Do-Anywhere Grounding Techniques To Fight Stress & Bolster Your Immune System (Because Winter Is Coming)
The same way animals prepare for winter by stocking up on on everything they’ll need to stay healthy, we should prepare for this quiet, reflective season by nourishing our roots and building our inner resources. As the seasons change and the leaves fall, reconnect to the earth by doing some grounding work to help you preserve your energy and keep your immune system healthy. Come winter, you’ll be glad you did.
As simple and intuitive as staying grounded sounds, it doesn’t come as naturally to us as it does to other animals. It took three major health crises and a severe panic attack before I learned what it meant to be grounded—even to be present.
The only girl in a family of boys, I felt that in order to be seen and to get approval, I had to succeed in measurable ways. I had to bring home the best grades, get the best position on the team, get the best job. I didn’t think who I was would be enough.
My first priority, always, was to feel valuable. I felt valued when I worked, so I just worked more—more jobs, more assignments, more promotions.
At 23, I ran my first 5-mile race—having never run 5 miles before in my life. Immediately afterward, someone said to me, "You should run a marathon." Five months later, my boss happened to have an extra spot in the New York City Marathon, and, in a moment of misplaced enthusiasm, I took it.
Because I had cultivated a mind-over-matter attitude, I was actually able to cross the finish line. But then I was sick for a year. I had pushed myself too much, although I didn’t make that connection at the time.
My first child suffered health issues, and I didn’t sleep through the night for several years. When my son was 3 years old, I began having seizures that no one could diagnose. It didn’t occur to me (or to my doctors) that my body was simply breaking down because I was constantly pushing myself past the point of endurance, never letting myself actually rest.
I loved my job. I loved to feel physically capable. I loved being a mother. And because I was "good" at it all, I thought I was supposed to do more of it.
During each of my three health crises—a yearlong bout with chronic fatigue following the marathon; a series of panic attacks after the death of a family member; and a complete physical breakdown after spending years in a state of sleep deprivation—I felt as if the ground had crumbled beneath me. I was a strong, can-do person—and then, suddenly, I wasn’t.
I now have reverence for my burnout, my anxiety, and the way that I just completely fell apart. These trials became my teachers. Eventually, they forced me to ask, "Why am I always pushing so hard?"
We are zippers.
My favorite description of how hard we’re always working comes from True Refuge by psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach.* She says, "It’s like we’re in a motorboat noisily zipping around, trying to find a place that is quiet, peaceful, and still. We’re solving a problem, responding to demands, preparing for what’s next, improving ourselves. But we’re just making more waves and noise wherever we go. It counters all our ambitious conditioning, but true freedom comes when we throttle back the motor and come naturally to stillness.”
We’ve become a society of zippers. Whether it’s our endless to-do list or the feeling that we have to "get it right," we feel pushed and pulled all the time. For most of our lives, we’ve gotten the message that we have to get ahead—from our parents, from our teachers, and from the media. Even when most of us "try" to relax, we go about it in a zealous, goal-oriented way. I am as guilty of this as anyone.
When I first discovered yoga, I felt the need to take classes seven days a week every day for three years. Then I signed up for teacher training. All my efforts to relax and be still had somehow turned into another attempt to be better.
We let ourselves believe that if we slow down long enough to take a breath, we will be failing. We will miss out on something. We will be less than. So, we’re constantly pushing ourselves past the point of intuition, reason, and wellness.
Our relationship with the ground.
As we grow up, we tend to forget what it’s like to have a relationship with the ground. As babies, we learn to roll from our backs to our bellies. We teach ourselves slowly and deliberately to move in relationship with the ground. They press and push and partner with the ground to get the support they need to take the next step.
When we’re really grounded, we feel supported. Then, instead of constantly zipping around, trying to find somewhere we feel steady, stable, secure, we can pause, reconnect with ourselves, assess our internal balance, and then make decisions based on what we actually need.
When we’re calm, our brains turn on the prefrontal cortex—the part of our brains responsible for big-picture thinking—and we naturally begin making decisions that better serve us. When we learn to be supported by the ground, we can live in a completely different way. We become more available to ourselves and the people we love.
An exercise to ground yourself (lying down).
Lie down on the earth in a comfortable position.
Scan your body and notice all the places you are making contact with the earth.
On each exhale, feel your weight drop further into the ground.
Let the earth hold you.
Scan your body again—from the top of your head to the tips of your toes—and notice any part of your body that is clenching, gripping, tightening.
With every inhale, bring attention to one of those tightened body parts and release the tension there.
Breathe into your shoulders, your back, your toes, and allow them to soften.
Scan your body a third time and check to see if that tension has returned or migrated. If so, soften again.
Repeat this process as many times as you need to in order to feel fully relaxed and supported.
Now, bring your attention to the sensation of being fully supported.
Memorize the sensation of being so relaxed, so assured of the ground’s support, that you can let go completely.
Stay here as long as you like, and come back to this practice anytime you find yourself retreating, hunching over yourself in a self-protective posture, or clenching any part of your body in response to stress.
An exercise to ground yourself (standing up).
Come to a relaxed standing position and imagine a 10-pound bag of sand on your head. Take a deep inhale.
On your exhale, let that heaviness flow from your head to your neck and down into shoulders. Welcome your inhale.
On your next exhale, feel the sand drain from your shoulders through your torso all the way to your pelvis. Your inhale expands you.
On your third exhale, allow the sand to drain into your legs and feet. Feel the lightness of your whole torso on your next inhale.
On your final exhale, notice the weight of your feet sinking into the earth, expanding into their prints. Let your inhale inflate your light, unburdened upper body.
Move your body a bit to feel that sense of relaxation, and begin to allow the earth to carry you as you slowly shift your awareness into the space around you and move on to the next part of your day.
The following is an adapted excerpt from Deep Listening: A Healing Practice to Calm Your Body, Clear Your Mind, and Open Your Heart (Rodale, October 2017), by Jillian Pransky. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.