Om for the 'Olidays

By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Even if you happen to really enjoy the folks you're spending Thanksgiving with (and we know that's a big if), Thursday's food frenzy can be a big stress-fest.

Before you start hyperventilating -- or hitting the turkeytinis -- take a moment to breathe deep and absorb these pressure-relieving tips drawn from an ancient tradition in which green-bean casserole plays no part. Follow the advice of three area yoga teachers for maintaining calm this Thanksgiving, and you may actually find a few moments of bliss in the midst of chaos. Or at least maybe you'll avoid strangling your mother-in-law.

And don't worry: None of these suggestions involves twisting yourself into a knot, standing on one leg or even chanting "om."

Harness Your Breath

Breathing is a key component of yoga, and anyone can do it:

* "Wherever you are right now, take a seat," suggests Stair Calhoun of Little River Yoga in Alexandria. "Sit tall, close your eyes, roll your shoulders back and down and breathe. Not big, sighing 'I-don't-have-time-for-this' breaths, but slow, steady, even breaths through the nose. Relax. Soften physical tensions and calm your mind and emotions. The power of the breath will conserve the energy you need and calm you down."

* Susan Bowen of Thrive Yoga in Rockville recommends 10 repetitions of this breathing exercise, three times a day: Inhale for a count of 10, hold for three counts, and exhale for 10. Just concentrating on your breathing serves as a kind of meditation, she says.

* Where are you feeling stress? In your shoulders? Your belly? Your aching head? Bowen suggests focusing on that part of your body as you inhale. And when you exhale, imagine that you're emptying that pocket of stress. Sounds flakier than pie crust? Maybe. But it can't hurt to try, right?

* If your loudmouthed sister just won't shut up, let her blat on -- but concentrate on the flow of your own breath. "You're listening, paying attention, but you're not allowing your body to have a reaction because you're doing something else," Bowen says.

* Place your right hand on your belly and your left hand on your heart, suggests Debra Perlson-Mishalove, founder and director of Flow Yoga Center in the District. "Inhale directly into your belly, and notice it expand into your hand. Then let the breath enter your heart and chest," she says. "Exhale, releasing the breath first from your chest, and then from the belly. Pause and repeat."

* Perlson-Mishalove also suggests that you borrow your kitchen timer and find a place (even the car) to sit for five or 10 minutes, undisturbed. "Set the timer and close your eyes. Sit quietly. When thoughts enter your mind, instead of engaging in them, see if you can turn them into clouds and watch them drift away," she suggests. "As you sit, notice your breath and the path it takes as it moves in and out of your body."

Strike a Pose

These simple moves can help you relax, physically and mentally.

* Perlson-Mishalove recommends lying on your back and drawing your knees into your chest, wrapping your arms around your shins. Rock gently from side to side. Then, stretching arms out to form a "T" shape on the floor, and turning your head to the left, drop both knees over to the right, taking a twist. Stay here for three breaths. Switch sides. Come back to center and linger for a few moments. This move can also help you digest that big meal, she adds.

* Or try lying on the floor with your bottom pressing against a wall, your legs up the wall, says Bowen. Your lower back and tailbone should rest on the floor. Just 4 1/2 minutes of this will lower your blood pressure, she promises.

* Simply sitting and standing upright will lift your mood, Calhoun notes; slouching will bring you down. Stuck in traffic? Lengthen your exhalations, un-grit your teeth, soften your face and relax those shoulders.

Boost Compassion

Calhoun reminds us that, "from the yogic perspective, we are all 'divine.' [Okay, well, maybe not Uncle Fred.] A positive attitude will make a huge difference. Smile a soft 'everything-will-be-just-fine' smile, and picture yourself having fun.

"Give the people that care about you some time, and be 'present' for them," Calhoun continues. "Enjoy the moments; they pass way too quickly. And give Uncle Fred some of your undivided attention. Listen. You may find he has something interesting to say to you."

To generate compassion, both for yourself and for your mother-in-law, Bowen recommends a symbolic opening of the heart. Try bringing your hands behind you and interlacing your fingers. Gently lift your clasped hands as you bring your shoulders together, opening your chest wide. Hold for a few cycles of breath.

Take a Class

Some area studios -- including Bowen's, Calhoun's and Perlson-Mishalove's -- offer classes on Thanksgiving day. See if you can sneak away. Better yet, bring your guests along. Even Uncle Fred.

Thrive Yoga

8-9:15 a.m. Level 1 vinyasa flow (flowing postures plus rhythmic breathing); $20

9:30-11:30 a.m. Vinyasa flow and pranayama (guided breathing); $25

Preregistration recommended

1321 Rockville Pike, Rockville


Little River Yoga

8:15 a.m. Guided primary series practice for all levels

9:45 a.m. Deep relaxation

E-mail preregistration recommended; free

6399 Little River Tpk., Alexandria


Flow Yoga Center

10:30-11:45 a.m. "Om for the Holidays" flow (with "jazzed-up holiday favorite tunes") followed by restorative poses and guided meditation

Free; any donations go to Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in Poolesville

1450 P St. NW, Washington


Jennifer Huget is a yoga instructor and a regular contributor to the Health section.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company