Corner Office Anatomy – Why Your Work Gets On Your Nerves

OfficeviewIn this segment of Corner Office Anatomy, I want to talk about one of the most vital parts of your body, but one that you might not think about so often while you are in the office (or at any other time for that matter).

It’s a part of your body that could hold the key to your success or failure as a professional in this modern urban era. Still, you probably power through day after day of your career without giving it a single thought. What could be so important yet so easily ignored?

Your autonomic nervous system, of course.

Unless you are an anatomy buff, you are probably wondering what in the world is that, and what does it have to do with your workaday experiences?

The autonomic nervous system is extremely complex, and it is impossible for me to explain it you entirely in this post. To put it very simply, it’s a system of neurons, nerves, plexuses, neurotransmitters, etc. that is responsible for regulating the involuntary (a/k/a unconscious) functions of your body, you know, things like your heart rate, blood circulation, sweat glands, digestion, and the basic rhythm of respiration. Basically anything in your body that carries on without your needing to think about it.

There are two parts of the autonomic nervous system that are constantly interacting with each other to react to your environment and maintain your body’s essential functioning. One part, the sympathetic nervous system, prepares the body for emergencies—it’s the famous “fight or flight” system. 

The other part, the parasympathetic nervous system, is known as the “rest and digest” system because it supports the day-to-day functioning of your internal organs. The parasympathetic system always working, it’s just that when the sympathetic system kicks in, certain of the parasympathetic functions (like digestion, elimination, basic rhythmic breathing) are altered while the body prepares to deal with a threat.


So, what does this all have to do with you and the office?

Well, the sympathetic nervous systems gets triggered when you perceive stress (for example, a tiger is chasing you or your home is on fire). In response, your body does a number of things, like increasing your heart and respiration rate, releasing bunches of adrenaline, and slowing down the other bodily functions (like digestion) that are not absolutely necessary to deal with a threat to your survival.

Obviously, this kind of reaction has been hugely effective for us humans as we have evolved through extremely dangerous environments. But even though our modern urban living is (usually) far safer than it has ever been in our evolutionary past, our day-to-day lives are still full of the kind of stress that triggers our sympathetic nervous system.

Especially in the workplace.

Things like difficult bosses, office politicking, deadlines, incessantly beeping electronic devices, and overwhelming task lists frequently create a “fight or flight” response in our bodies. Basically, our bodies can’t process the difference between fighting a woolly mammoth or running away from a spear wielding enemy, and a constantly buzzing phone or preparing for a career-breaking presentation.


The physiological experience of the sympathetic nervous system being triggered—increased heart rate, dilated pupils, sweating, out of control breathing—is the same no matter where the stress comes from.

Our bodies were not designed to withstand the near constant triggering of the sympathetic nervous system, which is such a common occurrence in the modern world of work (and, thanks to technology that allows you to be connected to your work 24/7, the modern world of rest).

The more the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, the less the rest of your body is able to maintain its regular, peaceful functioning—and the more wear on your nerves. Over time, your overall health will suffer and your ability to handle stress will decline. I know I don’t need to tell you what a breakdown of your nervous system will do to your effectiveness at work, or your ability to handle all the other aspects of your life.

So, in order to counteract the effects of stress, it is vital to learn how to calm the sympathetic nervous system. This is exactly what many of the yoga, meditation, and mindfulness techniques are designed to do. 

There are numerous techniques I could teach you, but in this post I’m going to give you just 3 mini-practices that you can use to calm your sympathetic nervous system particularly while you’re in the office. You don’t even need to leave your chair for these techniques to work!

Seated forward fold

Forward folds are hugely calming (for a variety of anatomical reasons that I won’t get into here). You can certainly stand up, or sit on the floor, and fold over your legs, but that’s not always possible in the office so try this one right from your chair.

Forward Bend_BlueSit about half way between the back and front edge of your chair with your feet flat on the ground and set widely apart (about as wide as the two sides of the chair seat). Take a deep breath in as you sit up tall with your hands resting lightly on your lap. Then, exhale as you  drop your arms in between your legs and roll yourself forward until your fingers or hands touch the floor. If your fingers/hands don’t reach the floor, you can let them dangle, or if that is uncomfortable, then just rest them on your thighs. Stay here and breathe deeply for at least 5 breaths—or as long as you need to feel calm and stable.

Double exhale breathing

Yogic breathing techniques (which are broadly called “pranayama”) have long been known to calm the sympathetic nervous system by slowing the heartbeat, reducing blood pressure, and producing a sense of calm and stability. How it happens is not entirely clear, but it has to do with our ability to consciously control a function–respiration–that is affected by all the other involuntary functions. 

One of the most effective, simple breathing techniques is the double exhale.

Practice like this. Sit comfortably in your chair, with your feet on the ground and your hands resting lightly in your lap. Inhale for a count of 3 (or 4 or 5, depending on your lung capacity and state of mind); exhale for a count of 6 (or 4 or 10 etc.). Continue like this for at least 5 minutes. 

Breathwork - Yogic Full Breath_Blue

Pause meditation

It’s now well-known that meditation (especially mindfulness meditation) lowers your stress levels and calms your sympathetic nervous system. But it’s also well-known how hard it is to spare any time for a dedicated meditation practice.

Worry not—there is a way to incorporate some mindfulness meditation into your very busy day. Just practice this “pause meditation.”

To do it is simple: at different moments in your day, such as before you make a difficult phone call, respond to an email, or go into an important meeting, pause and take 3-5 deep inhales and exhales (take more if you have the time or are feeling particularly stressed out).

You are sure to feel more calm and stable, even after just a few breaths. Remembering to pause is as much part of the practice as the breathing, so the more you train your mind to take the pause, the more you will experience the mental clarity that comes with a focused practice.

Will you try one or more of these this week? Tell me if you do, I want to know how it feels for you.

Of course, there are many, many more techniques that you can practice both in the office and at home—and I am happy to share them with you if you would like (contact me here to set up a class). In the meantime, start practicing what I’ve shown you in this post and you will get a good start on calming your overworked sympathetic nervous system.

As always, if you are interested in learning more about how yogic breathing techniques (pranayama), mindful movement (asana), meditation, and work-life balance can help your life in the office run smoothly then inquire here.

And if you know someone who will benefit from these teachings then don’t be shy and share this post with them!

Want more great tips on how to live a healthy and balanced urban life? Get the next Urban Practice post direct to your Inbox by clicking “Follow Urban Practice” or join me for daily tips and musings on Facebook or Twitter (@MyUrbanPractice)—lots of choices, lots of buttons. Click all the ones you want.


5 Ways to Stay Calm for The Bar Exam

Don’t panic…try these 5 tips to pass your exam with ease

image by jcreationsz

It’s that time of year again, when thousands of young attorneys-to-be trek to an enormous exam center and sit through 2-3 days of grueling test taking.  

It’s intense.  I know because I did it too.

I took my first Bar Exam in New York ten years ago (the second one I took was several years later in Florida), but I still remember clearly the days leading up to it.  I was full of anxiety and overwhelming panic.  A couple of days before the exam I was nauseous and felt like I couldn’t breathe.

You see, I hadn’t studied nearly as much as my friends and colleagues.  But even even if I had, it still wouldn’t have been enough because the material we have to memorize for the Bar Exam is so extensive that no matter how hard or how long you study, you still feel like you don’t know anything.  

And that was exactly how I felt the weekend before my exam.

I was sure I was going to fail.

Luckily, though, I had already found the great ancient practices of yoga and meditation, and I was beginning to put them into action in my life.  And not a moment too soon because without them I would not have had the calm, clarity and endurance to survive the Bar Exam.

Are you on the verge (or in the midst) of a panic attack right before the exam? 

If so, keep reading because I’m going to share with you the 5 best ways to stay calm leading into and during your exam.  I used these tips myself and they worked—I passed both exams on the first try (and both after studying 50% less than everyone else around me).  

I want YOU to pass your exam.  Trust me, it works.

(NOTE: these tips are useful for any kind of exam, so share this post with anyone who is facing a difficult exam or test taking anxiety…)

1. Get enough sleep.  The sheer size of the Bar Exam–hundreds of multiple choice questions and several essays–and the limited time frame for completing it means that every minute counts.  You have to be 100% focused for hours at a time or you won’t be able to finish.  You need a mind clear like crystal.  

The single best way to maintain your clarity for an extended period is to get enough sleep.  I have written before about the negative effects of sleep deprivation, and you certainly don’t want any sleep-deprived slips during the exam (not to mention you want to avoid falling asleep with your head on your desk, which basically ensures you will be fast filling “c’s” for your last 100 questions).

So put down the study guide and get a full 7-8 hours of rest (more or less depending on what you normally require for optimum functioning).  The gain in mental clarity you get from a full night of sleep will more than outweigh the fact that you didn’t get to memorize all the elements distinguishing murder from manslaughter.  And you’re not going to finally understand the Rule Against Perpetuities between 1-3 am the night before the exam.  Put it down and go to sleep.

image by jscreationsz

2. Chant “pick the right answer” before and during the exam.  In a time limited exam, many of your answers are going to be rushed.  You might know for sure the answer to some questions, but for a bunch of others you will have to pick the one that is most right (or that just feels right).  This will be a gut-reaction selection, so by chanting “pick the right answer” you will be sending your gut (also known as your subconscious) the positive reinforcement of making the right selection.  

You’ve probably heard that studies have shown when test takers change an answer from their first selection to something else, their second selection is usually wrong.  This is because you have a whole pile of intelligence simmering under the surface of your conscious mind that pushes you toward one answer or another, but then it gets clouded over by other distractions (like your fear of failure, the freezing temperature of the exam room or your wondering why the person behind you keeps snorting).  Keep chanting “pick the right answer” and let your intelligence lead you.

Plus, chanting has a remarkable way of focusing the mind the same way that meditation does.  So you can literally meditate while you are taking the exam. 

What about those essay questions you ask?  Try this chant: “words on paper.”  It will clear your mind and help you dump all that information you memorized onto the paper, collecting valuable points along the way.

3. Go easy on the caffeine.  If you follow the first two steps, your mind and body will be awakened enough by the thrill of test day.  Taking such an important exam triggers your body’s “fight or flight” response and your adrenal glands respond accordingly.  You will naturally have plenty of energy to fight through the experience (or take a flight if you must!).  Adding caffeine to the mix will just make you jumpy and increase your anxiety.  Rely on your body, it has been designed to do exactly what you need it to.

4. Stop and breathe.  Taking the Bar Exam will probably be one of the most anxiety inducing events in your life.  So even if you follow all my advice, you are doubtless going to have plenty of moments of raw, unadulterated panic.  Make sure you keep breathing, no matter what happens.  

I remember in the first 3-hour session of the first day, while I was dealing with a difficult question that I knew little about (of course the essay questions had to be on a subject that I didn’t get to study enough), I felt the panic rising.  I started to think “sh*t! I’m f***ing it up! I’m f***ing it up!”

Then I remembered what I had learned from yoga about breathing.  I took a deep breath and felt it fill up my lungs; when I let the breath out I felt my body tight with fear and anxiety.  I took a few more slow, deep breaths.  Then I started to chant again “pick the right answer” “words on paper” and continued the test.  The fear and anxiety did not disappear, but by making sure I was breathing fully I was able to stay focused on the test despite it.

Any time you feel the panic coming on, pause for just a second and take a deep breath.  Then keep on moving through the test with nice and even, full, deep breaths.

5. Meditate through the free time.  If you have not begun a meditation practice yet, check out my posts on getting started and for some ideas on what to do.

Whatever you do, don’t try to cram more information into your head during the breaks or the nights between exam days.  That will only make you more aware of how much you still don’t know.  Instead, keep your mind quiet and clear by practicing meditation during any free time.  

You can meditate while sitting on a bench during the lunch break, lying down in your bed or couch at night, standing in the long line for the bathroom or even walking around the exam center waiting for the next session to begin.  

Do your best to not think about the test, or how you’re doing so far.  Stay focused on keeping your mind clear and your body calm.

In the end, one thing is sure: you will survive the exam.  But follow these tips and hopefully you will move through the experience with more calm and ease, which is the best way to pass any difficult test in life.

image by renjith krishnan

I wish you the very best success on your exam!  Try these tips and tell me how it turns out.  What was your experience on test day?  Share it all in the Comment section below.

If you are interested in learning more about how breathing techniques, mindful movement/asana, meditation and work-life balance can improve your test taking experience, or any other life event that is really stressful, email me your questions/inquiries here.

To get the next Urban Practice next post direct to your Inbox, make sure click Follow. You can also join me for daily meditation/movement tips and musings with a Facebook “Like” here or on Twitter @MyUrbanPractice.

Add More Time To Your Day

With One Simple Trick…

image by Stuart MilesAre you squeezed on all sides by your schedule?  

You’re not alone: a simple fact of modern urban life is that we are busy.

With so many competing obligations, it’s no wonder that one of the most frequently experienced feelings we all have is a sense of overwhelm.

At its extreme overwhelm can be paralyzing.  But it always tends to slow us down making us work less efficiently and more sloppily—the exact opposite of what we need when we are facing back-to-back important deadlines.

I’ve shared with you before about how practicing yoga and meditation will make you less stressed and more productive (among many other related goodies for your mind and body).

But what about if you are too busy to practice yoga or meditation?

I will answer that question with an old Zen saying that goes like this: you should meditate for 10 minutes each day; unless you are really busy.  In that case you should meditate for an hour.  

In other words, the busier you are the more you need to get more intimate with what’s going on inside.  

In reality we are never too busy.  We simply choose how to spend our time.

An important point I’ve learned in my own busy life is that there is always time in the day to practice yoga and meditation, and to get the benefits.  The simple trick is to schedule a non-negotiable time for it.

Getting it all done...So I’ll share with you a trick that I learned back when I was a young corporate attorney at a law firm in Manhattan.  Whenever I needed to get a personal task done–run an errand, go to an appointment, catch a yoga class–I would tell my secretary to inform anyone looking for me that I was in a meeting.  

Although I no longer work for a law firm, I’m still mad busy with an overflowing Inbox and a constantly ringing phone.  Still, I make sure I schedule daily yoga and meditation meetings into every day.   When I am arranging the rest of my schedule, I let colleagues, clients and anyone else needing my attention know that I am unavailable during those times.  And I’m always glad I do because by consistently moving my body and stilling my mind, I am more effective in managing all the demands in my schedule.

It’s really a practice in setting boundaries and giving yourself permission to have a “meeting” with your body and mind.  In the same way you wouldn’t cancel a meeting with your boss or a client, don’t cancel such an important meeting with your Self.

schedule it

Once you start keeping your regularly scheduled yoga/meditation meetings you will discover the rest of your day runs much more smoothly…and that you have more time in it than you thought.

Now I want you to start scheduling your yoga/meditation meetings today.  But I also want to know if you have a secret trick for getting the most out of your busy day.  Tell me about it in the Comment section below.

And as usual, if you are interested in learning more about how  breathing techniques, mindful movement/asana, meditation and work-life balance can make your urban life better email me at zara@yoginizara(dot)com.

To get the next Urban Practice next post direct to your Inbox, make sure click Follow. You can also join me for daily meditation/movement tips and musings with a Facebook “Like” here or on Twitter @MyUrbanPractice.

One Thing You Should Try This Spring

Spring is here!  For me this is the best time of year, when everyone springs out of winter hibernation mode and gets their minds and bodies moving again.  Compared to my winter self, I have so much more energy to work, socialize and pursue new hobbies.

Spring!But I also notice that my mood and emotions are all over the place during Spring, and even though I’m not anxious by nature, my anxiety levels shoot up like the arugula seedlings sprouting in my kitchen right now.  

I get all the tell-tale symptoms of Spring Fever: hyper active energy, restlessness, shortness of breath, rapid heart beat.  On the one hand Spring Fever is simply the mind/body’s reaction to the changing weather; on the other hand, it can be quite distracting and stressful.

Over the years I have discovered the BEST way to ease myself through Spring Fever (or through anxiety and restlessness at any other time) is through practicing yogic breathing techniques.

I could swear it’s magic, but actually what is happening in yogic breathing techniques is stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of your “fight or flight” system) so through practice you end up calm and relaxed.

My all time favorite technique for calming my body and mind is the Double Exhale.  It’s as simple as picking a daffodil, but it has an enormous effect on your complex nervous system.  After a few minutes of practicing you will feel as calm as the glassy surface of a pond.  Here’s how to do it:

  • Inhale and exhale a few times through your nostrils without thinking about it
  • Then, on an inhale (through your nostrils), count silently to yourself as you fill all the way up with air; the final number can be anything at all, but my students commonly count to 4, 5 or 6
  • As you exhale (through your nostrils), count silently to yourself double the number that you counted on the inhale
  • Repeat for as long as you need, but at least 5 mins

RelaxAs you get used to lengthening your exhales, you can gradually increase the count on your inhale and the double count on your exhale.  If you like, you can add a brief pause at the top and bottom of each breath, letting yourself be aware of the still moment that transitions your in and out breath.  

And if you are having a particularly hectic day, do Double Exhale lying on your back for an extra calming treat.

Another relaxing breath is the Bumble Bee Breath, known in the yoga world as Bhramaree breathing.  

The technique is to inhale through the nostrils then exhale through the nostrils while at the same time making a humming sound like a bumble bee.  The vibration created in Bhramaree soothes the nerves and muscles in the face, throat, neck and chest and so it is a sweet antidote to tension, anxiety and restlessness.

To try it, begin by inhaling through the nostrils for a count of 5 and then exhaling though the nostrils while humming for a count of 10 (like the technique above, make the length of the exhale double the length of the inhale).

Now I want to hear from you, do you have trouble breathing during Spring or any other time of year?  Tell me about it in the Comment section below.

As always, if you are interested in learning more about breathing techniques, mindful movement/asana, meditation and work-life balance, email me at zara@yoginizara(dot)com.

To get the next Urban Practice next post direct to your Inbox, make sure click Follow. You can also join me for daily meditation/movement tips and musings with a Facebook “Like” here or on Twitter @MyUrbanPractice.