Have you noticed the growing epidemic?
It's spreading and intensifying, and creeping into your life to cause mayhem.
The busy epidemic.
You can be honest. You've felt it–that frenetic feeling when one to-do piles on top of another, and you realize you have no hope of reaching the end. And your plans to check out a yoga class and cook stir-fried veggies? Not tonight.
You remember a yoga teacher telling you that stress causes many bad behaviors. Deep down you know she's right. Your work schedule is packed, and you barely find the time to have a glass of wine with your bestie on Friday evenings. You secretly want to prioritize your own mental sanity. And you know harnessing in your stress is the first big step.
But really, how to get started? You've read how Google offered mindfulness programs to all it's employees. Nice. But you don't work for Google. And you don't want to turn into a new-aged hippie.
I've been there– I used to drown out the stress I felt from my corporate job by going on drinking binges with my colleagues. Now I help stressed out folks (like my former self) with yoga postures, breath work, and diet. And what I"m about to teach you had a GIANT impact on my sanity.
Figuring out how to manage stress is insanely complicated. I used to feel like I was swimming towards the shore blindfolded. I'd swim in one direction, try out meditation for a while, but didn't think it worked, so I'd abandon ship and go back to my devious ways.
Do you ever feel this way too?
Luckily there are simple breathing techniques that don't involve spending hours in a yoga studio or changing your name to shanti.
If you practice, you'll feel calm, grounded and ready to change the world.
But first you need to take a peek at what stress does to your body and mind.
Are you being chased by a hungry lion?
Imagine that you spend three hours outrunning a snarling beast. How would you feel? Exhausted, depleted, and pooped. When you are under stress, your body feels like it is being attacked by an enemy: your heart pumps blood to your arms and legs, and your pancreas dumps glucose into your blood stream for quick power. Your adrenals give you a big boost of cortisol to give you the gumption to run from the attacker.
If that beast is looking over your shoulder, your body performs perfectly for the situation. But if you're striding into your office, and the feelings of dread and fear provokes the same reactions, day after day, week after week...
The long term effects of stress include higher risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, lowered immune system, and even diabetes.
I'm not trying to scare you, rather to send you a wake up call.
Because now it's your turn to stop this vicious cycle.
When you've outrun the lion...
Phew! Imagine that you've outrun the lion. You naturally want to rest in a safe place, sleep, relax, and eat a big meal.
After a stressful day, do you feel like hopping to the nearest gym or yoga studio? Of course not, you collapse on your cushy sofa, sip a hearty glass of merlot and watch E! TV. When I was stressed at my job, I comforted myself by sneaking to the candy machine for doses of chocolate love.
These reactions are normal, so don't judge yourself. The modern epidemic of being busy is slowly chipping away at our sanity.
Luckily the yogis of ancient times figured out how to stay out of the grips of stress. And they probably were being chased by tigers.
How to recognize the lion (stress)...
- Your heart races. And it's not from too much coffee.
- Your breath is shallow. Or you can't seem to take a deep breath.
- You sweat, especially under your arms (and it smells).
- You feel hyper-alert or jumpy.
- You get frequent headaches.
The ancient but foolproof technique
The ancient yogis understood that your mind and breathing are connected. They developed breathing techniques for harnessing our overactive minds and calming our nerves. The mind is like an over-caffeinated monkey that jumps around, provoking worry, doubt, and ultimately creating stress. These techniques help you to use your breath to calm your nervous system, and then your mind.
Our breath is a unique process -it's in between voluntary process (movement, speech) and involuntary (digestion). You can control your breath at will. But if you don't think, your breathing will continue.
When you consciously manipulate your breath, you can quiet your mind and even calm your body.
The sneaky way to control your stress
You've probably been told to "breathe deep" when you feel anxious. And this will help a little bit. But to become the superhero master of your stress, you need to make these techniques a daily habit.
Deep breath with long exhalations activates the parasympathetic nervous system, our 'rest and digest' mechanism, helping us to feel calm, quiet and safe. When you are in stress mode the sympathetic nervous system or 'fight or flight' mechanisms are active.
Twelve years ago I met an Indian yoga master, Sri O.P. Tiwari, and he's been my teacher ever since. His institute, the Kaivalyadham, studies the effect of yogic techniques, especially breathing on the mind, body and overall health. Here are three starting techniques that I've learned with him, and have helped others all over the world.
How To Tame Your Inner Lion
If you try to tame a lion, you'd start gradually. And you'd proceed gently and consistently. This is how you learn to tame your stress using your breath.
- Decide on a time and place. Schedule ten minutes in your calendar. Trust me, even though I've been doing this for twelve years sometimes things slip. But even ten minutes of calm time helps.
- Set the groundwork. Start laying down. Either have your legs straight, or bend your knees and place your feet on the floor. Allow your body to relax. Place a book sideways at the bottom of your rib cage. The bottom edge of the book should be at the bottom of your rib cage. As you inhale, raise the book up, and as you exhale, let it release down, without tensing your abdomen. Try to exhale for longer than you inhale. Inhale and think of expanding and creating space. Exhale and think of releasing. Repeat this twenty times.
- Take your seat. Now sit upright. You can sit on the floor or in a chair. If you are in a chair, sit towards the edge of the seat, so you have to use your back muscles to stay upright. In this position your spine is open and lengthened.
- Breathe spaciously. Put your hands onto the sides of your ribs, at the bottom of your rib cage. As you inhale, fill your hands and try to move them out to the side. As you exhale, let them release and relax towards one another. Breathe deeply twenty times. Then try to exhale for longer than you inhale. This time you will count your inhale, then exhale for exactly double. Repeat twenty times.
- Relish the space. If you feel like it, and you have time. Sit for a few minutes. Enjoy the calm and peace. Be in your body, try to keep your attention on your breath.
I promise that if you practice, you'll transform your relationship with stress. First you'll become aware of your mind's movements. Second you'll be able to consciously act rather than react.
A few weeks ago I woke up at 5am to start teaching, and by the end of the day I was exhausted. My son Dylan wanted to eat all by himself. He grabbed his spoon, and forcefully tried to put his plate of quinoa on his lap. In the process he dumped thousands of bits of quinoa all over the floor. And our dog Cookie had no interest in cleaning up. One side of me wanted to scream at him and take solace in a glass of wine. I took a deep breath and thought, "He's only two, and he really wants to do things himself. It was a simple accident." I patted him on the head and told him not to worry.
Three ways your mind tries to sabotage your best intentions
1. Expect that your mind will doubt. The mind's nature is to continue its wandering ways. Ignore it and do the practices anyway. Are you doubting me right now? I used to think that such a small thing like breathing wouldn't matter. But when I practice I feel and see the difference.
2. Expect to feel like you don't have time. But you do. And the time spent reaps tremendous rewards in your peace of mind and happiness. Do you spend ten minutes a day on Facebook, surfing internet, or watching TV? Then you have the time.
3. Expect to feel your mind resisting the time. Don't skimp on consistency. If you practice consistently, you'll make a habit. Then you won't have to use willpower. You don't have to think about brushing your teeth or showering, they are automatic habits.
Now it's time to chart your course
Armed with your breathing techniques, it's time for you to take control of the rat race rather than letting it control you.
Sure, you can wait until tomorrow. Until that day when you have a real problem. And then there's no going back.
The only thing you need to do now is to decide on a time and place. Allocate ten minutes. Yes, ten minutes instead of mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, you can spend ten minutes helping yourself.
And the next time you feel overwhelmed, you won't lose your cool, or even go for the wine. You'll already be breathing in your happy place.
You'll smile a sweet inner smile and move on to the important things. And if you want to pour that glass for merlot, or indulge in dark chocolate, it will be your choice. Not a reaction.
P.S. Because I reallly, want you to do this, I'm giving you a free gift. Next week expect a recorded podcast with these exercises if you are on my mailing list. If not, sign up now!