In honor of Thanksgiving, let’s talk about the holiday season. There’s the idealized version of the holidays that we hear about in Christmas songs and in television commercials; weeks filled with yuletide cheer, familial love, and generosity. But for most of us, this isn’t reality. The reality is family squabbles; busting our bums to get to the stores after work; worrying about the money needed to properly gift our loved ones; spending hours preparing unhealthy foods, half of which will end up in the garbage, the other half on our hips… not exactly the most wonderful time of the year.
And then there’s the gift that keeps on giving: stress. Stress is a huge problem in our culture, but it comes on doubly strong in the busy holiday season. Besides not being the most pleasant of emotions, stress is also a serious detriment to our health – it has been linked with heart disease, high blood pressure, and compromised immune systems (which is a big problem during cold and flu season, which just happens to coincide with the holidays).
But how can you avoid feeling tense when dealing with increased traffic, crowds, and family pressure?
If you read this blog regularly, you can probably predict what I’m going to say. And you’d be right. Yoga is a wonderful way to curb stress year round, but you can definitely use some yoga practices and poses to specifically deal with typical holiday stressors, like the following:
Scenario One: Shopping
You get to the store early on a Saturday morning, hoping to beat the crowds. But the parking lot is already jammed, and when you get into the store, the lines are ridiculously long. You feel your muscles tighten and your breathing get shallower, almost as if you are preparing for battle. Your fight-or-flight response is probably kicking in, causing adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol to be released into your bloodstream, making you feel wired and on edge.
Yoga Stress Defense: Pranayama, or deep yogic breathing, can slow the fight or flight response and keep you grounded. While you’re waiting in that horrible line, rather than lamenting your misfortune, use the time to practice a standing meditation. Feel your feet connected to the ground, and breath in and out through your nose. You can also practice your tadasana, or mountain pose, while standing in line.
Scenario Two: Family Stress
Your husband hates your cousin; your mom isn’t talking to your brother; and your Aunt Sally is just, well, crazy. They’re all staying at your house for the holiday meal and you can cut the tension with a knife.
Yoga Stress Defense: Take an hour off from the family situation – your yoga class is a great excuse. Simply spending that one-hour connecting with your body and getting out of your head can do wonders for you, physically and mentally. According to Nancy Wile, Ed.D., founder of Yoga To Go, in her article for Natural Health Web, “Yoga teaches what scientists call the “Relaxation Response”, as coined by Herbert Benson, MD in his book The Relaxation Response. He has found that regular practice of meditation and deep relaxation techniques quiet the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in…reduction or elimination of feelings of stress… Stress experts point out that the ‘Relaxation Response’ doesn’t occur automatically. It must be learned (and) be activated regularly to produce the long-term changes. During yoga class, students are guided through relaxation at the end of class.”
Scenario Three: The Holiday Meal
If you are at all concerned about weight, sugar, or cholesterol, the temptations of the holiday meal can be hard to deal with. If you give in and overeat, you might beat up on yourself afterwards, or fall into a pattern of unhealthy eating since you’ve already “broken” your diet. On the other hand, depriving yourself can put you into a nasty, stressed-out mood.
Yoga Stress Defense: Experts suggest using “mindful eating” as a way to enjoy your favorite foods without going overboard. This involves chewing slowly, taking time to savor each bite, and avoiding eating mindlessly, without even registering what’s going in your mouth. And even more importantly, a mindful eater never eats while stressed! Use your yogic training to be conscious of how you are approaching food. What’s your emotional state? If you are stressed or upset, try some deep breathing to calm down before eating. Allow yourself small portions of your favorite food, but be in the moment, and enjoy every morsel – it will make the experience more rewarding and keep you from popping too many brownies or fried appetizers.
Have a wonderful holiday season, and remember to take care of your mind, body and soul. Give thanks that you have yoga in your life – it can help you do all these things, and more!