Here is a truth that we need to acknowledge: most of us are stressed out. Collectively and individually, we have weathered a pandemic storm that was unpredictable, traumatic for many and ushered in unwelcome and consequential changes to our lives that have impacted our nervous systems in very real ways. And many of us didn’t need a pandemic to admit that we were stressed out; we live in a stressed out culture. In this article we will explore yoga poses to help cope with the effects of stress on our bodies.
Even if you escaped the pandemic relatively unscathed and perhaps even enjoyed the slower pace, it is near impossible to ignore the collective stress that we have been under together as a human race. So many of us have endured life-altering levels of stress through illness, death, financial hardship, loss of jobs and identities, parenting through unprecedented times, witnessing the hardship of our communities and loved ones and so much more.
We all experience stress
Pandemic or not, we all experience stress. It is a normal and even important part of life. Stress tells us that we are going through something; it alerts us to pay attention to our bodies, make shifts in our lives and sometimes slow down or let go of certain obligations. However, many of us are experiencing levels of stress that negatively impact our health and well-being and as such, it is worth building some tools into your life to help you feel more grounded.
Here are some indications that you might be stressed out: you feel tired all the time, you are sleeping much more or less than usual, your appetite has meaningfully changed, you feel irritable, your mind feels foggy, you crave extra fatty or sugary foods, you are pouring yourself a glass of wine more often, you feel numb or distant, you find yourself looping on stress stories in your mind, you are having elusive and unexplainable health issues like stomach aches and headaches, or you are feeling less joy.
You might be experiencing some symptoms that are not on this list, but your intuition tells you are stress-related; trust your gut.
Everyone experiences stress differently, so get curious about what stress feels like in your mind and body.
How does yoga help?
Yoga offers amazing tools for coping with stress. Through breathwork practices (pranayama), yoga poses (asana), tools for cultivating inner happiness (niyamas) and much more, yoga offers pathways to soothe our nervous systems and feel better in our bodies.
When we are stressed out, it is important that we get out of our heads and into our physical bodies. So here are 5 yoga poses that will help you cope with stress. Try practicing these a few times a week to help with overall stress levels or turn to a few of these poses when you feel acute stress in your life.
Supported Legs Up the Wall Pose (Viparita Karani)
This pose is a passive inversion (feet are above your head). With gravity assisting the blood flowing back to your heart, your heart rate slows and you begin to feel calmer. This is a great pose to do to prepare for sleep or when you need a pause.
- Place a cushion, bolster or folded blanket about 3-6 inches away from the wall. You can also practice on the floor without a bolster, if you prefer.
- Sit towards one end of the bolster with your side facing the wall, press your hands into the bolster as you swing your feet up onto the wall and lie down on your back.
- Scoot your pelvis into place on the bolster so that just your tailbone is hanging off.
- You can rest both of your hands on your belly, one hand on your heart and one on your belly, or open up your arms to your sides with the palms facing up.
- Find a full, smooth breath and stay here for 30 seconds to 10 minutes. If your feet go numb and you don’t enjoy that sensation, come out of it and lay on your back.
TIP: Create a more complete relaxation experience by cueing some soothing music before you put your legs up the wall.
Child’s Pose (Balasana)
Child’s pose is often used as a place for rest or regrouping during a yoga class. It can be a comforting pose because you are curled into yourself and it promotes steady, conscious breathing while soothing the mind. It is also wonderful for relieving back, neck and shoulder tension.
- Begin on hands and knees with the tops of your feet on the floor and your big toes touching. You may try this pose with your knees wider than your feet or with your knees together; notice which version feels better for you.
- Release your forehead to the floor as you sink your sit bones towards your heels.
- Keep your arms extended in front of you or bring the arms alongside your body with the palms turned up.
TIP: Place a pillow under your forehead or a rolled blanket/pillow under or on top of your ankles. For an extra restorative version, place a bolster underneath your torso and rest one side of your face onto the bolster.
Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
This is an effective pose that can be used anytime, no mat required. Forward fold at the office, while waiting in line or before a stressful event. It creates length through the diaphragm, inviting deeper, calming breaths and releases tension through the head, shoulders and back.
- Stand with your feet hips-width distance apart.
- Hinge from your hips and fold over your legs.
- Bend your knees as much as needed to relieve any tension in your back and allow the torso to lengthen over the legs.
- You can keep your hands on the floor, hold opposite elbows with your hands or interlace your hands at your low back and lift the knuckles to the sky.
- Release any tension in your shoulders, jaw or face and breathe.
TIP: Try letting the body sway side to side or make ‘yes’ and ‘no’ motions with your head to release deeper tension.
Tree Pose (Vrksasana)
Tree Pose is recommended for anxiety, because it promotes focus, awareness and grounding. By practicing a balancing pose, you unhook from the stress and bring focus to your body.
- Practice next to a wall if you have trouble balancing.
- Stand with your feet hips width distance. Bring the weight into your left foot and bend your right knee to place the sole of the foot on the inside of your left thigh or just below the knee, toes facing towards the floor.
- Center your pelvis over your standing food and square your hips to face directly forward.
- Try pressing the sole of the lifted foot and the thigh towards each other.
- You may bring your hands a prayer position at your heart or try extending your arms above your head.
- Focus your gaze (dristi) on something in front of you to help your balance.
- Stay for 5-6 breaths or as long as you wish/can and switch sides.
TIP: Move slowly. If you have trouble balancing, see if you can slow down and take it one step at a time and be gentle with yourself. Even when you fall out of it, try doing so with more intentionality. Be in the process of practicing tree pose, rather than being set on achieving a certain version of it.
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Savasana is the classic resting pose for the end of an asana practice. It encourages surrendering and releasing control. For some people, this pose can feel vulnerable and bring up anxiety; if this is the case, try laying a cozy blanket on top of yourself or rolling onto your side and resting in a fetal position.
- Lay on your back. Roll your legs open and turn your palms up with your arms at a comfortable distance from your body.
- Close your eyes or soften your gaze onto a point.
- Take a full inhale and on your exhale, relax into the floor underneath you.
- Stay for 5-20 minutes.
TIP: Make Savasana more comfortable by placing a pillow, blanket or bolster underneath your knees. You may also add a blanket or pillow underneath your head.
Yoga is an amazing tradition that has innumerable tools for helping you feel calmer and more like yourself. One way to start integrating the benefits of yoga into your life is through practicing simple physical postures that have an immediate impact.
As you notice stress pop up in your life in the coming weeks, practice shifting your attention into your physical body, rather than trying to think your way through it. Although sometimes our stresses have mental solutions to think through, you’ll notice that often you are running familiar stories that don’t really have solutions and staying in your head isn’t actually helping your stress come down. Instead, next time you notice stress, try practicing one or two of these poses to soothe your system and see if it makes a difference.
You could also try getting in the habit of starting or ending your days with a few yoga poses. Notice if it helps you start your day more grounded or sleep a little more soundly.
Let me know how these poses feel in the comments!