How To Keep Your Christmas Calm
Christmas. Whether you celebrate or not, this time of year can be hectic to say the least. If you practice yoga it’s probably the one time that your body and mind need the practice the most, and yet somehow it always seems to be the thing that drops to the bottom of the list below shopping, organising, festive drinks (hangovers!) etc. And then comes the guilt, which invariably leads to stress, which is one extra emotion that you really don’t need right now! The good news is that you can continue your yoga practice away from the mat. I don’t usually like to mention this, as I love to see people on their mat practicing with me! But sometimes life gets in the way so it’s important to remember that there are small tools you can use to ensure that you keep your calm all the way into the New Year.
Firstly it’s important to remember that stress happens to all of us so you’re not alone in it. An awful lot of changes happen to the body when you start to get stressed but the breath-related response is usually to increase the speed of the breath as the lungs attempt to supply the blood with more oxygen. Unfortunately, rather than make you feel better, this more rapid breath actually increases both blood pressure and heart rate, which can ultimately make you feel dizzy and tense. Not ideal. To counteract this you can use a few simple breath techniques (pranayama) to help you find the calm amongst our own chaos…
What to do and how to do it?
If nothing else, make sure you’re breathing through your nose as this will activate your parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the ‘rest and digest’ system. The parasympathetic nervous system is all to do with calm and tranquillity, so once you’ve kicked it into action it will start to help you to relax straight away. One way it does this is by encouraging your heart rate to slow down, an instant calmer. In addition to this, breathing in through the nose causes the air that you breath to mix with a powerful blood vessel dilator, nitric oxide, which resides inside the sinuses. This dilator makes your lungs more able to absorb the air that you’re breathing in, which means that you’ll be able to transmit more oxygen into the blood stream and into your cells, thus creating balance and stabilising the nervous system. Of course a few nice sighs out through the mouth can feel good too, so don’t be afraid to make a little noise by taking a few nice big sighs as you breath out. Your exhale is a grounding breath that correlates to ‘apana vayu’ in yoga. Apana vayu is your energetic waste removal system which helps to rid blockages and it flows in a downwards direction helping you to energetically ‘keep your feet on the ground’. There’s a good reason that when we take a good sigh we feel a sense of relief!
Once you’re comfortable breathing through the nose start to shift your focus to the speed and depth of the breath and try to deepen the inhales and gently lengthen the exhales. Close your eyes if it feels ok so that you don’t get distracted. If you’re a creative or visual person it can help to visualise the breath as it travels from the nose, down the back of the throat to the lungs before expanding into the ribs and chest. I like to visualise my breath as a brightly coloured white light as I find it helps me to concentrate more on the journey of the breath.
This might be enough to help you feel calmer, but if you want to expand on things a little more then you can start to count the breath in and out for a count of 3-6 seconds. You might need to take a few rounds of inhales and exhales before you know what number count feels appropriate to your breath. You want the breath to remain fluid, soft and calm so if you find that you’re gasping for the next part of the breath then soften it, and reduce the count. Once you know what number works for you then keep breathing gently and slowly at this rate. After a minute or so you might find that your breath naturally starts to lengthen, in which case you can increase the number that you count to in your head. Once you’re comfortable try inhaling and then holding the breath inside the body for a couple of seconds. Then exhale, and pause for another couple of seconds before you take your next inhale. So the breath starts to look a little like this: inhale for 5 – pause for 2 – exhale for 5 – pause for 2.
Repeat this calming circular sequence for a couple of minutes, or, if you’re enjoying it, for as long as you feel you want to. When you feel ready to stop, simply allow the breath to gradually return to normal, keeping focused on a steady and balanced breath.
If all else fails, then try a few lions breaths; close your eyes, take a big inhale and then as you exhale open your mouth, stick your tongue out and gaze towards your eyebrow centre. If nothing else it’ll make you laugh and it’s hard to feel too stressed when you’re laughing! Not least because laughing makes you exhale strongly which allows you to let go even more!
Whichever breath practice you’ve chosen, once you’re done, open your eyes, embrace your calm, give yourself a little smile and remember; all is possible with the breath!