities, but there are so many ways in which we are all in the same boat (pun intended!) just trying to survive and make the most of our short, mysterious and perplexing lives.

Being directly in the path of the smoke, I could not help but reflect in particular on the importance of each breath.  Breathing is so instinctive that we usually don’t even think about it until something interferes with it.  Yet inhaling breath is the first experience we have when we come into this world and exhaling is the final experience we have when we leave it.  Every breath in between is hugely valuable and worthy of celebration.  Yoga and Pilates teach us to focus on the breath and its relationship to movement in particular, but also to our health and well-being in general.  In fact, Joseph Pilates theorized that because most of us, to our detriment, breathe too shallowly.  We neglect to exhale fully leaving as much as 30% of our intake of air sitting at the bottom of our lungs.  Take a moment to think about that. This could mean that you’ve had some of the same stale air inside you for years.  No wonder we have lung diseases!  In fact, it’s a wonder we don’t see more of them.

On a more positive note, here’s another concept of breath that I’ve heard in different ways from several sources including yogic breathing specialist Leslie Kaminoff and native plant specialist Michael Stuart Ani.  Earth’s atmosphere has been circulating wind and water all over the planet since its inception. These elements carry with them minute traces of everything that exists on Earth.  This means that the breath of all living things has also been circulating for all of existence.  We are, therefore, connected to our ancestors – and to each other – through our breath.  This concept can be extended to reveal that each of us contains all of us and every human life that has ever existed.  Wow!  What a concept!

In yoga classes we often incorporate various breathing practices as part of the experience.  These serve as a reminder that although many of our bodily functions are not easily controlled (e.g., heart beat, cellular functions, nerve impulses, etc.) breathing is one essential bodily function that we can control to some extent.  For example, we can change the length of our inhales and exhales.  Some people can even train their bodies to go for extended periods of time without breathing.  But there is always a limit.  Humans like to test their limits to see how far they can be pushed, but there is always still a limit.  We might last a few days or weeks without food or water, but we won’t last very long without breath.

So next time you are in a yoga class and find yourself resisting the breathing practices, or forgetting to breathe in a Pilates class, try to remember and treasure the value of each breath.  This is also something you can try if you’re feeling stressed.  Bring your attention to your breathing.  It is said that focusing on your exhales can be calming.  Just letting yourself recognize each breath can help bring your mind back from whatever brink it is perched on. Breath is life and without breath there is no life.  Breathe gratefully.