Not all the heavy breathing on the Internet comes from sites you don't want your kids to see. Some is prompted by sites you'd rather keep from your boss and co-workers.
Dozens of online meditation and relaxation Web sites promise frazzled souls relief from the daily grind, provided right at the desktop. They offer at-the-click-of-a-mouse escapes to nature (or its simulated sights and sounds) and desk-chair exercises (deep breathing, meditation and yoga) aimed at restoring that sense of well-being you lost at the fax machine.
But isn't it counterproductive to try relaxing in front of the same computer on which you've been working all day?
"Not necessarily," says physician Martha Howard, an online presence at a leading relaxation site and director of the Wellness Associates of Chicago, a center that combines Western and non-Western approaches to health and medicine. Howard explains that people tend to hold their breath while working and concentrating, becoming tense and tight, robbing brain and body tissue of oxygen. "Taking a break to do deep-breathing exercises, like those demonstrated online, could actually increase productivity," she says. Convincing your boss may be another matter.
Howard, along with 22 other medical practitioners including wellness gurus Andrew Weill and Bernie Siegel, doles out soothing advice at Desktopspa, a mega-site for meditation and relaxation, guided imagery, breathwork and yoga.
Filling Howard's prescription, I decided to log on and zone out. Here's what I experienced at six sites, including Desktopspa.com and some of its smaller cousins. A note: While all the reviewed sites are free, several aspire to become subscription services paid for by employers. All have links to commercial products.
* Desktopspa (www.desktopspa.com) A newcomer to the expansive site, I am invited to answer a questionnaire to help identify my work-related hazards, like eye strain, stress and wrist and hand pain. As a writer, sitting and typing at the computer for long periods is a way of life for me. My personalized program, crafted from questionnaire responses, returns a full range of audio-visual remedies promising to help me feel "more energized, balanced and, most important, happy at work."
Desktopspa recommends I try five "treatments" for energy and concentration, three for eye strain and easily a dozen more for neck, shoulder, back, head and general health issues. I clearly need lots of work.
Treatment recommendations include acupressure, guided imagery, yoga, meditation and relaxation, presented by 14 practitioners in short video or audio segments. Cyndi Lee's "Yoga for Tense Shoulders" intrigues me. With a click, Lee, director of the Om Yoga Center in New York, pops cheerfully on-screen and then warns me of something dire she calls "phone and monitor neck." I am quickly convinced I have both.
Lee invites me to follow along as she rotates her shoulders in "big juicy circles." Then she folds her arms behind her head and begins to inhale and exhale deeply, all the while rolling her shoulders forward and back.
For the next two minutes and 40 seconds I try to replicate Lee's motions, until I have my arms crossed in front of me and I am rotating from the waist in large circles, my head bouncing like a bobblehead doll's. After the exercise, my shoulders and neck feel looser, warmer. But I was glad I was doing this in my home office.
Desktopspa visitors are invited to tour a demo of treatments or register free (by typing "guest" at the password prompt), which allows you to schedule "spa time" -- an e-mail reminder 10 minutes before it's time to log on -- and send a "well-o-gram" e-mail, directing friends to your favorite treatment site.
* Canyon Ranch (www.canyonranch.com/spa_experience) Can't find the time or funds to steal away to any of the exclusive Canyon Ranch Spa locations? You can have a virtual Canyon Ranch come to you.
The shortest of the seven guided meditations offered by the site's meditation room to "soothe my soul" is a three-minute, 40 second combination of breathing instructions -- "exhaling tension" -- and guided visualization to help me find my "inner retreat." I am instructed to find a place in my mind that soothed and calmed me, a place where I could simply "let go and let be." I was so relaxed by this shorter mediation that I was hesitant to try to the 12-minute versions (one a progressive full-body relaxation), worried they would leave me in a stupor at my desk.
* My Daily Yoga (www.mydailyyoga.com) Yoga instructor Ellen Serber demonstrates 14 poses to help alleviate stress and get the circulation going. With simple graphics and text descriptions, her tiny animated double demonstrates how to move the head from side to side or shake out tension from arms and wrists. Serber offers RSI yoga, for repetitive stress injuries, and everyday desk yoga, with a few poses that actually called for me to leave my chair for standing and wall stretches.
* Grace Cathedral (www.gracecathedral.org) Seeking mind relaxation in a more spiritual context, I let my fingers do the walking through the on-screen labyrinth at Grace Cathedral. Using my mouse, I slowly and mindfully negotiated the circular maze, a replica of the pattern on the floor of the Chartres cathedral in France. As I went, I tried (per instructions) to empty my mind and relax, concentrating only on the path in front of me. The problem is that the graphics on this "finger meditation" look a bit like a video game. I had to remind myself several times that "solving" the maze is not the point.
* Unwind (www.unwind.com). If you prefer to have your meditation and relaxation served up in the great outdoors, Unwind might fool your senses -- or remind you what you're missing. No guided meditation here, just nature sounds and slide show graphics along five themed options -- "whispering waterfalls, soothing seas, meditation mountains, relaxing places and serene skies." Featured photographs are from popular travel destinations around the world; the unspoiled vistas of Thailand beach sunsets were beguiling.
* Beliefnet (www.beliefnet.com) A one-stop mart for spirituality and world religions, this site offers almost a dozen guided meditations, including one for teens -- "how to chill the Buddhist way." After a hard day of relaxing online, I found "A Moment of Calm," the 10-minute Buddhist mindfulness meditation led by Tara Branch, a good way to cool down, leaving me calm and refreshed and ready to call it a day.
Wendi Kaufman is a Washington area freelance writer.