Chronic stress has been linked to a number of health problems, keeping us in a “fight or flight” mentality that keeps our sympathetic nervous system on high. We have this response for a reason, yet when we keep it activated for a prolonged period of time, it can result in various ailments including but not limited to increased muscle tension, rapid breathing, panic attacks, hypertension, heart attacks, and heart disease.
Most of the time, we’re stressed because of what happened in the past or what is about to happen. So how do we get out of the “fight or flight” response and back to our “rest and restore” mode, also known as the parasympathetic nervous system? By focusing and deepening our breath, as well as bringing our minds back to the present moment. When we bring ourselves back to the here and now, we can actually feel (a little bit more) in control.
Below are some yoga poses for stress relief that you can practice together or separately. Reducing stimuli including light can also help the nervous system relax. I recommend playing calming music and using some calming scents such as lavender to really get the most out of these poses. As I tell my students during class, one of the most important parts of yoga is breathing.
Sitting in a comfortable position, spine long, close the eyes as you begin to become aware of the breath. Follow your natural breath without changing it for a few moments. Deepening the breath, inhale through the nose and exhale out the mouth, making an audible noise as you contract the back of the throat. It’s a similar motion as if you were fogging up a mirror, but keeping your mouth closed instead of open. Stay with ujjayi breath for at least three minutes, counting to five on the inhales and six on the exhales. A longer exhalation signals the body to relax. This breath also brings your body back to the present moment, as all pranayama (or breathing practices) do, allowing you to become in control of your breath.
Supported Child’s Pose
Using a bolster or a rolled up blanket, bring the bolster between your legs as you kneel on the ground. Allow your hips to melt towards your heels as you lay your torso over the bolster, bringing one side of your face down. You can “hug” the bolster with your arms as you close your eyes. Allow the full weight of your body to be supported by the bolster. Now bring your attention back to your ujjayi breath. Halfway through, bring your other cheek to the bolster so that you’re completely balanced.
Laying on your back, bring your heels close to your glutes, knees hip width apart, hands along the side body, palms facing up. As you lift your hips up, bring the bolster under them and allow them to rest on top of the bolster. Close the eyes. When you bring your sacrum, the triangle above your glutes, to a solid surface, you’re signaling the hips to relax fully, a place where many of us store our emotions.
Forward Fold, Wide Leg with Bolster
Sitting on the floor or on the edge of a blanket, send the legs out as wide you can, flexing the feet so the heels are moving away from you and the toes are reaching toward you. Engage the quads as they roll back. Place the bolster perpendicular in between your legs. Allow your torso to rest on the bolster, using blocks underneath the bolster to get to that position. Use the breath to completely relax. Forward folds are calming, signaling the body to relax and turn inward.
Reclining Bound Angle Pose
Laying on your back, bring the soles of the feet together as you allow the knees to relax to either side of you. If the knees hurt, support them with blankets. Bring one hand to your belly and the other hand to your heart. Close the eyes and practice yogic breath, allowing the hands to be reminders to stay in the present. Become aware of the breath moving into the belly, then the rib cage and then leaving the belly and the ribs.
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Additional Images Courtesy: Melissa Beveridge