Relax & Recharge
by Frances Lefkowitz
“Achieving balance on all levels of being is the true measure of vibrant health,” says Thomas Yarema, a multidiscipline physician and director of the Kauai Center for Holistic Medicine and Research, in Hawaii.
Integrative physicians and practitioners understand that in many ancient Eastern therapies, including Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, well-being is all about balance. In these disciplines, harmony—and by extension, health and happiness—is created by a constant rebalancing of energies, sometimes complementing a natural state and sometimes countering it. Thus, depending on our physical and emotional makeup (easy-going personality? hot-tempered?) and current situation (need a job? getting married?), balance may require a calming down or a boosting up, turning inward or turning outward.
Consulting the latest research and advice from scores of experts, Natural Awakenings has created a guidebook of recipes for balancing mind and body. Whether the immediate need is to relax, refresh, release or recharge, we’ve got a simple to-do to get you back in balance. Try these new approaches today.
“Change is good,” the saying goes, but even good change, like falling in love or going on vacation—causes stress. Stress is widely reported in medical journals like The Lancet and The Journal of the American Medical Association as linked to health problems from heart disease and diabetes to hair loss and depression. Because stress affects the immune system, frequent colds or bouts with the flu may signal a need to slow down. Fuzzy thinking, forgetfulness and feelings of frustration can also indicate that it’s time to relax.
Drinking a cup of herbal tea is a simple, gentle and enjoyable way to “take five.” Herbal educator Dodie Harte, of the Sierra Institute of Herbal Studies, recommends a blend of three common calming herbs: chamomile, linden flower and passionflower, with a dash of relaxingly aromatic lavender flower. Add a cup of boiling water to a mix of one teaspoon of each herb and a small sprig of lavender, then let steep for 5 to 10 minutes.
Like acupuncture, acupressure is a technique of Traditional Chinese Medicine that works to rebalance the flow of chi, or energy, in the body by stimulating key points along its energy meridians, or pathways. While acupuncture uses needles that puncture the skin and requires a visit to a professional, acupressure stimulates via points on the skin’s surface and can be part of a self-care practice.
“When acupressure points are stimulated, they release muscular tension, promote circulation of blood and enhance the body’s life force energy to aid healing,” explains Michael Reed Gach, Ph.D., founder of the Acupressure Institute, in Berkeley, California, and author of Acupressure’s Potent Points: A Guide to Self-Care for Common Ailments
To relax the neck and relieve tension headaches, use the point at the base of the skull, just where the head attaches to the neck. Feel for the hollow between the two thick, vertical muscle masses—finding and pressing it will probably elicit a sigh. Put one or both thumbs in that hollow and apply gentle pressure for one to two minutes.
Perhaps the problem isn’t stress, but a feeling of weariness or listlessness. According to Atlanta psychiatrist Tracey Marks, a medical doctor and author of the new book, Master Your Sleep: Proven Methods Simplified, the continuous flow of electronic information in our smartphone lifestyles may be overstimulating our brains. The first step to refreshing and replenishing is to log off. In short, she says, “Off-hours create better on-hours."
Psychologist Ester Schaler Buchholz, Ph.D., author of The Call of Solitude, believes that “alonetime” is a basic need. She supports this belief with a series of infant studies, analysis of historical and anthropological data, and research examining how meditation and rest bolster the immune system. “When we don’t get enough solitude,” she observes. “We get out of touch with ourselves; we get forgetful; we get sloppy.” We may also get angry, anxious and depressed. Take a daily, refreshing, mini-retreat by stepping away from the rest of the world for 15 minutes. Find a room with a door and turn off all electronics… then read a book, write a letter, meditate, or just close your eyes and listen to the silence.
“Sleep ends up being one of those things we see as expendable,” says Marks. Yet, a growing body of studies from Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine and other research institutions shows that it is crucial to your mental and physical health, as well as many of the body’s major restorative functions, including tissue repair, muscle growth and protein synthesis. New findings by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center even show that the brain uses sleep to consolidate memories and make them more accessible when we’re awake.
“We should really think of ourselves as operating on a 16-hour battery,” Marks advises, because we must recharge ourselves in order to perform well. Signs of sleep deprivation include irritable moods and an inability to concentrate. Marks’ Countdown to Bedtime routine starts an hour beforehand. Put away the work and turn off the computer. Stop drinking fluids. Take a warm bath or footbath and don pajamas. Read, meditate or listen to music to wind down. Adjust the bedroom temperature to between 68 and 74 degrees and turn off all lights and electronics, covering their LED displays. If it takes more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, get out of bed and do something relaxing until you feel drowsy. “If your mind is busy, write out your thoughts on a problem-solving worksheet,” she suggests.
Time and again, it has been proven that nature heals. One researcher, from the University of Southern California, has found that even just gazing at a natural landscape, sunset or grove of trees from a window can activate endorphins in the brain that make us feel good. Getting outside is even better. Integrative Psychiatrist Henry Emmons, a physician and author of The Chemistry of Joy, explains that sunlight provides us with vitamin D, which he notes, “… plays a role in many physiological processes, including moods.” Emmons’ prescription: at least 30 minutes outside daily, without glasses, which can filter out healing components of sunlight.
Neuroimmunologist and physician Esther Sternberg, author of Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being, points to an extensive body of research showing that the colors, patterns and scents of natural environments affect mental and physical well-being. She recommends spending time in gardens and growing your own plants, even if only a window box of herbs.
You can’t move forward if you’ve got something holding you back. Sometimes what you need is to let go of whatever’s weighing you down—even if you don’t quite know what it is. Here are feel-good ways to let go of physical and emotional stagnation.
Many Eastern and Western sacred traditions utilize the healing power of sound through chants, songs, hymns and mantras; but the science behind sound healing is solid. According to Sound Healer Tom Kenyon, the repetitive patterns of music and chant stimulate the reticular activating system in the brain, which can induce a mild, trancelike state. Making sounds and music is even more transformative than just listening.
“The way music helps us release is that it helps us remember a little bit more of who we are,” advises soprano and Sound Shaman Norma Gentile, from Ypsilanti, Michigan. Her favorite tip: Sing! Gentile exhorts, “Sing with the radio, with a choir or by yourself.” When you sing, she explains, you breathe deeply and your body vibrates and releases energy. Just sing whatever moves you, from the medieval songs of Hildegard von Bingen (her favorite), to Country & Western ballads. She adds, “There’s no style of music that can’t be helpful and healing.”
To release aches and pains, Kenyon applies a different exercise. First, find a quiet, private room where no one will hear you. Then, close your eyes and focus on a part of the body that feels uncomfortable: the lower back or neck, perhaps, or maybe a heavy heart or other emotional unease. Breathe in slowly. Exhale in an audible sigh, letting the sound come from the place of discomfort. Expressed sounds will be unique to each individual. Allow the sounds to build, reach a crescendo and then taper off naturally. “This is a simple, but powerful, technique for expressing tension with sound,” promises Kenyon.
Brush it Out
“The skin is the largest organ in the body, and the better it functions as a toxin releaser, the less work the liver and kidneys have to do,” explains Tom Sherman, a bodyworker who teaches at the Acupressure Institute. He suggests daily dry-brushing, a low-tech way to stimulate lymph nodes, open pores, release toxins and exfoliate the skin.
Any natural fiber bristle brush with a long handle will do, though Sherman prefers the Yerba Buena palm bristle brush. He also likes the Vital Chi Skin-Brushing system developed by Bruce Berkowsky (NaturalHealthScience.com). Dry-brushing is a popular spa treatment with European roots.
For basic skin-brushing, remove clothing and gently, but vigorously, rub the dry brush over every part of the body, using circular motions. The basic rule of thumb is to brush toward the heart and in the direction of blood flow. So, starting with the feet, brush in circles up the calves, thighs and buttocks, before moving to the hands and up the arms to the shoulders. Brush down on the neck, but up on the back. Finally, move to the chest and abdomen, brushing counter-clockwise. The whole process should take about 10 minutes. Follow it up with hydrotherapy—a simple shower will do—to help wash away dead skin and impurities. A further detoxing option is to follow up with a hot bath containing two cups of Epsom salts and 20 drops of tea tree oil.
After you have de-stressed, refreshed and released, it may be time to ramp up your energy. These final steps are geared to recharge your emotional and physical batteries.
Stay in Touch
Physical touch in any form stimulates the body, and while massage is typically used to relax and release, it can also revitalize. A recent National Institutes of Health study showed that massage had a positive effect on cancer-related fatigue in patients who were undergoing treatments that drained them of energy.
“During an invigorating massage, the therapist uses faster paced, gliding, strokes, rather than slow, sustained, pressure,” explains Kristen Sykora, a licensed massage therapist and spokesperson for the American Massage Therapy Association. In-between visits (locate a local practitioner at FindaMassageTherapist.org), there’s plenty you can do on your own.
“Physiologically, when you massage yourself—even when you rub lotion on your skin—you’re asking the blood vessels to open up and bring in blood, nutrients and oxygen into that area,” Sykora says. She suggests a simple tapping technique, called tapotement, for re-energizing any area of the body that feels fatigued, such as quadraceps or derriÃ¨re. To work on quads, sit comfortably, so the muscles are relaxed, make a soft fist and tap gently all over the muscle for one to two minutes. Use either the pinky end of the fist or the underside, where the fingers are curled.
A simple way to get moving, walking raises heart rate and breathing capacity, increases circulation of blood and nutrients to all systems of the body and, as new research from the University of Pittsburgh shows, improves memory. It’s a relatively low-impact, safe, form of exercise that also gets you outdoors, which has its own balancing benefits. Beginners can try for 10 minutes a day at a slow, comfortable pace, while more experienced walkers may shoot for 30 minutes a day at a faster, more invigorating pace.
Try Something New
Sticking to the safe, familiar and tried-and-true may seem like an energy-conservation measure, but upsetting your routine and trying new things can re-cultivate a passion for life. And passion, says Marks, helps provide life with meaning and purpose. “It’s important to find pleasures outside of work, even if you do love your job,” she counsels. What will you do? Something you’ve always wanted to do, or used to do and have always wanted to get back to. Or, something you never thought you could do, or think you’re too old to do.
Natural Awakenings’ monthly Calendar of Events is a perfect place to start. Take a cooking or art class (local community colleges are great, too) or join a dining or green drinks or birdwatching group (Meetup.com facilitates local gatherings). Learn a new sport (tennis, paddleboarding, salsa dance) or a musical instrument (ukulele, an easy instrument to pick up, is making a comeback). Join a community gardening, handcrafting or reading circle, which are all part of the growing make-it-yourself movement. The list is endless...