Want to find the ultimate in peace and happiness? The key is to make sure you haven't fallen into a relaxation rut. If your usual stress buster isn't soothing your anxiety like it used to, you need to try something new to boost peace of mind. We found five cool variations on popular pastimes that can settle your nerves in record time.
If you wind down with a bath...
Try a natural hot spring
Move over, Mr. Bubble. It's worth going the extra tension-taming mile to plunge into a natural spring. "Soaking in hot springs lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which reduces inflammation and built-up strain in your ligaments and joints," says Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Some top spots include Dunton Hot Springs in Colorado ($75 for the day, including lunch), the Hot Springs Resort & Spa in North Carolina (from $12), and Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs in New Mexico (from $16). For more ideas, visit trails.com, which has a substantial database of hot springs, including secluded ones that require a hike through the woods.
If you empty your mind with meditation...
Shake up your seated practice with qigong (pronounced chee-gong, which means "energy work"), an active Chinese meditation routine that mixes and matches hundreds of fluid, graceful dancelike exercises. By focusing on these repetitive movements and your breathing, your mind pushes aside intrusive thoughts and elicits the body's relaxation response: Your heart rate slows down and blood pressure, adrenaline, and cortisol levels drop. Classes are often held at YMCAs, gyms, and community or wellness centers and cost around $10 to $20 per session. To find a local instructor, go to the National Qigong Association's Web site, nqa.org.
If you walk off a bad day...
Try a labyrinth stroll
These mazelike paths, which date back thousands of years, have grown in popularity, thanks in part to promising research documenting meditation's effects on blood pressure, cortisol levels, and other markers of stress reduction, according to M. Kay Sandor, PhD, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Labyrinths can be inlaid on church floors, marked by stones in a garden, mowed into grassy fields, or painted on the ground in public parks. Walkers follow a single circuitous route free of wrong turns or dead ends toward the center. Most courses take about 20 minutes to complete, but Sandor suggests that you go at your own pace. When you reach the center, take as much time as you'd like for reflection--then retrace your steps back out. Finding a labyrinth is relatively easy: More than 1,000 hospitals, spas, schools, churches, and wellness centers in the United States have installed labyrinths on-site. (You can also search veriditas.net to find one near you.)
If you refresh your spirits by hiking...
A high-tech version of an old-fashioned scavenger hunt, geocaching has become an increasingly popular weekend activity since global positioning system (GPS) signals were made accessible to the public in 2000. Participants log on to a free geocaching Web site to get the coordinates of "caches"--secret stashes of everyday objects hidden across the world. Any person, team, or organization can set up and monitor a cache according to safe geocaching rules--in fact, there are already more than 350,000 caches scattered around the globe. Each cache is ranked according to the difficulty of the hunt and terrain, so you can choose a trek that matches your fitness level. Players plug the specific coordinates into a handheld GPS device that guides them as they walk through woods, snowshoe along trails, or hike through mountain meadows. When you find a cache, you can take the trinket out of it and leave a new treasure behind for the next person to discover. Most caches also include a logbook for you to sign and date with a brief description of your journey. Check out geocaching.com to find cache coordinates in your area.
If you decompress with massage...
Japanese for "universal life energy," this bodywork method involves gentle or no touch. Reiki therapists believe that they can channel energy through their hands and transmit it to the patient, promoting balance and healing. During a Reiki session, which typically lasts between 60 and 90 minutes, you'll lie on a massage table, fully dressed, while the therapist places her hands in various positions around your head, torso, legs, and feet. Studies have shown that Reiki reduces anxiety and blood pressure. To find a local Reiki therapist, contact the International Association of Reiki Professionals (iarp.org) or the International Center for Reiki Training (reiki.org).
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