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Stretch--and Breathe Deeply--to Banish Stress

July 08, 2002|KAREN VOIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Have you noticed that, when you're under pressure or frightened, your breathing and heart rate speed up? At first you might hold your breath, and then you'll take fast, shallow breaths; your blood pressure rises and your muscles tighten. It's an all too common reaction to everyday stress, whether physical or emotional. Because life is filled with so many of these tense moments, shallow breathing may have become second nature to you.

Unfortunately, short breaths don't provide enough oxygen to your muscles, which, in turn, causes more stress to the body. Over time, this self-perpetuating cycle zaps your energy, disrupts your concentration and taxes your nervous system.

Luckily, there's a healthier way to respond to stress. The first thing you need to do is to gain control over your breathing. Think about how many times you've heard someone say, "Now, take a deep breath and relax." Remember how this calmed you down so you were better able to deal with the situation at hand.

This may sound easy, but it takes practice to be able do it when it counts. Through deep, smooth breathing you can slow your heart rate and reduce anxiety. You'll feel more productive and energetic and better able to cope with whatever surprises come your way.

A good time to practice slowing down and breathing deeply is while we stretch. It makes stretching much more effective and enjoyable. And the more frequently we put our bodies in a relaxed state, the easier it is to stay focused and calm in stressful situations.

Here are two stretches that you can use to practice breathing and relaxing at the same time. In each of these positions, concentrate on the following breathing tips:

* Look downward or close your eyes.

* Keep your tongue soft and off the palate.

* Relax your jaw and unclench your teeth.

* When you inhale, think of pulling the air down toward your abdomen letting it expand, send the same inhalation into your rib cage, making it wider, and then into your upper chest. When you exhale, gently let the air move down your body, let your rib cage soften and relax as you flatten your abdomen pressing your navel toward the spine.

Sitting Side Bend

Sitting on a bench or a sturdy surface, turn your legs out to a 45-degree angle and place your feet under your knees. Raise your left arm straight up toward the ceiling and place your right arm in front of your right thigh. Begin with an inhalation as you sit as tall as you can.

On an exhalation, bend your torso to the right. Feel a deep stretch on the left side of your torso as you continue to bend. Make sure both hips stay level on the bench. Look down toward the floor but keep your chest facing front. Don't let your top shoulder roll forward. Stay in this position and breathe deeply for 15 to 20 seconds. Every time you breathe in, focus on lifting the top arm and expanding across your rib cage. On your exhalations, move the top shoulder farther away from your left hipbone, creating more length to the left side of your torso.

When you are ready to come out of this stretch, inhale and slowly move your body to an upright position. Lower your arm, exhale and relax. Repeat on the other side.

Kneeling Side Bend

With your torso upright, kneel on your left knee and extend your right leg to the side. Place your right hand on your right leg, just below the knee. Inhale and lift your left arm toward the ceiling.

On an exhalation, slowly bend your torso toward your right leg. As you do this stretch, keep your hips over your left knee instead of letting them move backward. Keep both your hip bones and shoulders facing front. Look down, and feel a deep stretch on the left side of your torso. Stay in this position for 15 to 20 seconds breathing deeply and fully.

On every inhalation, focus on lifting the top arm and expanding across your rib cage. On your exhalations, move the top shoulder farther away from your hipbone, creating more length to the left side of your torso.

When you are ready to come out of this stretch, inhale and slowly move your torso to an upright position. Lower your arm and relax. Repeat on the other side.

A relaxed mind and calm breathing can help you remain steady in spite of life's many demands. By taking the time to stretch, you can create an internal rhythm that will transfer to other aspects of your life. You'll go from being frazzled to being focused, with a sense of sanity that once might have eluded you.

Joan Voight, a San Francisco journalist, contributed to this column.

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Karen Voight is a Los Angeles-based fitness expert whose latest videos are "Pure and Simple Stretch" and "YogaSculpt." She can be reached at kvoightla@aol.com. Her column appears the second Monday of the month.

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