How to Stress Less #2: Yoga and Meditation

It actually happened: I forgot how to relax. And as your Type-A, productivity-loving friend, it’s the lists and that feeling of accomplishment that get me out of bed in the morning. But now I can’t turn the go-go-go switch off!

Adrenal fatigue/dysfunction is SO HOT RIGHT NOW. Here’s the deal: mental stress triggers the adrenals. The adrenals are responsible for our fight-or-flight switch and control the thyroid. The thyroid controls the rest of our body systems, so good adrenal and thyroid health is important for being well-functioning human beings. I described adrenal fatigue as I understand it in my last post, and how constantly being in fight-or-flight  could have triggered Hashimoto’s, my autoimmune condition. Adrenal fatigue seems to happen when your body can’t keep up with staying in FOF any longer (the gland stops working like it should). By the way, FOF = fight-or-flight. I’m tired of typing it. :)

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Unfortunately for us, adrenal fatigue is not accepted by traditional medicine (even at the Mayo Clinic). I’ve read several accounts of patients going to 10-15 doctors over years before getting an adrenal fatigue diagnosis that eventually led to healing. That’s so frustrating. Could you put up with feeling exhausted, every single day, for years?? I’m already tired of it!

Stress turns on FOF, so reducing stress can reduce the need for FOF and get you healthy adrenals. Because of my Hashimoto’s, I’ve been working vigilantly to reduce the amount of stress on my body, but it’s a years-long project.

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Common myth: Stress management can be accomplished simply by relaxing and dealing with mental/emotional “noise.”

But no: It’s more than that — STRESS can be anything, either internal or external, that creates an increased demand on your body.

Less demand on the body = more energy, stronger immune system, and a longer, healthier, happier life (i.e. you might not die as early).

Stress exists in many forms, such as:

  • Environmental toxins: exposure to toxins like chlorine, fluoride, pollution, and heavy metals. (Stress management, in this case, means drinking filtered water, ditching BPA bottles, and fluoride-free toothpaste)
  • Inflammation: eating foods that cause an internal inflammatory response, like processed sugar, alcohol, dairy.
  • Physical stress: malnourishment and too much exercise (where recovery < building)
  • Infections & immune imbalances
  • Leaky gut
  • Nutritional deficiencies (poor vitamin absorption)
  • Lack of sleep, blood sugar swings

…and the list goes on. We ask our bodies to deal with a lot, and sometimes it’s too much to handle.

The most difficult element of controlling stress is the mental part.

I cut out or resolved nearly all of those other aspects of stress (I think), but I just can’t turn off my fight-or-flight response completely, but I can tell you how I’ve gotten much, much closer over the past months. These are through your totally-expected ways, yoga and meditation.

Yoga

If you’re not up to speed on Bartley life, we just bought a house here in Southern California. So, I don’t have the funds available for daily yoga class at $20 a pop! I do have internet access, and so do you. Even my functional medicine doctor recommended yoga and its stress-reduction benefits through stretching, strength exercises, and breathing.

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At first, I was a runner doing yoga — “Why isn’t this moving faster?” “This isn’t hard enough!” “I’m wasting my time on stretching??” But I’ve discovered a few classes that are challenging and keep me wanting to come back for more.

Here are my favorites for quick, free, and convenient yoga if you already know the basics. Try:

  1. Yoga Download (Podcast) — My favorite is the post-run yoga podcast (free to stream). It’s only 20 minutes long, and is pretty easy to flow through once you play it once or twice. Beginner? No problem.
  2. Doyogawithme.com — I LOVE THIS SITE!!! Free online yoga video classes. You can search by type and skill level! If you like what you see, buy a video or purchase a volunteer subscription to keep the website afloat! Tip: There are three amazing Sun Salutations sessions that are only 20 minutes long – you’ll love ‘em!
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Meditation

Ok, I won’t go so far as to say it’s been life-changing yet, but it’s REALLY helped reduce stressful moments when I’ve felt an adrenaline surge (like when my phone rings. See? Fight-or-flight for no legit reason.)

Funny story: I sold my unneeded belongings in Bloomington, before the big move, on Craigslist. A guy who bought something from me was SUPER nice and mentioned he was new to town (in the Bryan Park ‘hood). We continued emailing once or twice after the exchange and I learned he was there to get involved with the meditation center in B-Town. Let’s call him John. On a whim, I asked him some questions about meditation:

  • How to meditate?
  • Different types or meditation?
  • What do you do if you mind wanders?
  • What and where is the Bloomington Zen center?

John was kind enough to send some very detailed responses, which (after receiving his permission), I am happy to share with you:

There are different types of meditation (they evolved along with the different branches of Buddhism). But really, all of them center on a kind of receptive & gentle awareness of experience as it unfolds from one moment to the next. It’s beautiful! You’ve probably heard the word “mindfulness,” or the phrase “being present,” used here and there–it’s just a translation of the old Buddhist term for this kind of awareness.

Probably the most common form of meditation is simple awareness of breathing. It’s practiced both by beginners and people who’ve been meditating for years. You should try it! Just find a relatively quiet place to sit, and then devote your awareness to the sensation of your breathing–as it comes in, as it goes out, and the little pauses in between. The sensation of breathing might be most prominent for you in your chest, or at the rims of your nostrils as air passes in & out, or in your lower abdomen; just choose an area and rest your attention there. Some people mentally count their breaths because it helps them focus; the standard practice is to count to 10 and then return to 1.

Focusing on breathing does require effort, but it’s important to have a peaceful, ordinary attitude toward whatever mental chatter arises. So when you get distracted by your thoughts (you will!), just notice in a friendly way that you’ve gotten distracted and gently return your awareness to your breathing. It’s best just to know at the outset that you’ll get distracted, and maybe *a lot*, and to decide beforehand not to get too frustrated with yourself or beat yourself up (which is, after all, just more mental chatter). You may be somewhat perfectionistic–sorry if it’s presumptuous for me to say so, but I’ve struggled with academic and athletic perfectionism all my life, and I sympathize! If so, this part of the instruction is especially important! Just be gentle and even kinda playful about the whole endeavor.

The wonderful thing about mental distractions is what it feels like to drop them and return to awareness of breathing. I like to compare it to that moment when the refrigerator stops running: when the racket ceases, a new silence settles in, and you feel a sense of release. Same with mental noise. Meditation is about releasing (over and over and over and over) whatever thoughts/worries/plans we’ve gotten caught up in and returning to an elemental sense of just breathing & being alive right here.

You could start with just 10-15 minutes a day. Consistency, as with any life practice, is the most important thing! I also suggest integrating mindfulness directly into everyday life by pausing every hour or so to take 10-20 mindful breaths–this literally takes only a minute, so why not? (Um, but maybe not while you’re driving to your new destination.)

Meditation Posture: here’s a guide. Lots of options, including sitting in a chair. If you want to sit in seiza (kneeling) position, you could use a yoga block in place of the little bench pictured in the instructions.

Sanshin Zen Community here in Bloomington is one of the best Zen Buddhist practice centers in the country, but it does fly under the radar. It’s a few blocks south of Hillside on Olive St., just a 10-minute walk from the south side of Bryan Park, and it just looks like a big house tucked into the residential area. Even though it’s designed to offer intensive practice, there is always free meditation instruction for beginners on Sunday mornings, and absolutely anyone interested in practicing is welcome, no prerequisites or time commitment necessary! Our roshi/head teacher (Shohaku Okumura) lives in the building with his wife Yuko, who’s a sewing master in the Soto Zen tradition, so if you buy a meditation cushion at some point, pleeeeze consider buying one of hers; it will probably outlast you!. 

For anyone in Bloomington, I can help them out or give them an un-intimidating intro to the Zen center. The Zen center runs largely on donations–so if you know folks who have the resources and are interested in supporting places like this, it would be great if you’d let them know!

If you’re in B-Town, visit or stop by the Zen center and look for John. I had no idea such a high-caliber place like this existed in our own backyard! (Better question: Who knew you could happen across non-sketchy people on Craigslist?!)

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To DIY your meditation, try these:

  • Dr. Weil’s breathing rhythm: 4 fast counts in, hold for 7, out for 8. Repeat 3-5 times. Supposedly foolproof for falling asleep! (But maybe I’m just that good at insomnia.) I use it when I start feeling anxious or a short of adrenaline/stress and it’s nearly life-changing at helping those “pangs” go away. Check out the video, but turn off the snarky comments – they’re really distracting.
  • Calm.com — try the website OR the app! Pick a beautiful landscape & calming sound, choose your session length, close your eyes, and let the voice guide you and your thoughts for just 2 or up to 20 minutes. This app is awesome if you don’t know how to meditate. but want to start. Or, use the sounds without the voice. Be warned — as a wise friend of mine said the other day, “Calm.com is great for taking micro work breaks – just find the right place to use it or else your office will think you’ve taken a green lunch.” :)

Yoga and meditation have been effective for stress reduction for me so far… I catch myself getting excited for the few minutes I can find with my Calm.com app!

Have you found any other websites or resources for yoga and meditation that you love? Have you ever met any pleasantly non-sketchy people from Craigslist? Any good/crazy CL stories out there?!

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