You’re standing in the checkout aisle at the supermarket. You have a “to-do” list that’s a mile long, but you can’t accomplish a single task on it. Looking for something you can do while you wait? Try yoga — namely mountain pose — to instantly reduce your stress level and anxiety.
To do it, start by rooting your feet into the floor. Draw in a deep breath. Stand up tall. Straighten your back and roll your shoulders back. Hold the breath momentarily, and then exhale to a count of four.
San Francisco integrative physician Dr. Brad Jacobs specializes in this practice of mindful yoga on the go. We’ve got his top recommendations for you.
LovingYou: What originally interested you in this idea of mindful yoga in the midst of a busy lifestyle?
Dr. Brad Jacobs: I realized that asking my clients to carve out an hour a day to go to yoga class resulted in limited success. People live such busy lives, that even though they need it, they actually can’t find the time to do it. So I had them incorporate these sorts of activities into the midst of their day, which resulted in a lot more success for them.
LY: We love your tip for breathing in mountain pose while in line at the store. What are some other “waiting” places that we all could better utilize?
BJ: The most important thing to think about is our breath. Our breathing is something that is unconscious. To bring that to our consciousness immediately shifts our physiology and our chemistry in our body for the better. For this, I recommend people breathe in for a count of four, pause for one count, and then exhale for a count of six — breathing in and out the nose. You can do that just about anywhere — standing in any line, sitting in at a red light, sitting in traffic or waiting for the phone to pick up — and it is extremely beneficial.
The reason why breath is so easy and the best yoga pose to do is because you can do it within five seconds and just that five second activity shifts you. It shifts your physiology and your stress levels. You can do this while seated in the car. You can tighten and relax different parts of the body. So for example, you can tighten and relax the upper parts of your shoulders or the pelvic muscles (a.k.a. Kegels). These contractions are part of what we call progressive muscle relaxation practice and can be really helpful to do.
LY: Can you recommend any yoga poses you can do while sitting at work all day?
BJ: There are several different applications you can put on your computer — like Office YogaMD or Yoga Glow — that prompt you every 20 minutes or so to do different yoga exercises while you’re seated in the chair. Some of the exercises would be simply rotating your head around looking in one direction and then rotating your head back in the other direction while you’re still seated in your chair.
By pushing your chair away from the desk, you can do a variety of poses. Fold over your knees so that your head is folded down in front of your shins. You can also turn your whole body towards the left and grab the base of the chair and then turn your body to the right.
Another pose you can do is take one leg up and across the top of the other thigh so that the ankle lies on the top of the opposing thigh. That’s a very good deep stretch. You can also do facial exercises. For example, look in multiple directions — right, left, up, down — and also do clockwise and counterclockwise rotations. Looking at a computer screen is very hard on the eyes, so I recommend taking a break every 90 minutes to do some yoga poses where you take your eyes off the computer screen and take a five minute break before you go back.
I also recommend people simply get out of their chair and do some sun salutations. You can do sun salutations for five minutes and really get some wonderful benefits from that. All of these should be used with the breath work I talked about earlier.
LY: Letting your “to-do” list dissolve while breathing sounds so great, but what tips do you have for folks who just can’t seem to relax?
BJ: The first thing is to focus on the counting of your breath. If you just focus on your breath, your mind is going to wander. It’s hard to focus on something like your breath, but it’s much easier if you’re counting — it’s like counting sheep. The analogy I use for people is I say imagine your body is rooted in the earth and very grounded and then your mind is like an expansive blue sky and thoughts are like clouds.
You want the clouds to simply drift across the sky, instead of getting caught and collected around the mountaintop of your body. So when you notice a thought, simply recognize it and go back to your breath. Also, it’s normal to have thoughts. The expectation of extinguishing all thoughts when you’re doing yoga is an illusion. It’s not true. Frequently you’ll have a thought, just recognize it and then come back to your breath.
LY: What are the best two or three yoga poses to do throughout the day and why?
BJ: I would say that the first most important one would be breathing that we talked about before. People don’t think that that’s a yoga pose, but it really is. Everyone needs that. The second one would be mountain pose because that allows you to be aware of your posture and your breath.
The third would be downward dog. In this pose, you’re applying traction to the spine so the spine actually elongates and expands. By dropping your head down and your butt up in the air, you’re working on lengthening the spine. It also engages our pelvis and lower legs, so it’s a full body pose.
LY: Deep breathing is a key component of stress relief. How do breathing and stress level affect each other?
BJ: By doing conscious breath work, you relax the body and allow the parasympathetic system — the calming part of the nervous system — to engage, rather than just having the sympathetic drive engaged. The sympathetic nervous system is the one that makes you run away from a tiger that’s chasing you. You want both the parasympathetic and the sympathetic in balance. By breathing, you’re engaging both parts.
Breath also affects something called your heart rate variability — the variability between the beat-to-beat variation of your heart beat. In other words, if your heart rate is 60 beats per minute, then each heart beat takes one second. So if you have a heartbeat that goes on the money, every one second, that’s called low variability heart rate. You actually want more variability — such as .9 seconds, and then 1.1 second.
When you have low variability, things that are harmful to your health occur. Research has shown that by breathing, your heart rate variability improves. Finally, your hormones shift in a beneficial way. Your cortisol level comes down a little bit. A hormone called DHEA — a hormone of well-being — increases. You want those in better ratios.
LY: What would you say to someone who protests they’re “just too busy” to try mindful yoga?
BJ: I’d tell them to try it for one week and incorporate it into their day. Do 15 minutes once a day for a week. What I tell them to do if they can is just journal some of their symptoms at the beginning and at the end of the week and notice if they feel any different. Without fail, people feel better.