Yoga - Creating your own calm
The true origins of yoga stretch deeply into history; there is no concrete evidence on its chronology or specific origin. However, what we do know is that yoga most certainly did not look like a yoga studio with 20 people in headstand (sirasana) on a yoga mat. Yoga developed in Ancient India at least 5,000 years ago. The focus was on breathing techniques and meditation rather than the physical postures, called asanas. While this doesn’t paint a specific image of traditional yoga, suffice it to say it probably looked less like crow pose (bakasana) and more like lotus post (padmasana). Modern yoga was introduced to the United States in the early 1900’s and gained traction until the 1960’s when, along with the help of the Beatles, the yoga movement exploded. Fast-forward to today and yoga is not only an extremely popular tool to reduce stress and relaxation, but is also a popular form of exercise for both men and women.
For me, yoga is all of it. It is my favorite way to exercise and I’m not ashamed to say that I do utilize vigorous flow yoga classes as a means to stay healthy. As a regular practitioner and certified yoga instructor, it is also more than exercise; yoga is a way of life for me. That is not to say that yoga has to be more for you. I am a firm believer that yoga can be for everybody and for every body type. Yoga can be a weekly addition to your exercise routine, or yoga can be much more. There are limbs of yoga that branch out into all aspects of life. Everything from ethical behavior, self discipline, breathing techniques, meditation practices and more are spelled out in Pantajali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. It’s a daily practice, but it is something in which I find great joy in and I truly believe you can, too.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that the holidays can be both a wonderful and stressful time for most people. Whether you have never done a downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana), or you regularly flip your dog, yoga can be a wonderful tool help get you through the insanity the next couple of months may bring.
Yoga for a stress-free holiday season
Yamas have to do with how you practice yoga off your mat. I don’t mean yoga selfies on mountaintops, but the practice of living an ethical life. This is the yoga of living – nonviolence, truthfulness, not stealing, responsible behavior and letting go of materialism. This Holiday Season, focus on quality time with family and let go of the idea that more things mean more joy.
Niyama’s have to do with self-discipline. These are actions or restraints you put on yourself. The niyama that I find to be most helpful over the Holidays is cleanliness. Pulling out holiday decorations, friends and family coming into town, traveling, and generally celebrating can leave your space a mess. If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed, put a little bit of extra effort into straightening your surroundings. We’ve all heard it before, but when your space is chaotic, your mental state tends to be as well.
This is the physical practice of yoga. Through the various postures, many people find that the tension of daily life is much more easily manageable. Also by building strength and cardiovascular health, yoga can help keep off some of the side effects of all those holiday sweets! While I would love to see everyone practicing yoga, I would expand this to encompass all physical activity. Whether you already practice yoga, would like to start, or already have an exercise routine you are committed to, don’t let your physical fitness fall by the wayside over the Holidays. In addition to stress relief, a regular yoga practice can help reinforce better sleep, give you more energy and help with weight control, all of which can help contribute to a less stressful holiday season.
Pranayama is breath control, or breathing techniques. Next time you are upset or stressed out, notice your breath. It probably has become shallow, short and choppy. The best way to communicate with your sympathetic nervous system is through your breath. Your body perceives daily stressors as emergencies, which can trigger your flight-or-fight response, an inborn, primitive response that triggers our bodies to either defend itself or flee when there is a perceived threat. Part of this process is the release of the stress hormone, called cortisol. Studies have shown that a build up of cortisol can actually cause headaches, fatigue, depression and allergies, among many other issues. When you feel yourself becoming anxious or stressed out, take several long, deep breaths. This communicates to your sympathetic nervous system that everything is all right, allowing your body and mind to return to a calm state.
At the end of a normal day, it isn’t uncommon to find ourselves feeling overwhelmed. Over the past couple of years, more and more research is being released in support of meditation as a highly beneficial way to manage stress, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety and more. Often, New Years is when we begin to make plans to self improve. Instead of waiting for the whirlwind of holiday chaos to end, try spending five minutes at the end of each day to sit in silence. For me, meditation is a practice I have to work on. I find myself mentally wandering back towards my constant to-do list. If sitting on the ground in silence without anything to focus on seems intimidating, try turning your attention to one idea, person or theme. During the holiday season, I find it particularly helpful to focus on gratitude. You can make a list of things you are grateful for – family, friends, a comfortable lifestyle, work, or life itself – and spend five quiet minutes each night meditating on these gifts.
As the holiday’s come and go, I encourage you to use the many aspects of yoga to help yourself de-stress and more fully enjoy all the good this time of year brings.