Five short exercises to calm the mind

Boudicca Fox-Leonard exercises in Telegraph Fitness Studio
When we feel stuck emotionally, movement helps loosen things up - Geoff Pugh

Pounding the pavements, despite what we’ve been led to believe, might not in fact be the best way to run off a bad mood. Academics at Ohio State University compared “arousal-increasing” activities such as hitting a bag, jogging, cycling and swimming with “arousal-decreasing” activities; deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation and yoga. The latter were most effective at calming anger, while (arousal-increasing) jogging was the most likely activity to increase anger.

Is it time we started to think about exercise differently?

Nahid de Belgeonne, an author and somatic movement educator, believes so. “It would be a shame if we only think of movement as exercise to ‘beast ourselves’ or do yoga – but experience no shift in our emotional state – because we’re going through the motions,” she says.

Knowing what type of exercise to focus on when we need it is key. Feeling high energy? A boxing session could be the ticket. Exhausted? Something more restorative might allow the stress chemicals to move through you more effectively.

Here are five stress-busting exercises to try – and you don’t need to move from the room.

1. Shaking and drumming

When we feel stuck emotionally, movement helps loosen things up. So embodied movement techniques, such as shaking and drumming, are about moving a feeling within you, says Meffan.

“These ancient Chinese medicine techniques are great for frustration because they’re quite vigorous,” she explains.

Standing with feet apart, start to bend into the knees at the same time, flicking your hands out at the sides at the same time and then rise, increasing the tempo of your shaking movements. See the above video for a demonstration.

“There’s a literal connection between shaking the body physically and that connecting to shaking something out of you,” Meffan continues. “It gets rid of stagnation, suppressed rage and anger.”

Once you’ve shaken enough, take a moment to stand still and notice how the mind and body feels.

Drumming, again, is literally tapping the body. “Body drumming is to awaken the body energetically and physically you’re moving stagnant energy around.”

Start lightly, with soft fists move down hitting the back of the legs and then coming up the inside of the legs. You can drum up one arm and round to the back of the shoulder, and then the other side.

“Women need to be careful around the womb area. But going quite hard on your lower back and your shoulders is nice,” says Meffan.

If you can, sit or lie down afterwards to allow you to absorb any new sensations.

“Our brains easily go to the physical, but it’s the emotional we’re trying to release,” says Meffan.

Ask at the start and at the end how you feel. “But don’t attach to that feeling. We know emotions ebb and flow; we go through thousands of emotions in a day.”

2. Mobility challenge

This might appeal more to those who don’t fancy the mental aspect of yoga.

“A mobility challenge tests our active range of movement and when repeated over a few weeks or months, we’re able to see our progress or any areas that may need extra attention,” Meffan explains.

Some can be quite complicated, or the simple yet challenging act of going from cross-legged to standing without using your hands.

Here’s one to get you started. Sitting on the floor with your legs straight in front of you, lift one leg as high as you can, and then the other. Try to move into “deer pose” without using your hands. This deep hip opener involves sending one leg behind you into a 90 degree angle, and bending the remaining leg in front of you also to a 90 degree angle. Come back to the centre and swap sides.

“By working on our active range of movement, we can grow both strength and flexibility at the same time,” says Meffan.

The idea of a challenge will always get the ego fired up, she adds: “So it’s important to progress at a mindful pace. Remember this is a challenge for your long-term health, not to prove anything to anyone.”

3. Rocking

Stress causes muscles to tense up, so gentle movement will ease those contractions and help release stress.

“It’s better to move out those emotions than sit with them,” says Belgeonne.

She founded the Human Method, which aims to reorganise connections between the brain and body to ultimately improve both physical movement and psychological state. “I work with movement but from the beginning of the process (your brain) to affect the end of the process (your muscles),” she explains.

People can learn how to do this by practising restorative rocking.

Lying on a carpet or soft surface, lengthen out your legs with arms by your torso though not touching your sides. Give yourself a body scan. How are you lying? How do you feel?

Gently press your heels into the ground until your knees bend a little and your calves lift from the floor, along with your thighs. “Keeping them off the ground, start to rock your heels on the floor so that the rocking travels all the way to the back of your head,” says Belgeonne.

Pick up the pace to find an easy rocking movement. “Once you’ve found it, adjust the pace so that it feels soothing to you. Let your whole body be floppy and let the movement – of rocking your bones from the heels up to the head – travel through you.”

4. Foot clock

Gary Ward, a personal trainer and the founder of Anatomy in Motion, designed this simple exercise to challenge the body’s capacity to balance on one leg while targeting the integrated joint motion of the leg, from foot to pelvis and even into the spine.

Stand on one leg and reach the toe of your non-standing foot to each clock point around you (with “12” in front of you and “6” behind you etc). As you reach toward a clock point, allow the knee of your stance leg to bend and follow freely, as if being pulled around by your other leg.

“Different clock points will create different shapes in the stance foot. The goal is not to stabilise the stance foot but to allow it to move on the ground,” says Ward.

Optimising joint motion reduces the stresses in our tissues and tension in our bodies.

“The goal of effective human movement is to feel lighter as you start using your body more efficiently,” he says. “A mindful approach to movement means deeper targeting of the body’s long forgotten areas.”

5. Box breathing

Meditation doesn’t just involve sitting serenely on a cushion in the lotus pose.

“It’s not all or nothing, just a two minute micro meditation can work,” says Cat Meffan, a yoga and meditation teacher. Box breathing is a simple exercise that can help us feel grounded.

“Breathe in for a count of four, hold the breath for four, breathe out for four, hold for a count of four. Then repeat for two more rounds or ‘boxes’,” explains Meffan. “You’re having to use the brain to count, so it also distracts from your thoughts.”

In yoga, breathing practices are called pranayama. “The beauty of it is the stillness that’s tapped into, as well as a level of concentration – one of the eight ‘limbs’ of yoga that comes before meditation.”

Box breathing can be done anywhere.

“We need practices on the go that are just two minutes. I do this in the car,” adds Meffan. “It’s a good way to check in with yourself and feel what you really need.”

Videos by Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph