Journal

Top Ten Relaxation Tools

Top Ten Relaxation Tools

We are not used to managing the kind of long-term stress and emotional overwhelm this year has served up. As far as I can tell, everyone is feeling it. Now, more than ever (and especially heading into the back-to-school/election season), we need resources to help us manage our stress levels. So I’d like to share my favorite relaxation resources with you.

I’m no stranger to anxiety. Throughout my life, I’ve come to realize the importance of managing my stress level. It’s really not so much about what’s going on around you as it is your response to it. That being said, there are situations I’ve learned I need to avoid. For instance, fast-paced, busy, high-stress jobs are not for me. I’m not able to be my best self in that kind of environment or when I’m working too much. 

Some stressors are within our power to control. We can walk away from them or change the way we look at them. However, others are stickier, and that’s what we need our self-care toolbox for. Here are some relaxation tools I swear by.

Meditation Apps

My two favorite meditation apps are Insight Timer and Calm. To describe each app would be a blog post of its own, so I won’t attempt to do that. (You can click on the links to learn more.) Instead, I’ll touch upon what I’ve found most helpful.

I mostly use Insight Timer, which is largely a free app. It offers more than 55,000 guided meditations in many different categories and also has a timer for unguided practice. If you want to relieve anxiety, reduce stress, sleep better, manage emotions, etc. you can find plenty of guided meditations for these concerns and more. There are also meditations for children in the For Parents section. I primarily use the timer – which can be customized with different bell and ambient sounds. However, if you don’t have an established meditation practice, I recommend trying some guided meditations for relaxation. For instance, yoga nidra meditations (which I’ll discuss in a separation section) are invaluable for encouraging deep relaxation and sleep.

Calm is mostly a paid app ($70/year), but some institutions offer free memberships to their employees/students. If you are entitled to a free membership, lucky you! It’s definitely worth checking out! There’s a plethora of Sleep Stories (including one by my celebrity crush, Matthew McConaughey) and a Kids Meditation section. But there’s also a scaled-down, free version that has some worthwhile features.

For example, I love the Breathe Bubble that guides you to breathe slowly and deeply for relaxation. Ever since I was a child, I’ve experienced anxiety in doctors’ offices, and the Breathe Bubble – which includes visual, sound, and word prompts – helps me to calm down in that situation and whenever I’m feeling upset or frazzled. To access it (within app only), click on “More”, and select “Breathing Exercise”. I also enjoy the Sleep Stories from time to time. Most are premium features, but there are also some free ones. My favorite is about lavender fields in Provence that I listen to while diffusing lavender at bedtime. The sleep stories are relaxing and are like having a bedtime story read to you. Sometimes I’m in the mood for that, and I rarely make it to the end of the story before falling asleep. Actually, I don’t know if I’ve ever made it to the end!

Both Insight Timer and Calm have premium content you have to pay to access, but Insight Timer has a lot more free content, and I recommend it highly.

Yoga Nidra

Yoga nidra, or “yogic sleep”, is a form of guided meditation that promotes conscious, deep relaxation and restores your mind, body, and spirit. You do it while lying comfortably on your back. You never need to worry about doing it “wrong” because there’s no way to do it wrong, even if you fall asleep. It can be done from 10 minutes to an hour or longer, depending on the version you choose.

Yoga nidra helps me to fall back asleep if I wake up in the middle of the night or too early in the morning with a busy mind. It really knocks me out! Even if I make it to the end of the meditation before falling asleep, I’m in such a relaxed state by then that sleep will come soon. When I practice yoga nidra, it feels like I sleep much more deeply. 

There are several stages of yoga nidra meditation, including:

  • Moving awareness from the physical body inward
  • Sankalpa: A carefully chosen, positive intention or affirmation stated in the present tense
  • Rotating consciousness through the entire body (body scan)
  • Awareness of the breath, to promote relaxation and concentration
  • Experiencing opposites (i.e. cold/hot, heavy/light)
  • Visualization 
  • Revisiting your sankalpa/intention during deep relaxation
  • Bringing your mind back gradually from psychic sleep to waking state (unless you wish to fall asleep)

A few years ago, I downloaded Julie Rader’s 45-minute version of yoga nidra from iTunes and got a lot of mileage from it. It’s a good one! However, once when I was traveling and didn’t have it easily accessible, I searched for “yoga nidra” on Insight Timer and discovered a 29-minute Yoga Nidra for Sleep & Rest from The Stillpoint that became my go-to yoga nidra meditation. Since then, I’ve also favorited Yoga Nidra – Maximum Body Scan by Steve Wolf and Yoga Nidra for Better Sleep by Robyn Gray. Yoga nidra works like a charm, and there are many to choose from!

Yoga nidra doesn’t have to be done at bedtime. It can be done any time of day to promote deep relaxation. Here is a brief article to learn more.

Weighted Blanket

I love love love my weighted blanket! What’s a weighted blanket, you ask? It’s a blanket that’s filled with pockets of non-toxic poly or glass pellets to weigh it down and feels like a big, full-body hug. You know how infants are soothed by being swaddled? It’s like that. In many people, deep pressure touch causes the brain to release neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which have a calming effect. Weighted blankets can be useful for those who experience anxiety, stress, and insomnia, as well as sensory integration disorder, Asperger’s, ADHD, and Rett Syndrome.

Anyone who has tried my blanket has been instantly soothed. (My daughter said it felt like the blanket was hugging her.) The sensation is like covering yourself with a blanket of calm. It also reminds me of the sensation of being covered by sand on the beach – like pushing your feet into the sand and feeling them hugged.

I ordered my weighted blanket from Magic Weighted Blanket. Weighted blankets aren’t inexpensive but are therapeutically invaluable, in my opinion. Websites that sell weighted blankets can help you to figure out how much weight is best for you. 

Eye Pillow

Similar to the idea of a weighted blanket is a yoga eye pillow. This is a pillow that’s just large enough to fit over your eyes and usually is filled with flax seeds and perhaps a calming herb like lavender. The eye pillow puts light pressure on your eyeballs and lowers heart rate via the oculocardiac reflex and also stimulates the vegas nerve. These responses can result in deep relaxation and a sense of grounding. 

The combination of yoga nidra (or relaxing music), lavender essential oil, my weighted blanket, and my eye pillow is the ultimate relaxation! It’s really nice to have an eye pillow with a cover or zipper that allows you to remove the filling for laundering.

Calming Fragrances

I enjoy using essential oils for relaxation. My favorite ways to use them include: diffusing, putting a few drops in a bath along with 2 cups of Epsom salt, putting a drop on my yoga mat, and even just sniffing the opened bottle.

Lavender is my go-to essential oil for sleep and relaxation. I love sandalwood, too, either by itself or blended with orange essential oil. They are my favorites! But what works for one person might not work for another, and there are sooooo many possibilities!

Tara Healing Incense, a traditional Tibetan medicine for relieving stress, tension, and depression, is my favorite incense. I’ve used it for many years. Handmade by Tibetan refugees living in Dharamsala, India, it’s an earthy, smokey, NOT perfumy fragrance composed of 30 pure and natural herbs. It’s available in most stores that sell incense and meditation supplies. 

White Noise App

I’m someone who needs white noise in the background to fall asleep, especially with all the traffic that goes by our house. In the summer, a fan serves nicely. However, the White Noise app from TM Soft has oh, so many wonderful choices. The sounds are so soothing and create a peaceful atmosphere during the day, not just at night.

My favorite sleep sounds are Brown Noise (much gentler than white noise), Stream Water Flowing, and Gentle Breezy Pebble Beach Waves. Other relaxing choices include: theta waves, zen spa music, waterfalls, ocean, peaceful lake, camping in the rain, campfire, and probably hundreds more. I also like to use this app to facilitate a peaceful environment and to drown out sounds from activities going on in another room so I can focus.

Float Therapy

In contrast to a weighted blanket, a float tank provides a sensation of weightlessness and supreme relaxation that you really can’t experience any other way. You’re like a cork floating and don’t have to do anything at all to stay afloat and therefore can completely relax your entire body. Sometimes referred to as a sensory deprivation tank, it’s a chamber that usually measures around 8′ x 4′ and is filled with about 10″ of water that is so heavily concentrated with Epsom salts that you float effortlessly. I’ve written previously about float tanks, so I won’t reinvent the wheel here! You can click the links to read my articles on Flotation Restoration, Part One and Part Two. 

Restorative Yoga

There are many different forms of yoga. Restorative yoga is a particularly meditative form that adopts a very slow pace and deep breathing that triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. Restorative poses are held for a long time to allow your body and mind to relax deeply. You might even hold a pose for 10 minutes, breathing slowly and deeply. It’s very different from the more active, athletic forms of yoga!

I appreciate the restorative yoga video collection on Gaia when I have a subscription. There are also plenty of videos on YouTube to choose from. Restorative yoga sequences often require a number of props (blankets, bolsters, blocks) that allow you to really release into a pose. However, there are also some poses that only require blankets, such as Legs Up the Wall, for which instructions are given in the article link. Of course, yoga studios also offer restorative classes.

It might go without saying, but if you do restorative yoga on your own, a peaceful atmosphere free from interruptions and distractions is essential. You need to be able to relax completely. Make sure you gather whatever props you’ll need ahead of time so they’ll be within reach.

This page on Yoga Journal offers a nice introduction to restorative yoga, with some useful links.

Imagination Vacation

I am enamored with filmmaker, Louie Schwartzberg’s work. He is a pioneer in the field of visual healing. He films nature in extraordinary ways, speeding up processes that are too slow to observe (such as time-lapse flowers) and slowing down what’s too fast for us to see (such as the movement of hummingbirds and dragonflies). His films “bring a sense of natural wonder, healing serenity, restoration and well-being” to your environment. Louie’s “moving art” facilitates relaxation and awe and transports you to the beautiful places he’s filmed. There are three seasons of Moving Art on Netflix that feature diverse landscapes and life forms all around the world. Once, I watched Louie’s videos of time-lapse flowers on my phone (Magic Flowers app) during an uncomfortable medical procedure, and the doctor agreed that it really worked for me. 

I also enjoy videos of ocean waves. There are also lots of free videos on YouTube, including some that are long enough to play all night long. Ocean waves videos create such a relaxing environment. Sometimes I’ll burn an ocean-scented candle to make it even more of a sensory-immersive experience. I’ve even reclined on the floor in front of the screen with my feet in a basin of smooth rocks and water or sand and a fan blowing for an even more complete experience! But even just sitting and doing nothing other than watching a nature video of ocean waves, fish swimming around underwater, etc. without any props can slow your breathing and heart rate. I call it taking an imagination vacation, and whenever I remember to do it, I’m glad that I did and promise myself I’ll do it more often.

When I taught kindergarten, I’d put these kinds of videos on the SMART Board for quiet interludes during the day, to promote calm. So this is something teachers may find useful in the classroom. There’s nothing like nature to bring you back into harmony and balance!

Crystal Connection

One summer, I attended a Mindfulness in Education conference at Omega Institute. Meditation teacher, Jack Kornfield, led us through a guided meditation in which we received a special gift from a spiritual being. In the meditation, H.H. the Dalai Lama give me a heart-shaped rose quartz heart, and right after the session was done, I went to the retreat center shop and bought one. It has been quite literally a relaxation touchstone for me ever since.

When I hold the crystal heart in my hand, it takes on my body heat and becomes quite warm. For some reason, I find that very soothing! It’s so pleasurable to touch the warm crystal to my face. I’ll sometimes even sleep with it in my hand or under my pillow. It gives off calming, nurturing energy. 

If I notice tension in my body, I often will place that or another crystal on the area that feels imbalanced. For me, that’s usually in the notch at the bottom of my rib cage. I also use crystals in my Reiki practice, placing them on certain areas of the body as I feel guided.

Use your intuition to select a crystal that feels right for you. If you have more than one, use your intuition to select which one to use at any given time. There are lots of websites that sell crystals, but I recommend going to a brick-and-mortar shop if you can get to one, so you can feel which crystals you’re most drawn to.

Energy Muse has some useful information about selecting and working with crystals, to get you started. Check out their blog for some handy guides, articles, and videos if you’d like to learn more.

Those are ten of my top twelve choices in my relaxation toolbox. My two other favorites are Mindfulness Meditation and Reiki. As a mindfulness meditation practitioner for more than 25 years and mindfulness meditation teacher, I appreciate how mindfulness meditation builds the muscle of returning out of thought and emotional reactivity and into presence. When you are present in the here and now, you can access more of your natural wisdom and compassion and choose how to respond to whatever arises in the moment instead of just being pulled along by the current of habit.

It used to be that I had various tools in my self-care toolbox but wouldn’t remember to use them. As you become more mindful both “on and off the cushion”, you can remember to use your resources (such as the ones mentioned above). Beginning the day with meditation sets a positive, empowered tone for the day, and ending the day with meditation helps you to release the day and sleep better. The more you practice, the more you can remember to return to presence throughout the day as you go about living your life.

If you would like personal instruction/coaching in mindfulness or a Reiki healing session (distance sessions only during COVID), please contact me. I do both! You also can visit my Calendar to sign up for my upcoming mindfulness meditation classes.

I hope this article will be useful to you and others as we continue managing the unique challenges of 2020. ❤️


© 2020 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this post or excerpts of it as long as you give proper credit to Susan Meyer and SusanTaraMeyer.com. Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

What Do You See?

What Do You See?

This summer, the river that runs by my front door has been my refuge.

On the river, everything is so normal and predictable. It could be any summer. The sun and moon rise and set on schedule and travel the path they always do, undistracted by human drama. Birds sing. The water lilies open and close at the same time each day.

I speak insights and words of gratitude into my online journal through my phone (set to airplane kayak mode), and herons and eagles have an uncanny knack of appearing suddenly out of nowhere and flying overhead as if to underscore certain especially resonant and relevant inspirations. The other night, I was on the river doing this under the moonlight, and instead of a heron or eagle, it was a shooting star that appeared like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence that had brought me to tears of homecoming.

It’s downright magical and sacred on the river.

This stretch of the Hudson River is the church I attend almost daily. It’s been keeping me balanced and centered as 2020 continues to carve its unpredictable and uncharted course through human and personal history. It’s taught me how to stay and to deepen my connection with the life around me. When I teach meditation classes, I use the phrase “on and off the [meditation] cushion.” But out here, “on and off the river” carries the same meaning.

Riverside Litter

There is a small spot on the riverside nearby just large enough for a family or small group of friends to enjoy the river and launch kayaks. It’s been getting a lot of use this summer, which is great. However, people often leave behind their garbage. It’s been happening more noticeably this year than in the past.

One day, I paddled by this spot and was disgusted and saddened by the sight of trash piling up. It fit a basic theme of selfishness that was pissing me off. So of course that’s what I saw. A narrative arose in my head about people who feel entitled to leave behind their garbage in the name of personal freedom. I saw selfishness, irresponsibility, a lack of caring and concern for others and the earth.

I paddled away feeling irked. And separate from and somehow better than the people who left behind their trash. But it didn’t feel right. As I paddled on, I asked myself how far down the river I was going to carry these feelings and assumptions.

The great thing about having a regular meditation practice is that I can catch myself sooner when my mind goes over to the dark side. And once you realize what’s happening inside your head, it opens up a field of spaciousness in which the heart can speak.

I realized that just as people can do better with cleaning up after themselves, I can do better than judging them.

So I paddled along with a prayer in my heart:

May I and all beings be free from the suffering and ignorance that causes us to do harm. May I and all beings be free from the suffering and ignorance that leads us to exclude others from our heart.

That felt better because I was back in connection with my fellow humans.

Our human struggles and the demons we wrestle with are universal, even though they may look different on the surface. We get triggered, addicted, distracted, stuck. We fall short, miss the mark, make mistakes. It is the human condition.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that when we stop blaming others and making them wrong and instead take an honest look at ourselves and our reactions, we become empowered. Because the one and only person we can change is you-know-who. When we shift the way we look at something, new possibilities can come to light. We can find a better way to hold a situation so we can see expanded possibilities and take some kind of positive action. 

Opportunities for Caring

If we explore a little deeper, we’ll likely find that underneath our anger, indignation, and judgment is some kind of caring. The light of love, kindness, and compassion wants to shine forth, but the ego tends to obstruct it when things aren’t the way it thinks they should be.

The caring in me resonated with ideas such as putting a small sign at the spot on the river inviting people to enjoy it and to remember to carry out their trash. Maybe leaving a box of bags in case they didn’t think to bring their own. Or putting on some gloves and cleaning up the spot myself. We can see an opportunity to be of service and shine our light instead of another opportunity to disconnect our hearts. Instead of just photographing and griping, I can bring a bag and be part of a solution. I can share my images and ideas and be part of a productive dialogue.

The great news is that before I had a chance to do that, someone else had come along and cleaned it up! Another caring heart.

I’ve paddled by the littered spot on the river many times since and started reflecting on how it is connected with the other things we find unacceptable in our world, in our lives, and in ourselves. Might they, too, be opportunities to shine more light and love?

I’m thinking of issues participants (mostly female) in my mindfulness meditation courses bring up – that often resonate with me, too. I find it so beautiful when one person voices something they’re struggling with and others reassure them that they understand and that they’re not alone. Which is the truth. So often, we feel alone in our struggles, as if nobody would understand. Or maybe (God forbid!) they’d judge us. But we’re never alone. Our struggles really aren’t that special!

For example, instead of seeing weight gain as moving in the wrong direction or being unacceptable, could it be an opportunity to love your body more, not only when it meets your expectations but also when it doesn’t? With practice and intention, might feelings of disappointment or disgust cue you to take a breath and beam love to the parts – of your body, your life, your world, your past – you deem unacceptable?

I often do this during self-Reiki and chakra work. It’s a beautiful practice, and it really is a practice that you do again and again. As your capacity for mindful awareness increases, those familiar feelings of shame can cue love, compassion, acceptance, and even appreciation! And the kind of love that inspires you to give your body/life/world what it most deeply thirsts for instead of what is merely habitual. Without beating yourself up – because you realize punishment is neither a necessary nor effective path to well-being.

Might anxiety or white coat syndrome be an opportunity to bring more love and kindness to yourself, and to be less judgmental? To listen to what your body is saying when it gets your attention through a sympathetic fight-or-flight response, instead of trying to whip it into submission? Instead of creating more tension and dissatisfaction through resistance?

Litter.
Shame.
Blame and disconnection.
“I’m right, and you’re wrong.
Regrets and mistakes of all kinds.
Even fear.

What do you see in a heap of garbage on the side of the road? When you look in the mirror? When you take in community and world news? When you communicate with someone who doesn’t see the world as you do?

Can we learn to hold what we repel in a different, more spacious way so new, more empowering and caring possibilities can arise? Can we include them in our circle of lovingkindness so they can awaken our natural wisdom and compassion instead of keeping us rigid and stuck?

Yes, we can. Held the right way, the demons we wrestle become allies that help us to evolve. To love better.


© 2020 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this post or excerpts of it as long as you give proper credit to Susan Meyer and SusanTaraMeyer.com. Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

When the Heart Breaks Open

When the Heart Breaks Open

There’s a spot on the Hudson River I paddle to almost every day. It’s my quiet place of solitude. It’s just large enough to pull my kayak onto and do some walking meditation, back and forth for 15 to 20 paces.

This is a new spot for me. Normally, I wouldn’t linger in this part of the river because it’s fairly narrow. If a motorboat comes zipping by, there’s no escaping the wake. However, this year there hasn’t been much boat traffic on our stretch of the river between locks 5 and 6 – presumably due to section closures in the canal lock system. Works for me! It’s been the best summer for kayaking in the 12 years we’ve lived on the mighty Hudson.

And that’s all good because this summer, I’m practicing staying. I’d love to visit the ocean or the waterfalls in Ithaca, but staying close to home is a worthwhile experiment. I don’t see it as deprivation or a loss of freedom but as a gateway to greater freedom. I’m learning to stay where I am and more fully appreciate what’s right here. This learning to stay practice deepens gratitude, presence, and creativity.

Needless to say, I’m getting to know this tiny, rocky sliver of a “beach” intimately. 

This weekend, my attention was drawn to dragonfly exuviae (exoskeletons) attached to the rocky wall I walked alongside. The exuviae were well camouflaged and hidden in plain sight. But after I noticed the first, I noticed several more. I see them all the time on lily pads and blades of river grass, but I was able to examine the ones on the rocky wall more closely and became fascinated.

I noticed the opening out of which the dragonflies emerged and imagined the newborn dragonflies resting on their exuviae as they got used to their new dragonfly bodies and wings. Wings! Their winged bodies were trapped inside these shells.

Photography is and always has been a spiritual practice for me. The images I’m drawn to reflect and offer insights into the questions I carry. I often think of them as mirrors that reveal something about myself and the world around me.

The dragonfly exuviae carried some kind of insight or message – I could just feel it – although I couldn’t pinpoint it at the time. And anyway, that’s not what walking meditation is about. Be present now. Analyze later.

But I smiled whenever a dragonfly zipped by.

Later that day, when I looked at the images I captured, I sensed dragonfly exuviae offered metaphors for this season of molting and transformation and growing wings and not holding myself back by clinging to what is merely familiar. After all, I resigned from one of my part-time library jobs this week, to put more attention where I’m feeling called. Even though I loved that job, my co-workers, and many of the patrons. 

But things have changed. Since March, I’ve been providing mindfulness meditation courses for library patrons, continuously. At the beginning of this year, I never would have imagined my library work could transform into that. It was a dream come true. But as the library moves toward reopening more fully, I realized that I’d rather continue delivering mindfulness programming as a contractor than wipe down public computers as an employee in the “new normal”. 

Dragonflies molt many times during their lives, and each time is a new beginning, a new chapter. So I saw the exuviae as a reflection of this new chapter. 

But then something happened last night that brought up challenging emotions. I took a walk along the river at the park this morning and was triggered by an interaction with a couple I passed on the trail. When I realized we wouldn’t be able to keep the recommended six feet of distance between us, I put on my mask and offered a cheery “Good morning!” as I passed them. They ignored me completely, and I felt sad about the lack of civility. Normally, I’d be able to let it go, but I was still carrying sadness from last night and therefore was more sensitive.

I truly believe that all feelings have positive intention. Instead of pushing unpleasant feelings away, we can acknowledge and allow them and welcome them as messengers and teachers. We can pause to feel our feelings and discover what kind of wisdom they offer.

A little voice in me told me to stop at a quiet, secluded spot up ahead and sit on the bench by the river to be present to the feelings. So I did. 

Hello, Grief.
What can I learn from you today?
What do you have to say?

I felt the energy of sadness and grief in my chest and rested my hands there tenderly. Then I noticed an image coming to mind with increasing clarity, like watching pictures develop from the old Polaroid instant cameras. The image took the shape and color of a heart. Then it broke open just like the dragonfly exuviae, and a winged, dragonfly-like being emerged from it. The dragonfly started flying around, light and unfettered by the gravity of the world. A shimmering teacher of transformation.

And a voice spoke: You are so much more than this. So much more than this challenge – which you will rise to, and which will pass. So much more than the feelings that arise. You are part of something much greater.

As I watched the dragonfly fly around in my mind’s eye, an answer came to me about some options I have. The energy in my chest subsided. I had a plan.

And then I understood more of the wisdom inherent in the image of the exuviae on the rock wall: When the world breaks my heart, maybe it’s okay because something new and more evolved is hatching from it and will show me the way, if I take the time to lean in and listen.

Take a look at your photo library or Instagram page. What images were you drawn to, and what feelings, associations, insights, etc. do they call forth? What is it you’re seeking as you go about living in this world? What is life putting in your path as a mirror or messenger so you may better understand yourself and your relationship to the world?

You can watch a time-lapse of a dragonfly breaking out of its exuviae HERE.


© 2020 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this post or excerpts of it as long as you give proper credit to Susan Meyer and SusanTaraMeyer.com. Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

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