Blog Author: Emilia Wheaton
Blog Editor: Kristen Kennedy Smith
As an ambitious high schooler, I tended to overburden myself with various advanced classes, leadership clubs, sports teams and little jobs to earn money. I was just beginning to know what stress felt like and had just about zero tools to manage my stress or calm myself down. My mom, wise as she is, would spy on me while doing homework and see that I was barely breathing! She used to have to remind me to breathe and would lead me in short breathwork sessions. At this point, neither of us had ever done yoga or heard of Pranayama, the traditional yogic breathwork techniques used to control our bodys’ energies, but we both felt the energetic shift when we overcame our own inefficient breathing patterns.
She would sit with me while I was on the verge of a panic attack and help me self-soothe by leading me in slow, mindful breath… breathe in… breathe out… I still sometimes catch myself holding my breath and wonder how long it’s been since I inhaled, then remind myself to take some long, intentional breaths. My mom may have been the one to introduce me to Pranayama but the wisdom was passed down to her through centuries of yogic tradition which had seeped into mainstream awareness.
Ann Swanson discusses breathwork in her book, Science of Yoga, and defines the word prana to simultaneously mean “vital energy or life-force energy that permeates through us and everything” as well as simply “breath.” Yogis practice breathwork with the intention of changing the quality flow of the body’s energetics. Anatomically speaking, when we fill our lungs with a big gulp of air then s l o w l y exhale, our heart muscle is given a chance to relax. Swanson explains that this is why “elongating your exhales in Pranayama is relaxing.”
There are various traditional breathwork techniques designed to impart distinct health benefits. Let’s review a few of them:
Practicing Pranayama throughout your day can help moderate stress by soothing your nervous system or giving you a boost of energy. Combining breathwork to your yoga practice will allow for optimal benefits, as it can help you focus on rhythmic flows and align your body and mind for complete mind-body awareness. If you find yourself overwhelmed or anxious, try one of the Pranayama techniques above to shift your energetic flow.
Swanson, A. (2019). Science of yoga. London: Dorling Kindersley.
We highly recommend this visually attractive and comprehensive guide to yoga anatomy. Here’s a link to Ann Swanson’s website. Before you rush over to Amazon, consider supporting your local book store--see if they have this book in stock or can order it for you.
Creativity and Stress Relief
Blog Author: Emilia Wheaton
Blog Editor: Kristen Kennedy Smith
Stress in today’s world can be an all consuming distraction from happiness, higher consciousness, and present-mindedness if we allow it to cloud our minds and hearts. Let’s face it: stressors are an inevitable piece of our existence as humans, especially in this given moment of human history where the social, political, and economic realms are seemingly combusting violently and sporadically. I myself have felt my internal stress-o-meter gradually tick tick tick upward toward its limits, and frankly, I’m emotionally fatigued. For the past few months, through a global pandemic, changes in employment, beginning online classes, taking on a foster cat, and now watching our country erupt in social unrest as we feel collective outrage toward the racism bred over centuries.
Needless to say, I am experiencing stress. If we could chart stress rates in live time over the past six months, I am sure we would see a dramatic spike as the pandemic broke out and a steady rise since then. Stress can be pervasive throughout our body. Personally, I feel emotional stress as a tightness in my chest and experience headaches. Mental stress--anxiety I feel about meeting deadlines or making good grades--makes my stomach churn and my mind race as I scramble to assemble to-do lists in my brain. Stress is uncomfortable and distracting and can take us away from enjoying the moments we are gifted with.
Now, enough of those negative vibes… this is typically how I am able to process stressors: acknowledge them, validate myself for feeling the way I do, then I make moves to rise above it. One incredibly successful strategy I have to relieve stress: get my creative juices flowing.
Encouraging ourselves to express creativity can bring us to a flow state where we lose track of time, zone out and immerse ourselves in something so utterly stress-free that our brain can relax and recuperate. Practicing a new creative hobby for just an hour or two a week brings our mind away from stressors to positively impact the body’s overwhelmed stress-response. Biologically, we are engineered to respond to stressors as if they were life-threatening forces. Our body recognizes a hypothetical encounter with a grizzly bear just the same as the pressure we feel at the end of the month when bills are due.
That is to say, the same hormones--adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine, amongst others--are leached out into our system each time we experience momentary or sustained anxiety. Prolonged stress takes a substantial toll on the body. Imagine a big angry Grizzly jumping out at you every time the rent is due or your boss lays another assignment on your plate. Truthfully, your body doesn’t really know the difference between the two. I don’t wish to stress you out about the stress you’re experiencing, but I do wish to urge you to incorporate whatever creative activities you enjoy or are curious about, into your weekly schedule.
There’s about a million and one ways to express one’s unique creativity and it can take some experimenting to find the handful of activities that scratches that itch juuuust right. Try sitting down with paper and something to draw with and just allow your mind to create whatever it pleases, without judgement or scrutiny of what the final product turns out to be. The benefits of creative energy aren’t released with a product you’re proud to show off, but from the process of making something. So try not to be hard on yourself if you don’t love what you wound up with at the end, just enjoy the time spent relaxing with your mind free of stressors.
What are some creative pursuits you’ve been curious about? Origami? Gardening? Miniature doll houses? Writing poetry? Whatever floats your boat! Again, it’s not about the end result, but the time spent creating for the pleasure of it that matters. Let your mind relax and your stress be soothed.
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