By Debra Bokur
Longing for a sense of harmony in your life? We’ve got ways to help you do it.
Life can be an overwhelming business, even on the best of days. In addition to the pressures of our jobs, personal relationships, concerns about the environment, and family obligations, we have to deal with constant headlines and news reports that can bring down even the most optimistic among us. Curing the problems of the world may take a little time but who says we can’t begin the process by establishing a sense of balance within ourselves? Here, experts in fields ranging from yoga and health to travel and nutrition share their tips and advice.
Surround Yourself with Soothing Scents
Mindy Green, clinical aromatherapist for Aveda Research & Development, contends “Scent is a powerful tool to de-stress and regain daily balance. The simplest technique is to open a bottle of your favorite essential oil and inhale slowly; eyes closed and focus on the breath. The oil can be inhaled directly from the bottle or added to the bath for the ultimate relaxation treatment. Lavender is a great oil to be used; numerous studies have been conducted on the relaxation effects of lavender, so this technique is not only pleasant but has scientific evidence of its efficacy.”
Pick up a Pen
“To feel balance, you need clarity; a tool to bring you back to your calm center when life rolls around you like a tornado. Journaling can help you access a calm, wise place where you’re able to hear your own inner wisdom,” says Sandy Grason, author of Journalation: Journaling to Awaken Your Inner Voice, Heal Your Life, and Manifest Your Dreams (New World Library, 2005). “Use your journal as a place to dump stress and the overwhelming aspects of daily life.” Journals covered in gorgeous fabrics are easy to find these days. To begin a daily or weekly practice, simply jot down how you feel at that exact moment, and one or two significant events from your day. You’ll find the words flowing in no time.
Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D., author of such books as Food & Mood (Owl Books, 1999), reminds us of the connection between what we eat, how we feel, and how well we deal with stress. “Eat breakfast,” advises Somer. “People who eat breakfast have more energy, think [more]clearly, and are less prone to cravings and are much less likely to overeat later in the day compared to breakfast skippers. A healthful breakfast only takes five minutes and is as simple as juice, fruit, and cereal.”
Declare Your Dreams Out Loud
An affirmation can be as simple as “I will find compassion and grace in all my interactions with others today.” Place a copy at your work station, in your kitchen, or in your car. If the day begins to spiral out of control, read your affirmation aloud, concentrating on how the right words can evoke a sense of power and control.
Multi-platinum recording artist Hennie Bekker knows the restorative power of music, and how vibrations produced by sounds affect us on both a cellular and spiritual level altering and influencing mood and our sense of well being. “Begin each day by listening to soothing music. Choose music that doesn’t intrude because of rapid melodic changes,” says Bekker. “Based on your own self-awareness of what state your mind and body are in, identify any areas that may be harboring tension, and focus on them, consciously sending relaxation there. During your commute, listen to music that has peaceful harmonies. When the driver behind you starts honking their horn or giving you the finger, the music will help you to regard them with compassion instead of responding in anger. Certain types of music possess an astonishing power to heal the body, mind, and spirit.”
There’s really nothing like a long, hot soak to alter your view of the day. Turn off the ringer on your phone, and fill your tub with water that’s between 92 and 100 degrees. Add your favorite salts or oils products containing essential oils of lavender, rose, clary sage, geranium, or ylang ylang are best for relaxation. While the tub fills, spend a few minutes dry brushing your skin with a natural fiber brush. Use short, brisk strokes along your arms, legs, chest, and back, always stroking toward the heart. Besides gently exfoliating your skin, dry brushing stimulates the lymphatic system. Light a few soy aromatherapy candles, fold a towel to place behind your head and neck, and slip into the water for up to thirty minutes of bliss.
Imbalance, says Colleen Deatsman, author of Inner Power: Six Techniques for Increased Energy & Self-Healing (Llewellyn Publishing, 2005), occurs when daily stresses scatter your personal energy. She offers this grounding exercise to replenish that energy. “Stand with your feet hip distance apart, arms down at your sides. Relax. Imagine yourself as a tree with roots growing out from your feet, going deep into the Earth. Feel the Earth energy pulsating. Draw this energy up through your legs into your torso, the trunk of your body’s tree. Feel Earth energy mingle with your personal energy. Now raise your hands, palms to the sky. Imagine your arms are branches gathering in the energy of the universe. Feel that energy come down into your trunk and mix with your personal and Earth energy. You are perfectly balanced with the Earth and the elements of your life. Breathe. Smile.”
Get Enough Sleep
Herb Joiner Bey, ND, author of The Healing Power of Flax (Freedom Press, 2005) and an adjunct professor in the naturopathic medicine curriculum at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, stresses the importance of sleep. “Stress will be in your life,” he says. “How will you respond to it? The nervous system suffers when the body is under stress, which can be greatly exacerbated by lack of sleep. Electric lights have caused most people in Western civilizations to be sleep deprived exposure to bright light interrupts the body’s natural rhythms, causing changes in blood chemistry that adversely affect the aging process. We no longer wake up with the sunrise and go to bed as the sun sets. Dimmer lights promote a mellower, quieter state of mind. Darken your room or wear an eye mask, avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening, and concentrate on positive thoughts at bedtime. Don’t underestimate the effects of sleep deprivation.”
Give Yourself a Massage
“For people that are really busy, there can be a long period of time between spa visits,” says Amy McDonald, spa and program director at El Monte Sagrado Living Spa in Taos, New Mexico. By placing tennis balls under your back, in areas where you have a lot of tension, you can effectively give yourself a massage without any assistance. The area between the shoulder blades and lower back can become tight from sitting and working on a computer or standing for long periods of time. “It really is a preventative practice,” McDonald suggests, “just a few minutes every few days or once a week can be really helpful for those problem areas. Roll around to really work out the tight spots. When you finally do get a massage, you [won’t be] so locked up in that area which makes it really difficult for the therapist to get in. Besides, getting down on the floor feels playful, I think we all need a little bit of that in our lives.”
Get Along with (Almost) Everyone
Stressful, tense relationships with friends, coworkers, family, and significant others can be a major source of disharmony in our lives. Life coach and relationship expert Becky Tirabassi, author of Keep the Change: Breaking Through to Permanent Transformation (Integrity Publishers, 2005) says it doesn’t need to be so. Tirabassi and her husband advocate the 3 A’s Affirmation, Apology, and Affection. “Affirming a person immediately lowers defenses and allows both people to feel more open and safe while sharing,” explains Tirabassi, and “apologizing when you’ve caused unhappiness to someone else, whether at home or at work, helps to keep the air clear. Expressing affection a hug or kiss for friends and family members, and a handshake or pat on the back for co-workers can quickly bring down any remaining barriers.”
Remove Visible Signs of Stress
When our stress levels increase the importance we place on taking care of our skin diminishes. Unfortunately, our skin is the first place that signs of stress may appear. Melinda Minton, executive director of the Spa Association (SPAA) advises restoring balance to your skin with a simple steam. “Steaming helps to restore the skin’s natural balance by stimulating circulation and opening the pores.” Not only does steaming help to cleanse and nourish, it also, as Minton explains, helps return skin to a “soft, supple, and baby-fresh state.” She advises to purchase herbs that suit your skin (lavender or calendula for dry skin; chamomile or comfrey for sensitive skin; and grapefruit peel for oily skin). “Some herbs are hydrating and softening, others can be antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, while others are soothing and calming. Licorice root is an ideal choice for herbal steaming, no matter the skin type, because it helps refine the pores, soothes, hydrates, and conditions the skin.” Before steaming, wash your face; then add the herbs to a steaming pot of water. Place a towel over your head, and place your face over the bowl. Advises Minton, “Be sure to not get too close to the steam or it can make fine blood vessels break.” Steam for two to three minutes.
Have a Tea Party
The Mad Hatter aside, most of us are aware of the health-enhancing and disease preventative antioxidant powers of tea. Michael Smucker, vice president of Meru Tea, reminds us that pausing for a cup of tea in the midst of our daily routines allows for the opportunity to reflect, regroup, and redirect our energy. “Balance is inherent in the universe,” says Smucker. “To that end, it is more to be realized than sought. To me, universal balance is revealed in a cup of tea. Without sunshine, rain, Earth, and air, it would not exist. I see these things in concert with the skilled hands that prepared the leaves for my consumption and from those hands to mine where the water is prepared, and poured boiling over the waiting leaves. As the infusion unfolds, a well-chosen tea offers a synergy of delicate colors, calming aromas, and taste that is both soothing and delicious. This ritual of having tea serves to quiet the mind. And if you quiet the mind, what is left is balance.”
Go for a Walk
Communing with nature can help connect you to the larger world and provide a sense of balance. Take a ten-minute walk listen to the songs of birds, notice the play of clouds against the sky, or reflect on the shadow of a tree. Acknowledge and celebrate your place in the intricate mosaic of life.
Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapist Laurie Estey-Dudley, owner of Yoga Barn in East Kingston, New Hampshire, holds a degree in counseling psychology. “To feel balanced is to feel grounded,” she says. “Our bodies are in constant dialogue between gravity and space. Practice Mountain pose to help make a connection between yourself and the Earth beneath you. Stand looking straight ahead with soft eyes, back straight, and arms hanging by [your]sides. Spread your toes wide, feet touching. Be aware of locking any joints that might stop the flow of energy, and be certain to draw your tailbone toward the Earth. Breathe deeply.”
Read a Poem
“It’s easy to feel frazzled when you are constantly interrupted, and used to multi-tasking,” says Alissa Norton, poetry editor of Many Mountains Moving Literary Journal and mother of two. “It’s not uncommon for parents, especially, to be doing three or four things at once pouring a cup of apple juice, talking on the phone, picking up toys, planning dinner. When you can slow down a little and consciously choose to be present in the moment, even for part of every day, the quality of your life will instantly improve. Poetry gives me an immediate respite from everyday hassles and concerns. Whether I am reading it or writing it, I always come away feeling invigorated, as if I have just returned from a mini-vacation. When I can’t go out and sit in an aspen grove for a few minutes, I read a Mary Oliver poem instead. If I’m feeling overwhelmed by everything I have to get done at work, I take a few minutes to write before I begin. When I can focus my mind through reading or writing, I find that I not only accomplish more, but I enjoy more. I notice the changing of the seasons, the way my children experience the world and these, really, are the things that make up a life worth living.”
Move from Your Core
Says Barbara Marchbanks, BS, CIAR, fitness supervisor for the Centre for Well-Being at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona, “balance comes from strength in the trunk area of the body, now commonly referred to as [the]core.” Through Pilates exercises, individuals are able to strengthen these key muscles (located in the abdomen and lower back) enabling more effective movement and less back-pain. Advises Marchbanks, “While doing Pilates, always hold your belly button in as you inhale through the nose. This will keep your belly flat and allow the air to move into your upper back and rib cage. As you exhale, breathe out forcefully through pursed lips and contract the lower abdominal muscles as if you were trying to zip into a tight pair of jeans.”
Pay it Forward
Volunteering or mentoring, regardless of whether it’s only an occasional afternoon at an animal shelter or assisting a neighbor’s child with homework, helps us create a greater balance within the world. Even if your personal life is rife with challenges, you likely have something for which you are grateful. Share and celebrate that gratitude by helping another who is less fortunate, or performing an act of anonymous kindness such as slipping a quarter into a stranger’s parking meter before it expires. Volunteer Match (www.volunteermatch.org) can help you make a meaningful connection.
Marsha Marks, author of Flying by the Seat of My Pants: Flight Attendant Adventures on a Wing and a Prayer (Random House, 2005) says we can take our balance with us. “A wise person once said the bridge between hope and despair is a good night’s sleep. I would add that the best preparation for a peaceful travel experience is a good night’s sleep and a little food. Before you go through security, eat a snack. Everything, from getting a ticket thrown at you, to having your last connection canceled, will be better received if you are rested and not hungry.”
Add Flax to Your Diet
Exercise, eating right, and reducing your stress are the best ways to lead a balanced life. Nutritionist Heather Jones adds, “Flax, being rich in alpha-linolenic (ALA), the essential omega-3 fatty acid, and phytochemicals makes a good addition to a healthful, balanced diet.” Flax has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and other chronic diseases and may also have anti-aging benefits. “Good health,” Jones explains, “requires the right ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids in the diet. Most people consume enough omega-6 fatty acids (abundant in walnuts, pine nuts, soybeans, and the following oils: safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, cottonseed, peanut, and canola), but many are lacking in omega-3’s. Including flax in the diet can help you achieve this balance.” Flaxseeds are also loaded with dietary fiber, another essential component of a healthy diet. To get started, sprinkle a handful of ground flaxseed on your morning cereal or blend it in your breakfast smoothie.
Connect with Your Partner
Lana Holstein, M.D., managing director of medical programs for Miraval Life in Balance in Tucson, where she leads year-round intimacy and sexuality workshops, suggests that the key to finding balance in your day is to reconnect with your partner when you get home from work. “One great intimacy practice is to sit together ‘tantrically.’ As a couple we often try to talk to connect at the end of a busy day and just get right back into whatever frustrated us. Try this: the guy sits on a cushion on the floor or on the bed and you come to sit on his lap facing him with your legs wrapped around his back. You can then lean your heads on each other’s shoulder or put your foreheads together as you match your breaths. It is wonderfully soothing and synchronizing to breathe together, it puts you in your partner’s arms, and you both get some nourishing, peaceful connecting moments before launching into the evening activities.”
You don’t need to be an astronomer or have access to a telescope to appreciate the multitude of stars that sparkle in the night sky. Recognizing how small our little corner of the universe is can really help put our day-to-day struggles into perspective. Next time you feel overwhelmed, find a quiet spot and look up. It’s a great, big world.
One of the best things to do at the end of a stressful day is to do nothing. Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., PT, yoga instructor, and author of Relax & Renew (Rodmell Press, 1995), advises to take fifteen minutes for yourself at the end of a stressful day. “Take a small pillow and a soft cloth, loosen your belt, take off your shoes, and lie down with your legs up on the couch. Place the pillow under your head, cover your eyes (remove glasses and contacts first) and simply just rest. Place your arms out to the side and breathe ten slow and long breaths. Then just stay lightly present with the breath as you feel yourself letting go. It is this act of letting go that will relieve the fatigue you feel so deeply.” This savasana (corpse pose) modification relieves fatigue and also revises tired legs. “It will increase your sense of well-being, change your interactions with your family in a way I am predicting you will enjoy, and become your daily contribution to world peace. No kidding. Imagine a world where everyone rested for fifteen minutes at the end of the day, and make a commitment right now to do this practice for life,” adds Lasater.
Rethink What it Means to Relax
Instead of trying to “relax” by watching TV or listening to the radio, go to your bedroom and unplug everything, advises Mary Cordaro, healthy home environmental consultant. “Instead of having all sorts of gadgets around you, you’ll have real peace and quiet. Relieve your body of the stress of electromagnetic fields (EMFs), and read. Read and relax in a true way so that the EMFs aren’t bombarding you.” Not only will you allow your mind to rest in peace, you’ll allow your body to rest as well.
With her husband Carlos, Debbie Rosas is cofounder of the Nia Technique and co-author of The Nia Technique The High-Powered Ener-gizing Workout That Gives You a New Body and a New Life (Broadway Books, 2005). “Make sound. Making sound is how you breathe naturally and fully and is a major part of any Nia workout. Sounding is how you move lots of energy and release stress to create energy balance. While either standing or lying down, sound [out]all of the vowel sounds (A, E, I, O, U) or laugh out loud for thirty to sixty seconds. Feel your abdominal muscles becoming stronger and stronger not from effort, but from pleasure! Make sound and emotionally get into the act of sounding to help release stress and open up your arteries. Sounding and laughter have the ability to open up the arteries by twenty percent, versus stress, which closes them.”