The Presence of Peace: Breathing Calmly Amidst Holiday Stress

Julie Dunlop, author of Ocean of Yoga: Meditations on Yoga and Ayurveda for Balance, Awareness, and Well-Being shares tips on breathing calmly amidst holiday stress.

Are you one of those people who tries to “get through” the holidays? What would it take for you to shift to “moving through” the holidays or “experiencing” the holidays rather than just trying to get through them? Although the difference in this wording is somewhat subtle, it can be significant as we shift from survival mode into a more holistic acceptance of the process of being present—mind, body, and soul—for the holidays.The glow of Christmas trees, menorahs, and Diwali candles, along with many other images and traditions from richly diverse cultures, light our way through the holidays each year. Along with the beauty of holiday decorations and celebrations, however, often comes a fair amount of stress. This could be financial stress or the stress of physical exhaustion from simply trying to keep up with all of the extra events. It could also be emotional stress due to an injury or illness, challenging family dynamics, or grief from the loss of a loved one. Pause for a moment and check in: On a scale of 1 to 10, what is your current stress level? Breathe. Look around you. Then, look within. Is there any crisis taking place in the current moment, or is the stress generating from within? Feel the soft rhythm of your inhale and exhale washing through you with grace.

Gifts are often a part of the holiday season, whether we are shopping for gifts, purchasing gifts, making gifts, wrapping gifts, mailing gifts, returning gifts, or all of the above. Sometimes the most valuable gifts, however, are those that are intangible, such as peace, fulfillment, acceptance, joy, balance, and well-being. Consider also “The Gift of Collapse”:

(from Ocean of Yoga by Julie Dunlop):

 The Gift of Collapse

There is a precision in the symmetry of ancient civilizations and the geometry of modern society. In both Yoga and Āyurveda, we focus on balance, praising it as a path to well-being. And yet, if there is over-focus on balance, we can veer into perfectionism, judging ourselves without mercy. If there is a priority on keeping everything together, this constriction can keep us from being available to the vulnerability, the softness, the openness of living authentically. Sometimes it takes a complete collapse—physically, mentally, or emotionally—or all three—or at least a wobbling, a wavering, a significant undoing of our balance—to humble us, to recalibrate our systems, to re-wire our way of looking at ourselves and others. 

So the next time you fall out of a pose, fall out of a relationship, fall out of alignment with the person you thought you were, see if you can see this as an invitation for transformation rather than as a failure. More valuable than the appearance of perfection is the impeccability of our willingness to encounter our full selves. Through each collapse, our humility deepens, opening our heart-mind to the wisdom of both the imbalance and balance as shadow and light intertwine.

Consider the first three words that come to your mind when you think of the holidays.  Are there things that you think or feel about the holidays that you do not express? The incongruity of feeling or thinking one way and feeling pressure to act in another way can be challenging and stress-inducing at any time, but especially at the holidays. For instance, perhaps you are part of a large extended family that expects you to visit each year but you prefer solitude at the holidays, or vice versa. Perhaps you have a different set of spiritual or religious traditions than the rest of your family or choose to eat or behave in a different way than your family members. If there is a lack of acceptance of these differences, all of this can cause quite a bit of indigestion at the mental and emotional level, sometimes manifesting at the physical level as well.

Lion Pose, where we open the mouth, extend the tongue, gaze upward, and exhale forcefully, can offer a very therapeutic non-verbal release at the throat chakra. Try it five times and see what you feel.

While we may often think of yoga as physical postures on a mat, yoga actually has eight limbs. The first two limbs (yama and niyama) offer us ancient wisdom for daily life.  Ahimsa (non-violence) invites us to be compassionate to others and also to ourselves.  Given the many habits we have developed over the years and the strength that many holiday traditions hold, it can feel daunting to modify a holiday in any way. Tapas (the fire of transformation) can help. Through self-discipline, we can choose to change a way of thinking, speaking, or acting that can bring our holiday experiences into closer alignment with our priorities and beliefs. For instance, we might replace money spent on travel with money donated to those in need—or we might replace money spent on gifts with time spent with loved ones. The options are endless, and once a spark of innovation begins, the flow of creativity can bring forth healing on many layers in many different directions.

We may be able to change a lot internally and externally this holiday season, or we may not, given the complex constellation of factors in which we dwell. Santosha (acceptance) asks us to be content, to accept the current reality with truth, with grace, with authenticity. Given the nature of the translucent thread of impermanence woven through every moment, there may be changes awaiting our holidays that we cannot even begin to imagine. This is where the flexibility we may develop in yoga or another mind/body practice can support us, as we continue to adapt to the present—the gift of the present moment delivered to us in each unfolding breath.

Rather than pushing away any feelings of sadness, grief, loneliness, longing, or despair that may be conjured up by the holidays, see if you may be able to honor them, simply by acknowledging them as part of the journey. Taking the companion of a candle, sit with the warmth of its light, feeling in its glow the light that will return to your path.  Feel the flow of your breath, the rhythm of its presence that is with you always. Breathe in peace, forgiveness, love; exhale any hurt or anger you may harbor in your heart.

Then, placing both hands on your heart, breathe into all that you are feeling. After several minutes, then place your palms together, bringing to your awareness five things—tangible or intangible, small or large—that you are grateful for. Slowly unwrap each of these sacred gifts, taking time to appreciate the nuances of their origins, their abiding support. With appreciation for these gifts, consider what you may be able to give—to yourself and/or to others. In what ways might you offer an hour of your time, perhaps visiting with a friend or someone who is injured or ill, making a meal for someone, or sending cards, emails, texts, or photos with messages that resonate authentically with your heart?

Similarly, in what ways might you enhance your experience of the holidays through the gifts of the five senses?


  • Consider FaceTiming or Skyping with a friend or family member you haven’t seen in a long time
  • Gaze for five minutes at a sacred image of a place, person, or object that means a lot to you, feeling the depth of your gratitude
  • Look inward, gazing at all the various pieces of yourself with acceptance, respect, compassion, understanding
  • Look up at night, taking in the luminosity of the moon and stars


  • Call a loved one and enjoy the unique vibrations of this voice as it travels across the miles into the intricately designed curves of your ear
  • Listen to music—either an old familiar favorite or treat your ears (and soul) to a brand new artist, or even an entirely new genre
  • Enjoy five minutes or more of silence, feeling the gentle wave-like flow of your breath, experiencing the present of being present


  • Bring fresh greenery, such as pine branches, into your home or office
  • Enjoy the scent of an essential oil, such as lavender, or choose a scented candle to light
  • Let the aroma of a traditional dessert baking fill your kitchen
  • Notice the aroma as you sip a cup of herbal tea, such a ginger, peppermint, or chamomile
  • Sit close to a warm crackling fire and enjoy the scents of the burning logs
  • Invite the scent of incense, such as frankincense or sandalwood, to waft through the home


  • Make a favorite holiday food from your childhood and share it with someone (If you don’t have the recipe, look online for a similar one and approximate it as best as you can)
  • Try a new restaurant, or order something for the first time from a familiar restaurant
  • Treat yourself to ordering a new cookbook
  • Select several items from the produce aisle that you have never tried
  • Have a holiday potluck with your friends, neighbors, or co-workers


  • Offer yourself the gift of massage, marma, acupuncture, or another form of bodywork
  • Go into nature and pick up pinecones, leaves, stones; touch the bark of a tree, the sand on a beach
  • Notice the feel of the touch of the wind as it brushes your skin
  • Enjoy a warm bubble bath or bathe with sea salt

Regardless of how you choose to explore or experience the holidays, know that while holidays can be a precious part of life, they are just one facet of the exquisite composition of life. Ultimately, every day is a holiday, a cause for reflection and celebration, when we take notice of each moment’s ephemeral nature and return to what resides inherently within:

Ocean Within
(from Ocean of Yoga by Julie Dunlop)

 Within you, an ocean of peace.
Within you, an ocean of love,
understanding, compassion flowing.
Feel its waves washing over you,
through you, washing every bone, every cell,
every feeling, every thought.

 An ocean of truth and beauty within.
The brilliance of sunlight dancing upon water,
and the gentle rhythm of the waves,
this beauty, this peace, alive and flowing, in you.

 You—an ocean of light.
You—an ocean of peace.
Your love, like the ocean, vast and deep.

 Flowing through you, the loveliness of the sea.

 You, the ocean.  You, the waves.
You, the light on water.
You, the peacefulness washing upon every shore.


For more information on Ocean of Yoga, please visit our website.



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