Today's world offers us many opportunities to create and live in stress; even though it has been many thousands of years since we have had to fear attack from wild animals, modern man has his fight-or-flight system turned on most days, and with no idea how to turn it off. Work, relationships, schedules, kids, media, and much more assist in creating stress. Luckily, there are many tools to bring us back from the fight-or-flight response into the rest-and-digest system, or the relaxation response.
These days most stress is created in the mind, and is not necessarily "real" stress of an immediate physical danger. We stress about what we fear in the future, our anxiety of an exam, a meeting, a deadline, or a first date. Sometimes we stress because we took on too much to do, and just can't keep up with deadlines. Many times it is the stress of wanting to achieve or receive something we do not have.
Most of these examples include real life problems that need to be taken care of, but the paralyzing stress, or the stress that makes us less efficient and happy, is optional. True, we need to take care of things, but there is a difference between taking care of things and worrying about things that need to be taken care of. The worry, the stress, the anxiety, and mostly the thinking about how bad things are, is created in the mind. When we learn to control our minds, we learn to master our stress.
The flexitarian method is a system that helps the ordinary person live a happy, healthy, balanced, and sustainable life. Decisions are made according to each situation, and without any one dogma to follow. In my book, The Yoga Lifestyle: Using the Flexitarian Method to Ease Stress, Find Balance, and Create a Healthy Life, I teach how to understand your tendencies and body type, and then offer many lifestyle, yoga, breathing, meditation, and food tips to find a balanced and joyful life—a yoga lifestyle.
Here are a few of these practices that will help you get through life more efficiently and happily, and with less stress.
- Be Present.
When I have a future date, meeting, project, deadline, or any other stress-inducing item, it is my mind thinking about the future that creates the stress. At this very moment, all I can do is be present. When I am present, I can actually be far more efficient in preparing for the future meeting or task, as I am present with what I am doing; I am more focused and less distracted by thoughts. If it is something for which I can't prepare, then by being in the present I no longer think of the stress-creating item, but rather enjoy the moment. Thinking of the future is useful, but after we decide what needs to be done, we need to return to the present moment and just do it.
- Focus on One Thing at a Time.
It is not uncommon to have many tasks at hand. We have a few projects going on, or one project with many little items that need to be taken care of. I was taught to multi-task, and was pretty good at it. However, I realized that if I skip between too many things, or try to do too many at once, I actually get less done; I also get overwhelmed and stressed about it. Sometimes when multi-tasking, I make more errors and then spend extra time fixing them. If instead I focus on one task from my list, and stay present with it, then there is only one thing to do. All else does not exist in that very moment. When there is just one task, it is much easier to handle it, and when it is completed, you start the process again—again with just one task at hand. This helps eliminate the paralyzing stress of not knowing where to start when there is too much to do. Your job is to prioritize, choose one item on which to focus, and forget the rest until the task at hand is done. If I have one huge task, I break it into smaller ones, so that again, each task is manageable and does not create unnecessary stress.
- 1:2 Breathing.
When we get stressed, our sympathetic nervous system is at work, and our fight-or-flight response is turned on—which means more stress on your body. In some situations, this stress serves a purpose, as it gets us going; we run faster away from situations in which there is a legitimate physical threat. However, in centuries past, we would shift from our fight-or-flight response back into the rest-and-digest mode when the danger was gone, perhaps sitting by the fire with family, laughing and telling stories. Today, many of us operate in fight-or-flight mode, and never turn it off. We simply burn ourselves down until we get sick and then have no choice but to take a break.
A very easy and useful way to turn off the stress response and shift to the more calming, rejuvenating system is the one to two breathing practice. Take a nice big inhale and count as you breath in. Let's say you counted to four. Now exhale slowly. Try to exhale to the count of eight. There is much more air to release than you may think. Repeat for ten rounds. I like doing this laying down on my back with one hand on the belly and the other on the chest. If I feel sleepy and do not want to fall asleep I'll do it seated with a tall spine. This breathing practice can be done anywhere and at any time. For example, say you are running late. There is nothing you can do about it; you have already called and said that you are running late. And yet, you are still in the car tapping your fingers, saying to yourself that you should have left earlier. As you get to a red light and want to curse, take a big breath in, and exhale very slowly. Focus on this breath until the light turns green. Practice this as often as you wish in every situation where you feel you are about to become stressed. It is calming, cooling, and relaxing, and it also activates the immune system.
Meditation is a form of mind training. As mentioned above, stress comes from the mind; if we learn to control the mind, we can control the stress as well. There are many meditation techniques, and if you have one that works for you, please go ahead and use it. The first step in meditation is concentration. Teach your mind to stay steady on one thing while you keep your awareness on that focus.
For example, focus on your breath going up and down in your belly. In order to train yourself to focus, simply count your breath—inhale one, exhale two. Repeat this to ten, and then start over. It may be that you arrive to the count of two and forgot your count, you got distracted, and then you when you noticed it, you have no idea where you were with the count. Simply return to one and start again. No self-criticizing or feeling bad—just go back to one.
Like anything, it takes practice. Don't give up. Do it over and over. Set a timer before you begin so you are committed to stay with it until your timer goes off. If you have never meditated before, start with two minutes, and slowly build it up to twenty.
- Look at the Big Picture and Laugh!
Ok, so things are intense—but don't stress about it. This may seem a bit funny to simply not stress about things, as mostly it happens to us unconsciously. However, we can look at the big picture and gain better perspective of the situation. Most things that we go through seem far worst than they actually are. This is because of the way the mind interprets the situation, and not necessarily because of the actual situation.
I like to sit on a cloud, and look at the greater picture. Then I see that what is happening is a moment in time, and in reality, as times go by, this huge deal of event, project, fight, or discomfort will all pass sooner or later. When I realize that I am just a little dot amongst all other humans experiencing life, I tend to laugh at how seriously I took myself. Laughter is the best remedy to stress. It allows the entire body and mind to release and melt away tension.
In my yoga classes, after we do some intense back bends, I normally offer happy baby pose. Lie on your back, bend the knees towards the chest and then open them apart. Take hold of the feet if you can reach, or the thighs if not, and start to let your laughter roll out loud. This may be hard at first. You can play a tune of a baby laughing, or do it together with a three-year-old. Sometimes I even fake the laughter at first, like igniting an engine, and then it starts running, rolling on its own. Really allow yourself the freedom of laughing out loud as unconsciously as possible.
I offer these techniques and many more in my book, The Yoga Lifestyle. The idea is to create an entire lifestyle that supports not stressing out to begin with, but also offers what to do if you find yourself already stressed.
These practices may seem a bit difficult to begin with, but as you practice them more often, you begin to master your mind, and returning to balance becomes easier and easier. So don't give up, smile, and know that it will get better. Just keep showing up to your practice, no matter if it is meditation or happy baby. This is sometimes the hardest part—noticing that you are stressed and then managing to take action to return to balance. The flexitarian method tells us to just keep trying without being hard on ourselves when it did not work out. Keep trying and you will see that stress is optional, and you can use it only when it is needed.