Yoga for Stress Relief
We all know what it’s like to feel stressed-out. It manifests in our bodies in many ways: Headaches, insomnia, anxiety, tight muscles, poor digestion, back pain, skin problems — just to name a few. High levels of stress can lead to everything from heart attacks to infertility. That’s all on top of the fact that it’s simply no fun!
In yoga, we learn to work with our breath, our bodies, and our minds to control the seemingly automatic responses we have to the world around us. One definition of the Sanskrit word "yoga" is "union" — referring to the union of body, mind, and spirit we can attain through practicing yoga.
As we slow down our breath, calm our minds, and release tension in our bodies, we learn to live more fully in the present moment, letting go of troublesome stresses to find perspective, peace, and presence. Here are a few tips to incorporate the relaxing benefits of yoga into your everyday life.
Bring Awareness to Your Breath
A simple and important way to begin releasing stress in the moment is to breathe consciously. You don’t need to do any specific or fancy pranayama (yogic breath control) exercises. Simply begin to deepen your breath. When we’re under stress, our breath tends to become shallow and rapid. But deep breathing brings in more oxygen, which in turn helps to relax the entire body.
When we focus our thoughts on our breath, our thoughts turn to the present moment. We can’t breathe in the past or the future! This type of conscious breathing brings immediate and noticeable stress-busting benefits.
Try this simple breath-mind awareness technique the next time you’re feeling stressed:
- Using one hand, rest the tip of your thumb at the base of your index finger.
- As you inhale, slide your thumb to the tip of the index finger.
- Exhale as you slide your thumb back down to the base of the index finger.
- Repeat with the middle finger, then the ring and pinky fingers.
- Repeat with the pinky finger again, then make your way back to the index finger.
- You can repeat the entire hand as many times as you like, as often as you need.
Bring Your Yoga with You
Attending a 90-minute yoga class five days a week is a great idea! But sometimes even thinking about that is stressful (where does one find the time?). Here’s a secret: You don’t always need to go to class. The best part about yoga is that you can take it with you — to your desk, your bed, the grocery store, even your car. A regularly scheduled class with a good teacher will provide innumerable benefits, but incorporating simple yoga poses into your daily life might be just as beneficial in the long run.
Try these simple tips to bring yoga with you wherever you go:
- When sitting at your desk: With your feet flat on the floor, inhale and reach your arms overhead, lengthening your spine and neck. Exhale and fold forward, letting your torso drape over your thighs. Relax the back of your neck. Inhale to rise again. Repeat as necessary.
- When standing, waiting in line: Stand in Mountain Pose (Tadasana), with your feet hip-distance apart, spine long, collarbones broad, shoulders relaxed. Let your arms rest at your sides. Clench your fists, then release, feeling the tension in your body melt away. Soften your gaze. Breathe deeply.
- In your car: When you’re stopped at a red light or in bumper-to-bumper traffic, do some shoulder rolls, forward and back. Take a few deep breaths.
- In bed, in the morning: Lie on your back and hug your knees in to your chest. Extend your right leg along the mattress, keeping your left knee drawn in. This is Wind-Relieving Pose (Pavanamuktasana). Change sides a few times, then hug both knees in. Tuck your chin to your chest, then unroll slowly and breathe deeply to awaken your body and mind.
Do not fear mistakes. There are none.
Let it Go
Yoga is not a competition. It is not a goal. It is not something to strive to achieve. Yoga is a state of awareness, in which we learn to meet ourselves exactly where we are — with our current abilities and limitations in body, mind, and spirit.
There’s a saying, “Yoga is a practice, not a perfect.” Respect your limits — on and off the mat. Learn to listen to your body and let go of your need to make the present moment anything other than what it is.
When you fall in a yoga pose, you get back up and try again — it’s a practice. When you forget to breathe deeply in yoga, you simply begin again — it’s a practice. When we give up striving to make things perfect, we can relax into the flow of now. And that is practicing yoga!
Yoga may not be a miracle cure for over-the-top stress or burnout, but it sure can help. Take these tips to heart, but also talk with your instructor before class about your stressful state. He or she may recommend specific practice sequences, breath work, and meditation techniques to keep you relaxed when times are tough. Over time, the benefits of yoga will extend to all areas of your life.