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5 Yoga Hacks You Can Use Anywhere for Almost-Instant Calm

6 min read

As I’ve shared on both the WELL Summit stage and WELL Insiders pages, I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life. Yoga has been a powerful tool to combat it. As a yoga student, the practice provided a sanctuary for me to become more present, grounded and calm. As a yoga teacher, I seek to provide this experience and these tools to others.

I’m especially interested in the intersection of yoga and life because even if you’re practicing yoga every single day, 365 days a year (and let’s keep it real, who the heck is?), what about the other 23 hours of the day? What about when you roll up your mat and step back into your real life, only to be clobbered over the head with work/life stress?

That question is why I became interested in exploring how to take tools that provide yoga-induced calm off the mat and into the rest of your life: So that when you’re back at your desk/in the car/having a difficult conversation, you can tap back into that yoga zen.

Seven years ago, I started developing workshops to share the tools that worked for me, and I’ve been teaching them nationally ever since. Here are some of my favorite, proven hacks, as well as techniques from the world-renowned Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, the teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School. I hope they help you take your zen with you too.

1. Extended-Exhale Breathing

How to Do It

Breathe in for a slow, calming count of three, and out for a slower, calming count of four or five. Repeat for 3-5 minutes (or as long as you like) and students tell me they notice an immediate sense of relaxation.

Why It Works

I turned to Laura Malloy, LICSW, director of yoga programs and director of Successful Aging at the Benson-Henry Institute to understand why and how this works. Laura explains, “This replicates how we breathe when we’re sleeping. It initiates the parasympathetic nervous system’s relaxation response, which is the opposite of the stress response.”

The Benson-Henry Institute’s founder, Dr. Herbert Benson, is a pioneer in the field of mind-body medicine and credited with discovering the relaxation response. Together with his colleague Robert Keith Wallace, Dr. Benson studied the effect of meditation on the body, and found that it reduced metabolism, rate of breathing, heart rate and brain activity, which Dr. Benson labeled “the relaxation response,” a term that has become a staple in the field of mind-body medicine (as well as within the worlds of wellness, yoga and meditation).

2. Ten-Count Exhale

How to Do It

Breathe in (any count), and as you exhale (any count) say silently to yourself, “Ten.” Breathe in (any count), and as you exhale (any count) say, “Nine.” Repeat until you reach one. Then do additional rounds as needed.

Why It Works

Laura, who also holds her 500-hour yoga certification from the internationally respected Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, says she often starts with this technique for patients. “This works well because the mind loves to have a focus, so if we give the brain something to focus on, it gets us off the ‘everyday train of thought,’ as Dr. Benson says.”

Laura says that anxiety is defined as the mind worrying about the future—something we can all relate to, amiright? Who hasn’t caught themselves on a runaway mind train where, “I’m nervous about giving that presentation/going to that job interview/doing that other thing you have going on in your life…”  spirals into doomsday-type worries, “…my mind will go blank/I’ll say something stupid/I won’t get the job/I’m a huge failure/now I’m sweating through my clothes and can barely breathe.”

3. Take a Pause

How to Do It

Breath in, pause. Breathe out, pause. Breath in, pause. Breathe out, pause. Keep repeating. This gives your mind something to focus on—your breath—and creates a place to break the anxiety cycle and take a pause.

Why It Works

Laura explains each of these breathing techniques are designed to interrupt that anxiety escalation and bring you back to the present moment. But what about people who don’t want to do breathwork?

4. Physical Mindfulness

How to Do It

Laura says the key to this is to focus on the sensations in your body. “Feel your feet on floor, feel your back resting on the chair,” she recommends. And for those who don’t want to focus on their bodies, “Notice the view out the window. Have a cup of tea and notice the temperature, the taste, the color, the feel of the mug in your hand.” Laura explains the key is tuning in to the sensations in your body or what’s going on in the immediate world around you.

5. Mantra Mindfulness

How to Do It

Reciting the same phrase repeatedly can be a meditation in itself. Laura suggests, “I am… at peace,” which you can sync to breathing in, breathing out. And what about those of us who have yet to achieve Yoda-like, Jedi-level enlightenment and may accidentally have a thought or worry interrupt? Don’t beat yourself up. As Laura says, “When the thoughts creep in, put them to the side and go back to your mantra: I am… at peace.”

Why It Works

Again, because the mind loves to have something to focus on, giving it something positive to hone in on can help steer it away from that runaway anxiety train, and get you back on track to Zen Town.

Mini-Relaxations + More Tips

Laura says they call these hacks “mini-relaxations,” which sounds like something I’d like to order from my favorite spa’s menu while wearing a big fluffy robe, but can conveniently be done anywhere, including while commuting, wearing anything, including a suit.

So what does Laura herself, therapist, co-director at the world-leading institute on mind-body medicine, master yogi practicing since 1994 and teaching since 2001, do to relax? You can bet your mandala I asked.

“My favorite is having a mindful moment: bringing my head to where my feet are, breathing belly breaths and allowing myself to be here now. If my mind starts to run too far into the future, with this awareness, I can bring it back to the present.”

Laura advises that these mini-relaxations should ideally be practiced as a booster shot to your larger relaxation practice, which the Benson-Henry Institute recommends doing 20 minutes a day—whether it’s yoga, meditation, Tai Chi or the mindfulness practice of your choice.

“It takes practice to get good at them, just like you have to practice an instrument, or learn to brush your teeth,” she says. “It’s the same thing with doing a relaxation every day—you have to tap into that and train your body how to relax. We teach it as a practice, instead of a band-aid approach. We hope people will do a relaxation practice 20 minutes a day, and then view the minis as booster shots.”

A prescription to relax 20 minutes a day with a booster shot of extra zen? Now that’s mind-body medicine we can look forward to taking!

Want more mindfulness tips? Check out how you can incorporate mindfulness into your day without meditation, and try this simple restorative yoga routine you can do in five minutes at home.

About The Author

Sara DiVello

Sara DiVello

Sara DiVello is a national yoga teacher, speaker, and author of the best-selling book, Where in the OM Am I? One Woman’s Journey from the Corporate World to the Yoga Mat, NIEA winner, and a best book pick by Shape Magazine and Working Mother. She has appeared on CBS and the Huffington Post Live, as well as in Forbes, The New York Times, ABC, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Dr. Oz The Good Life Magazine, and many more. She teaches and speaks nationally on living your best life.

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