9 Things That Calm My Stressed-Out Brain Enough to Actually Enjoy Yoga

I know I'm probably not the only person who lets work anxiety keep her away from a helpful practice.
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Laura Marie
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I know I'm probably not the only person who lets work anxiety keep her away from a helpful practice.

I remember my first yoga classes fondly: I tried yoga classes for free throughout college, and while most of the postures were painful and made me feel sweaty and out of shape, I loved the time at the end of the class when I got to lie on the floor and feel all my muscles praising me for having stopped whatever madness we just went through. I was hooked on that last no-longer-in-pain feeling, so I did yoga one to three times a week for years.

Now, that seems like a dream: free time? Free classes? The very thought of being able to take a tiny meditation/nap in the middle of my day is hard to imagine. I would love to relax more — I need to relax more than I did when I was in college — but just the mental block of thinking I'm too busy has me paralyzed.

While I know a lot of extraordinary women who do a great job of fitting healthy practices into their lives, I think there are just as many who, like me, get stressed beyond the point of making time for our health. Yoga may not be your thing, but I enjoy the relaxation-and-exercise combination because, honestly, I'm unlikely to get either of them into my daily schedule without a lot of scheduling.

I recently started working at a place that gives me access to yoga classes again — during my lunchtime and for free. That should have been enough to break through my lack of willingness, right? It hasn't. The idea of taking time to change and getting sweaty during the workday and just not wanting to accidentally walk back into work late has me stressed enough to skip yoga practically every day. Dumb, I know, but I know I'm probably not the only person who lets work anxiety keep her away from a helpful practice.

Yoga mat

My lonely yoga mat.

So here's what I've started: some baby steps. I don't know for sure that these will eventually calm me down enough to attend public yoga classes and get there on time, but here's hoping they are starting the process of relaxing and exercising more in my busy workdays.

Online videos and home practice

This is the most important one, I think, for me; when I looked online and discovered there were so many free yoga demonstration videos, I began trying them on my own at home. My best tactic so far has been to tell myself that I can stop when I want to, or after at least 20 minutes, depending on my mood. So if I get into the practice and feel like I really need to get back to work, I don't beat myself up for it. More and more often, I stay through the whole video, get a decent workout, and don't have to worry about smacking someone else with my arms in a packed fitness class at the gym.

A few "cell phone free" hours

This will probably not make me any more fit, but it may help with my feeling of constantly having to work. Technically, I know that I don't have to work all the time, but in a culture that treats email as something you respond to instantly, not within a day, I often refresh my email on my phone out of habit. While others probably don't have this problem and can leave their phones be, I've taken the baby step of deciding that two- or three-hour chunks of time will be no-cell-phone-checking time. Sure, if I got a call in that time, I'd probably pick up, but I don't really get calls that often. During those three hours, I try to be as focused on whatever I'm working on as possible, or if I'm doing something fun, I try to focus on the fun as much as possible. It made me wake up to how much of my "fun" time is really just "not allowed to work as much as I feel compelled to" time, which isn't healthy at all.

A "mindful" snooze button

I have a grand plan to start meditating in the mornings, but let's be real: I get up early already, and I'm rarely in a self-reflective and calm mood around then. What I've taken to doing instead is waking up five to 10 minutes before I have to wake up, and while lying in bed waiting for the second alarm, I try to take stock of my day, remember my dreams, think about how I feel — anything to prevent actual dozing before the beginning of the day. If I have time in there to focus on my breath and let some stress fall away, I do it, but the main goal is to not leap straight from bed into my routine in the morning.

Walking lunch breaks

This might be one of my favorite things that seems to have worked. You know how I couldn't manage that tightly scheduled lunch break yoga class? What I've found is that I can manage a short walk during lunch. With a walk, I always know when I need to be back in the office and I can plan to get back on time. Walking without someone else gives me time to think about my morning, reflect on how productive I can be and how I want my evenings to go, and get a little blood flowing to the body.

Breakfast or coffee without my phone or computer

Similar to the mindful snooze button, I've taken to leaving my computer or phone shut off until after the morning meal. It's the time of day when someone is least likely to expect me to already be in my office, so it makes sense to actually spend that time talking to my albeit-still-sleepy husband and enjoying the morning. I'm trying to soak up as many of the sunny mornings as I can because I live in a place that gets really dark in the mornings during the winter. There will be time for phone surfing during that long, dark time of year.

Coffee cup

Ahhhhh, free mental space.

Podcasts about mindfulness while commuting

I've really enjoyed adding podcasts to my commute, but I'm having to choose better lately. My impulse is to listen to the most engrossing, intense, and intriguing of radio stories, and sometimes what I need is a soothing voice and a calm discussion of good meditation or thought practices. Sure, it may not keep me quite so engaged, but I think my problem is too much engagement, not too little.

No food or drink within two hours of going to sleep

This is a hard habit to keep, but I find it helps me sleep and helps me stop working; my next step here is to start doing home practice of yoga during those last two hours too. Look up "yoga for bedtime" or "evening yoga" to find a quiet, lullaby-filled practice if you are interested in doing the same.

Tree pose while cooking/doing dishes

When I'm standing in one area in the kitchen, I try to remember to just put one foot up on my thigh in a modified version of tree pose. This means that while I'm scrubbing I'm also practicing a little balance, which makes it less monotonous to do dishes (always a plus) and also engages my muscles just that little bit.

Mentally reframing situations

This is the least concrete way I'm trying to get over my overworking tendencies, but it is also pretty important. I'm trying to make it both MORE important to take time for myself and LESS important; that means that I'm trying to notice the moments when my body wants to be doing yoga more, and trying to beat myself up for not exercising less. When I get upset about my lack of exercise, I associate more and more negative emotions with the exercise, even if I don't do the exercise itself! So I'm basically trying to give the thoughts about exercise and yoga and meditation some space. Just like how in yoga, teachers often mention "let a thought enter your mind and leave it without trying to hold on to it," I'm trying to let my feelings about exercise enter and leave, just noticing them without judging them. 

This, in combination with the many baby steps, seems to be helping me to get some yoga into my life and feel less stressed about work and life events in general.