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Stress-free Holidays

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Relaxation techniques reduce anxiety and make your time with family enjoyable

dec-5.jpgWhen we think of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, most of us immediately conjure up the Hallmark version—
the family gathered around a table piled high with favorite foods, a warm fire glowing in the fireplace, the
excitement on our children’s faces as they excitedly unwrap gifts. But this idyllic scene comes with a lot of anxiety,
even in the best of times. This year’s “wonder and joy” may give way to stress and depression as we New
Orleanians struggle to rebuild our homes, our businesses, our city, and our lives. To help us through the holidays,
we spoke to yoga and meditation expert Miriam Austin and asked her for advice on keeping a cool head and a
warm heart throughout the holiday season.

Miriam, is there some overall advice you can give us about managing holiday stress?
The most important thing is to understand that there will be stress and to prepare for it. With this understanding, you will make taking care of yourself a high priority rather than pretending the stress doesn’t exist. Whether you simply get frazzled while shopping or preparing the holiday meal, or if you know that the pain of losing a loved one during Katrina will be particularly acute this holiday season, make sure that you take time to care for yourself physically, mentally and emotionally.

There are many small things you can do to alleviate stress. For example, schedule short shopping trips rather than shopping till you drop. To ensure that you will actually enjoy the meal you prepare, take short “stretching breaks” while cooking.

Calm your inner Stress Monster as often as possible during the holidays. When you get home from shopping, you should rest for several minutes by putting your feet up—literally. Do the same thing about 20 minutes before your guests arrive.

Lie on your back on the floor and put your feet and calves on the seat of a chair. Close your eyes. If you can, plug your ears with some cotton balls or Kleenex and place a face cloth over your eyes. This way, you completely block out the world for a few minutes.

Breathe slowly and deliberately, becoming aware of both your inhalation and your exhalation. After a few moments, make your exhalation a little longer than your inhalation. Imagine that all of your worries are being released on your exhalation.

We all have certain family members who drive us crazy. How should we handle any negative behavior during the holiday gathering?

We all know who that person is and what he or she may do or say to upset us. In the week or two before the party, remind yourself several times that you won’t let this person get the best of you. Decide that you will not retaliate with the “best speech you’ll ever regret.” Well in advance of the gathering, cultivate compassion for this person.

Remember that most people who are hurtful to others have been hurt themselves. Try to understand the difficulties he or she has had that would lead to such behavior. And, remember to be compassionate with yourself for the hurt that he or she has caused you.

To cultivate compassion, take a few minutes each day for several days prior to the family gathering and do this simple meditation. Either sit comfortably or lie down with your legs on the chair, as described above. Close your eyes and focus your inward gaze toward your heart. The intention of this meditation is to cultivate compassion for yourself and for others, particularly the hurtful person. Become aware of your inhalation and exhalation. After a minute or two of watching your breath, on your inhalation silently repeat the following:

I inhale compassion for myself.

On your exhalation, silently repeat:

I exhale compassion for Person X.

Initially, try the meditation for about five minutes. Once you get comfortable with it, you can increase the amount of time of your practice and/or you can add other people to the meditation.

By the time of the party, you are likely to find that the “trouble person” has cooled his or her jets or that you are no longer bothered by the bad behavior. Just in case that person is particularly hurtful to you, make sure that you
have an exit strategy. For example, make sure that this person is not seated next to you at dinner and if confronted with bad behavior, graciously walk away.

This holiday season may be particularly painful for many people who are still grieving over the loss of loved ones and the loss of their homes. Is there something people who are in this situation can do?

Yes, there are many people in our city who are suffering a great deal. Many find that helping other people who are in need adds to their own peace of mind. Others find that their spiritual life gives them the serenity they are seeking. But for those who are looking for that “something extra” to alleviate their sorrow, I recommend trying the following meditation.

Again, sit comfortably in a chair or lie down as described. Focus your inward gaze toward your heart. Watch your breath for a minute or two to relax your body and quiet your mind. Then, on the inhalation, silently repeat:

May I be free from suffering.

On your exhalation, silently repeat:

May I be at peace.

Continue for about five minutes. Every few days, extend the length of your practice by a minute. Over several weeks, you will be practicing this for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. You can also use this meditation as you go to sleep at night. When I wake up in the middle of the night, with my mind racing, I use this meditation to help me get back to sleep.

You will be amazed at how quickly you will feel soothed and comforted.

And, you can help alleviate another person’s suffering by practicing this meditation with someone else in mind. In your mind’s eye, visualize someone you know who is suffering.

On the inhalation, silently repeat:

May you be free from suffering.

On the exhalation:

May you be at peace.

It is important to remember to never lose our peace of mind—for anything!

Once we start to get upset, our adrenaline takes over and physically, as well as emotionally, we start cascading downward. Small upsets can turn into major problems if we don’t catch ourselves quickly and make necessary adjustments.

Remember that the holiday season is about the light of God coming into the world, our love for each other, the unity of all people, generosity and kindness.

May we all be at peace!
Miriam Austin is the author of the international best seller Yoga for Wimps: Poses for the
Flexibly Impaired (Sterling Publishing, 2000), Meditation for Wimps: Finding Your Balance
in an Imperfect World (Sterling Publishing, 2003) and