Learning to reduce stress

It took me a couple of years after starting out in the restaurant trade, to realise that I had to find a strategy to survive the unrelenting pressure. It was like trying to keep all those plates spinning – no time to stop, a pause, a break would surely have the whole caboodle come crushing down. Customers had to be served timely, tasty food, staff had to be kept ‘happy’ and then there were all the other essential, behind the scene activities that kept things ticking along, ordering, sourcing, book keeping, marketing ……and somewhere among all this a personal life with my partner and children!

Stress can be a killer. We can feel when we are under stress. The physical symptoms of stress can include chest pain, increased heart rate, aches and pains, regular colds, skin complaints, digestion problems and high blood pressure.
My wake-up cue was a tightness around the chest, as if I had a rubber cord tied tightly around my chest, making it difficult to breath properly. It happened the following Summer too.

A visit to the doctor and I was told that it could be asthma. He gave me a Ventolin inhaler that he had in his desk and a prescription. I’d seen friends use them before and as I was walking away from the surgery I knew that this was not the solution for me. I did not want to rely on an inhaler; this was only dealing with the symptoms.

When I took time to think about my situation, I realised that it coincided with our busy Summer schedule at the restaurant. So I knew the possible cause, I knew the outcome, now I just needed to find a solution.

The solution was finding a balance in my life, the stressful situations would still be there, I had to learn to have a better relationship with them or eliminate them. I started to take time out and enjoy a variety of activities which I thought would help. I would go to yoga or tai chi classes, I started to learn about healing, I went on short jogs (about 20 minutes) after work, and when it was sunny, I would find a quiet spot in the local park to practice qi gong (traditional Chinese health exercises). A common theme among all these activities is learning how to consciously incorporate the breathe with the movement.

So here is a little exercise for you. Next time you feel stressed, under pressure, try to notice how your breath feels (the depth, speed and ease of breathing in the body). Similarly when you are in a relaxed, happy mood, how does your breath feel? They are very different, but what are the noticeable differences for you?

The majority of us will go through our days, never truly being aware of our breath, but when we start to pay it a little attention, it can give us all sorts of clues to our current state of being and therefore it gives us the chance to change how our external world is affecting us.

Thích Nhat Hanh describes a practice for answering your phone. When the phone rings we stop, we don’t get sucked towards it. We breathe, we calm ourselves, we breathe out and smile. Then we wait …….we breathe in again and calm ourselves, we breathe out and smile. If the phone call is important they will wait for your two breaths. When you answer the phone you will be centered, breathing and smiling. When you hear your phone ring, this practice will mean that you are in control not the phone, it will be good for you and the person at the other end!

I make breath awareness an important part of my yoga practice and teaching, but like Thích Nhat Hanh’s phone meditation, breathing awareness should not be just for the yoga mat or meditation cushion. Here is a simple breathing practice to take with you wherever you are.

Sit comfortably with your spine upright but body relaxed. You do not have to be close to the ground, sitting supported in a chair is perfect. You may be traveling, in the office, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of life.
Imagine your head like a balloon filled with helium that wants to lift up into the sky, your spine is the cord holding the balloon and your buttocks the anchor holding the balloon in place.

Breathing in feel the balloon gently lifting up, drawing the spine up with it.
Breathing out you feel your connection with the ground through your buttock flesh and you feel the tension melting from your body. The tension being washed away and moving down with the breath.

Keep your breath soft and smooth. Take 3 to 5 breaths like this. Practice often even 1 or 2 breaths like this regularly will pay great dividends.