THE BLOG
05/19/2010 09:53 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How to Relax: Letting Yourself Unwind

As a dancer with the New York City Ballet, it was extremely important for me to learn how to unplug and recharge in order to endure the rigorous demands of that lifestyle. Not only was I pushing my body to the limit -- rehearsing all day and performing every night for months at a time -- I was doing it while struggling with type 1 diabetes.

If I hadn't focused on how to pace myself and take care of my mind and my body, my performances would have suffered in the short term, and in the long term I would have burnt out years before I actually stopped performing.

The strategies I learned throughout my performance years has served me well today as a ballet teacher, author and diabetes motivator. When I take time to de-stress at different intervals of the day I re-energize; and I am then able to give my full focus and attention to what I am doing.

Here are some things that work for me:

In the morning, before I start my day, I take a moment to breathe. I lie on the floor in a position I learned from my Feldenkrais teacher (Feldenkrais is a modality of movement, www.backrescue.com). I can feel my breath going in and out and I feel the blood circulating throughout my body. This helps to calm my mind while I allow my thoughts and feelings to flow through me. I find it's a great way to transition from sleep into the business of my day.

By midday I usually need another break. I have always found that food can soothe and nurture me so I always give myself enough time to have a relaxed and comfortable lunch.

Food is a charged subject and should not be used to numb out emotions, stress and anxiety. Learning what to eat has been a very long process for me, both as an athlete and as a person with insulin dependent diabetes. I had to learn which foods would give me strength, satisfy my appetite and emotional need for comfort, while keeping my blood sugar levels stable.

My remedy has been to identify what my craving is for, and then choose the healthiest alternative. The result is that my body is more balanced, hence my blood sugar levels as well, and that trickles down to my cravings and moods.

My favorite healthy snacks include nuts and seeds, and avocadoes. I also happen to like vegetables and I play around with different ways to prepare them with tasty sauces: nut butters, tahini, virgin coconut oil, flax oil, hemp oil, extra virgin olive oil and pesto sauce. Coconut butter (ask for it at your local health food store) is especially yummy and calming to me.

One of my favorite times of the day is the early evening. I try to get out for at least a 20-minute walk. I'm lucky to live where I can look at the sun setting over the ocean, the mountains, all the while taking in the scent of the flowers.

Just as I begin my day with a gentle warm up, it is equally, if not more important for me to give myself the space to wind down before I go to sleep. Mentally, physically and emotionally, if I do not take the time to "check in" with my internal dialogue in an un-pressured and peaceful environment I will have a hard time sleeping at night.

At different intervals during my performing years I suffered from extreme insomnia. The physical demands of my athletic schedule affected me most intensely at night when I found it very difficult to relax my body and quiet my mind. Every thought and feeling I had inside, but had not taken the time to pay attention to during the day would consume me and I would find myself up for hours.

It has taken me many years and much experimentation to learn healthy sleep habits. I take the time to listen to the inner chimings of my mind, and as I do in the morning, I use breathing exercises to unwind and quiet the chatter.

Many years ago I learned this particular breathing exercise from my continuum teacher (continuummovement.com), which I still find very helpful:

I close my eyes and begin to breathe in deeply through my nose. I fill my lungs as much as I possibly can, and then when I need to exhale, I let the air seep out through my nose like air coming out of a tire. I repeat this 3-4 times, slowly and gently. When I practice this breath my body relaxes and my mind slows down.

Sometimes something as simple as talking to a friend on the phone, playing with my cat, or sitting down with a good book can be all I need to lift my spirit and replenish my energy. Each one of us has our own unique rhythms and in order to live the healthiest and most productive lives we can I feel it is crucial that we develop the tools to revitalize. I have learned to give myself permission throughout the day to stop and refuel my tank, and in turn I experience a better quality of physical, mental, and emotional health.