The holidays are amazing, right? No one can argue with the joy that comes from the smell of gingerbread baking, hot chocolate drinking, Hallmark channel watching, winter walk taking, and of course starry-eyed gazing at the multitude of sparkly decorations that light up the city streets and stores.
Are you with me? Super duper great right?
Or…. (cue whomp, whomp, whomp music)
Do any of you also have a bunch of other feelings pop up around the holidays?
Maybe a little stress,
If so, you’re not alone. These are perfectly normal feelings that can creep into your lives when your regular routine is thrown a little of kilter. You are not wrong or bad in any way if you are a little stressed about going home to visit family for the holidays. Feelings are feelings. We have them, and they are real. Someone wise once told me,
“feelings are not facts, but it’s a fact that we feel them.”
So, so true. We’ve got these feelings; what do we do about them? One thing we can do is develop some simple coping mechanisms for times of increased stress, including the lovely, glittery, fairy dusted holidays.
One of my favorite tools, because of its simplicity and effectiveness, is pranayama or breath-work. Below I’ve detailed two of my go-to breathing exercises that have proven to be the most spirit calming and mind settling time and time again. I have probably and without meaning to shifted them slightly from how they are traditionally meant to be practiced, but this is what I have found works best for me. I encourage you to also feel what works in your own body and play around with the exercises or make up some of your own!
There are many meridians that run through the body; this is a core concept in Chinese medicine. Two of them run vertically straight down the middle of both the front and the back of the body; together they work to create a circuit of energy. This exercise aims to connect these two meridians. I like to do this particular technique during meditation or when I am lying down getting an acupuncture treatment of my own; I find it easier to visualize and feel when my body is in a straight line. I often give this as an option for many of my patients during their treatments or for “homework”. It is best suited for those who are feeling a lot of stress and/or having digestive difficulty- it has a great effect at getting the Qi (energy) to circulate in the right direction.
The Ren Mai or Conception Vessel (CON in the picture) runs along the front of the body, while the Du Mai or Governing Vessel (GOV in the picture) runs along the back. They are both represented in the above picture by purple lines.
Alright. Here we go. On the inhale, send your breath down the front of your body, the CON line. In my mind, this looks like, all of my racing thoughts and energy that has accumulated in my head, chest, throat, and heart going downward. Some days I picture a color with this but not always, it depends on how I am feeling that day. I usually feel a big relief as I imagine these excess things that are not needed at the time descending.
On the exhale, send your breath up the back, the GOV line. I imagine purity and clarity rise up my spine, following the meridian and bringing peace of mind to my brain. In the image provided above, you can see where the two meridians connect. One connection is on the chin, and the other the pelvic floor/perineum. If you are familiar with the chakra system you can make a general connection to the Root Chakra and the Throat Chakra here. These are powerful areas, visualize them and change your intention at these spots as you alternate between descending what you want to get rid of and ascending more of what you need.
As mentioned above, I’ve heard this exercise explained a couple of different ways. As someone who tends to hold a lot of stress and tension in her chest, this way works best for me. The relief is almost instantaneous and as I breathe, I begin to feel my breath nourishing my brain and spinal cord. This allows my body to be open to a more peaceful and relaxed state of mind.
Remember, don't get too caught up on the visualizing or if you are doing the exercise "right", there really is no right or wrong. The overall goal is to de-stress while letting go of things you don't need to be holding on to.This will naturally redirect the energy flow in your body.
This one is super easy and can be done pretty much anywhere; my favorite place to do it is lying in bed at night. This can also be a great way to reconnect, get grounded, and open up your hips after sitting in the car, bus, train, or plane for an extended period of time.
Start by lying on your back and putting the soles of your feet flat on the floor. Then, bring your soles to touch as you gently open your knees out to the side. There are many ways to modify this pose but to keep it simple and easy to recreate, I am going to suggest putting yoga blocks in the creases of both your hips (as seen in the image below). This modification can be done with anything in the place of yoga blocks- pillows, blankets, rolled up towels, or books also work great. As you are getting into this pose, listen to your low back, knees, and hips closely and see if you need more height under your legs, the higher you stack your blocks the less of an intense stretch this becomes. Remember, this is a breathing exercise and commonly used in restorative or Yin styles of yoga, meaning this is gentle and relaxing and should not strain your muscles. The goal here is not to get your knees to touch the ground, it is to get your body into a comfortable position so it can relax and be fully open to the breath work.
I chose this pose in particular because it brings me to my happy place and it also has some great health benefits that also help bring stress levels down.
Benefits of Supta Baddha Konasana (reclined bound angle pose):
-helps reduce and relieve symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression
-Stimulates the heart, kidneys, and digestive organs
-improves circulation throughout the body
-eases menstrual cramps
-stretches the hips and groin
So, you’re in the pose and you’re probably already smiling and breathing a sigh of relief. Now to add the breath, simply place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart, sit with that feeling for a minute. Then, begin focusing your attention on the hand that’s on your belly, try to inflate your abdomen first and when that is full move your intention up to your other hand, over your heart. Then, try to inflate the chest and the ribcage. Hold your breath when you are full to the brim. Then, exhale in the same way- try to deflate the abdomen first and then finally feel the collapsing in your chest along with the release of any tension you may be holding. Pause after your exhale and repeat.
It can take a while to learn how to direct your breath in this way and fill up and deflate certain areas of the body. If this is not easy to you, maybe practice it a couple of times and then just breath regularly focusing your attention on each of the hands to keep your mind from wandering and to bring some extra added love to your heart and abdomen.
Happy holidays everyone,