The World Health Organization called stress the “health epidemic of the 21st century” (BusinessNewsDaily, 2012). At the same time, globally, the relaxation industry is huge. Relaxation drinks alone, such as vitamin beverages, tea drinks, and more, accounted for over $330M in 2018. Yet nearly 40% of adults in the US and 60% in Japan are stressed (thebusylifestyle, 2020). And that was long before there was a global Coronavirus pandemic, which, understandably, has elevated stress and anxiety levels exponentially. 

While acknowledging the serious health impact of COVID-19, the CDC says,Coping with stress will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.” 

Great in theory, but how?

Four Different Cultural Approaches to Managing Stress

First, a note on filters used for selecting these cultural examples: I strove for cultural authenticity. For example, West African drumming was on a couple of “relaxation” lists. However the origins of the practice specifically for relaxation were all US based. Drumming in West African culture has much deeper historic and cultural roots. Secondly, at the time of writing, most people in the world were still sheltering-at-home, so stress-reducing activities that required social interaction, such as Thai Massage or coffee with friends (popular in many cultures) were not included, in favor of practices you could adapt and do right now. 

  • From India: Hasya Yoga, aka Laughter Meditation

Hasya is the Sanskrit word for laughter. Dr. Madan Kataria of Mumbai, India, created this riotous sounding form of yoga (oxymoron noted) in 1995. “It’s about “prepping your mind and body for happiness,” says Dr. Kataria about this practice, which offers research supported physiological and psychological benefits.

Laughing triggers a release of “happy hormones” – serotonin for better sleep, dopamine for a mood boost and endorphins for pain relief. Performing 10 to 30 minutes of Laughing Meditation increases the flow of oxygenated blood in the body, says Kataria.

While Dr. Kataria offers Hasya Yoga workshops, classes, retreats, and promotes the value of laughing as a social activity, you can also practice it at home with these exercises available on YouTube.

  • From Indonesia: Jamu

As a disclaimer, Jamu feels like something that you do not fully get unless you are from the culture, given the fluidity between healthy drinks, medicine, way of life, and what is now an industry that contributes over $73M to the economy in Indonesia.  Loosely, Jamu is traditional Indonesian herbal medicine made from turmeric, ginger, and other herbs used to maintain good health and to prevent diseases. Jamu is claimed to have originated in the Mataram Kingdom, a Javanese Hindu-Buddhist kingdom that flourished between the 8th and 11th centuries. It is heavily influenced by Ayurveda, a system of Hindu traditional medicine. 

Jamu was (and is) practiced by indigenous physicians. However, it is generally prepared and prescribed by women, who sell it on the streets. Generally, the different Jamu prescriptions are not written down but handed down between generations. 

While travel is pretty much still out of the question, you can still put on your mask and gloves and head to the grocery store to get ingredients to make these Jamu recipes at home. The stars are turmeric, tamarind, and ginger, all touted for their antioxidant and immune system boosting qualities.

  • Hot Baths from Russia and Japan.

Hot bath traditions from Russia and Japan (and Turkey, too), are very social, group activities. For purposes here, however, the idea is to give a nod to the cultural origin and adapt it as you can to your home bathtub. 

Russians go to the banya, a Russian style of bath house, to sweat and detoxify. There are special bath brooms, made of bundles of twigs and leafy branches, often from birch or oak trees, bound together. Called veniks, these bath brooms are dipped into cold water and then thrashed briskly all over the body to open pores and increase circulation. The banschik is a special person who is responsible for this. But typically friends go together and can smack each other with veniks. Banya is one of the oldest Russian traditions and is popular even today. A Russian proverb which refers to the banya‘s health benefit, says “The day you spend in the banya is the day you do not age.”  

The Japanese hot springs bath or Onsen is one of the great staples of Japanese culture, given the more than 4000 natural hot springs created by volcanic activity. The practice of soaking in these thermal baths for healing, spirituality, and rejuvenation stems back to when Buddhism spread to Japan in the 500s. The natural hot spring water is rich in sulfur and sodium chloride and it is thought to heal aches and pains, as well as help with conditions such as hypertension and diabetes. In ancient times, onsen was considered as a special medical treatment. Today hot spring baths come in many varieties in Japan: indoors and outdoors, gender separated and mixed, developed–as in commercial inns and spas–and undeveloped, that you might happen upon in nature. They are a popular destination for those seeking to relax and heal, physically and mentally.

  • Siesta (From Islam to Spain to Latin America to Greece to…)

Sleeping has been promoted lately as the panacea for everything from weight loss to preventing dementia and more. So it is surprising that anyone would still scorn an afternoon siesta. 

It’s believed that Spain introduced the siesta centuries ago to provide farmers with a time to rest during peak temperatures. However, the origins of the afternoon nap go back even further, dating back to ancient Islam. The practice was recorded in Islamic Law and was also written about in the Koran. Romans also regularly took daily naps.

The name comes from the Latin “hora sexta”, which means “the sixth hour.” Since the hours of the day begin at dawn, the sixth hour is noon, which is when siestas often start. Due to Spain’s wide influence, siestas are common in Spanish-speaking nations around the world, as well as Greece, Italy, The Philippines, and Nigeria, to name a few.  And, it’s not always a nap, but time for a leisurely family lunch, quiet time to relax, unwind, and plan the rest of the day. It’s not uncommon for whole towns in countries that honor the tradition to shut down for an hour or two after the noon meal as people retreat indoors to refresh themselves. 

In the US, the verdict is still out. Not because of the lack of proven benefits of power napping, because there are many, from reduced stress to enhanced mood, energy, memory, and learning.  But the cultural inclination to go, go, go is still pervasive. That said, companies like Google, Hootsuite, and others encourage the practice with nap pods.  

And, with working at home, who needs a nap pod when your couch is so close!

Try it at home.

Nothing beats traveling and respectfully experiencing cultural traditions in context. And, hopefully, we can all do that soon. But in the meantime, as you feel your stress rise, learn from one of these time-honored approaches: laugh out loud, make an antioxidant tea or smoothie, take a bath (and don’t forget your broom), and then take a power nap. 

With millions of people practicing these traditions over centuries of time, you can’t go wrong.

About the Author

DEANNA SHOSS

Deanna Shoss is a marketer, writer and interculturalist in Chicago. As CEO of Intercultural Talk, Inc., she provides digital, intercultural and real-life marketing for non-digital natives. She helps people who seek strategy and tactics to build their business or realize a purpose-driven project, using the new (for them) online and social communication technologies Deanna speaks Portuguese, Spanish and French and is a certified Body Pump instructor. Learn more at interculturaltalk.com or follow her on Twitter, @cultureguru

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