3 Simple Ways to Calm Stress

Get mellow with these traditional Indian healing exercises

Photo: Smiling woman lying in bed with arms stretched

Whether triggered by a coffee-stained shirt or a bad day at work, stress can scatter us in all directions. Enter: Ayurveda, a traditional Indian healing practice that aims to create balance in one’s life. “Ayurveda looks at a person and the surrounding and the whole,” says Parla Jayagopal, MD, an Ayurveda practitioner in California. This kind of mindfulness practice is important because it reduces stress holistically, he says.

The exercises below are meant to work quickly to tame stress. But think about them as lifestyle shifts rather than one-off solutions. “It’s not that people do this and are done with it,” Dr. Jayagopal says. Make them a part of your go-to stress-relief tools.

1. Try deep abdominal breathing.
What it does: The most common Ayurvedic exercise involves observing your breathing around your abdomen, Dr. Jayagopal says. “From a biomedicine point of view, there is enough evidence to say that the gastrointestinal (GI) tract plays an important role in keeping the mind and the psyche healthy.” This exercise targets the GI tract, which helps regulate brain chemicals that reduce stress, he says. In Ayurveda, when you inhale “you are breathing in knowledge, and when you exhale, you are breathing out toxins. It’s a subconscious method of letting go. People associate it with much ease.” Just don’t try it on a full stomach or you may become queasy.

Try it: Interlock your fingers on both hands and place your palms over your navel. Look at your stomach and attempt to bring your awareness and concentration there. As you breathe in through your nose, count to five and expand your abdomen so that it balloons out. Breathe out through your nose and mouth for a count of 8-10 seconds as you push down lightly on your abdomen.

Enhance it: Dr. Jayagopal suggests pairing this exercise with mindful eating habits (like the exercise below). “These exercises work in a sequence,” he says. “There’s a close relation to how your mind functions and how you digest your food.” Doing both creates a full sensory eating experience. If you pair them, do the breathing exercise 5 minutes before you eat.

2. Eat with your senses.
What it does: Eating mindfully alters your sensory perception of food, meaning you’ll pay attention when you’re eating and stop when you feel full. “If you don’t satisfy your senses, there is more irritability and a more unsettled state of mind,” Dr. Jayagopal says. “Food is such a compelling thing for us. Soaking in this experience pulls you inward, like you’re pulled to be more grounded and settled.” You may realize you don’t want that second helping after all.

Try it: After you do the deep abdominal breathing exercise, take a moment to look at your food. What is its color, its texture? When you eat, attempt to see your food, smell it, touch it, taste it, and hear what you’re eating. Move through each sense focusing on one sense at a time.

Enhance it: Try to eat in silence, which creates a “space” between your senses so that you can satisfy them individually and in turn as a whole, Dr. Jayagopal says.

3. Wake up with nature.
What it does: In Ayurveda, people are encouraged to wake up with the thought that the sun, wind, or ocean is waking up with them. Nature is seen as a mother figure that loves and cares for you, Dr. Jayagopal says. Your subconscious is most active in the early morning, so starting with this exercise helps relaxation resonate throughout the day, he says.

Try it: Before you get out of bed, lay quietly and imagine that you are surrounded by elements of nature such as trees, mountains, or a dewy field of flowers. Imagine that these elements are your support system as you breathe slowly for one minute (sort of like taking a mental “hike” with your thoughts). When you wake up to start your day, envision that nature wakes up, too.

Enhance it: Doing this exercise will make you feel empowered when you wake up, Dr. Jayagopal says. Bonus points if you supplement your feel-good state of mind with a hike on a nearby nature trail.