Being a lawyer is such a mental exercise that we often forget that we have physical bodies we need to maintain and nurture. This often results in poor health, stress, fatigue and even addiction. What better time to start a new habit than the new year! We all have unused resolutions. Here are some that are actually good for you.
There are simple, non-impact exercises that can profoundly improve your health, flexibility, well-being and attitude in less than 30 minutes a day. These are not your garden-variety calisthenics or strength training; this has to do with improving motor function and brain entrainment. Just a few minutes of these exercises before you do anything else in the morning will be beneficial.
I have been doing these exercises for almost a year, and I have discovered that my blood pressure has gone from 170/100 to 110/70; my stress levels are substantially reduced; anxiety and worry are reduced; my worst-case-scenario thinking has been reduced, my flexibility has increased and I have a much more profound sense of well-being.
Dozens of people have remarked that I seem much happier and confident. I find these exercises are even addicting and are much more beneficial than mind- or mood-altering substances or activities. Let’s get started!
1. Polyvagal exercises
There is a great deal of new scientific research about the effects of cranial nerves on our psychological and physical well-being. A good place to start is the book Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve by Stanley Rosenberg, which is based on substantial medical research. Apparently, pressure placed on the cranial nerves from stress in the upper body (neck, shoulders, back) negatively impacts how our body functions and how we feel.
Rosenberg outlines a series of stretches and eye movements designed to release pressure from the cranial nerves that will make us more flexible and feel better.
The combination of stretching the upper body and eye movement sends positive signals from our brain to our entire body, which I can personally attest is life-changing. Imagine eliminating anxiety, worry and fear from our daily life by putting our hands behind our head and looking to the left and right for 60 seconds. Worth trying, right?
To perform this exercise, lie flat on your back or stand with your back flat against the wall. Put your hands behind your head with fingers interlocked, touching your elbows to the floor/wall. Look as far to the left as you can for 60 seconds and then to the right for 60 seconds (or vice versa). Initially you will sigh, yawn or feel a release of tension.
This is a signal that your vagus nerve has been activated and is sending positive feel-good energy to your entire body. Actually, any stretch that relieves tension in your neck and shoulders while looking to the left or right will activate the vagus nerve. You can get specifics on these exercises in Rosenberg’s book. (I get nothing for this recommendation).
2. Transversal exercises
We all know that practicing law is a left-brain activity. Activating the right-brain and balancing the two lobes is a good thing. We increase our intuition, imagination and creativity by balancing the left and right brains. Physiologists tell us that cross or transversal activities that engage both sides of the brain help in this regard. Dr. Sean Dunphy developed these exercises in Ireland for patients with arthritis and/or dyslexia. Here are some activities that activate both sides of the brain:
Cross ear squats: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Grab your left earlobe with your right index finger and thumb and your right earlobe with your left index finger and thumb. Your arms will be crossed under your chin. Gently bend down as far as possible into a squatting position. You will inhale going down, exhale standing up. Personally, it takes a bit of focus doing all of that at the same time, but it is strangely pleasant. Squat 10 times in this manner. You will probably feel a stretch in your lower back, which means you are doing it properly.
Cross hand to knee: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Raise your left knee to waist height and touch it with your right hand. Put it back down and then raise your right knee and touch it with your left hand. Do each side 10 times. Therapists have found that this helps autistic children and those with brain disorders.
Eye rolls: Similar to the polyvagal exercises, rolling your eyes in a figure 8 will activate both sides of the brain. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hands by your sides. Do these 10 times looking up and 10 times looking down. Activating both sides of the brain will have positive effects on your mental and emotional outlooks.
Shoulder release: Stand with your hands by your sides, feet shoulder-width apart. Raise your hands to shoulder level in front of you while you inhale. Exhale and drop your hands to behind your back and grasp your hands behind your back. Push your hands back away from your body. Do these five times with your left eye closed and five times with your right eye closed. You will probably feel a stretch in your shoulders and neck muscles; this also helps release tension and stress. If you can’t touch your hands behind your back, start where you can and work toward that goal. It probably means you are totally stressed out and need a vacation.
3. Oppositional Stretching
Carrying heavy briefcases and prolonged hunching over a computer can cause chronic hip and lower back pain, as well as stress all over the body. I find the following stretches are really good for relieving the kind of stress and chronic pain experienced by lawyers. It is really important to only hold a stretch no more than five seconds.
This is called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching or active isolation stretching. Count to five and then relax. Do each stretch five times. You will notice how much more flexible you can be after five 5-second stretches.
Crossed legs: You can do this all day long. While you are sitting, put your left foot on top of your right knee. Then gently bend forward. You will feel the stretch in your rear (glutes) and lower back. Hold for five seconds, relax and repeat five times. Then switch and put your right foot on top of your left knee. You will feel a lot better.
Chest stretches: You can also do this stretch all day long. Stand in a doorway. Place your hands (or elbows) on the door jambs. Arms should be parallel to the floor. Lean as far forward as possible, feeling the stretch in your chest muscles. Hold to a count of five, relax. Repeat five times. You should be stretching further with each move.
Child pose: This is a good one to start the day. Kneel on the floor and bend as far forward as possible, with the goal to touch your forehead to the floor. Put your hands straight out in front of you with elbows on the ground. You should feel the stretch in your hip flexors (front of thighs) and lower back. Hold to a count of five and relax. Do these five times. Then walk your hands as far to the left and then to the right as possible. You will feel the stretch all along your side, from the hand to your hip. Hold for five seconds and then relax. Repeat stretching as far as possible each time.
4. A simple smile
This one takes 30 seconds. Stand in front of the mirror and give it your best smile. You will be glad you did.
It takes me about 30 minutes every morning to do all of these exercises/stretches. You can start wherever you can. It is important not to hurt yourself, be gentle. When you are done, you will feel activated and ready for the challenges of a successful law practice.
James Gray Robinson was a third-generation trial attorney, specializing in family law, for 27 years in his native North Carolina until 2004. Since then, he has become an individual and business consultant who works with a wide range of people, professional organizations and leading corporations. At age 64, Gray passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. Learn more about his work at jamesgrayrobinson.com or email email@example.com.
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