I have never been a great sleeper. I find it particularly difficult to sleep during stressful times. Whether its work, relationships, or some other aspect of my life, I tend to lie in bed circulating through a series of anxiety provoking thoughts. This is very destructive, as it only increases stress levels and makes it even more difficult to deal with the stressors the following day (I don’t know about you but most of my melt downs happen when I’m exhausted).
Mental and emotional stress also tends to manifest itself in physical ways– tight muscles, weakened immune system, headaches, stomaches, and lets not forget heart disease, depression, and high blood pressure. These are all quite unpleasant and in no way promote health and vitality. Time to give ’em the ol’ boot.
The last year of my life leaned towards the more stressful side–living on 3 different continents, losing my nephew in an accident, starting (and stopping) a couple new jobs…just to name a few.
I was experiencing insomnia and high levels of anxiety. Having tried several things (mostly unhealthy–sleeping drugs, wine, and the sorts) I turned to breathing exercises and a few simple poses to learn how to respond to stress as opposed to react to it. I have by no means mastered this, its a journey, but I have found it to be the most healthy and practical method to getting my body and mind to relax. Here are 5 easy ways I learned to manage my stress, find a place of inner calm, and get a bit more rest.
1. Deep Belly Breathing or Three Part Breathing
Most of us breathe only with the top third of our lungs during the day because of stress and anxiety. This type of breathing robs the body of its full potential because we aren’t supplying it with adequate oxygen. This exercise engages the entire lung, bringing more oxygen to your body on the inhale and releasing nasty toxins on the exhale.
Sit in a comfortable position, either in a chair or cross legged on the floor. Sit nice and tall, shoulders on your back (not hunched forward).
Place one hand gently on your belly and the other on your chest.
Begin to inhale through your nose, filling your belly first, then your chest, and lastly your throat.
Exhale completely through your nose, letting go of any tension.
Repeat for 5-10 breaths
2. Alternate Nostril Breathing
This is probably my all time favorite breathing exercise. I use it when I’m having a hard time sleeping or when I feel out of balance. Last year I had to commute in some pretty ugly traffic and I could feel my body locking up as soon as I saw those tail lights. Instead of sitting white knuckled on the stirring wheel cursing at all the other cars (which I did do sometimes–not my proudest moments), I would often practice this (with my eyes opened of course). Here’s how ya do it:
Sit comfortably in a chair on cross legged– shoulders on your back.
Fold your middle and index fingers in towards your palm.
Gently close your right nostril with your thumb.
Inhale fully through your left nostril.
At the top of your inhale, release your right nostril and use your pinkie and ring finger to gently close your left nostril.
Exhale fully through your right nostril.
Inhale right, exhale left, inhale left, exhale right…and so on.
If you find that your knees are sticking up in cross legged position, you can always prop your bum up on a blanket or a pillow. This will get your hips to open up and allow you to sit up tall, giving your lungs lots of space.
Repeat this breathing sequence for a few minutes. When your finished, take a few 3-part breaths.
3. Child’s Pose
Is the ultimate resting pose. Sit on your knees with your toosh on your heals. Then slowly lean forward, leading with your chest, not your forehead. Release your forehead to the floor and rest your arms along your sides, palms facing up.
If it is uncomfortable to sit on your heals or if your forehead does not comfortably reach the floor, there are two modifications you can use. You still get the calming effects of the pose with less stress on your legs and back. First, try putting a pillow or a folded blanket between your toosh and your legs. This will give your hips a little lift and also cushion your bum. Second, place your fist under your forehead–either one fist or both of them stacked on top of one another. This will relieve some of the stress in your back.
4. Legs up the Wall
This is a fabulous pose to do after a run/cycle/hike/long day at work…anything that worked your legs. It opens your hamstrings and reduces inflammation in your legs. Its also nice to do before bed.
Lay on your back with your toosh against the wall and legs sticking straight up.
If your legs just will not go up with your bum pressed against the wall, scoot back a bit until you can comfortably get your legs on the wall.
Stay in this position for 3-10 minutes.
NOTE: this position, along with other inversions (legs above head), should not be practiced if you have high blood pressure.
5. Corpse Pose
Yes, Corpse. This pose is usually done at the end of a yoga practice to relax but it can be done any time to release tension or prepare for sleep.
Lay down on your back. If it strains your lower back to lay flat like this, place a rolled towel or blanket under your lower back.
Relax your shoulders
Let your feet fall out
Palms turn up
Sink into the floor
Sometimes I have a hard time getting my body to relax. I hold everything in my body and really have to be intentional about letting it go. So, here’s what I do if I can’t relax my muscles:
Starting with my toes and working up to my face, I contract and then release each part of my body. Just imagine what I look like with my face all scrunched up. I can only imagine what Josh thinks when he looks down from the loft in the morning to find his wife in corpse pose with her face all contorted. Makes me giggle just thinking about it.
Stay in corpse pose for 5- 1o minutes and then gently return your focus to your breath and SLOWLY sit up.
Okay, this concludes my Calm the Heck Down post but I’d like to draw your attention to the necklace I’m wearing in the photos. It arrived today. From South Africa. Hand made just for me by one of the world’s most amazing friends– Samiya. What did I do for God to give me such lovely friends?