At this time of year, I bounce back and forth between chuckles and head shakes as people begin their holiday preparations: In the throes of mounting anticipation and subsequent stress, folks often forget that they have a say in how they respond to the excessive stimulation. Granted, some people truly enjoy putting together and/or attending large, exuberant get-togethers; to them, I say, “Merry, merry…” For those of us, however, who prefer a laid-back, less elaborate holiday season, I say, “Sii-i-lent night…” Either mindset will benefit from the following techniques that balance and thus soothe the brain and nervous system.
The key to balancing the left and right brains, and to resetting the nerves lies in contralateral and oppositional movements. “Contralateral” (or “cross-lateral”) simply means using opposite sides of the body simultaneously: walking is an example, because the right arm swings forward as the left leg moves forward. Oppositional movement is when one side of the body moves in a direction opposite of the other side’s motion: think of squatting down as the arms lift up.
These types of movement force both sides of the brain to function equally. Typically, one has a dominant side of the brain or body: When these techniques are practiced regularly, the dominance can ease and move closer to equilibrium.
There are numerous variations of these techniques, and some demand exceptional concentration and coordination. The following exercises will move from basic to more advanced. If, on any given day in the upcoming weeks of holiday frenzy, you feel the need to rewire your body and mind, start with a fundamental move, and then add in more complex techniques.
Standing, begin a high-knee march; when one knee lifts, the opposite arm swings forward and straight up by your ear. Continue this basic movement, finding a pace that begins to warm you and allows the muscles and joints to unlock themselves. Typically, this takes 1-3 minutes.
Variation: Instead of the opposite arm and leg lifting up, move them forward. As the left leg lifts straight up in front, the right arm pushes or punches forward. Try to keep the knee from bending as you lift the leg. As you become warmer (and stronger over time), you will be able to lift that leg to hip height. Again, practice for 1-3 minutes.
On your hands and knees in a tabletop position, lift and extend your left leg straight behind you. Simultaneously, extend your right arm straight ahead of you. Alternate sides, 6-12 lifts and reaches per side. Fringe benefit: This move challenges your balance and tones the core.
Lying on your back with your arms by your side, bring your right knee in toward your chest as your left arm lifts up and comes to the floor by your ear. Return to the starting position, and change sides. Again, alternate right knee/left arm with left knee/right arm 6-12 times per side.
Slightly more advanced: In the supine position, begin with both arms overhead, by your ears. Instead of drawing the right knee toward the chest, lift the straight leg to 90 degrees; simultaneously, bring your left hand to touch the right foot. Lower them at the same time, then repeat with the left leg/right arm, touching the hand and foot, and then returning to neutral. Again, repeat 6-12 times per side.
Warm up: From a standing position, move into a modest version of forward bend; your knees can bend, as long as you can reach your fingertips or palms to the floor about 12-24” inches in front of your feet . Then, in this inverted position, begin “walking.” This is an animal-like move, with all four of your “paws” on the ground: right arm/hand “step” as your left leg/foot step, and then the other side steps, as you would expect. Walk around your space for 30-60 seconds.
Next, you will further encourage the brain to release ingrained patterns by “confusing” it. Still in the forward bend mode, hold the right ankle with the right hand, and left ankle with left hand. Then, begin walking in this position! This is the full Elephant Walk, and you will feel the lumbering awkwardness of the mighty mastodon. (If you feel dizzy or your back body needs a break, stand upright and walk or shake a bit before re-entering the position.) Once your brain and body adjust, continue the walks for up to a minute.
In any aligned, comfortable sitting or standing position, take your eyes to the right, and then back to center: Your head does not move. Repeat 3-5 times. Then, gaze left and back to center, 3-5 times. Tricky part: As your eyes move right, turn your head to the left, then both back to center. Repeat eyes to the right, head to the left, 3-5 times. Then switch: Eyes left, head right, 3-5 repetitions.
Next, from neutral forward-facing position, turn your eyes to gaze upward: Head remains still. Repeat 3-5 times, returning to center with the eyes after each upward gaze. Then repeat, using a downward gaze, 3-5 times. Again, you are going to confound the brain: As your eyes gaze up, take the chin down toward the chest, then eyes and head back to center. Repeat as often as necessary until it feels relatively easy.
Then, as the eyes gaze down, tilt the head back, then both back to center. Again, repeat until the oppositional movement feels smooth.
Fringe benefit: This technique relieves eye strain and is a surprisingly effective way to ease stiff neck muscles.