Being stressed used to be part of my life pretty much 7/7. With work, family commitments and a background of negative news on the TV and radio, I felt stressed and anxious – sometimes not even knowing why exactly I felt that way. The stress was just there, at the back of my head, like a grey cloud.
This is what got me to yoga. When my first daughter was born, it all got a bit too much and my general stress level turned into full blown post-natal depression. My GP was lovely and advised I took time for myself (easier said than done) and that I started yoga.
After a few weeks of doing yoga once a week, I started feeling calmer, a bit brighter and happier. I had more energy as well – stress is one of the hungriest energy thieves around.
At the time, I didn’t know why or how yoga worked. It just did.
Most of you probably notice the same at the end of a yoga class. There is a feeling of relaxation and calm in both body and mind that feels absolutely divine.
Let’s explore 4 ways yoga reduces stress – and how you can harness that to get even more from your yoga practise.
Being in the moment
Most of us know it but here it is again: if you keep you mind in the moment, there is no stress. Stress comes from us either mulling over the past (and what should have happened differently) or worrying about the future.
The practice of yoga helps keep your mind in the present moment.
Balance postures are especially good at that, as you really can’t balance if your mind is distracted.
Do it at home: Try and stand in the tree position, even if you keep both feet on the floor with the toes of one foot touching the ground. Try and stay still. You will find that it helps to focus your mind on one specific point ahead of you.
As I mentioned in my blog last week, breathing is the key to mastering our mind and emotions.
A deep breath that involves the diaphragm and get the abdomen to rise when you breathe in will send signals to your nervous system that it is ok to relax.
Especially calming is an equal ratio breath, during which you breathe in and out for the same length of time.
Do it at home: Sit on a chair or on the floor with your back straight and your shoulders back, place a hand just above the navel. Breathe in and feel your abdomen rise. Breathe out and feel it relax. Do this a few times.
Now start counting: breathe in for a count of 4 (or not if 4 is too much) and breathe out for a count of 4 (or 2 if that was the length of your inbreath). Repeat this for a few breaths.
After a few minutes, return to your normal breathing.
Release of physical tension
Stress impacts our physical body directly. We’ve all experienced it at some point: tight shoulders, stiff neck, a knot in the stomach… These are just a few manifestations of stress in the body.
Through sequences and poses, yoga releases the physical tension from the body. As the stress gets released, energy can flow through the body better. The result is a body that feels refreshed, more comfortable and more alive after a class.
One of the easiest ways to start releasing physical tension is the combination of a twist and some spinal waves.
Do it at home: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and start to gently twist from side to side. Allow your arms to wrap around your lower back as you twist comfortably from side to side. Allow the arms to progressively come up until you gently tap behind your shoulders.
Slowly take the arms back down and allow the movement to slow down.
Now, take your feet to hip width apart. Place your hands in the curve of your lower back to support it. Breathe in and as you breathe out, start bending forward from the hips until your back is parallel to the floor. If that feels a bit far, feel free to stop the movement higher. From there, bend your knees, pull your tummy in and as you breathe in, uncurl back to standing, still keeping the hands in the lower back. Repeat the movement 5 x, moving at the rhythm of your breath.
Once you are done, release your hands from the lower back and give your whole body a little shake out.
Release of emotional tension
As well as being carried in the body, our stress also weighs on our mind in the form of negative emotions and/or negative self-talk.
Yoga postures, especially those focusing on the hips and the heart, help us release this emotional tension, even if we might not be aware of it.
Visualisations and/or affirmations are another aspect of yoga that can help release negative feelings and replace them by something more positive.
Do it at home: Stand tall with your feet hip width apart and your shoulders relaxed. Lift your arms up at the level of the heart with your palms turned towards you, as if you were holding a beach ball between your arms.
Breathe in and take the hands towards you. Feel your chest, your heart open.
Breathe out, turn the hands to face away from you and push away. Feel the release as you breathe out.
Repeat this 6-8x. As you breathe in, imagine you are breathing in a sense of calm and as you breathe out, release anything negative that is on your mind.