I’ll be upfront. This is a post about being busy. And it is, um, particularly timely for me. When I wrote this, I needed to work on about five different things that day (sound familiar?).
I was Busy. And I felt it.
I've spent a lot of time thinking about this thing we call Busy; finding out what it does to our bodies and brains and how it messes with our body's basic rhythms and cycles. Some of the reasons it's problematic are outlined in more detail in more detail in this 2012 article from the New York Times, and this one from 2013, in Australian magazine Dumbo Feather.
What concerns me most about ‘Busy’ is its close relationship with chronic stress and anxiety.
There are countless studies that show the impact of chronic stress on the body and the mind, and not much of that impact is good. Stress is supposed to be a short-term thing.
Essentially, the antidote is to slow down.
The body and the brain need downtime (or ‘rest and digest' mode) as part of a regular rhythm to keep them from falling apart. Yoga, especially a simple home practice, can be that.
Being Busy is not, in itself, a bad thing. But for most of us it would be more useful to see it as an sign to pay more attention to how we're spending our time.
If you're Busy, chances are you won’t be able to get to a yoga class, or, if you can, you’ll only be able to go to one a week, maybe two. But to balance out the stress mode, your body really needs more downtime than that. This is where a home practice comes in.
A lot of people get (understandably) nervous about the idea of practicing yoga at home. The trick, really, is to keep it simple. (Incidentally, simple yoga is often exactly the kind that’s needed if one is feeling Busy.)
My tips for starting a home practice:
- Start small: commit yourself to ten minutes in the morning or the evening — if you feel like doing more you can, but regularity is ultimately more helpful; you’re trying to create a habit
- If you know sun salutes, just do that. One round on each leg. Then lie down for a few minutes.
- If you don’t know sun salutes, do two or three poses that you do know. Start with the ones you feel confident enough with from class. Perhaps downward facing dog or a warrior pose or two. Perhaps the much-loved (ha!) chair pose or high squat. (You can always add more later. You don’t have to do it all on the first day.) Then lie down for a few minutes.
- If you don’t know any poses at all, just stand with your feet at hip width apart, let your spine lengthen, then watch your breath. Then lie down for a few minutes.
- Lie with your legs up the wall for a few minutes. Listen to this guided relaxation:
Make sure your buttocks are far enough away from the wall that you’re not feeling a strong stretch in the legs, then just let yourself relax. Watch your breath. Resist the urge to do anything.
- Have I made it clear enough that at least part of your home yoga practice, especially if you’re feeling Busy, should be just lying on the floor doing nothing?
Often the yoga I personally do at home is more complicated than this, because that’s what I feel like on the day, but at least once a week, sometimes more (usually when I’m feeling Busy), my yoga practice is just one of the points I’ve listed above.
Some days I just stand still for a few minutes. Other days even that’s too much and I just lie of the floor for a few minutes. This is a good way to lie:
Yes, really. Some days I make time to do nothing. This is yoga.
If you want to do more than this (and I suggest perhaps waiting until a time when you’re not feeling so Busy to introduce a more complicated home practice), you can ask your yoga teacher to help you come up with a sequence that works for you. Or grab this download.
To be honest, the ‘doing nothing’ kind of yoga is often far more challenging for me than the stuff that’s stronger physically, especially when I’m feeling Busy. The urge to “be productive” with all my time is strong. I suspect many people would notice the same thing.
The thing is though, different types of activity affect us in different ways, and downtime is productive, not just for the physical body, but also for the brain. This bit is especially important for those of us who work, probably at a desk, in a job that uses the brain but not so much the body.
Here's how different types and levels of activity affect our brains:
Aerobic exercise — something that gets your heart rate up — encourages the growth of more neurons and a better blood flow in the brain. This seems to improve the ability to focus in the face of distractions; it improves planning, scheduling, working memory and the ability to switch between tasks. All pretty good reasons to step away from the desk and move around, yes?
Anaerobic exercise — stretching or strength training that doesn’t necessarily get the heart rate up — appears to increase activity in the part of the brain that helps us to resolve conflict and to distinguish between confusing or disparate sources of stimulation. Again, helpful.
And then there’s doing nothing. Physically, doing nothing (or at least very little) allows the body to rest, restore and digest. But mentally, doing nothing is important too. Resting allows the mind time to wander, and to start sorting through all the stuff. It’s in allowing the mind to wander that we’re more likely to suddenly realise, say, that the answer to the problem at work can actually be solved using the something from some other part of our lives. Neurologists call this analogical thinking.
Here's the clincher: what we do with the physical body seems to be more effective than cognitive exercises for improving brain health and cognitive function.
The different benefits of the various types of activity (or non-activity) for the mind and body really need to be part of our daily rhythms, but they're especially important when we're Busy. So how about we all just have a little lie down now?