Lots of changes at our house lately. Pippa has finally figured out how to climb out of her crib. I guess I should be grateful—we had almost three years of blissful containment—but gratitude was eclipsed by exhaustion/frustration at 6 A.M. this morning when I heard the telltale click of her door opening, small feet padding along carpet, and felt her raggedy excited breath on my cheek. It’s hard to right a sinking ship, especially when you’re still half-asleep and grumpy, and I’ll spare you the gory details, but the morning got only more challenging. We were all too tired.
After dropping Pippa off at nursery school, I sat in the car in the driveway, not quite ready to go back into the house and face Maisy’s pinkeye, to nurse her and put her down for nap and get on with my day. That’s when I remembered the breathing exercises that my somatics coach Sylvie has been teaching me and trying to get me to remember to do during stressful situations. They’re really simple and you can do them anytime and anywhere, and they instantly ground you and help you find your breath. Problem is, I always get so caught up in the heat of the moment that I forget to take a minute to do them. So this is as much a reminder for me as it is a cheat sheet for stressed-out, anxious mamas everywhere.
Turn your head slowly
Start by turning your head look over your left shoulder. Very gradually and slowly, keep turning your head until your eyes are forward and continue on until your chin is pointing to your right shoulder. Then go back the way you came. The key is to do this as calmly as possible. If you’re like me, you’ll start swiveling slowly but then may accidentally speed up because you’re curious to see what’s over your right shoulder. Don’t. Slow down. Pretend like you’re doing this in your sleep, and that your head is floating lightly on your neck. Can you feel your breath deepen and quiet and slow down?
Seriously. Let your mouth hang open and your chin go slack. Tuck your chin slightly in toward your neck—this will trigger the familiar yawning sensation. Then just go with it. Open your mouth wide, close your eyes, and let the yawn come. If you’re really feeling it, stretch your arms above your head. Make whatever weird face you make when you yawn, whether it’s scrunching up your eyes or hunching your shoulders. It’s best to try this alone at first until you get the hang of yawning on command because it can be kind of embarrassing to let your mouth flap open in front of someone else (I still can’t yawn when Sylvie tells me to). We’ve been conditioned to think that yawning is the height of rudeness and should be hidden or suppressed, but it’s actually one of our body’s best ways of releasing stressful energy. Repeat as often as necessary.
Press your hands together
Hold your arms out in front of your body as though you are cradling a baby or carrying a bag of groceries. Press your palms together so that the fingers of your right hand pointing up and the fingers on your left hand are pointing down. Keep your back as straight as possible and push your palms together with as much force as you can muster. Don’t hold your breath, but feel it deepen and slow. Keep pressing until you’ve taken five or six long, deep breaths in a row.
Press your feet together
You can do this sitting or standing, but make sure your back is straight and your feet are flat on the ground. Press your feet hard into the ground; you’ll feel the muscles in your calves engage, but don’t hold your breath. Be aware of the balls of your feet making contact with the surface below you; then focus on your heels. Feel every part of your foot pressing into the ground. As you do, your breath will naturally slow down and become deeper.
Inhale, hold. Exhale, hold.
This one’s as simple as it sounds. Take a long, deep breath in and hold it at the top. Then exhale the same way and hold it briefly at the bottom. Repeat the series three times, or as many times as you need. I use this one when I wake up at 5 AM and my mind is racing and it seems impossible that I will ever go back to sleep. Some time later I wake up and realize that I did.
I sat in the car and pressed my hands together and remembered what Steve had said only 20 minutes earlier, when I was strapping Pippa into her car seat and still fuming from the scratch of her small fingers on my cheek. “Nothing’s so bad,” he said. “Nothing’s really so bad.” I don’t know why, but it made me feel better. They were simple, his words, just like these exercises. Try them and tell me what you think.