Weekly Teaching Note
Apr 20 2011
Simple Stress Relief

That time of year is upon us, when many of us have piles of papers and exams to grade, year-end reports to submit, and just a general seemingly unbearable amount of chaos in our lives.  Even when we "take breaks," it's usually not to actually relax but to just complete other tasks that somehow don't seem as daunting as the ones from which we are taking said breaks.  
Over the past few years, I've realized that one of the many benefits of yoga (which I teach) is that I can slow down and refocus and relax at any time, anywhere, even during the last few weeks of the semester.  Even in my office.  Anywhere I am, I can truly take a break.  And I'm more than happy to share some ideas with you of how to do this to help you through this frenzied season.


My students always express frustration at their first attempts at meditating and surprised at how hard it can be.  That is why one of the first things I do with them when "teaching" meditation is to introduce them to the concept of listening meditations.  These can be done anywhere, any time.  They are perfect for rejuvenating the mind when you've graded one too many papers or exams in one sitting, don't have time to get out of the office and regroup, but truly need a mental break. With these, there is no need for that "perfect silent space" we may conceive that we need when we want to find a moment's peace.  Instead, I tell them, just sit comfortably upright or stand tall in Mountain pose (feet shoulder-width apart, palms forward, shoulders rolled up and back and down away from the ears, tail bone tucked, a bit of a bend to the knees, with the belly button pulled in). Then, close your eyes and allow the noise to happen—just don't give it your full attention.  
You may notice certain sounds, like a door slamming or a phone ringing, and you may even give them those names. Sometimes we just give these things names of our feelings of them: loud, pleasant, harsh, annoying.  If we do name them, don't dwell on them, just let them pass.  The sound is there, and trying to ignore it will just frustrate us more. Instead, as with any meditation, focus on the breathing you're doing: in through the nose and out through the nose, slowly, in complete awareness of how that air moves through your body.  Notice how the chest rises and falls, how the abdomen expands.  Take slower, deeper breaths, eventually filling the chest fully and holding it for a moment before slowly letting it out and again holding for a moment before restarting the cycle. You may find it helpful to focus on doing this to a count of four or eight, pausing at the top and bottom of each breath to notice how that fullness and emptiness feels.  
My students have told me this is a great way to settle down and clear their minds right before a test or right after a heated discussion.  They have even said they use the technique to calm them before they go to talk to professors, and they love it because they can do it wherever and whenever.  No mat required.

STIFF BACK RELIEF: Cats and Cows  

If you're like me, you may find that you sit at a desktop computer for hours grading papers electronically or sit in a chair doing the same with real papers. The head, neck, shoulders, and back can get so tired, and there is a simple yoga flow of two asanas (poses) that can help to reinvigorate those areas: cat and cow.  Start down on all fours, making sure your knees are stacked under your hips and that your wrists, elbows, and shoulders are in alignment, too, and flatten the back like a table top with the belly button pulled in. (You may want to close your office door first!) This is called "neutral spine."  Inhale into cow, dropping the stomach the floor, tipping the head to look up and raising the tail bone high.  Then exhale into cat, reversing the stretch by moving through the spine to arch the back like an angry cat, slowly dropping the head and tucking the tail bone under.  Flow through these poses with your breath.  In class, we do at least 5 flows between the two, sometimes 10 if the students say they've been particularly stressed or have been writing papers a lot during the week.  When you are done, finish the flow by sitting back into child's pose, sitting your hips back on your heels, stretching your arms in front of you or wrapping them around your legs to reach for your feet, and letting your chest and head rest as low as is comfortable for you.  


Another way to loosen the back, shoulders, and neck is the asana known as rag doll.  If your balance is lacking, you may want to do this over the back of a stable (not rolling!) chair. From a standing position, with feet hips' width apart, take a deep breath in, and then as you exhale, roll forward vertebra-by-vertebra into a forward fold, arms dangling down loosely.   Then, grasp opposite elbows-- right elbow in left hand, left elbow in right.  Make sure you gently drop the head and let it hang, releasing all tension in the neck and jaw and back and shoulders.  
If you still feel tense through your neck, gently and slowly shake your head "no" and nod it "yes." If you feel tension through the back and shoulders, you can gently sway from the waist, twisting first to the left as you inhale and then to the right as you exhale: all movement in yoga is tied to the breath, so don't move without breathing, and never hold your breath in a pose. When you feel relaxed, don't sit right up: slowly inhale and exhale as you roll up, one vertebrate at a time to avoid a head rush.

Simple meditative and yogic practices can make our lives easier in so many ways, and this time of year, we especially need those little things that can make life less hectic.  Well, that and an automatic paper-grader.  If you find one of those, let me know!

To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at fglazer@nyit.edu. This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.

Wren Mills, Ph.D.
Instructional Coordinator, Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching (FaCET)
Western Kentucky University

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