As a recovering perfectionist, I have a tendency to be overly scheduled and then collapse in a heap on my couch, exhausted and depleted (and occasionally a bit anti-social). However, as a yoga teacher, I’m also aware of the little ways we can help soothe our systems and stay present, whether you’re stuck in traffic, on deadline, or dealing with a difficult person.
1. Awaken your inner lioness: Yoga is full of pranayama (breathwork) and asanas (poses) to achieve different effects. One helpful technique when you’re feeling frustrated or tense is lion: Inhale through your nose, then open your eyes wide and stick your tongue out as you exhale with a “ha” sound. It’s a great way to relieve stress and lighten your mood—you can’t take yourself too seriously when making this face. If you’re in a public place where you don’t want to do lion, take a simple sigh breath instead: Inhale deeply through your nose and then exhale through your open mouth like a sigh. Repeat a few times.
2. Count your breath: Our inhale and exhale have different qualities—the inhale is more about awakening and energizing, the exhale more about relaxing and letting go—and often we find that one is more dominant than the other. With sama vritti (which means equal breathing in Sanskrit), you match the length of your inhale with the length of your exhale. As you balance your breath, you focus your mind and calm your nervous system. Try this: In your head, silently count to four with each inhale and four with each exhale, bringing the two parts into balance without straining. If you’re particularly worked up and need to relax (say, right before bed), focus on lengthening your exhale: count to four on each inhale and six or eight on each exhale.
3. Turn yourself upside-down: If it’s in your yoga repertoire, handstand is a great way to literally shift your perspective. Handstands are invigorating, so they’re not a great nighttime activity, but if you’re hitting a mid-afternoon energy slump and can’t stare at your screen anymore, try closing your door or sneaking away to the bathroom for one. My friend Pete sets his alarm for 3:33 every afternoon for his daily inversion (whether it’s handstand or headstand or something gentle like legs up the wall); it’s his reminder to pause in his busy day for a few minutes of playtime. Even a mild inversion like downward-facing dog can give you a quick shift.
4. Listen up: Mindful listening is a common Buddhist practice that can help you slow down when your mind starts racing. (There are even mindfulness bell apps for your smartphone.) Next time you’re working at a busy office or coffee shop and start feeling fried, try mindful listening for a minute or two. As you sit there with a soft and steady gaze, start to notice the sounds close to you, without getting attached to or invested in them. Then see if you can broaden your listening—what other sounds do you hear? What’s the farthest sound you hear? This quick exercise can help you slow down and be present where you are … and may even bring a smile to your face, depending on what you hear.
5. Find your heart: If you start slipping into a zombie-like state (which happens to me every time I step foot in a mall) or feel your energy overwhelmed by someone else’s, take a minute to connect with your body. Put one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly, close your eyes, and take three slow, deep breaths. It’s a simple way to practice coming back to yourself rather than absorbing everything around you. If you’re in public and don’t feel comfortable doing this, you can still visualize yourself doing it as you take three deep breaths.
The stress will still come, no doubt. But you can choose how you engage with it, moment by moment. By practicing mindfulness, you may find you’re able to stay true to your center even as the chaos spins around you.
Photos, top to bottom: "Supported Child's Pose” by Amy via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Antelope Park Lion Walk 6" by Alan via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); “Handstand 260/365” by Rafiq Sarlie via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)