Like a lot of people, I go to yoga class to help with stress management. At a class I attended recently, as we were settling in to begin the practice, our teacher gave voice to the reality that a lot of us are struggling right now. There were nodding heads all around the circle, and even a sardonic chuckle or two.
Yes, a lot of us are struggling. Stress is following us around, in our own lives and in the news. As a result, we find ourselves carrying our own stress, and the world’s stress, all at once.
I’m especially feeling this in the activist and advocacy circles I move in online. People are dealing with their personal stress – health stuf, relationship stuff, family stuff, stuff of all kinds – on top of witnessing the current state of politics, injustices against children, and the chaos and tragedy of natural disasters, just to name a few – just to name a few.
That kind of day-in, day-out stress takes a huge toll. Sometimes I feel like I’m moving around in a fog. Other times the weight of other people’s troubles and how unfair life often is, piled on top of my own load, feels like too much to carry, like a load of water-soaked towels.
After naming that most of us are struggling, my teacher also told us that we were allowed to take a short break from the struggle, to look for (and hopefully find) something while on our yoga mats that would help us afterwards.
By the end of the practice most of us were feeling more relaxed. We were joking drowsily that we wished we could just have a sleep-over right there in the studio, just bed down right there on our mats and sink into deep sleep.
Not all of us get our peace and relaxation from going to the yoga studio. Even for those of us who do, we don’t always have the energy or time to get there, or even to spend time on our yoga mats at home.
Yoga practice doesn’t have to be ninety minutes spent on a rectangular piece of rubber.
Here are four yoga-inspired things you can do to find relaxation, or at least ease the overwhelm of stress.
What if you don’t know anything about yoga, and don’t want to? No problem. Call these stress management exercises and try them anyway!
Simplify: Make some space and quiet in your life. One way to do that and lighten the information overload? Take a break from news and commentary.
Yes, it’s so very much fine to take a break from social media. Close that Facebook app, turn off your Twitter notifications, and, if you must be online, stick to podcasts about books or cooking, or instagram feeds with kittens or cupcakes (or both). While you’re at it, take a break from mainstream media too. Turn off those Google news notifications. Spend time with the TV turned off (or tuned to a movie that makes you happy).
But, while they let you forget about things for a while, doing these kinds of activities doesn’t usually give our bodies and minds the chance to fully, deeply relax and shed the effects of stress.
Move: I don’t care how you do it.
Run up and down the stairs. Dance around the room like it’s nobody’s business. Do some sun salutations. Indulge in slow, languid stretching. Try a gentle movement practice like tai qi. Whether it’s slow or fast, yoga-based or hard-core aerobic conditioning,, movement can, for a lot of people, help us get out of our heads and into our bodies. Movement can help us feel calm, or powerful, or calm and powerful at the same time.
Breathe: Breathing is part of being alive. It’s one of those things that most of us are able to do without us thinking about it, but which we can also control.
For example: We can choose when and how we inhale and exhale, such as when we sigh in exasperation or take a deep sniff of freshly baked bread – but if we never did either of those things, our bodies would still make sure we breathe. Of course, since not all bodies are the same, it doesn’t work like this for everyone. Folks whose bodies don’t breathe on their own usually use some kind of ventillator system to do the breathing for them.
If you’re able to control your breathing, that’s a powerful tool for affecting your mood and anxiety level.
Try some of these breathing approaches on and see how they work for you.
Take a slow breath through your nose and let it out through your mouth with an audible “ahhhh” sound. Don’t hold back on the “ahhh” – it can sound as raw and rough as you need it to be. Repeat as needed.
Or, exhale strongly by blowing through persed lips, visualizing your frustration being pushed out of your body.
Or, experiment with making your inhales and exhales the same length; counting to two as you breathe in, and counting to two as you breathe out. If that feels good,you can try lengthening making each part of the breath longer – playing around with a count of three, or four, or even higher if you want. Try this more intentional kind of breathing for a minute, to start with and add more time if the exercise works for you.
Remember, you’re doing this to help yourself feel better, more relaxed, less stressed, not to win some kind of contest.
On the same note: A lot of people recommend deep breathing or meditation practices when anyone says anything about feeling anxious. The thing is: These practices are sometimes the opposite of helpful for people with high-level or chronic anxiety.
If you’re in a high state of anxiety, sitting quietly and breathing can often be counter-productive. If your nervous system is overstimulated, just telling your body to sit still and relax isn’t going to work so well. So, if you’re anxious or restless, and someone tells you to just sit and breathe, or meditate, just ignore them and find some other way of unwinding or coming back to yourself, such as movement, or anything else that keeps your mind busy enough while also letting you find some mental rest.
Sing or chant: The sound and the vibration can sometimes help us ground, or come back to ourselves. And, it doesn’t have to be chanting ancient sanskrit texts, either. Repeating a chant over and over again can sometimes be soothing, and give us the sense of security or predictability our anxious or distressed selves are missing, but it’s not the only way. Cranking up your favourite music (I’m partial to musical theatre myself) and singing along still gives you that vibration from making sound…and, it’s fun!
Sometimes finding ways to relax can feel like a huge chore, just one more responsibility on top of everything else. It’s tempting to just turn on the TV, or get back to a favourite video game, or hide in a fantasy novel full of dragons and goblins, and, if you love any or all of those activities, don’t stop doing them.
Having fun is a necessary part of being alive.
Here’s an experiment for you: If you try any of the activities listed above, compare how you feel afterwards with how you feel after watching a sitcom on TV, or spending half an hour slaying monsters online, or with doing any other activity you do to zone out or destress. Do you feel the same? Different? How’s your stress level?
There are no right answers. That’s one of the reasons I’ve offered so many options to try, and those aren’t even all the options available. The ways you can use your breathing, movement, and voice to affect how you feel are virtually endless. In fact I’d encourage you to play with any and all of this, to try the practices and change them to make them your own.
If you’d like to share any experiences that come up for you as you play with finding stress management and relaxation, or if you have questions, I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me through this page.