Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Stress reduction 1 breath at a time — Yoga, tai chi exercises can be done anywhere

By Ann Marina
For the Redoubt Reporter

Are you feeling the stress of life these days? Maybe your shoulders are hunched, your back hurts, or your jaw is tight? You are not alone.

Around the globe, more than three out of five doctor visits are for stress-related problems, according to a report last year by the Foundation for Integrated Research in Mental Health.

Breathing is a central aspect of stress reduction exercises. By breathing with awareness, we make a mind-body connection that tunes us in to what we need in the moment, physically and mentally, to stay healthy and happy.

Breathing and stretching exercises will be featured in a “mini-retreat” Saturday, sponsored by Soldotna Community Schools. Yoga, tai chi and meditation for keeping stress at bay will be practiced. Participants can attend all or part of the day’s activities.

I’ve always liked the concept of ”retreat.” Over the years, I’ve attended a few weekend gatherings to practice yoga and meditation. We departed from our normal routines and focused inward. Here I found a glimpse of life from a different angle, cultivated a little more calmness and renewed my sense of purpose.

But a “retreat” can happen at your desk, in a few minutes’ time. You don’t have to leave home; you can take a retreat anywhere.

Whether you can join us Saturday, or not, perhaps you’ll try some of the exercises we’ll be covering to boost your energy and relieve tension.

“Be Here Now,” the title of a book written in the 1980s by Ram Daas, is a good theme for a successful “retreat” session. Being in the present moment helps us out of that boxed-in, stressed-out feeling and back into joyful living, our birthright.

Breathing exercises
A wonderful key to letting go of physical and mental tension — your breath — is with you all the time. This awareness exercise can be done while sitting at your desk or kitchen table, or perhaps in your car: With your spine straight, chin parallel to the ground, and shoulders relaxed, take two or three full, deep breaths, in and out through your nose. Let them out with a sigh, and relax.

Now breathe normally. Feel the air entering and leaving your nostrils.

Can you pinpoint the exact moment when the air enters at the tip of your nostrils? Feel how the inhale is cooler than the exhale. Notice the rising and falling of your abdomen. Feel the rib cage expanding and contracting, and the subtle changes in your back and shoulders with each breath.

Allow your body to completely relax with each exhale. Enjoy.

Finding a place of calm
Here’s another quick breathing technique: Focus on your normal breathing, flowing in and out. Become aware of the pause after each exhale, before the next breath comes in. Notice the sense of calm. Your body has let go of tension with the breath.

In yoga, we exhale as we move into a stretch. The muscles tend to relax more on the exhale. So, notice the pause after the exhale, rather than after the inhale. There’s a moment of calm, stillness before the next breath comes in.

Thich Nhat Hanh is an author, meditation instructor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Here’s a brief exercise you can do, reciting a line of his text with each breath in or out:

“Following the Breath”
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment!

Yoga anywhere Spinal twist
Sit up straight with both feet flat on the floor. Gently lift your chest, lower your shoulders, and place your right hand behind you on the chair seat.

Bring your left hand to your right thigh or knee. Use the hands as your anchors. Inhale and lift up taller; then slowly twist to the right, exhaling. Look as far to the right side as you can. You may be able to see the wall behind you.

Holding this spinal twist, turn just your head now, back toward the left side. Keep it gentle, and keep breathing with awareness.

Your spine will love how this stretch relieves compression between the vertebrae. Twists are great for the kidneys and other organs and glands. Hold for five to eight breaths. Come out of the twist slowly. Take a few breaths, and then do the same twist, turning to the left side. Remember to focus on your breath as you hold the twist.

Side stretch
Again, begin by sitting up straight with both feet flat on the floor. Inhale, and as you exhale, raise your right arm and reach the fingertips up high, keeping the right hip grounded down. Left hand can be on the chair seat by your left hip.

On your next exhale, begin to reach the right fingertips over to your left, so your right arm is curved above your head. Think of the letter “C” as you breathe into the stretch. Hold for five to eight breaths, then change sides and stretch out your left side.

Forward bend
Standing with feet hip-width apart and bend forward from the hips (from the hinge at the tops of your legs). Have a straight, flat back as you inhale and lengthen out, spine parallel to the floor, then slowly exhale and let your head and shoulders dangle like a rag doll. Bending the knees is optional. Let your whole upper body become limp, releasing neck and shoulders. Relax into this posture for five to eight breaths.

Tai chi with your chai tea?
We will also practice “chi” exercises (gentle, fluid movements) Saturday, with a lesson at 2:30 p.m. As a tribute to Laryfred Staats (who taught many of us on the peninsula, and died in 2003), persons with experience in long form tai chi are invited to practice together at 3:30 p.m. at no charge. You don’t have to know the whole “form.” Come and just watch, or join in the flow.

Saturday’s “mini-retreat” will be held at 10 a.m. the Soldotna Sports Center. For more information, call or e-mail Ann Marina at 262-6768, or

Ann Marina is a registered yoga instructor through the International Yoga Alliance. A former instructor at Kenai Peninsula College, she now leads Tai Chi and yoga in Southwest Florida. She’s enjoying a brief visit to the peninsula this fall.

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