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.
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, 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)
- 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.