When I return to the States after a trip abroad, I can feel the tension in the air as soon as I step off the plane. People rush around to get to their destinations, and the conversations within earshot hit me in my native language: “We have a meeting in five!” “Why are you so late?” “Send the file now!”
And it’s not just me—we live in a pretty stressful society. And so, when I’m feeling tense or overwhelmed, I like to think back to the places I’ve visited, especially those where time is perceived differently and the priority is on relaxing and enjoying life. Here are a few of my favorite globally inspired ways to de-stress that will transport you to a more relaxing place, no matter where you are.
1. Meditate and Reflect
Take a deep breath. In India, the practices of Pranayama, which translates to “extension of life force,” uses breathing techniques to calm your stress levels. A few minutes a day opens up your body, leaving you feeling awake and thoughtful. Pairing this technique with yoga and meditation can help focus your goals and inspire creativity, too.
If there’s a specific problem stressing you out, try Zazen, a meditation taught in China and Japan, which focuses on “opening the hand of thought” by concentration and introspection. Zazen meditation can also be performed walking or using a Koan (a puzzle used to reflect on a problem and discover its solution).
How can you get started? Many yoga and meditation centers offer weekend getaways or regular classes (check out the Omega Institute, Kripalu Center, and Sivananda Yoga Center, or local yoga centers in your city). You can also find great apps like Yoga Trainer Pro and iSamadhi to help you try these practices as you go about your day.
2. Get Up and Dance
Sometimes, the best way to clear your mind is to get up and move! Many of my best memories from Trinidad were at the dance clubs. No matter how stressful the day, you’d head out at night to let loose at the club or the fetes (parties leading up to Carnival), where everyone was jumping, wining (moving their hips), and dancing until the early morning hours.
In Northern India, there’s no better exercise then dancing bhangra at a celebration. It’s fast-paced, competitive, and a great cardio workout. And when I was stressed at my job, I took up Bollywood dance. Though I wasn’t very good at it, it gave me a much-needed break and taught me how to let go of my hang-ups. If you want real challenge and discipline, you can try Kathak or Bharatanatyam, classic Indian dances (they require many years to learn, though—so be ready to invest time). No matter what moves you choose, dance can be a great way to let go, not to mention promote health and wellness.
3. Chill Out to Music
In South Africa, I learned that the rhythm of the music is the rhythm of the people. Music has played an essential role in social movements, not only in South Africa, but in Ireland, the United States, Mexico, and Kenya and continues to be an expression of the people and their history. Yet stories of global music are not only educational; they can be relaxing. Try music from a totally different region to open up your mind and groove in a new way. A few of my favorites: Brenda Fassie; Amadou & Mariam, the duo from Mali; South African Kwaito Artist Zola; or the French-born Manu Chao, who sings in French, Spanish, Arabic, and Italian.
4. Smell the Flowers
If you’re pressed for time, think about the scents you love—jasmine, for example, always brings me back to Thailand. And while you may not be able to fly away to smell flowers in their native environment, a little aromatherapy can go a long way.
Pick up aromatherapy kits from sites like The Aromatherapy Place and The Body Shop, or use a simple reed diffuser to liven up your home or office. Need some inspiration? Lavender is calming, jasmine energizing, peppermint can stimulate the senses, and the aroma of rose is an antidepressant.
5. Simmer the Spices
Hearing the sizzle of garlic and cardamom reminds me of sitting in my friend Asha’s kitchen in Chiang Mai and waiting for her delicious dal and vegetables, which would always cheer me up after a tough day. And when my mom is stressed, her Polish kitchen turns into a full-on bakery. There’s a reason—food is calming, and spending some time in the kitchen whipping up a new recipe can give your mind something else to focus on besides your day-to-day worries. For globally inspired recipes, I love Nirmala's Kitchen and Show me the Curry.
6. Get Outside
A nun in Mexico once told me to “make friends with a tree.” And while I initially thought she was crazy, I soon realized she just meant that I should get out in nature. To do that, a number of my students travel to WWOOF and work on organic farms. Closer to home, however, you can grow your own herbs, plant exotic flowers, or work in your community garden.
7. Let a Long Day Slip Away
Some of my best days while traveling involved sitting in front of a river and chatting with friends over food with no connection to the outside world. We had nowhere to go and nothing to do except talk to the locals, explore, and let time pass by. I often don’t realize how much I value this sort of unstructured, unplanned time until I get back to the U.S. and am forced to buzz around without stopping or getting a chance to remind myself of what’s really important.
In a world in which we constantly find ourselves busy and in demand, it’s important to make time for the things we want to do—not just the things we have to do. When you’re feeling stressed, give yourself a break, relax, and remember that somehow you’ll manage to figure it all out. And in the meantime, try one or more of these techniques to give yourself a break and re-center.