I just watched a really good video about meditation by Jewel. I'm much more of a reader than a watcher, so it took a lot for me to commit to the 8-minute video, but I was happy I did, and so I wanted to share it. I've blogged about meditation before, specifically recommending the app Headspace, but some people may have a fear of commitment to apps the same way I have for videos. You never know what will resonate with you.
You might think, "What does a pop singer have to teach me about mindfulness?", but if you watch the video you'll see she has a practical soulfulness about her. She relates some of her emotional trauma and how meditation gave her the ability to step towards her problems rather than running away from them. She gives a couple of simple techniques to get started. Give it a listen. It's 8 minutes well spent.
Meditation gets recommended all the time as a means of lowering stress levels, but how many of us actually make it a daily practice? I went through a period where I learned firsthand the physical toll stress can take on the body. I would get these attacks at night - a clenching pain in my gut that would persist till morning. Each night.. for weeks... it was like being visited by a phantom - quite frightening. I happened to be reading a book that described a simple meditation technique. I started meditating every morning, and damned if those attacks didn't go away!
You would think that would have made me a lifelong meditator, but nooooo. As soon as I figured I was in the clear I stopped. I tried to pick it up again several times, but I could never get it to stick. Then, recently, I was listening to an interview of Andy Puddicombe, creator of the meditation app Headspace. Interesting guy. He dropped out of college, moved to Tibet, and entered a monastery where they meditated for 16 hours a day. Now that's hardcore! But you could tell from the interview that he is a very practical guy, and his idea with Headspace was to make meditation more accessible to the masses.
I liked his story, so I decided to give Headspace a whirl. And... it has stuck! I've been very consistent over the past 3 months. 20 total hours spent in meditation (the app keeps track of this). I think it has helped me to be more calm. Even my kids have noticed... and they're teenagers... on Instagram! So check it out. The first month is free, then I think it's something like $90 for a year. A small cost to ingrain such a powerful habit.
Exercise is not simply sweating off calories. A good training program applies stress to the body, and the body responds with a desired adaptation (improved strength, power, or metabolic conditioning). However, there's a catch. Our bodies do not have an infinite capacity for stress. When this capacity is exceeded the ability to develop adaptations (also known as gainz) is negated.
We can think of the body's capacity as a bucket, and stress as water in the bucket. Now, here's the thing. Exercise isn't the only stressor filling up the bucket. Stress can come from...
If our stress bucket is already filled to the rim from these sources, the intentional stress from exercise will spill over onto the floor... wasted. No positive adaptations will occur, and we may even become ill. If you consistently don't feel energized going into your workouts your stress levels may be maxed out. If that's the case, do a personal inventory of the items I listed above to identify areas where you can make incremental improvements. Every little drop helps.
On lazy afternoons back when I was a kid, my dad would announce, "Let's go for a walk"... and my sister and I would run and hide. Anything was better than going on a boring walk! Now, much as I notice that I grip the steering wheel the same way my dad used to, I've also developed his appreciation for walks.
Walking is gentle exercise. You're operating below the aerobic threshold, which the mitochondria in your muscle cells love. You're neither sitting nor standing still, which your back loves. You're getting sunlight, which your skin loves. You're setting your circadian clock, which makes falling asleep at night easier. You're out in nature reflecting on your thoughts, which your meditative mind loves.
I started taking walks at lunchtime because I had a desk job that made me crazy. If you have a similar situation take advantage of it, and head out for a walk. The office will still be there when you get back, but you'll be a little different... for the better.
For the past six months I've been doing a yoga routine that I got out of my hero Laird Hamilton's book, Force of Nature. But I knew how much good coaching can improve movement, so about a month ago I joined Searchlight Yoga, a studio down the street from me.
I remember the first time we hit downward dog. The instructor referred to it as a restorative pose, and I thought, "Ohhhh shit". But as the weeks passed, downward dog slowly became a friend, and I made a few observations. Number one, nothing beats child's pose. Now THAT'S restorative.
Number two, yoga is a great complement to high intensity exercise like Crossfit. I've noticed that my joints feel much better, and I'm not as sore as I used to be. That gives me renewed vigor and allows me to go harder in the gym.
My favorite lessons are the ones you never see coming. At yoga, the instructor often says, "Thank you for bringing your practice here today". That made a big impression on me. It's true. Everyone has their own practice... even in a group setting. Now I bring that same idea to Crossfit, and it helps to quiet my mind. We're all at a different point in our journey. We all have our own practice... and that's what makes us connected.
One of the teachers closes her class with these words that I really like... "The light in me honors the light in each of you. Namaste."
Bobby McFerrin's words might seems simplistic, but there is a lot of wisdom in them. Stress is not intrinsically bad... nor good. It's in the way that you use it. In my previous posts about exercise and gratitude I discussed the beneficial mechanism of how the body responds to acute (temporary) stress by developing a positive adaptation (getting stronger, faster, etc). In this context I'm referring to exercise as a stressor. There are other physical stressors our bodies can experience - extreme temperature, lack of food. As with exercise, these stressors can also bring about positive adaptations which I'll get into in future posts. But for now let's focus on what we typically mean when we use the word stress. Dude, I'm sooooo stressed out. THAT kind of stress.
We humans built this wonderful addition onto our brain - the prefrontal cortex. With it we gave ourselves savvy and the ability to plan... but we also gave ourselves the ability to worry over the future and ruminate about past disappointments. Ay caramba! It's important to understand that psychological stress is every bit as real as physical stress in terms of having a tangible effect on the body. Both forms of stress trigger chemical processes that result in a hormonal response. During a stressful event the hormone cortisol is released which amps up the sugar level in the bloodstream. It's a beautiful system. Something threatens our well-being, and our body gives us some extra juice to deal with it. It works nicely when the pattern is momentary stress followed by a long period of non-stress. It doesn't work so well when the stress is chronic - 24/7. While cortisol raises our energy it also lowers our immunity (that energy has to come from somewhere) and triggers the release of insulin which signals fat storage and makes us crave sugary treats.
When I take a walk I marvel at how well-adjusted the squirrel is. Looking for nuts, he is happy and calm. If a car or dog or... I startle him, he runs like hell up a tree. As soon as he's safe his stress levels down-regulate, and that's the end of it. He doesn't sit around thinking thoughts like, "Why did that guy scare me? Did I do something to deserve that? Is there something wrong with me?". All he knows is the crisis is over, and he returns to looking for nuts. A shining example for all of us to follow.
Of course, we have more going on in our lives than the squirrel. What are some practical things we can do to lower our stress levels? The first thing is to figure out what's causing your stress. Sometimes it's not obvious, and it's important to identify the enemy. Only then can you come up with a plan. Often the solution is paring back or doing less. Often we jam more and more stuff into our lives without conscious thought as to whether these things serve us. The "things" could be material possessions, activities, or even people. We have to be vigilant and constantly weed our gardens. You can check out a documentary about this idea of minimalism on Netflix. You don't have to go full-blown with the concept, but it's an idea worth exposing yourself to.
Meditation is a great tool for managing stress. When I was younger I thought mediation was this mystical concept of trying to divine the secrets of the universe. It's not. It's simply a mechanism for training yourself to be more present. As I mentioned above, stress typically results from thinking about either the past or the future. When you're present or "in the moment" you don't have that problem. I've tried different approaches to meditation. Recently I started using the app Headspace, and I've found it to be very practical. Taking walks (say hello to my little friends - squirrels) is great for modulating stress. I highly recommend yoga... at a yoga studio. I tried doing yoga at home to save myself embarrassment, but when I finally decided to man up and check in to the local yoga studio that made all the difference in the world. One last thing to mention is breath work. Taking a 5-minute timeout to do some simple box breathing does wonders for lowering stress.