It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best things you can do in times of high stress is not much at all. Of course, what you're thinking about during this quiet period of reflection and breathing makes a big difference. By practicing meditation and mindful breathing, you can reduce stress levels, increase productivity, and boost your mood.
Meditation doesn't necessarily mean sitting cross-legged on a pillow or lying on the ground. In fact, you can do the following exercises indoors or outdoors, at work or in your car, with a free hour or a free minute. You don't have to perfect them all, but experimenting with various techniques will help you find the method that works best for you.
Your mornings have enormous potential to be one of the most relaxing and energizing part of your day -- even if you're not a naturally early riser.
With the right perspective and a few small adjustments, you can start the day calmer and better prepared for whatever lies ahead.
For some, meditation sounds mysterious or intimidating -- probably because of some common misconceptions: that it's dry, boring, too spiritual, or that it's an esoteric practice for those operating on some higher, more rarefied plane.
Yet, everyone needs a sanctuary, a place to rest and renew. Learning a few simple strategies (and beginner tips for how to stay focused) will help you get the most out of this rewarding practice.
It's three o'clock, and despite your novel-length to-do list, the only thing that holds your attention longer than 30 seconds is the thought of a caffeine or sugar fix.
You'd get a better and more sustained boost, though, by practicing a midday meditation. Try closing your office door, logging off your computer for a few minutes, and tuning in to the sounds you usually try to ignore; this gives your chattering mind a chance to rest.
Planning a trip to the beach? Take advantage of the calming sights, smells, and sounds of the ocean by moving your stress-relief practice outdoors.
Start your morning with an ocean-wave meditation, sitting at the water's edge where the surf gently laps against your body. Later, in the afternoon, squeeze in a brisk walking meditation that will keep you energized for the trip home or the evening ahead.
Some people see yoga as exercise; others see it as meditation. In fact, it's the perfect combination of both, and this unique form of physical and mental concentration makes for a great stress reducer.
The many variations of yoga all derive from a common tradition, so there's no "right" way to practice. But some forms will suit your personality and intentions better than others. Don't be afraid to experiment. The right yoga for you is the one that keeps you coming back.
You know that a brisk walk around the block can clear your head. But it can also rival yoga, meditation, and tai chi as a powerful mindfulness practice, says Danny Dreyer, a running coach, ultramarathoner, and creator of the ChiRunning and ChiWalking programs.
Dreyer has spent years teaching people how to use walking to relieve physical and mental stress by moving in a relaxed way and focusing on physical sensations.
A regular deep breathing practice can lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve digestion, and lower stress, says integrative-medicine pioneer Andrew Weil, M.D.
To reap these benefits, try Weil's 4-7-8 breath: Prepare by placing the tip of your tongue against the ridge behind your front teeth; keep it there throughout the exercise. Exhale through your mouth, making a "whoosh" sound. Then, inhale deeply and quietly through your nose (mouth closed) for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, and exhale audibly through your mouth for a count of eight.
Repeat the exercise for a total of four breath cycles twice a day. After a month, if you're comfortable with it, increase to eight breaths each time.
Imagine you're standing with a group of people, contemplating a beautiful sunrise. Whereas others drink in the view, you struggle. You're preoccupied with your projects and worries. You're not really present to appreciate the experience. So rather than enjoy the sunrise, you let the richness of the moment slip by.
If this sounds familiar, a simple breathing exercise may help you regain the wonder of these moments. Focusing on the ins and outs of your breath will allow you to be fully available to witness, contemplate, and take in the scenery.
An imbalance in your mental energy can leave you unable to focus. Break the pattern, and you'll effectively return to the present moment -- and the task at hand. "I call it changing your state," says Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D., psychologist and author of "Find Your Focus Zone."
One of Palladino's tried-and-true balancing practices is four-corner breathing, which combines the use of an outer focal point with deep, rhythmic breaths. Try this meditation to jolt yourself into high gear or settle a skittish mind.
It's not at all uncommon for a breathing exercise to call up a range of emotions, from tears to exhilaration, says Max Strom, cofounder of Exhale Center for Sacred Movement in Venice, California.
"The lungs in particular store grief and inspiration," he explains. When you breathe more deeply, you loosen the knots you're carrying around. This can flush the body of old, unprocessed emotions and leave you feeling renewed and refreshed.
Specific breathing exercises can also change the way you respond to events. "You can learn to use your breath to become less reactive to stressful situations as they're happening," he says.
A telling indicator of health and mood, breath puts us in closer touch with ourselves on every level. A yogic practice called pranayama, or breath control, can help us manage our emotions, gain clarity, and take greater control of our lives.
If you've ever taken a yoga class, you may have heard your instructor talk about "ujjayi breath," an audible breathing from the back of your throat. Learning this technique and others can help you reduce stress at any time of day.
Stress: It's the ultimate beauty bandit. When you feel tense, breathing gets quick and shallow -- and that, in turn, invites toxins (which you would otherwise have exhaled) to wreak havoc on the skin. To make matters worse, the fight-or-flight mode raises levels of testosterone, which can lead to breakouts.
You can prevent this cascading effect, however, with a breathing exercise that activates the fourth and fifth chakras (energy centers), helps flood the body with oxygen, and detoxifies internal organs.
In the midst of a pressure-packed day, it's tempting to grit your teeth and push through. Why not take a breather? "When you pause after an exhale, before drawing in your next breath, you create a moment that allows you to let go of whatever transpired before," says Roman Szpond, founder and owner of Inner Strength Studios in Watertown, Massachusetts.
This inconspicuous technique works anywhere -- even in the midst of a tense conversation. It prevents stress from snowballing, interrupts the tendency to take shallow breaths, and raises self-awareness.
The solar plexus -- a large cluster of nerves tucked behind the stomach, slightly below the diaphragm --affects breathing and posture. Emotionally, it's where you notice your fear, anxiety, and intuition.
The Ayurvedic tradition views the solar plexus as the seat of the third chakra, one of the seven energy centers of the body. When prana, or life energy, flows freely through this area, you feel more confident, grounded, and secure. A meditation that focuses on this area can help you maintain a healthy core and better deal with stress.