Stress Reduction Practices

Our approach combines mindfulness (which enables us to see our experience as it is) and yoga (which enables us to dynamically shape our experience). Both mindful and active practices are included because we need to be able to calmly look at our experience, while also taking active steps to improve our situation. Ideally, we bring caring and impartial awareness to all our activity.


1. Mindful Breathing

In this practice, we take a comfortable sitting position and bring our awareness to the parts of the body involved with breathing- the nostrils, the belly, and the chest. With each in-breath, each out-breath, and each pause between breaths, we feel the physical sensations in these breathing areas.

Whatever the quality of breathing that is occurring in the present moment- deep or shallow, fast or slow, smooth or irregular- we try to observe it. We do not try to change, regulate, or control the breath in any way; the goal is simply to watch the breath as it is occurring naturally, at this moment.

Breath after breath, we look on the sensory details with a balanced mind– neither grasping the pleasant nor rejecting the unpleasant. As the moments and the minutes pass, we notice greater and greater sensory detail- for example there may be very faint sensations of the air moving in and around the nostrils.

By watching our breathing as it is, we:

  • Become familiar with an essential natural process that we normally take for granted.
  • Train our mind to focus on the present moment, in the here and now, where life is actually occurring; and where we are free from painful memories and worrisome thoughts of the future.
  • Train our nervous system to produce the relaxation response, which is an antidote to the physiological effects of stress. When we feel the sensations of breathing, the parasympathetic nervous system sends messages of calm and well being through the brain, spinal cord, organs, and the entire cellular structure of the body. The more we practice, the more we learn to create and hold the relaxation process in our body-mind.


2. Mindfulness of Body Sensation/ Body Scan

In this practice we sit or lie down and survey the physical sensations occurring in different parts of the body:

  • Toes, heels, feet, and ankles; calves, knees, and thighs;
  • Buttocks, groin, hips, and lower abdomen;
  • Belly, chest, and throat;
  • Lower, mid, and upper back;
  • Fingers, hands, and wrists; forearms, elbows, upper arms, armpits, and shoulders;
  • Neck, jaw, face, forehead, ears, and scalp.

As we focus on each of these areas in turn, we notice all kinds of physical sensations- some pleasant, some disagreeable, and some barely noticeable. Whatever the sensation is, we try to look at it with interest and care, and really feel what it feels like in a particular part of the body.

Again and again, we pass our attention through the different parts of the body and become aware of the sensation. As we practice, the brain develops new structures associated with sustained sensory awareness. Moment by moment we form a new habit of relaxed alertness, which remains with us beyond the practice situation.

Gradually we become more aware of our body sensations during all of our daily experiences- whether stressful, neutral, or pleasurable. We learn to understand our stress better, so we can grow beyond it; we feel our wellness more fully, so it deepens; and we appreciate the simple things in life, so they seem more abundant.


3. Mindful Walking (Walking Meditation)

In this practice we slow down the process of walking so we can experience what it feels like in detail. While walking mindfully, without a particular goal or destination, we attend to the physical sensations in our feet, legs, hips, groin, and buttocks.

Paying attention to these sensations reveals to us that each step is made up of many small incremental movements. As we slowly lift the foot, swing the leg forward, and shift the balance from left to right, we come deeply into the present moment. With each step we consciously experience our deep connection with our body and the earth, and this automatically dissolves some of the mental fear and stress that we carry.

Another benefit of exploring the complex process of walking is that it deepens our appreciation of the magnificent animal body that we usually take for granted. When our body functions well we often treat it as a machine which we can push harder and harder to carry out our activities. But if we simply slow down for a few minutes, we come back into contact with who and what we are. We find that it is possible to move with full awareness, continually in motion while feeling contact with the ground. This is a very different experience than lurching forward in our usual rush to get somewhere, without awareness of the body or the earth.

After practicing walking meditation we begin to have more awareness of our steps throughout the day, and we may remember to slow down, if only for a few moments.


4. Hatha yoga

Hatha yoga is the body-mind practice of balancing, bending, twisting, and stretching the body into various positions. While moving into the poses and holding them, we breathe deeply and concentrate on the fabric of our body- skin, muscles, joints, and bones; nerves, blood, and organs. There are standing postures, sitting postures, and lying down postures; balancing postures, inverted postures, and dynamic postures. The positions can be relaxing or invigorating, restful or challenging, but they all gradually develop our strength, balance, and flexibility.

For the purposes of stress management, hatha yoga is a gentle practice. We move slowly, maintaining awareness of our breathing and body sensation as much as possible. The outward form of the pose is not so important, because the main point is to be focused on the inner body and breathing sensations in each passing moment. We are the best judges of what is right for our own body, so if there is discomfort or pain in any yoga pose, we are invited to soften and release the tension, and return to a more relaxing position such as lying on the floor.

In a slow-paced yoga session we have time to carefully explore the physical sensations that arise in our awareness. There may be intense, subtle, pleasurable, or uncomfortable sensations. As our muscles warm up and our thinking mind cools down, we become more deeply connected with the life inside our body. This integration of our physical sensation and our mental awareness is a deeply satisfying experience that opens the heart. And when we are relaxed and body-centered, it is always easier to smile.


5. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

In this practice we move our attention systematically through the major muscle groups, tightly squeezing and then releasing the tension in each area. Starting in the toes and working our way to the head and then back down again, the whole body comes to feel heavy and relaxed. Progressive Muscle Relaxation may be done in conjunction with savasana (corpse pose) at the end of hatha yoga practice, or as a stand-alone relaxation practice.


6. Breathing Exercises

In these exercises we directly regulate our breathing, changing the duration and depth of each breath. By actively shaping the breath we gain familiarity with our own respiratory system, and with the flow of life energy in the form of oxygen. As a result we gain a sense of self-control, and experience feelings of well-being and power. Each deep breath oxygenates and detoxifies the bloodstream, increases physical energy, and helps us think more clearly.

Our main breathing exercises are:

  • Deep breathing
  • Measured breathing
  • Measured breathing with retention
  • Vocalizing or humming with the exhalation
  • Diaphragmatic (belly) breathing
  • Oceanic breathing
  • Alternate nostril breathing
  • Alternate nostril breathing with retention

This is a very small sample of the breathing practices available to us; traditional yogic breathing (pranayama) includes dozens more exercises.

Note: Actively shaping the breath in these Breathing Exercises is different from Mindful Breathing (in which we simply feel the breath without trying to change it in any way).