4 Calmer Ways to Take A Break From the Everyday Hustle

4 Calmer Ways to Take A Break From the Everyday Hustle

Words by Celeste Goh
  • A recent survey shows that 1-in-10 Malaysian employees are going through anxiety or depression
  • The always-on, always-connected lifestyle is the main contributor to this high number
  • Breathing exercises and yoga can help detach from the digital world
  • Meditation and enough sleep are proven restorative methods for mental health

As the year 2020 draws to a close in the next few weeks, we would say that it is perfectly normal if you feel a little heavy in the head; modern urban life is stressful as it is, even without the ongoing pandemic that has so rashly entered our lives this year.

Last year, Malaysia’s Healthiest Workplace by AIA Vitality, the first science-backed survey commissioned by AIA, has shown that out of the 17,595 employees polled, with the bulk of them aged 18 to 40: 51% of them suffer from work-related stress, whereas 53% of them get less than seven hours of sleep each night. On top of that, 7% of them experience moderate to high levels of anxiety or depressive symptoms – that’s one out of 10 Malaysian employees going through anxiety or depression, with most of them being millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996).

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The American Psychological Association has revealed in their annual survey that millennials in the US were the most stressed-out generation, as CEO of SuperFriend Margo Lydon confirms: “Traditionally, work-related challenges for young people were often about building careers, and this is no different from any other generation. Except that, in 2020, we have a more globally connected world that is moving at a much faster pace, with greater levels of social, political and economic uncertainty, plus increased expectations of productivity, which often mean longer hours and increased work stress.”

Not only that, Dato’ Dr Andrew Mohanraj, President of the Malaysian Mental Health Association concurs that millennials are also synonymous with the digital boom: “Being more connected and, ironically, more isolated from the real world, being exposed to cyber bullying, with little opportunity for real interaction, or having limited actual interactions – all these have a negative impact on one’s ability to handle stressful situations.” 

“What is ordinarily not deemed to be stressful may seem like a psychologically overwhelming situation to millennials, who are immersed in the digital world,” he adds. “Burnout and depressive symptoms are not issues that can be taken lightly, as they may lead to more serious issues, such as suicidal behaviour.”

“We need to check in with ourselves periodically to find out how we are doing,” says April Kuan, yoga instructor and wellness practitioner. “We don’t pause enough. We’re always so busy constantly, and we’re always up in our heads thinking: what we need to do the next day, or in the next hour; what we haven’t done yet, or what we’re falling behind on; or what we did yesterday that we shouldn’t have done… We’re always constantly thinking, thinking, thinking – and when you’re thinking too much, that’s when you get stressed.”

That’s why this week, we’re checking in with April again, to find out the subtler ways to take a break from the everyday hustle – to stop whatever we are doing even just for a minute or two, to #lookup and enjoy where you are, and be conscious of where you are, even if it’s within the confines of your own home!

“While it is sometimes daunting to have to always constantly work at trying to be happy, it’s a practice that we have to just keep doing it every day diligently, and understand that this is part and parcel of taking care of ourselves,” April adds. 

“It’s like what the late Micheal Jackson said: look into the man in the mirror first, before you can change. If you’re not good in here, your life outwards will never be good, and the easiest way to change your life is to change yourself, because you know yourself the best.”

Breathe

That’s it, folks – just breathe! While it’s an everyday, autonomous occurrence to us, we don’t actually pay attention to our breathing – mainly because it’s automatic to any living being. In fact, even though it’s the easiest thing to do, not a lot of people want to do just that, putting aside some time to just breathe.

“When we actually sit down, close our eyes, and really just focus on breathing, it actually makes a whole lot of difference,” April says. “Just that pause at the end of the day is enough – take a few breaths, and not think about work for a while. When you come back to it, you will find that you are calmer.”

India Times have reported that “breathing correctly is important for your overall well being, and by taking just a few moments each day to practise some deep breathing exercises can decrease stress, relax your mind, body and can help you sleep better.”

From improving your blood flow, body immunity and digestion; to reducing inflammation, stimulating the lymphatic system, and detoxifying the body – deep breathing relaxes the mind and body, as well as calms down anxiety: “When you are angry, tensed or scared, your muscles are tightened and your breathing becomes shallow. Your breathing constricts, and your body cannot get the amount of oxygen it requires,” India Times says. “Deep breathing reverses this process, and it slows down your heart rate, allowing the body to take in more oxygen, and ultimately signals the brain to wind down.”

Practise Restorative Yoga

Besides the physical benefits of practising yoga, which April has shown us last week, she also mentions that “the real reason for practising yoga is to prepare the body for meditation.”

Meghan Johnston of Yoga Medicine has also said that “restorative yoga not only allows us to relearn the art of relaxation, while developing the skills and abilities to self-soothe, but also enhances our healing capacity through helping us regulate the stress response and re-balance the nervous system.”

Johnston states that restorative yoga can help strengthen our ability to move between states of stress and rest with more ease, by reconnecting with our parasympathetic nervous system – a branch of our autonomic nervous system that controls involuntary functions in the body, like our heart rate. 

She adds: “When we are in states of stress, or what is often termed “fight or flight,” we are in an elevated sympathetic state. In contrast, during periods of rest and recovery, we are in an elevated parasympathetic state.”

One of the restorative yoga poses you may look into is the Legs Up the Wall Pose (Viparita Karani), which as the name implies, you lie on the ground with your legs up on the wall for about 10 to 15 minutes. You may have a pillow underneath your lower body for additional support, or open up the hips by opening and closing your legs.

“If you just have too much in your head, and you just need to calm down, anything that gets your legs higher than your head is recommended for anyone feeling overwhelmed with stress,” April says. 

On the other hand, the Child’s Pose (Balasana) is another restorative yoga pose you may try out: from a kneeling position, bring the forehead to the floor, and relax the arms alongside the body, with the palms facing upwards.

“When you feel overwhelmed or stressed, anything that brings your head down to the floor and falls you forward to your body is very restorative, and very grounding,” April says. “It’s like you’re bringing yourself inwards, almost into a fetal position, where you’re getting in touch with yourself, and connecting back with yourself.”

Meditate

While we’re not talking about achieving monk-like nirvana, April states that meditation is the simple act of observing your thoughts: “When you observe your thoughts, you get to sift through the mental haze. You’d then get more clarity, and you’d feel more grounded.”

“Our brains are capable of thinking all kinds of things, and we are human beings that feel. We can’t escape from feeling, and we need to understand that it’s all part of the human condition, and we should not beat ourselves up about it,” she says. “What we can do is to accept these thoughts and feelings as clouds; we just need to go through them when they come, and then let them go.”

Mayo Clinic has also stated that “meditation is considered a type of mind-body complementary medicine. During meditation, you focus your attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing stress. This process may result in enhanced physical and emotional wellbeing.”

Sounds like a bunch of new age mumbo jumbo thus far? Well, Gaëlle Desbordes, an instructor in radiology at Harvard Medical School (HMS), and a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging has looked into the science of mindfulness-based meditation, and in 2012 Desbordes has discovered “changes in brain activity in subjects who have learned to meditate hold steady even when they’re not meditating.”

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The functional MRI scan reveals the activation in the amygdala – a collection of cells near the base of the brain that is key to how we process strong emotions like fear and pleasure. The imagery on the left is when participants were watching images with emotional content before learning meditation; whereas the imagery on the right shows the amygdala is less activated after eight weeks of meditation training.

Not only that, meditation may also help manage symptoms of certain medical conditions, such as asthma, cancer, chronic pain, heart disease, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome and tension headaches. The National Library of Medicine has found that meditation is associated with decreased pain, helps reduce blood pressure, and even helps with alcohol addiction and other treatments for alcohol use disorder.

If All Else Fails, Nap

Now that most of us are working from home, it can be rather convenient to slip in some nap time, when the going gets tough during the daily grind. 

“Napping is a form of recharging. If you’re tired or mentally drained, and your body’s telling you that it’s too much now, and you need to shut down everything – napping is obviously good, and when you wake up, you feel recharged, because your body heals when it’s in a resting state,” April says. 

“When we’re in our waking consciousness, we’re in the Beta stage, whereas when we’re in a very relaxed state, we’re in the Alpha stage, and that’s when the body heals best,” she continues. “That’s why when we go on a holiday, we feel rejuvenated, and we feel great again, because we’re in a relaxed state. We want to always stay in this stage as much as possible, even in our everyday life.”

While it is known that adults should have 7-9 hours of sleep each night, (8-10 hours for teenagers, 9-11 hours for 6 to 13-year-olds, and 10-13 hours for preschoolers), The Sleep Foundation has also found that napping during the day diminishes homeostatic sleep drive, the technical term for “the feeling of pressure to sleep”.

They explain: “It is synonymous with the hunger we feel for food the longer it is after our last meal. When we wake up from a good night’s sleep, your homeostatic sleep drive is low. The pressure slowly increases throughout the day until bedtime, when we feel sleepy. Sleeping at night decreases sleep pressure, and then the cycle begins again the next day.”

That being said, we should also be careful not to “overnap”, as we might be prone to sleep inertia (the feeling of grogginess and disorientation after waking up from a nap), and sleeping problems at night, especially for those experiencing insomnia or poor sleep quality at night. Not to mention, missing out on an important video meeting with the higher-ups!

So, if you’re planning to take a break from the everyday hustle by napping, make sure you keep them to only 10 to 20 minutes, and before 3PM; napping any longer or later than the aforementioned may interfere with nighttime sleep. As we all know, insufficient sleep at night can lead to more serious repercussions, such as short attention lapses, reduced cognition, delayed reactions and mood shifts.

3 Simple Yoga Poses to Help Counter the Sedentary Lifestyle in the Digital Age

3 Simple Yoga Poses to Help Counter the Sedentary Lifestyle in the Digital Age

Words by Celeste Goh

Malaysia is currently in the midst of its second imposed Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO), in its effort to combat the rising COVID-19 cases during the second wave of the pandemic. Most schools and offices remain closed to encourage students and employees to practise social distancing and stop the potential spread of the virus, as recreational parks and sports centres have shut down under governmental order to have people stay at home. 

After close to nine months of self-quarantine at home, you may begin to feel aches and pains on your body that you may not experience before. Once, we were allowed the time for lunch breaks and recess outside of the office and classrooms, as well as the weekly workout sessions at the gym and strolls in the neighbourhood park. Now, they are replaced with unchecked long hours in front of your computer, whether it’s for work, for school, or for leisure – part and parcel of the “new normal” we are forced into, although not one that we should get used to.

“When I was in publishing, I would work long hours. I’d be in front of the computer working 12 hours a day, go home, and then come back the next day, and do the same thing – there was zero work life balance,” shares April Kuan, a yoga instructor who was a magazine editor in her past life. “At that time, you didn’t think about anything else: this is part and parcel of life, and that was it, just chasing the career and the money.”

“Nowadays, I can’t even look at my phone too long, never mind sitting in front of my computer for too long. While I’m on Facebook and Instagram, I only post very rarely, maybe once or twice a week, at most, twice a week,” she adds. “Any more than that, my body will reject the screen time, and I’ll start to get aches and brain fog with sudden headaches.”

Even before the pandemic, we are guilty of spending long hours in front of our computers and lazing on our couch strolling through our mobile devices, which contributes to the distasteful body postures Gerard Malanga, MD of Spine Universe calls the “sitting disease”. According to a 2012 study from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, as many as 70% of people spend 6 or more hours each day sitting down; and the impact of this level of inactivity often leads to neck, shoulder and back pain, which about 1 in 4 adults has experienced at least for a day during a 3-month period.

Meanwhile, studies have shown that there is a 65.3% overall prevalence of incorrect posture in children and adolescents; with the girls and students over the age of 10 having a higher prevalence of incorrect posture than boys and students under the age of 10. Nearly 80% of children and adolescents were reported to have at least one sign of incorrect postures, with less than a fifth of them having a correct body posture.

April shares: “I teach private yoga classes with a friend of mine, and she has two kids. Her 14-year-old daughter has very bad Scoliosis; it’s the curvature of the spine, and it’s super rounded. She’s been like this since young, and when you’re always looking down at your phone, the next thing you know, your back is used to the roundedness, and it’s very tough to keep it straight anymore.”

“While the daughter is all about Instagram and Tik Tok, her 6-year-old son is about gaming, so he’s always on his iPad playing games,” she continues. “When we want to do family yoga with the children, the son just doesn’t want to. He’d start acting up, and throwing tantrums, because we’re pulling him away from his iPad.”

For adults, years of unchecked slouching can already wear away your spine, making it more fragile and prone to injury; imagine the long-term repercussions it will have for children and adolescents, whose physical bodies have yet to settle and are still growing!

Children and adolescents are susceptible to postural alignments that deviate from a good neutral posture, such as Kyphosis, Lordosis, sway back and flat back postures. If not straightened out, they will be more prone to cardiovascular disease, certain cancers (breast, colon, colorectal, endometrial, and epithelial ovarian), and type 2 diabetes later in life.

Moreover, an extremely hunched posture, or hyperkyphosis, affects up to two-thirds of senior women and half of senior men. Such postural alignment, if not treated, has been associated with back pain, weakness and trouble breathing; and more serious cases can limit everyday activities, like brushing your hair and dressing yourself.

“One way to improve your posture is to be aware of it in the first place. It’s important to take a look at your posture before it becomes a problem,” says Dr. Cris Zampieri, physical therapist at News in Health. “Yoga, tai chi and other types of classes that focus on body awareness and mindfulness can help you learn to feel what’s wrong in your own posture.”

So, we have sought after yoga instructor April Kuan’s advice for some simple yoga poses to help counter the sedentary lifestyle that is prone to the “sitting disease – especially at a time when we are not allowed to head to the gym and parks for our regular exercises, but also something that we can practise at home, even after the pandemic has passed.

what they recommend is six times a week, and then rest one day. But, I think for me, for normal people, three times a week is good enough to see changes in your body. Obviously, the more you practise something, the better you are at it. So, it’s the same with any kind of exercise. You see that changes faster.

“When you’re age 7 onwards is the best time to start yoga. It’s like when parents send their kids to ballet at a young age, and they’re flexible their whole life – it’s the same thing with yoga,” says April, who also thinks that practising yoga three times a week is already good enough to see changes in your body. “It’s also never too late to start yoga, even if you’re 55. I mean, I started when I was in my late 30s!”

Cat-Cow Pose (Chakravakasana)

“Spending much of your day in a seated position can leave your spine sore, stiff, and in pain,” notes Gerard Malanga, MD of Spine Universe. “That’s because too much sitting, while it may be relaxing, puts stress on the muscles and discs of your back and neck.”

April adds that “sitting up straight for long hours is not easy – it’s very tiring. You start to get a backache, and you start to round your spine after you feel tired holding your body up.”

Slouching can cause the spinal ligaments to stretch beyond their healthy limit, and poor posture can strain your spinal discs,” Malanga also adds. “This often results in increased strain of the outer annulus of the disc and can increase disc bulging and disc pressures.”

The Cat-Cow Pose is a very basic yoga pose regular yogi does for warm up. It’s a spinal articulation move that opens up the chest and gets the spine moving in all directions. Not only that, the Cat-Cow Pose builds confidence, which affects one’s mental health, as Drs Zampieri states that “someone with depression may appear more closed in, curved, and tend to look down.”

“The energy centre comes from the heart, and it releases dopamine that makes you feel happier,” April says. “So, any pose that opens up the chest will in turn open up the heart, creating a more joyful and positive feeling.”

Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvāṅgāsana)

When we get tired of holding our body up while sitting, we may find ourselves leaning against the back of the chair, but before we know it, hours have passed as we stay in that presumably comfortable position, and we have slid further down the chair. We will have developed a posterior tilt unwittingly, whereby the front of the pelvis rises, and the back of the pelvis drops, creating a kind of scooped body posture.

“Such a body posture contributes to lower back pain, and a lot of people [with a desk job] suffer from that,” April says. “Lower back pain happens when we don’t have enough core strength to pull ourselves up and sit straight.”

The Bridge Pose is really good for lower back issues, as it helps lengthen the front body, and also the back body. Those who already suffer lower back issues, but may or not be aware of it, maye have trouble performing this pose. But April suggests a restorative pose in which the lower back is supported with piled up pillows while you stay in the Bridge Pose. Whereas for the ones with a healthier lower back may opt to move up and down while in the Bridge Pose.

Pigeon Pose (Kapotasana)

Another part of the body that has suffered due to the “sitting disease” is the hip flexors, the muscles near the top of your thighs that are key in the movement of the lower body. 

“The [sitting] position results in tightness of your hip flexors, such as the iliopsoas muscle, and pressure and ischemia (restricted blood flow) of your buttock muscles – the gluteus maximus. This muscle is an important supporter of the spine,” Malanga notes. 

In more layman terms, April mentions: “The front thigh muscles shorten and your hips start to get tight when you sit for long periods, and you want to counter that by doing yoga poses that stretch the legs to the back, so it lengthens the front thigh muscles, and also get the quads and hip flexors working.

The Pigeon Pose does just that, as it opens up the knees and hips, and helps lose the tightness in your hips, which contribute to lower back issues.