COMFORTABLE – BI-WEEKLY PHOTO CHALLENGE – Marilyn Armstrong

Bi-Weekly Photo Challenge – Comfort

Our house, while crumbling around the edges, is very comfortable. Years ago, we gave up fashion and went for soft furniture on which we can keep our (swelling) ankles up. The dogs like it too.

Comfort on the deck

It is not fashionable. It wasn’t fashionable 20 years ago and we are not fashionable either, so it works. The dogs don’t know about fashion. As long as they can find a soft spot on which to sleep, life is good.

Comfortable dogs
It’s a rough life, but someone’s got to live it.
Bonnie and living room
Too many cushions
Photo: Garry Armstrong
Cold toes, but warm quilts!

R&R WITH OLD FRIENDS – Garry Armstrong

It was our time for a bit of R & R in the lush Connecticut woods, far from the madding crowd. It’s another world where we can recharge our life force and mental batteries.

Home

Our hosts are the kindly friends for whom we are grateful. We’ve known Tom for more than 50 years dating back to our days in college when we and our world was young. We’ve known Ellin – it seems forever – or since she married Tommy and immediately improved the quality of life for all of us.

Our mini-vacation included time at the marina where everyone seems utterly relaxed — except when they are rehabbing their boats for another summer on the water. The much-maligned weather put on a good face for us.

Ellin
Tom

Sunshine and summer-like temperatures were abundant. It was warm but not uncomfortable. The breeze from the water made it almost perfect as we relaxed for an afternoon of doing absolutely nothing.

Marilyn and the camera
Garry at pier’s end

Tom apologized for not taking the boat out because the water was a bit too choppy for his taste. No worries, we repeatedly told him as we soaked up the afternoon sun, chatting about stuff that brought giggles and contentment. Really. NO worries!

I enjoyed looking at the names of the boats in the marina and wondering about the folks who owned them. I’ve never wanted to own a boat but have fantasies, thanks to Bogie in “Key Largo” and other movies which romanticize the boating life.

Ellin socializing on the pier

I’ve always thought I’d name my boat “The Busted Flush” after fictional detective Travis McGee who chased bad guys in his trusty little houseboat which also provided room for romantic interludes with his miscellaneous yet somehow dubious love interests. Hey, just a passing fancy.

Tom has schooled me in the difficulties of keeping “Serenity” in running condition. I’m good being a guest.

There’s so much to see just relaxing with Tommy and Ellin in the Marina. The setting is soothing. You can drift off mentally without a worry. No obsessing about what’s happening in our politically-challenged world. That stuff is blocked out for a few precious hours. I could actually feel my heartbeat slowing. Just what the doctor ordered.

Tom and Ellin on the boat

Back at “La Casa Bonita” of Tom and Ellin, it’s more of the easy life — at least for us, the guests. The conversation ramps up during the evening “News Hour.” Imagine sitting between two guys who’ve logged 80 years in network and top market TV News.  The old, war stories fill the air spiced with profanities that befit we who ducked idiot management suits from the “Tricky Dick Era” to today’s “Follies of Donzo.”

We can name drop with the best of them. Hell,  Tom and I have probably sent myriad suits seeking psychiatric care because we refused to tolerate their idiocy.

Tom is the master of his impressive entertainment room. He’s introduced Marilyn and me to shows and movies we never knew existed.

Tom, the telly, and Remy
One thing that impressed me — I looked and looked around the walls and notices no awards reflecting Tommy’s long and accomplished career at the highest level of TV News. I know he’s been in the cross-hairs of some of the biggest news stories over half a century. No collection of hardware — unlike me.  Tom doesn’t need any stinkin’ bodges.
Lexi

Marilyn and I were very reluctant to leave Tommy and Ellin and the comfy good feeling they bestowed on us, but our dogs were calling us homeward.

We have an invite to return with Tommy taking us for a trip aboard “Serenity” when the seas are smoother. I’m already dreaming about it.

RELAXING WHILE THE BIRDS HIT THE FEEDER – Marilyn Armstrong

Relaxing With the Birds – 12/28/2018

I love watching the birds. I peer out of my bathroom window to see what they are doing when I’m getting up in the morning, but unless I’m getting up unusually late, there’s usually not much happening.

Birds are on a schedule.

They come by for breakfast just after sunrise. I’m not usually awake at that hour unless the dogs have been unusually noisy, in which case I might be awake. I might even take a few pictures, though I’d really rather be in bed.

Nuthatch and Chickadee

The shy birds — the ones who avoid people and barking dogs — visit the feeder early in the day, so unless I happen to be up, I don’t see them. By the time I’m ready to take pictures — about midday — it’s the usual suspects. Warblers (several kinds). I still can’t tell which is which without a photograph and my book). Tufted Titmouses, Chickadees, Nuthatches and depending on luck, one of three different woodpeckers — the Hairy, Downy, and Red-Bellied varieties all come to the feeder. Not to mention the Juncos — all those who live in the area.

Birds not of one feather

A Cardinal came, looked around. So did a few Blue Jays. When I buy expensive bird food, I also get a variety of finches. They eat different food than other birds. The current food selection is (alas) not to their taste. A pity because the finches are a colorful and adorable group of little birds.

The squirrels must come early in the day. I know they’ve been here because a lot of food is missing from the flat feeder. Sometimes they drop by in the late afternoon, just before dark. I don’t always see them because when they are around, I’m tired. I’ve already done my shooting by then.

Landing Chickadee with a sitting Warbler

I realized today that at least part of the reason my arm hurts is from holding the heavy lens still and ready to shoot. When the birds are busy and I’m waiting for them to settle down, I keep the camera up and ready. There’s a Murphy’s Law involved in this. I know the second I lower the camera, half a dozen birds will be all over the feeder and by the time I get the camera back in place, they will be gone.

Not all the birds perch on the feeder. Many of them fly by. They dive to the feeder, grab a seed, and fly off. It’s hard getting pictures of diving birds, but I got one this morning.

Yay me!

Coming in for a landing

So all the typing and working on the computer is only part of the problem. The rest of my problem is hoisting the big camera into position than holding it at eye level, trying to keep it steady.

This is difficult with a long 2.5-pound lens. I try to wedge my butt against the dining room table and prop the camera up by doubling my right arm and pressing it against my chest. Today, I felt that old familiar ache and realize “Oh, there’s that pain.” It was a revelatory moment for me. Suddenly, I understood why — out of the blue — my arm was bothering me. It was all about the camera. My wrist is an old, familiar pain. The arm problem is new.

I’ve known a lot of camera people (Garry used to hang out with the tech people). They all had shoulder and arm problems. Of course, television cameras are heavier than my camera, even with a heavy lens, but the camera people were younger than me when they were working. It all evens out.

Woodpecker and Warbler

It made me remember being a kid and going bowling — duckpins rather than the bigger balls for tenpins — and two days later, I thought I was going to die. Every inch of me hurt. I had no idea what was wrong with me.

No fever, just pain. Until my uncle said “Hey, remember we went bowling a couple of days ago? I bet that’s why you hurt.”

Chickadee landing

I’m a “two days later” sufferer. I feel fine the same and following day, but the next day … oh boy. I don’t know why my body delays the pain for an extra day but apparently, it isn’t so unusual either. It does give me extra time to take a couple of hot showers, and with luck get some sleep.

If I know what’s coming, I can “do stuff” to take the edge off.

Tufted Titmouse

I knew I was becoming a pretty good rider (of horses) when I could ride for a couple of hours and even a few days later, I felt fine. I developed muscles in places I didn’t know you could develop muscles. Interesting muscles.

Just saying.

I have not developed any special muscles for hoisting a 5-pound camera and holding it steady for an hour a day. I’m not sure I will, either. What can I do?

There are the birds and there’s my camera, right at the end of the table with the lens in place. How can I not take pictures? The birds are waiting. The feathery flutterers need me. I need them.

The world is waiting! Isn’t it?

QUICK AND EASY STRESS CONTROL – PART 4

This is the final part of a four-part series. You can read the others here: Part I, Part 2, Part 3.


Stress

Everyday stress is a killer. Literally.

The greatest damage from stress is caused by excessive triggering of the fight-or flight (stress) response. These throw your entire system into high gear on a chemical and biological level. Your system is designed to handle no more than a few fight-or-flight responses a week.

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Instead, our modern world bombards us with more than fifty such (brief) episodes each day. Over time, this unrelenting stress wears down and damages every part of your body in some way.

Your body can’t distinguish between minor, everyday stress and those which threaten life and loved ones. So we respond to all stressors as if they were charging tigers.

Moreover, your body doesn’t distinguish between physical threats which require action, and psychological threats which require thought or a verbal response — or potential threats which are worries about the future and don’t even yet (or maybe ever) exist.

Thoughts alone can trigger a full blown, physiological stress reaction throughout your body. Your body “believes” your thoughts are real.

If you think about a fight you recently had or might have, your system reacts as if you were having the fight now! The good news is you can trick your unconscious, internal systems into thinking you are sitting on the beach with a tall, cold drink in hand.

This is what gives visualization and mindfulness such power.

The key is visualizing in detail. To demonstrate the power of thoughts and images on your body, close your eyes and imagine, in vivid detail, that you are eating a lemon. Soon your mouth will begin to pucker. You will start to salivate. Your stomach will start secreting the fluids to digest a lemon. Your mind will have tricked your body into thinking you were eating a lemon.

Visualization

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This is a visualization you can tailor to your mood and whatever time you have available:

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Imagine yourself in a place you love — the woods, the beach, or some place which holds special meaning for you.
  3. Make sure it’s a place where you feel secure, safe, comfortable, and happy.
  4. Focus on the details of your imagined scene.
  5. Work with each of your senses, one at a time. Focus on everything you see. Colors. Shapes. Light. Shadows.
  6. Work from the ground up.
  7. Focus on the sounds around you, including the silence.
  8. Take a few deep breaths, then tune into the smells. Allow scents to trigger positive emotions.
  9. Focus on the variety of textures around you. Imagine yourself touching the items in your environment – smooth, rough, hard, soft, and so on.
  10. Focus on any movement in the scene you have created for yourself. Clouds in the sky, waves in the ocean.
  11. Finally imagine doing something you love in your mental oasis. Put your feet in a lake. Ski down a mountain. Play with a pet.
  12. Continue the experience until you feel a sense of peace and well-being.

Gradually ease yourself back into your day focusing on your breath, then the sensations in the room. When you’re ready, slowly open your eyes and take another deep, abdominal breath.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a slightly different way to focus on the present moment. Focusing on the present decreases tension and stress. It increases your enjoyment of life. You can give your body and mind a mini-vacation from worry about the past and the future, and reduce the damage stress can do over time.

Schubert Theater boston night

You can practice mindfulness while you are doing anything from washing dishes or folding laundry, to walking upstairs or even eating.

All you need do is spend a few minutes focusing on the details and sensations of the moment. Use all of your senses, one at a time.

Mindful eating is a good exercise for beginners. For example, while eating an orange you can focus on the color and roughness of the skin and the different colors and shapes of the segments. Then focus on the feel of the rind, pulp and juice on your hands, face, lips and tongue and the sensations in your mouth, throat and stomach as you bite, chew and swallow. Then turn to the smell and the taste of each bite and how they change as you go through the process of eating. Come back to the real world slowly and focus on abdominal breathing for a few moments before you get on with your day.

Aggravation

Life is aggravating. It just is. You can’t completely eliminate everyday annoyances or anxiety, so be prepared to change how your body reacts to them. I’ve explained abdominal breathing, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, mindful walking, visualization, and mindfulness. All these techniques can reduce the level of stress stored up in your body and mind. Using these can dramatically improve the quality of your life.

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Do what you can, whenever you can for as long as you can. Just … do something. No matter how small, anything you do will protect you and help heal your mind and body. In the process, you’ll develop skills which will serve you well in the future by allowing you to take control of your responses to the stress life inevitably brings.

QUICK AND EASY STRESS CONTROL – PART 3

I ‘ve talked about breathing and visualization as relaxation techniques. This week, I’d like to add a third element – movement.

Human-Body-Muscles

Coordinating breath and movement can calm you down, center you, clear your head, and focus your mind, and help the relaxation spread to the muscles throughout your body.

Another benefit is that the physical movement gives your mind a focal point that can not only deepen relaxation but can also allow you to relax when you’re too restless, fidgety, listless or unmotivated for the purely mental techniques.

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When you are concentrating on moving your body in a certain way, it is easier to keep your mind off stressful thoughts that creep into your mind. However, thoughts will invariably intervene at some point when they do, just acknowledge them and immediately click the remote and switch back to the breathing channel. Then refocus on your movements.

One classic exercise that combines breathing and movement is Progressive Muscle Relaxation or PMR. This can be done standing, sitting or when you are having trouble sleeping, in bed. Body focus techniques not only help insomnia but also improve headaches and stomach problems if done for a period of time when you’re having symptoms.

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In PMR, you first tighten and then release major muscles, starting with feet and moving up your body. Doing this helps you learn what your muscles feel like when they are tense versus relaxed. It may sound strange, but most people don’t realize their muscles are tense until the tension gets bad enough to hurt.

You may need to learn how and when to relax your muscles. PMR not only helps you relax, it increases your awareness of muscle tension. Soon you’ll be able to prevent muscle tension from building by stopping it before it gets serious.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Start by squeezing your toes together as if you were making fists with your feet. Hold the squeeze and feel the tension in every foot muscle. Then let everything go, all at once, as you exhale.

Try to feel the muscles in your feet relaxing and loosening up. Next squeeze your calves and thighs, hold the squeeze feel the tension and then release it quickly, always on an exhale. Feel all the tension evaporating from your legs.

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Focus on the contrasting sensations of tension and relaxation, tightness and openness. Continue up through your body tightening and releasing, sequentially, your buttocks then your chest and shoulders, scrunching your shoulders up to your ears. Then move onto your arms and hands, making fists and squeezing them tightly.

Hold and release the muscles in your throat and neck and then scrunch your face together and squeeze your eyes shut, hold, and then release. Open your mouth as wide as you can and stick your tongue out as far as you can. Hold and release. Then bring your focus back to your abdominal breathing, perhaps counting out an exhale that is twice as long as your inhale. Gradually transition back to your day.

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Short Form PMR

There is also a short form PMR when you are pressed for time. Divide your body into three sections, from your feet up to your face. Then tense all the muscles in each section, hold them and release all at once with an exhale, as you did above. Then move onto the next section. For example, feet, legs, thighs and buttocks are one section, chest arms and shoulders are another section and neck, throat, face and jaw are the last section.

Once you’re comfortable with PMR, you can try a Mental Body Scan. As with PMR you can do a detailed body scan, or use a short form. Like before, begin at your feet and work up your body. This time, though, just mentally scan for tension. When you find tightness in your muscles, mentally release it. I like to visualize the tension floating away from my body, like steam, evaporating into the air.

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You can also imagine the tight muscle opening up, spreading a warm, heavy feeling as it releases all its tension. Then let this sensation spread slowly up your body. Scan every part of your body in as much detail as you have time for. For example, you can divide the face into scalp, forehead, eyes, nose, lips, cheeks, jaw and tongue or you can treat the face as a whole. Either way, make sure your jaw is loose and your teeth are apart, not clenched!

Mindful Walking

Another exercise that combines breathing and movement is Mindful Walking, which you can do it whenever and wherever you are walking. Start Abdominal Breathing with a 3 or a 5 count inhale and the same count for the exhale. Then count the number of evenly paced steps you take per inhale and per exhale, using only odd numbers for your count. This insures that you start each inhale on a different foot.

For 3-count walking, this means:

  • Inhale – left, right, left
  • Exhale – right, left, right.

A 5-count walk would be:

  • Inhale – left, right, left, right, left
  • Exhale – right, left, right, left, right.

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If you want to increase your relaxation, elongate your exhale and increase the number of steps per exhale. So, for example, you could inhale to a count of 3 and exhale to a count of 5 or inhale to a count of 5 and exhale to a count of 9 (remember to only use odd numbers and keep your steps steady and even).

If you want to energize yourself, increase the length of your inhalation and the number of steps per inhale while shortening your exhalation and the number of steps on each exhale. You could, for example, inhale to the count of 5 and exhale to the count of 3.

I find when I walk like this, I don’t get as tired or winded. I end my walk feeling more relaxed and centered as well as refreshed.

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Now you know some techniques that can help you circumvent your body’s stress response, reduce muscle tension and quiet your mind. This should help you get through each day feeling more positive emotionally and more relaxed and energized physically.

You shouldn’t have to get more stressed trying to find time for stress control. Do what you can when you can and you’ll find whatever you do, there will be definite benefits.

QUICK AND EASY STRESS CONTROL – PART 2

Last week, I talked about using controlled breathing to turn off the “Fight or Flight Response” in your body and minimize the harmful effects of stress on your body. You can build on that to reduce stress even more.

Manchaug June 2015

MIND AND BODY

Reducing stress requires mind and body relaxing together. Mental relaxation is probably harder for most people — for good reason. Most of us think all the time. More than 50,000 thoughts flash through your mind every day. Buddhists call this mindless internal monologue “Chatter” or “Monkey Mind”.

Photo credit: Huffington Post
Photo credit: Huffington Post

Most “chatter” is negative. Brooding on the past, self-criticism, worries, to-do lists, and so on. This stuff has a powerful effect on your body and psyche.

A thought is reality to your body.

Worrying releases the same destructive hormones that would be released if the worried-about event were really happening. The goal of all relaxation techniques is to anchor your mind in the present, to shut out anxiety and negative thoughts, most of which are locked into the past or future.

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An intense focus on “now”, including how you are breathing, can override “Chatter.” It will give your mind a mini vacation,  a brief, therapeutic — and probably much-needed — break.

Abdominal breathing is a form of meditation. It can help alleviate symptoms of ADD, reduce fidgeting and short attention span.

When you’re in a stressed breathing pattern, you can shift to abdominal breathing. This will pretty much instantly reduce tension, focus your mind, and increase your energy level. It do the same thing to your mind if you feel yourself going into a particularly toxic session of “Monkey Mind” negativity.

VISUALIZATION

Start taking slow, steady abdominal breaths until you feel your body relax. You can start a counting exercise as you breathe. Or you can go directly into a mini visualization, as follows:

  •  Imagine, with each inhalation, you’re breathing peace, calm, and well-being in to every part of your body. With each exhalation, imagine you’re blowing the tension and negativity out.
  • Try saying “peace in” each time you inhale — and “tension out” each time you exhale.

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  • Picture a giant wave of relaxation and tranquility pouring over you with each breath you take, soaking through your body from the top down as you complete inhaling and exhaling.
  • Feel the tension melt away from the muscles in your head and neck. Then feel it flow down your shoulders, arms, torso — finally your pelvis, legs and feet.
  • When a wave has saturated your body with relaxation, visualize another coming in with your next breath. You can add color and light to each wave — your favorite color or a bright light.
  • When you feel loose and mellow, refocus on your breath, then gradually transition back to your day.

It turns out that the process of learning stress control techniques can ease tension and anxiety.

Research shows that feeling helpless creates as much — or more — physiological damage as would the thing or event you fear. Feeling in control reduces stress. All by itself. If you know you can do something to help yourself cope, you won’t feel overwhelmed or helpless. Stress will have less control over you.

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An old but still relevant example is an Air Force study made during World War II. The study showed that co-pilots suffered from more stress during combat missions than pilots. Pilots were in control of the plane; co-pilots were not.

It’s reassuring to know that one of the reasons mind-body techniques work is that they enhance your sense of control over yourself — and therefore your life.

QUICK AND EASY STRESS CONTROL – PART 1

I was a Yoga teacher for eight years.

My training taught me a lot about the interrelationship between the mind and the body, on a physiological, scientifically explainable level. Using that knowledge, I compiled some quick and easy stress control techniques for my students I call “On The Go Stress Control”. These are small things you can do during your day to reduce stress and alleviate its negative consequences.

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STRESS AND YOUR BODY

Stress is a condition which causes psychological and physical damage. The most insidious and dangerous form of stress is the everyday kind. Traffic, being late, dealing with difficult situations, and other people. This kind of stuff bombards you constantly. The damage it causes is consistent and cumulative. Ironically, while there are no “quick fixes” for most things in life, there are quick fixes for stress-related symptoms. Called Relaxation Techniques, you can do them for a few minutes, any time, even during your most hectic days. These are easy to learn, pleasant to do, and are amazingly effective at curbing your body’s harmful reactions to stress.


There’s a saying, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” These techniques can allow you to surf in the often turbulent seas of life.

In this first piece, I’d like to concentrate on breathing, which is the simplest and most powerful of the relaxation techniques.

Breathing is important in two different ways. Breathing involves two different systems in your body – respiratory and the nervous systems. I’ll only talk about the latter here because most people already have a rudimentary understanding of the respiratory system.

Breathing forms a bridge between your body and mind. It’s the key to preventing or minimizing stress reactions. It acts as the messenger service by which the mind communicates with the body – and visa versa. Your breathing is the only thing you can consciously control which lets you turn off the stress response.

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When your mind perceives or even imagines a threat or impending stress — big or small — your breathing changes. It triggers what’s called the “Fight or Flight Response” which automatically releases over 1500 chemicals into your system to prepare you to fight for your life — or run like hell.

Heart and breathing rates increase dramatically, as does blood pressure, muscle tension, and the amount of cholesterol in your bloodstream, along with many other toxic reactions.

Constant stress slowly poisons you and over time, this wear and tear can injure almost every system in your body.

The problem is that this system evolved to protect early humans from infrequently real threats to life and limb. It doesn’t differentiate the more subtle stresses of modern life. The fight or flight response is on or off. There’s no dimmer switch to deal with the stressful but non life threatening situations which make up most of our lives.

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Rapid, shallow breathing triggers the alarm and initiates the survival mechanism of your body. Slow, deep breathing — called abdominal breathing — is the “all clear” signal. It turns off your body’s red alert and reverses the fight or flight sequence. It stops the release of stress hormones that initiate physical stress reactions.

When you learn to control your breathing, you also control your stress response.

Relaxation works on tension the way aspirin works on headaches. You can do breathing exercises (or other relaxation techniques) anywhere, anytime. You can do it while you’re stuck in traffic, waiting in line, sorting laundry, sitting in a dentist’s chair, or at your desk. The more practice, the more effective they are and the more relaxed you will be. You can use them to deal with a specific stressful situation more calmly and rationally — without being thrown into a panic state.

ABDOMINAL BREATHING

Breathe through your nose (unless I tell you otherwise).
Put one hand on your belly, one on your chest. Start by taking a take a slow, deep breath. Feel your belly rise, then as you breathe deeper, feel your chest rise.

Feel the breath going into your throat.

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As you exhale, reverse the process. Feel your chest falling, then your belly as you tighten your abdominal muscles and squeeze out that last bit of breath before you inhale again. It may take a while before this feels natural. This is the way you should be breathing all the time, to keep your system in equilibrium. Most people don’t, hence high stress levels.

COUNTING

After you’ve mastered abdominal breathing, you can go to the next level and add counting. You foster relaxation when your exhale is longer than your inhale. You energize yourself when your inhale is longer than your exhale. If you want to relax or stay calm, inhale to a slow count of 3, then exhale to a slow count of 6. Next, inhale to a slow count of 4, then exhale to a slow count of 8.Two to one is the best ratio for breathing.

Experiment until you find the count which works best for you. Continue doing it as long as you can — at least a few minutes.

If you find yourself getting sluggish during the day and need a pick-me-up, instead of grabbing an energy drink or another cup of coffee, get a shot of natural energy. Inhale to a slow count of 4, 6 or 8. Then expel your breath rapidly through your mouth, making a whooshing sound — or saying “Haaaa”. If you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, just do a quiet exhale to the count of 2, 3 or 4 while keeping the 2 to 1 ratio (if possible).

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Abdominal breathing is not only a stress relieving exercise. You can combine it with all the other forms of relaxation. It allows other techniques to work and can help you fall asleep, even if you have insomnia.

In subsequent pieces I’ll teach you other techniques, like Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Visualization, and Mindful Walking.