While the holidays can be said to be the most joyous time of year, for many, they can also be the most stressful. Family pressures, holiday shopping, financial worries, and other concerns can all conspire to poison the season with stress.
Luckily, stress doesn’t have to be your defining memory of the season. Armed with three simple strategies borrowed from the ancient science of yoga, we can all transform our experience of the holiday hustle from a stressful nightmare to a blissful gift.
TIP #1: Just This (dharana)
While we might not realize it, stress is, to a very large degree, an inside job. That is to say, it’s not our circumstances that are responsible for our stress as much as it is our relationship to our circumstances. We create stress when we relate to what’s going on around us in a less-than-helpful way.
Consider one of the top sources of holiday stress: overwhelm. As the holidays draw nearer, we find ourselves with too many things to do and not nearly enough time in which to get them done. The shopping, the cooking, the decorating, not to mention the hundred little things we normally have to do, all loom over us like a dark and foreboding storm cloud. With so many things on our mental radars, we feel anxious, out of control, worried, and yes, stressed.
On the surface, the only thing to do seems to be to put our heads down, suck it up, and do what we can to soldier on—and suffer the stressful consequences.
Here’s yoga’s answer: Focus on “just this.” Here and now.
The truth is that while you may have fifty things to do—you can only do one right now. Focusing on the other 49 merely serves to amp up your nervous system and make you feel like you’re drowning.
So instead of replaying a mental tape of all the things you still have yet to do while untangling the lights for the holiday tree, focus wholeheartedly on just what’s in front of you, right now. Just this.
In the language of yoga, it’s called dharana or concentration, and takes advantage of a lesser-known trait of our attention. As it turns out, when we focus wholeheartedly on a single thing, the other things in our mind, and our world, tend to fade into the background. It’s like when we go to the movies and become so engrossed in the story that all of the distractions of our daily lives, from the laundry to the shopping to the argument you had with your boss, seem to disappear into the background.
In truth, it’s part of the reason we love movies so much.
But here’s the cool thing, you don’t need to go to the movies to make this happen. You simple need to focus intently on what you’re doing now, on “just this.” So when you are in the midst of tackling your fifty things to do before the holidays, be here, now, fully. Just work on number one as if nothing else existed in the world, then, when finished, do the same with two, then three, and on and on. Just this, just this, just this and watch how your focus causes the overwhelming list of things yet to be done to fade peacefully into the background.
TIP #2: Change the Channel (pratipaksha bhavana)
If you’re like most of us, your mind can spin all kinds of stories: tales about the past and future, yarns about what could be and should be, and fanciful fairy-tales of “what-if” scenarios disturbing enough to give Stephen King the heebie-jeebies.
You’re just sitting comfortably on the sofa watching the game with Uncle George, but your mind has dragged you hip deep into the argument over the fruitcake recipe you had with your mother yesterday morning.
The truth is that our mind with its never-ending parade of thoughts can take us for a real, and disturbing, ride—even when we’re just sitting calmly enjoying our lunch or out for a walk. Despite our benign or even enjoyable circumstances, our minds can drag us into an impressive range of unsettling thoughts.
How your brother criticized you’re your choice of ham instead of turkey last year.
The seventeen ways your mother-in-law is clueless when it comes to foreign policy.
How Uncle George should have taken Aunt Betty’s concerns into consideration before he dropped sixty-five grand on that Corvette.
It’s important to remember, these so-called problems are just thoughts. Thoughts that when we take them to heart, cause us all manner of emotional disturbance and stress.
Yoga offers a solution. In yoga speak, it’s called pratipaksha bhavana. Literally translated as “thinking of the other side” this ancient technique invites us to choose for thoughts that are uplifting and nourishing instead of simply choosing for what happens to be showing up at the moment. This is what I mean by “change the channel”
When thoughts of your brother’s criticism fill your head, change the channel to the time he surprised you with the spa day when you turned 40.
When your mind wanders to disagreements with your mother-in-law, change the channel to how fantastic she is with your kids.
When Uncle George’s inconsiderate side gets your ire, change the channel to the 42 years of love he and Aunt Betty have enjoyed.
What the yogis knew—and what many of us have forgotten—is that we do have influence over what is showing on the screens of our minds. So when you’re feeling put upon by unhelpful thoughts or negative thinking, don’t just sit there, instead, calmly change the channel and leave the drama behind.
TIP #3: Reset (svadhyaya)
It’s no secret that the best time to fight obesity is before you’re obese. Eat right, exercise regularly, all the while monitoring your health and weight; if you notice yourself sliding down the slippery slope toward corpulence, adjust course.
And so it goes with stress.
Too often we allow ourselves to become text-book stress cases before we even think about doing anything about it. We forget that, like with obesity, the best time to fight your holiday stress is before you’re balled up in a corner somewhere with a scotch and a fist full of fudge brownies.
Here too, the wise yogis of old had a tool that can help us. It’s called svadhyaya, or self study. Self study invites us to remain curious and interested in how we are, moment to moment. As it applies to stress, it means to pay attention to how we feel throughout our day. When we notice even a bit of stress creeping in, we adjust course by gifting ourselves with something to bring us back to our normal relaxed states.
The thing is, intense stress episodes seldom happen all at once. They typically creep up on us—not unlike weight gain. It’s only when we ignore the warning signs—tightness in the chest, shallowness of breathing, tension in the shoulders—that stress turns into a real problem.
So here’s what the yogis recommended: As you move through your days, pay attention to how you feel. When you notice the first, tell-tale signs of stress, stop what you’re doing, and reset:
Take a moment to excuse yourself from the drama: Find a quiet place, sit tall, and close your eyes. Begin to breathe slowly and deeply through the nose while focusing on the feeling of the breath at the back of your throat. Continue for one minute or until you feel a sense of ease return to the body. Then open your eyes, smile, and continue with your day.
While it’s true that it may seem like stress is as much a part of the holidays as shopping and eggnog, the fact is that enjoying a relatively stress-free holiday is within the grasp of us all. With just a bit of targeted effort, and the wisdom of the ancient yogis, you too have the power to transform your holiday—and your life—into the joyous experience it is intended to be.
About the Author
Eric Walrabenstein is a nationally-recognized speaker, teacher, and author and is one of the most sought-after authorities on the application of yogic technology for self healing and empowerment in the nation. As the founder of one of Arizona’s largest yoga centers, and Arizona's first Master-Level Yoga Teacher Training Program, Eric has long been dedicated to making ancient wisdom and techniques practical and relevant for people from all walks of life. In addition to his work in his wellness center in Phoenix, Arizona, he is the creator of BOOTSTRAP, a yoga-based program to help troops and veterans heal from post traumatic stress. An ordained Yogacharya (preceptor of yoga), Eric is currently finishing a book on the Science of Happiness.