When you were a kid, the holidays couldn’t come soon enough. The weeks leading up to these special times were filled with anticipation—and probably tins full of cookies (which had no calories then), less pressured school days and more time to be with family and friends. But the perspective is really different on the other side of the rolling pin (and the 10 trips to the grocery store for ingredients you forgot) and the midnight house cleaning that didn’t fit into your 25-hour day. And all those presents? Even if you shopped early and stopped early before you succumbed to conspicuous consumption, you’re still stressing about whether you got the gifts that would get that special smile as the wrappings come off. So, before this festive season becomes one more stressor, set an intention to give yourself a gift right now: the gift of calm.
Start by focusing on what yoga teaches you about being centered and authentic. Let go of all the created need of the to-do lists on the Internet or in magazines. Think about what celebrating really means to you and the people you care about. Will anyone really care if you serve five different kinds of cookies rather than six? If you like to bake, make that an occasion in itself. Invite a group of friends to bring the makings for their favorite desserts. Soon, your kitchen will be warmed by the confections coming out of the oven and the laughter of people enjoying themselves. Instead of wrapping up one more thing, give an experience that deepens your connection with someone or makes a new one. Forget about the ruffled scarf you’re desperately trying to convince yourself your BFF will like because you want to get home. Instead, get her/him a gift certificate for a private yoga class or pre-pay for a workshop you’d both like. Make a donation in your parents’ names to a cause they support. If you want that big box present, choose something from a company that promotes eco and social responsibility and let the recipient know how that gift keeps on giving. One click and you’re done.
Schedule time outs. Yoga can be more essential than ever within the context of this hectic time. You may not have an hour to devote to your practice, but you can do some breath work before you get out of bed. Emphasize a long, slow inhale through your nose and an even longer exhale. Pull your knees into your chest and gently roll you lower body from side to side. When you get out of bed, stand in Tadasana (Mountain pose) with your toe mounds touching and your arms straight by your sides. Close your eyes and breathe in the words, “I am calm;” exhale the words, “I am releasing stress.” This gives you a chance to get to a calm center before you take on the challenges of the day. You can repeat this short sequence at your desk to maintain that equilibrium throughout your workday as well. If your job requires you to be on your feet, do seated breath work during your break.
Before you head out to class or take out your mat for a home practice, thoughtfully consider what you need that day to de-stress. A power class can be the perfect antidote to stress if you’re pent up from an hour in traffic gridlock on the way to the mall or your workload is escalating as the year draws to a close. But if your body and mind have had enough and you need to release, consider these suggestions from renowned yoga teacher Kathryn Budig:
Try a seated meditation. As Budig points out, this is doable on the busiest day. Twelve minutes can change your life. Come into a comfortable sitting position. Lengthen your spine, stretching your crown away from your tailbone. Place the backs of your palms on your knees if you want to focus on receiving; cup your knees with hands if you want to feel solid and grounded or bring your folded hands into your lap to go deeply within. Hold that pose for seven minutes. Budig suggests thinking the phrase, "I am not my body" on your inhales and, "I am not even the mind" on your exhales. After the seven minutes are up, chant the sound “HA” seven times and continue to sit for another five minutes focusing your energy between your brows.
Close your day with yoga. Whether you’ve just arrived home or you’re getting ready to wind down before bed, try some gentle asanas to lower your stress levels. Consider these restorative poses or ask your yoga teacher to recommend choices for your specific needs.
Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall Pose). Expert teacher Rodney Yee calls this one of the most restorative poses in yoga. He offers three variations. In the first, sit in an L-shape with your right side up against a wall. Swing your legs up the wall as you lower your head and shoulders. One option is to bend your knees and cross your legs as you do in Sukhasana (Easy Pose). Allow the legs to rest on the wall while the back body relaxes into the mat. For a second variation, begin the same way but straighten your legs. If you’re less flexible or have back issues, consider placing a bolster under your lower back so that it will support your back as you swing your legs up and lie back. To go deeper, flex your feet or, if you’re working with a partner, ask her/him to press your legs into the wall. In the third version of this pose, place a bolster next to the wall. As you enter the pose, place your right hip/buttock on the wall and ease your left side up onto the bolster. Raise your legs and recline back. Yee sees this as a valuable alternative to full shoulder stand, with many of the same heart opening and calming benefits. Try to stay in any of these poses for five minutes. Ease your legs down, walking down the wall and then bringing your knees into your chest and hugging them with your arms.
Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose). Come to a comfortable seat. Bend your knees and draw the soles of your feet together into Baddha Konanasana (Bound Angle Pose). Ease yourself down, lowering onto your forearms. If possible, recline down to the mat. If you need support, place a folded blanket or bolster on the mat to support your head and neck before you begin. Stay in the pose from one to 10 minutes. Release by using your hands to press your thighs together. Then roll up to seated position.
Live in the moment. By keeping your focus on what you’re doing at any given time, you won’t get overwhelmed by all the to-do’s. Look for the joy in what you’re doing, whether the mind/body/spirit exhilaration of yoga or the fragrance of home-made soup simmering on the stove. Make your daily shower a pampering ritual by using a new herbal soap or applying sesame or almond oil before stepping into the warm waterfall of water.
Learn to be a good editor of your life. Declutter your mind. Instead of trying to get everything done, do only those things that matter most. Then, calm down. The best present is given heart to heart—and you already have that taken care of.