About a month and a half ago, I decided to begin a daily yoga and meditation practice.  I took my first yoga class about 7 years ago, and I immediately felt connected to it.  Although the poses were new and sometimes difficult to hold at first, I really enjoyed the sense of calm, the fullness of breath, and the increased flexibility that I had when I took regular classes.  However, despite these feelings of enrichment, I never made it a habit.  I do not have the best track record with sticking to habits involving my health and well-being. Something about the required discipline, effort and dedication always gets me, even if my motivation is strong.  I easily find these traits in my work life or in school, but without the structure present in those arenas I often find that activities in my personal life quickly fall apart, long before they become established habits.

Over the past year, I’ve experienced a good deal of anxiety and stress, primarily due to my job.  In the spring, I also began having significant lower back pain.  I attribute that to the amount of time I spend sitting.  While I don’t have an office job, I do spend a significant part of each day writing reports, attending meetings, and responding to emails. The spring is always an especially hard time because school psychologists add a considerable caseload of preschool evaluations to our already large caseloads.  In May, I reached a point where I had to actually stretch out on the floor of my office one day, because the sharp pain and tightness in my back was so debilitating.  At that moment, looking up at my ceiling, I realized that I needed to make some significant changes for both my mental and physical health.

For the immediate pain, I began to see a chiropractor regularly.  After about 2 adjustments, the sharp pains went away, but the tightness in my lower back and hips remained.  My chiropractor also has massage therapists and physical therapists on site, and she recommended that I add these services as well.  With this combination of services, in addition to the exercises I do at home (homework from the physical therapist!), I noticed significant improvements.  However, after 2 months of this, the tightness still came back if I sat much during the day, and after about 2 weeks without an adjustment, the pain started to creep back into my lower back.

Last month, when I realized that my summer days were dwindling, I began to panic just thinking about another year. I realized that I had to develop some of my own strategies for dealing with my back pain and anxiety to supplement what I was receiving at the chiropractor’s office.  I had recently seen a Ted Talk by a former Buddhist monk, Andy Puddicombe.  In it, he talked about the many benefits of having a daily meditation practice. These benefits include improved brain and immune function, decreased anxiety and stress, and increased self-control.  I’ve always had a general idea of these benefits, but I’ve never really thought about the why of it all.  I was a little disappointed in the fact that he didn’t actually talk about the “how” of meditation in his talk, so I did some searching.  Soon after this, I discovered his website, “Get Some Headspace.com“.  He has some really nice, brief videos talking about why meditation helps with these things, and also outlines some of the research behind these claims.

headspaceOne of my favorite parts of my yoga classes is the final 10-15 minutes of relaxation and meditation, and after hearing his talk, I was inspired to try to develop my own meditation practice to help with my anxiety.  I wasn’t sure where to start.  In perusing his website, I discovered that Andy has a free, Take 10 program to get you started – 10 minutes/day for 10 days.  In each session, he talks you through the process of meditating, while still allowing times of silence for you to practice.  He teaches you about how to appropriately sit and breathe, and then each day adds on an additional component.  I was not sure how I would like someone talking at me while I am trying to meditate, but I found that I love his style.  He also has additional resources and animations to help explain some of the more complicated parts of meditation. I found these cheesy, but informative.  I now come back to them regularly, to remind myself of the foundation of my meditation practice.

After my first 10 days, I decided to continue with him.  He has a full year of guided meditations, progressing from Take 10 to Take 15and then to Take 20.  After you finish Take 20, then you move onto more specific topic areas, like Discovery, the Mind, and Creativity. I am currently halfway through Take 20, and I have already started to see many benefits and improvements, both during the meditation and outside of it.  I am more aware of the thoughts passing through my head, and the food entering my mouth.  When I become worried or anxious, I am able to quickly recognize these feelings and move myself away from them in a nonjudgmental way. I am also more aware of discomfort in my body, and ways to dissipate it. Recently, he began talking more about integrating this awareness you find during your meditation into the rest of your day.  I’ve been trying to do this on walks, in the shower, and while I’m cooking. I have been amazed at how much I normally miss out on when engaging in these activities.  Now, when I take a shower, I notice things like the smell of my shampoo, the feeling of the water humming against my body, and the texture of the shampoo in my hands. When I take a walk, I see and hear more of what is happening around me, and I am more appreciative of the silence in my new neighborhood.  These activities increase my feelings of gratefulness, because I am now appreciating these activities more fully, instead of just viewing them as a means to an end.  My hope is that over time, these moments of awareness will become more automatic. I am really excited to continue this practice when school begins.  I think it will be challenging to continue to devote 20 minutes each day to it, but now that I have seen the ways it can change my life, my motivation is strong.  I will plan to talk more about the benefits I’m seeing in future posts.

pwerI started my daily yoga practice at the same time as the meditation program.  I have a few DVDs that I use – I really like Rodney Yee’s style, and then I also purchased a couple of DVDs that focus specifically on yoga for opening your hips and decreasing back pain.  I also discovered this website – http://www.doyogawithme.com/yoga_classes.  It has many streaming, free routines.  Each morning, before I eat breakfast, I get out my mat and spend 20 minutes completing a yoga routine and 20 minutes in meditation.  In the past, I’ve struggled to stick to habits like this, because I make them too difficult or I try to do too much too quickly.  I think that only spending 20 minutes each day will make it a sustainable habit, especially when work begins.  Over the course of 7 days, this is almost two and a half hours, but it doesn’t feel like much of a commitment. I am not a morning person, so I am going to try to have an evening practice when school starts.  In combination with my chiropractic appointments (now only 1x every 3 weeks!), I have seen the tightness in my back improve dramatically.  I also love the feeling of clearheadedness and calm that continues on into my day.

In addition to the yoga and meditation, I started a more specific journaling activity each day after I complete my routine.  I quickly write a few sentences about how yoga and meditation went and how I am feeling, and then I add 5 things I am grateful for, and a positive affirmation about myself.  I have really enjoyed doing this, and I have noticed my thoughts shifting from overarching things I am grateful for (e.g., “I like where I live.” or “I am thankful to have a wonderful partner.”) to really specific moments in my day or life that I am grateful for.  Yesterday on a walk, I realized that I had random thoughts of gratitude without even sitting down to complete the exercise.  This is not necessarily something that would have happened before I developed this habit.

To my (very few) readers: What helps you with stress and anxiety?  Have you tried yoga, meditation or journaling, and if so, what has your experience been?  I know it isn’t for everyone, so I am curious to hear other perspectives.