Stay centered behind the wheel with principles of yoga
I didn’t realize what a daily workout my car horn got until it temporarily stopped working and my futile pounding on the steering wheel failed to relay my impatience and ire to nearby motorists.
Which is why I was impressed at the minimal honking heard on a visit last week to car-clogged Los Angeles – recently ranked by analytics firm INRIX as the most traffic-congested city on the planet. From the Sunset Strip to the Santa Monica pier, the gridlock was everything we’d been led to fear, and worse. Yet, riding with various drivers, guides and acquaintances, their calm demeanor and non-aggressive acceptance of the delays was both perplexing and inspiring.
“I just made up my mind not to use my horn,” said Jack Kubacki, a nine-year veteran of L.A. driving who applies the principles of yoga to keep centered behind the wheel.
“It’s not just about the poses,” he said. “The way you sit, move, breathe and think is going to affect the whole experience. It starts even before you get into the car – the attitude that you bring continues throughout the whole ride.”
He recommends a period of meditation before beginning the daily commute, keeps a bundle of hand-picked sage on the dashboard to reinforce peaceful thoughts, and advises drivers to have compassion for other motorists.
“If something happens on the road and it’s not an emergency – and few things are – we don’t have to react,” he said. “If you are using your horn for every little inconvenience, you are constantly telling your brain you are in an emergency.
“It’s almost as though you are honking at yourself because you are triggering the biological changes and chemical reactions that happen in response to stress.”
Numerous studies show that chaotic commutes have an adverse effect on health, which is entwined with mental and emotional health, leading to obesity, depression and other woes. Mitigating these daily irritations with mindfulness, breathing modifications and other techniques is worth a try.
“Once we roll up our mats and head out of the studio and the yoga buzz wears off, it’s easy to forget that blissful feeling as we get behind the wheel and have to deal with the stress of traffic and less-than-courteous drivers,” said Gwen Ray, a Yoga Alliance certified instructor who teaches in Plymouth.
“Your blood pressure rises, your breath shortens, you go into fight or flight response,” she said. “Breathing in the upper part of the chest sends distress signals to your brain. Your body is releasing stress hormones like cortisol which sends free radicals into every cell of your body."
Here’s what she advises:
Adjust your seat so that your hips are at the same level or a little higher that your knees; sit on a cushion if need be. Adjust the angle of your seat to position your shoulders over your hips to create stability for your spine and avoid lower back strain. Your grip on the wheel should be firm, yet a bit relaxed so as not to create more stress. Relax your jaw, feel the energy melt from your face, and soften your lips and tongue.
Next, check in on your breath. Feel the sensation in your body, deepen it and slow it down. “When your breathing slows down, it relaxes the rest of your body systems, connecting you to the parasympathetic nervous system that tells your body to relax and it releases those feel-good hormones in your brain.”
Equal breathing: Try to create an equal inhale to exhale, to calm the body and focus your mind.
Shoulder rolls: Gently raise the shoulders as you inhale and let them soften and relax with your exhale.
Neck releases: Allow the right ear to gently drop toward your shoulder and come back to neutral, do the same on the other side.
Seated cat/cow: It’s best to do this while at a complete stop. Keep both hands on the wheel at 10 and 2. Relax and soften your shoulders. Take a deep breath as you open the chest and draw your shoulder blades toward your spine. On your exhale round your spine and feel your shoulder blades move away from the spine as you gently extend through the arms.
Arm and shoulder stretch: While at a complete stop, keep one hand on the wheel as you reach the other hand up and around the back of your headrest, gently stretching the shoulder and the back of your upper arm, take an equal breath in and out and repeat on the other side.
“It comes down to mindfulness about what you are doing and where you are going, said Kubacki. “How you react behind the wheel is a reflection of what is going on in your life.”
Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com