Marybeth Montoro says her entire body relaxed as she lay stretched out on a yoga mat for savasana, a relaxation pose, at Pure Prana Yoga Studio in Alexandria, while her yoga instructor guided the class through a breathing practice.
"That is where I first learned to meditate," said Montoro. "I was going through a stressful time. The teacher would guide us through it, teaching us how to meditate with our breath. At the end of class we did a clear mind meditation where you watched the thoughts float out of your mind like clouds."
The holiday season brings merriment and festivity, but it can also bring stress and fatigue. A study by the American Psychological Association showed that 61 percent of Americans experience stress frequently during the holidays, while 68 percent experience frequent fatigue. Mental health experts say meditation and restorative yoga can be effective methods for dealing with both.
"Meditation and restorative yoga is a good way to deal with and relieve the symptoms of stress, and I highly recommend it because it has a relaxing effect on the body," said Linda Gulyn, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Marymount University in Arlington.
However, she said, "It is important that people look at the root causes of stress. In the long-term you need to look at what’s wrong in your life."
Kathy Judd, a yoga instructor at 532Yoga in Alexandria, agrees that yoga is beneficial. "Because we are pulled in so many different directions during the holidays, we’re less likely to be nourishing ourselves, and we’re putting toxins in our body," she said. "Restorative yoga and meditation can allow us to come back to what we’re feeling and what we’re thinking."
Judd said her meditation practice consists of rolling out of bed and sitting for 10 minutes on a pillow or blanket, closing her eyes and watching her breath. "Meditation provides a buffer between something stressful happening and my reaction to it," she said. "A regular meditation practice helps me to witness all of the business like traffic, crowded holiday shopping, people fighting for parking spaces … like it is a really interesting television show."
Even a five-minute meditation is effective, especially if it is done repetitively in this way, said Sara Vandergoot, co-owner and director of yoga at Mind the Mat Yoga & Pilates in Alexandria and Arlington. "It can become habitual, like taking a shower. You don’t feel right unless you’ve done it. It is a cumulative effect of maintaining clarity and calm. That is why it is important to do it every day."
Vandergoot teaches private one-on-one meditation sessions and incorporates the practice into her yoga classes. "Studies have shown that [when] the mind quiets, the nervous system calms and that mental clarity is the result of the mind focusing on one thing," she said. "One technique of meditation is the focus on one mantra or affirmation such as ‘may I be happy.’ Another technique is focusing on the breath coming in and out of your nose or focusing on a single object like a candle flame."
One challenge that those just starting to meditate might face is an inability to control a wondering mind, said Vandergoot. "A tool to help beginners when your mind wanders is focusing on one object or mantra," she suggested. "Saying ‘ho-hum’ in your mind is good for beginners."
Vandergoot also focuses on restorative yoga, which "is generally done with props like blankets, blocks and bolsters. It is really calming and rejuvenating for the nervous system. If you’re tired in the afternoon and you’re thinking ‘I’d really like to take a nap,’ it is amazing that even 15 minutes of restorative yoga can make you feel rejuvenated and refreshed.
"It’s good to use props," she said, so the body is supported and isn’t straining. "The body lets go. It’s about releasing deep-seated tension in the body."
Yoga instructor Jill Minneman, a member of the board of directors at the Give Back Yoga Foundation, created a two-hour restorative yoga workshop, designed specifically for holiday-related stress. She guides students through a series of relaxation poses in a candle-lit room. "Stress is like garbage: It builds up and you have to get rid of it," she said. "Restorative yoga is designed to release stress through a variety of passive yoga postures, breathing and even some meditation to help release tension in the mind and body."