Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

Breathe, just breathe

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This weekend I went on a wonderful day-long workshop at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health with my friend Bonnie. We enjoyed some great nature walks, yoga and two workshops chock-full of information, some of which I’ll pass on in this blog post.

Some basic aspects of yoga involve the breath, postures and most importantly shavasana, or the final phase where you can achieve deep relaxation. Yoga has proven to be very effective in relieving stress, calming the mind and helping one gain control over disturbing emotions. This is all intuitively obvious for those of us who practice yoga, but now there’s a big push to prove these benefits through rigorously controlled, scientific studies now being carried out by Kripalu. With the advent of their new executive director, they are reaching out to kids, adolescents and young adults with addictions issues, high risk behaviors and criminal records using yogic principles to help these people take control of their lives. Through breathing and various other calming techniques, they are learning to modulate their arousal and excitatory responses to reduce distress, and their self-sabotaging behaviors.

The professionals at Kripalu are training front-line staff at various institutions to teach them how to respond differently to their clients and residents. Instead of revoking privileges or restraining residents at juvenile detention centers, or day treatment centers, staff are using deep breathing, relaxation techniques, yoga postures and teaching self-compassion to help their charges with emotional modulation.

The early results are impressive. Staff has seen a major drop in the number of violent interactions between mental health workers and clients, as well as between clients or residents at these centers. Work is ongoing, but the early returns are encouraging, and many more treatment centers are being vetted for future trainings at Kripalu to make use of these calming techniques.

One example of the training techniques being taught to these front-line workers to pass on to their clients to bring down feelings of hyper-arousal follows:

  1. Breathe
  2. Relax
  3. (Allow yourself to) Feel
  4. Observe (the feelings and/or thoughts you may have during relaxation)
  5. Allow (these thoughts and feelings to drift in and out, but don’t react to them)

Another useful idea is to “Ride the Wave”, using self compassion.   Know yourself, and let yourself experience the ups and downs of everyday life, without beating yourself up over it, knowing that the feelings will shift, and eventually you will figure it out.

When you’re hyper-aroused, the vagus nerve is affected. This cranial nerve is in charge of the following essential functions:

  1. Breathing
  2. Speech
  3. Sweating
  4. Helping to keep the larynx open during breathing
  5. Monitoring and regulating the heartbeat and blood pressure
  6. Informing the brain of the food that is ingested and food that has been digested
  7. Emptying the gastric region of food

It’s no wonder that when you’re very stressed, you may hyperventilate, be speechless or stutter, sweat, feel like you can’t breathe, experience palpitations or feel faint, feel nauseous or lose your appetite!

When you practice breathing, meditation, mindfulness, short yoga stretches or postures and self compassion, all the above effects can be mitigated. You do not have to practice formal “yoga” to gain the benefits of calming oneself and modulating your emotions. Simple relaxation techniques like deep breathing and detaching from your emotions and observing instead of reacting to the situation around you can be very liberating. I always recommend meditation to people who feel high levels of stress and at times feel out of control of their stress levels. Because we live an age where our smart phones can magically do everything from book our flights to teach us new languages, it naturally follows that there are excellent apps to learn relaxation and meditation techniques. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. Calm
  2. Headspace
  3. Happier
  4. Zenify
  5. Omvana

Some of the above apps teach visual guided imagery, some teach relaxation techniques, some teach meditation, while others provide a combination. You can download relaxing music to go along with them. Some of my favorite musicians for calming music are George Skaroulis, George Winston, and Tom Shiderman who are all instrumental pianists, but there are thousands more out there. To find relaxation or massage music, use your spotify or iTunes accounts and you’ll see many options from which to choose.

You’re all used to my topics of the importance of exercise, but the perfect formula for optimal health includes the following components:

  • Adequate sleep – 7-8 hours/night for most of us
  • Good nutrition with a focus on plenty of vegetables, fruit, seeds, nuts, lean protein and whole grains
  • Consistent exercise – at least 4-5 days a week including cardio and strength training
  • Stress management – effective ways to offload tension through relaxation, meditation, breathing and calming yoga or stretching exercises
  • Social interaction – meaningful relationships with family and/or friends

So there you have it- figure out where you could use some work and use the changing of the seasons to set off on a healthier, more peaceful journey. Namaste!




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