BY PAGE IVEY
This story originally appeared in USC Times
Simply paying attention to your breathing can reduce your stress, lower your heart rate and help you relax. But relaxation can also be achieved through swimming, yoga, gardening, meditation or a century-old process of understanding and adjusting the body’s movements. It all comes down to the same thing: being aware of stressors and taking steps to reduce them.
Lap it up
Breathing is a much more complicated process under water. Swimmers have to time their breaths with their strokes to maximize oxygen to the muscles without inhaling water. “When you’re immersed in water, you’ve completely changed your environment,” says Greg Carbone, geography professor. “You can’t see as well, you can’t hear as well, you completely escape what was causing the stress in the first place.” Carbone says he has been swimming since he started teaching at Carolina 26 years ago.
“It all started slowly,” he says. “Then I met someone who swims regularly. Now there’s a group of us who meet at lunch three or four days a week.“It’s a little competitive sometimes, but mostly, we are just present with one another and blow off some steam in the middle of the day. I’ve found that it gives me energy for those afternoon and evening hours at work.”
And, there is a bonus. For Carbone, stress is partly a matter of being separated from other people. “This group is socializing in a different context,” he says. “I think that’s why I come back feeling so refreshed.”
Activate the body, calm the mind
Jan Smoak, ’89 journalism, ’91 education, started taking a yoga class at the Blatt P.E. Center in 1998 when she started working at Carolina.
“Yoga was making a rebirth in America at the time and I was hearing about movie stars doing it,” says Smoak, associate director of the Office of Fellowships and Scholar Programs. “So I started taking the class for exercise.”
Smoak, who now teaches classes at City Yoga during the week and offers students free classes at the Honors College residence hall during the school year, says yoga’s benefits for stress reduction and relaxation are well documented.
“What yoga does is to help connect your mind and body to reduce the activity in your brain,” Smoak says. “You activate your body in certain ways to calm the mind.”
There is even a relaxation pose that calls for participants to focus on breathing and release the tension from every muscle.
“It’s a skill as much as anything to focus on your breathing,” she says. “You focus your mind to settle it down.”
Get your hands dirty
By day, Carolina Gamble advises students in the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management and prepares certifications for student-athletes in the sport management program. Evenings and weekends, she tends to her fruit and veggie garden.
“It started when I was pretty young, when I lived with my parents,” Gamble says. “My mother was definitely a gardener, she always planted vegetables every year. She still does. I was always the one who was out in the yard helping her.”
Even when she can’t get outside, she is working on her garden, starting her watermelon plants from seeds.
“That is something my dad taught me,” she says. “I’ll buy the seeds, and then I’ll soak them overnight in water. Then I will place them in a Ziploc bag for a few days. When they start to germinate, I’ll place them in these small pots inside the house. When they get to be a certain size, I’ll put them in the yard.”
This year, in addition to watermelon, Gamble’s garden is filled with cucumbers, sweet potatoes, cantaloupes and a couple of fruit trees: “Sometimes with my vegetables, I’ll have too many, so I’ll freeze a lot of them, or sometimes I’ll just give them to neighbors and friends.”
Like most good Southern gardeners, Gamble is out her yard in a big floppy hat, but she doesn’t wear gloves. “Just being outside, enjoying the weather, enjoying my back yard, getting my hands dirty and seeing the results afterwards — it’s not only relaxing,” she says, “but it’s rewarding to know that you planted that.”
Achieve balance through movement
In the early 20th century, an Australian stage performer named Frederick Matthias Alexander began to notice that he was losing his voice during performances, but doctors could find no physical cause.
Alexander suspected it was something he was doing differently that was causing the voice failure. So he began to watch his actions and motions in a mirror and discovered that he was tensing his body whenever he began a long speech. He developed a method to “unlearn” this negative behavior and to get back to the balance he was born with. His voice recovered completely.
The Alexander technique, as the method is now known, is taught today mostly to musicians and other performers, but music professor emeritus Laury Christie says it can be used to improve body function in any activity — and that reduces stress.
“We are helping people help themselves, to return to an ease and freedom of movement,” she says.
Rebecca Hunter, who also teaches the Alexander technique at Caro-lina, works with another process called “body mapping” that shows the proper movement and positioning for certain activities.
“It’s not yoga, but it is about movement,” Hunter says. “It’s an educational tool. It shows you the difference between how you think you’re moving and what you’re really doing.”
People often look to the technique when they experience pain doing something they have done for a long time. But many are looking for more efficient movement.
“The key is to be using only those muscles that you need to be using,” Christie says.
Eliminating the imbalance created by the unnecessary movement reduces tension and stress. As an example, she usually starts by having a student show her how he answers a phone call. “Most people will move their head forward to meet their arm bringing the cell phone to their ear,” she says. “But really, your head should stay still and your arm should bring the phone to you.”
“We need to give ourselves permission to just stop for a moment,” says Student Health Services director for wellness, prevention and advocacy Marguerite O’Brien. “It isn’t about controlling the thoughts in our mind, but not letting your thoughts control you. It’s all about letting things go.”
O’Brien, ’85 international studies, ’98 master’s in social work, got interested in meditation after years of practicing yoga and after talking with friends who did it.
“For me, it also has that spiritual element as I try to get connected to my purpose in life,” she says. “But it’s also about being attuned to whatever we’re doing at that moment.”
O’Brien says our society praises multitasking even though research is showing that trying to do too many things at once means not doing anything particularly well. Meditation is about observing all those different thoughts without actually latching onto any one. “If we can focus our mind and attention in a meditation session, we can do it more easily out in the real world,” she says.
O’Brien teaches the practice of meditation once a month during the regular school year in sessions called Wind Down Wednesday. She starts the 45-minute session with breathing exercises, then guides participants in a meditation to help them let go of the thoughts that might be causing them stress. The classes are open to all students, faculty and staff.
O’Brien says she meditates daily for about 20 minutes at a time.
“You don’t want to make it a chore or task you have to complete,” she says. “If you can’t do 20 minutes, start out with three minutes or five, any time you can get.”