Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Walking Mediation for Relaxation

Going for a walk can be very relaxing.  It can also be a form of moving meditation, just like tai chi or qigong, in which you hold the mind in the present moment.

In our everyday life we may walk too fast as we hurry from place to place to complete the errands and tasks of our day.  But walking mindfully is very different.  When you walk mindfully, you are aware of your walking.  To be aware of your walking, you must be fully present.  So, trying various walking meditation exercises to strengthen your mindfulness is key.  Here are some ideas: 

First, you can synchronize your steps with the inhalation and the exhalation, and therefore place your attention on no other task.  For instance, you might inhale for 3 or four slow steps, and then exhale for three or four steps, and repeat.

Another idea is to place all of your focus on the bottom of your feet.  Notice as the heel touches the ground, then how it rolls from back to front, bending at the toes, and finally pulls off the ground.  Then follow the attention to the other foot to do the same thing, and so on.

You might also direct your attention to the present by focusing on the senses as you walk.  In other words, as you stroll along, notice what you hear, see, smell, taste in the air, and feel on your skin.  Perhaps you will notice the sound of many birds that you hadn’t noticed before, or maybe you will realize the colors around you are brilliant due to a rising or setting sun.

When you feel ready, here is an idea that might take some practice.  Fill a medium sized bowl or cup with water to the brim, and carry it with you as you walk (this may take both hands).  Think of the water as the precious substance of life for which you don’t want to spill.  As you walk, focus your attention on the bowl or cup of water, and try not to spill a drop.  This will also require that you—at the same time—watch your step, go slow, and move mindfully, all of which leads you to stay very present and attentive to your walking.

All of these exercises simply help you learn to clear your mind of unnecessary clutter, which in turn, helps you to relax and refrain from worry.

Thanks to Hartwig HKD for the great photo Zen Walk

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Reducing Stress by Going for a Bike Ride

Getting out and away from paper work and computer, as well as from house work and other responsibilities of home life, can greatly reduce your stress level.  One idea for doing this is to get out for a nice old-fashioned bike ride.

You don’t have to spend a lot of money on gear, buy a $2500 bike, or develop power muscles to compete in over-the-terrain competition to consider yourself a bike rider.  In fact, you can pick up a used bike at a local yard sale or thrift store and have it serviced for safety at any local bike shop, and away you can go.

The exercise related to bike riding is no different than all of the other exercise that has been shown to release endorphins and help the body loosen up, increase range of motion, and finally—in the end—to relax.   On top of that, you may find it enjoyable to get out and see your neighborhood, spend time riding with a friend, or just get out from under those artificial lights and get some healthy sunshine.

If your bike has a basket, maybe you can take along a small blanket and a book, and head for the local park where you can enjoy some time under a nice shade tree.  Many neighborhoods now have lovely bike paths that meander through winding greenbelt areas, passing ponds, creeks and picnic areas. 

Your bike ride does not have to leave you feeling like you’ve run a marathon or climbed a mountain.  Take it slow and easy and remember, you’re doing this to relax, not to prove anything or add another stressor to your life.

Thanks to Anne Worner for the great photo Parked Bike

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Breaking the Worry Habit: How putting your worry habit in check can reduce anxiety

The funny thing about worry is that it’s a habit, just like any other habit.  The good news is that habits can be broken, and you can break the worry habit if you stay conscious of your thoughts and learn to decipher between productive and non-productive worry.

Productive worry is the kind of worry that is helpful and leads to action that is necessary.  For instance, if you are worried about the condition of the tires on your car, that kind of worry may lead you to take action to check the tires and if necessary, get them replaced so you can be safe on the road.  This kind of worry leads to important and positive action, and then the worry process is done.

Non-productive worry is worry that is done simply for the purpose of worrying.  It is not productive and leads to no real action or change that solves the problem one is worrying about.  For instance, if you have already checked the tires, replaced them for the year, have already checked the air in them and they are well balanced and ready to go, then continuing to worry about them is habitual worry, and non-productive.  

Non-productive worry also has some magical thinking that comes with it that sounds something like this:  “If I just worry hard enough, then bad things won’t happen.”  But in reality, this thought makes no sense.  Logically, you can't control the outcome of things simply by worrying about them harder.

Worrying about whether or not your loved one will be safe on their travels may keep you up at night, turn your stomach inside-out, and decrease your appetite, but no matter how hard you worry about them, you can't control whether or not your loved one's travel will be safe.  So your worry would be completely non-productive and habitual.
Worry leads to a lot of nervous tension and anxiety, so learning to check your thoughts to see if your worry is productive or non-productive, is key in reducing your stress and anxiety.  If you find that most of your worry is non-productive, then you are simply in the habit of worrying for the purpose of worrying.  

You can begin to use something called "Thought Stopping", in which you notice when you are having non-productive worry, and then think to yourself, 'Stop!'  I won't listen."  You can even imagine to yourself the image of a STOP sign, like the one you see every day in traffic.  

In time, you can break the worry habit, but it will take the same conscious effort and diligence it takes to break any other kind of habit. 

Thanks to Alon for the photo "Worried!"

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Preparing for a Good Night’s Sleep

Being ready to sleep at bedtime is something our modern, fast-paced world doesn’t really prepare us for.   Instead, many cultures (particularly those in the West) support lifestyles that keep individuals active and awake well into the late evening and early morning hours.  Therefore, being ready to sleep is something we all may have to intentionally work at in order to get the rest we need each night.  Fortunately, there are several ways to prepare for bedtime, and many are simpler than you may realize.
First of all, gradually dimming your evening lighting can alter the level of melatonin in your system, which has an effect on your preparedness for sleep.  If you think about it, this makes perfect sense as the natural light on earth (the Sun) fades gradually (not at the flip of a switch) at the end of the day as it disappears behind the horizon.  However, in our modern world we turn on lights and keep ourselves up and active well beyond the disappearance of the natural lighting provided by the sun.  So gradually dimming the lighting in your home to slowly simulate the gradual setting of the sun helps to prepare you for sleep.

Also, the Japanese have known for ages that soaking in a nice warm tub of water prior to bedtime, helps to relax the body and prepare it for sleep.  See my earlier blog entry about the benefits of soaking in a warm bath and how it can help you relax and reduce stress and anxiety.  It's a great way to wind down at the end of the day or even earlier in the evening as part of your preparatory ritual to get the body and mind ready to rest.

Outside of lighting and soaking in a warm bath, it also helps to refrain from eating or drinking fluids close to bedtime.  If your body is focused on digesting foods after you go to bed, it’s less relaxed and able to sleep.  Foods can also cause an upset stomach, which leads to discomfort and an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep.  And there are two things that can go wrong whenever you drink fluids prior to "lights out".  You can end up waking in the night needing to go to the bathroom as the water is processed through the kidneys.  And, if the fluids taken in have stimulating chemicals like caffeine or sugar in them, they could increase your activity level instead of lower it, which is counter-intuitive to finding ways to slow down before its time to sleep.

The main message is to think about the hours leading up to bedtime and how they have an effect on your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and sleep well.  All of which have a direct impact on your level of stress and anxiety throughout the day.
Thanks to planetchopstick for the great photo Angel Sleeps

Monday, June 1, 2015

Gardening for your Health: How time in the garden serves as relaxation therapy

What better way to connect with Mother Earth and use one’s creative juices than to organize and design a garden.  Having the opportunity to nurture the growth of plants from seed to harvest can provide a great sense of accomplishment.  It’s also a nice way to relax after a disorganized day at work where perhaps not as many things are in your control.

There are T-Shirts out there that say: “Gardening is Cheaper than Therapy and you get Tomatoes”.   But there is more reward and therapy at hand for those digging in the dirt than just nice vegetables.  It can serve as a form of relaxation therapy as well as a mindful and moving meditation. 

In addition, gardens are not just for producing extra food and gorgeous flowers.  They can also serve as an artist’s canvas where themes of foliage, wood, metal and water reveal pockets of serenity in an otherwise flat landscape.  Many gardens can become a therapeutic place to get away from it all and walk among paths, sculptures, and Koi ponds created by focused and conscientious gardeners.

Those who love gardening don’t usually have to be nudged very hard to head out and enter the gate bordering their special area of carefully looked-after buds.  However, if you are not the gardening type, you can still enjoy the relaxing surroundings created by those who’ve put them together, and many of us do enjoy a nice stroll in these special and relaxing places that reflect the calmest areas of our mind.
Thanks to Martin Stone for the great photo West Green House Garden