Your four-week journey through the Whole Body Action Plan shouldn't just focus on food, fitness, and physical health: It's equally important to develop good habits centered around your mental health. This means taking note of what causes you daily stress or unhappiness, noting it in your journal, and working toward solutions for these problems.
One effective stress-relief strategy is meditation: It's free, it can be done almost anywhere at any time, and you don't need any special equipment to practice. "Meditation teaches us focused concentration -- and the more you do it, the easier it gets," says Frank Lipman, M.D., holistic physician and creator of our Stress Relief Action Plan. Some of the exercises below are adapted from Lipman's book "Revive: Stop Feeling Spent and Start Living Again" (Fireside; 2009).
If taking up meditation seems daunting, however, start with devoting just 15 minutes a day to this beginner-friendly technique. Once you've made it a habit, deepen your practice with the additional techniques below.
Meditation for Beginners
- Sit in a chair and allow your body to settle.
- Slowly scan your body from toe to head, noticing where you feel tight.
- Bring your attention to your breathing, inhaling and exhaling through the nose but never forcing your breath. Keep your mouth softly closed, your jaw relaxed.
- Become more and more sensitive to your breath, in tune with where your body moves (and doesn't move) on the inhale and exhale.
- Allow your awareness of your breath to bring ease to your entire body. Imagine your body moving toward the earth, fully supported.
- Continue observing your breath moving in and out of your body.
- At the end of the 15 minutes, breathe deeply three times, allowing the inhale to move down to your toes and the exhale to move up and out of the tops of your shoulders. Pause and then open your eyes.
Meditation with Nature
- Find a park, forest, beach, nature preserve, or reservoir.
- If possible, remove your shoes. Walk around for a few minutes until you come to a place where you feel like pausing.
- Stand still for a moment and take in the natural elements around you. Take 10 deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
- Notice how your body feels. What feels tight, tired, achy? What parts feel loose and easy? Take five more breaths, directing the breath to the tight places and relieving the tension as you exhale.
- Begin walking again, for as long as you'd like. Allow yourself to be completely absorbed by nature.
- When you are done, notice how you feel, such as whether your breath is easier, your body feels more relaxed, and your heart is more connected to what's around you.
- Sit in a chair with your back straight, your feet under your knees and your palms resting on your thighs.
- Take a deep breath and let your attention be absorbed by the sensations in your feet. Feel, for instance, each foot's temperature, or the texture of your socks.
- After a few breaths, move your attention to your calves. For several more breaths, sense your calves in the same way.
- Gradually move your attention through each body part. After the calves, focus on your thighs, then your bottom, abdomen, lower back, chest, upper back, shoulders, arms, hands, neck, face, and head.
- After scanning each body part, let your awareness cover your entire body at once.
Neck and Shoulder Release
- Lie on your back, knees bent and feet hip-width apart so that your kneecaps are in line with your hipbones.
- Place two tennis balls at the top of your shoulder blades, side my side, then slowly lower your shoulders. If your neck is uncomfortable, place a pillow behind your head.
- Lift your arms to the ceiling, then move them slowly toward your knees and then toward the wall behind you. Repeat this movement 10 times.
- Stand on your mat or carpeted surface with a tennis ball under the ball of one foot.
- Gently press your body weight into the tennis ball. Slowly open and close your foot over the tennis ball, flaring your toes when you open them and squeezing like a fist when you close.
- Repeat five times in one area, then move to a different part of the foot. Stop on any area that is tender, apply as much pressure as you can bear, and hold it for a few seconds. Continue until you have "rolled" every area of the foot.
- When you are finished with one foot, stand with both feet on the floor and feel the difference between the two feet.
- Repeat the massage techniques with your other foot.
- Position your thumbs behind your ears, your fingers splayed on top of your head.
- Massage your scalp by making circular motions with your fingers. Continue for 20 seconds, or as long as you'd like.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Get into a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down.
- Raise your eyebrows as high as you can, then hold the tension for a moment. Relax, allowing the tension to release.
- Squeeze your eyes shut as tight as possible, hold the tension, then relax your eyelids.
- Moving down your entire body, tense and relax your muscles, one body part at a time. After your eyes, focus on your jaw, then your chin (creating tension by moving it toward your chest), your hands (squeezing each into a fist), your stomach, your legs, and your feet.
- After you've reached your feet, spend a few minutes breathing deeply and focusing on how relaxed your body feels. Stretch, and get up when you feel ready.
- Stand facing a wall, allowing 3 or 4 feet of distance.
- Place the ball of your left foot against the wall, bent at 45 degrees. Keeping your weight on the center of your left heel, allow your right foot to turn out slightly.
- Keep the front of your hips parallel to the wall and place your hands as far up the wall as you can reach. Open your hands, spreading your fingers, and straighten your elbows.
- Keeping your legs straight, firm your kneecaps and pull your thigh muscles up. Extend your heel backward. Move your hips away from the wall while pressing your palms and fingers into the wall. Let your neck relax and stretch it toward the wall, resting your head against it if you'd like.
- Stay in the pose for about 30 seconds. Then, keeping your hands on the wall, switch your legs and repeat the pose with your right foot against the wall.
- Lower the lights in the room.
- Lie on the floor or on a yoga mat, your feet resting about a foot apart.
- With your head supported by a folded blanket or towel, extend the back of your neck, bring your chin slightly down, and relax your throat.
- Let your feet and legs roll out into an easy, relaxed position. Extend your arms to the sides at an angle, knuckles down, palms up, hands relaxed.
- Focus on your breath and the sensation of the back of your body in contact with the floor.
- After a minimum of 10 minutes, roll over to right side and slowly rise.
- Sitting on the floor, place a yoga bolster (or sofa cushion or folded blankets) behind you so that it snuggles up against your sacrum and buttocks.
- Take an easy cross-legged position, then lie back. (Your bolster, cushion, or blankets should support your head and neck, leaving your head higher than your heart and your chin parallel to the floor.)
- Stay in this position for about 10 minutes, watching your breath move in and out of your body.