Often, we think of stress as a bad thing. But feeling stressed can be useful when we're dealing with threatening situations, such as the approach of a driver with road rage. In those moments, it's important that we react quickly, so the fight-or-flight response kicks in, causing a chain reaction—our adrenaline pumps, our blood pressure rises, our heart rate speeds up, and our muscular tension increases. The problem is, when these threats—real
or perceived—come too fast and furious, the body doesn't have time to recover. The effects can be serious and far-reaching. Certain functions, like cardiovascular activity, get overused; others, like digestion, become sluggish. It's thought that these imbalances can lead to toxic buildup and ultimately disease. (For a more complete understanding of the physiology of stress, see This Is Your Body on Stress).
During some stressful times, we get wound up so tight that no amount of rest can release the tension in our muscles. We simply need to move. But we often feel too exhausted for intense, heart-pumping physical exertion. Fortunately, yoga can rescue us! And we can often feel the effects immediately. As we focus on movement and the breath, yoga stills our ceaseless thinking, worrying, and projecting into the future.
The gentle yoga routine I've created here allows you to be quiet, receptive, and spacious. It is the perfect way to unwind your energetic corkscrew.
A word of advice before you begin: Clear your preconceptions about how long you "should" practice and what your practice "should" look like. These notions alone can cause enough stress for you to resist doing any practice at all! Practice intuitively instead, letting your breath be your guide.
1. Moving Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
Lie on your back with your legs bent and arms by your sides. Exhale completely. Begin the movement: On an inhalation that lasts 4 counts, lift your hips up off the floor as you raise your arms to the ceiling and then to the floor behind you, so they end up next to your ears. On a 4-count exhalation, bring your hips down and your arms back by your sides. Repeat this as many times as you like, breathing smoothly and evenly and moving with grace and sensitivity. The last time you lower your hips, lift your arms and extend them overhead next to your ears.
2. Jathara Parivartanasana Variation (Revolved Abdomen Pose Variation)
Draw your knees into your chest and drop them to the right as your arms open out into a T shape. Turn your face to the left. Notice what you are looking at when you turn your head. Try to soften the muscles around your eyes and simply see what is right in front of you; relating to what is actually happening is a powerful way to let go of frustration, anxiety, and stress. Can you let your eyes be receptive? Stay here for 5 breaths, then release your arms, bring your knees back to center, and lower both feet to the floor..
3. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
From your position lying on the floor, roll all the way to the right and move into Downward-Facing Dog: Come onto your hands and knees, tuck your toes under, and very slowly straighten your legs and lift your hips toward the sky.
To maintain the relaxation effect in the brain, allow your head to dangle as you move into the pose. If you want to try Down Dog as a restorative pose, place a block or bolster under your forehead. Imagine all of those unneeded opinions cascading out of your head. What a relief! Hold for 5 breaths.
4. Parighasana (Gate Pose)
From Down Dog, lower your knees to the floor and slowly roll up, vertebra by vertebra, so you end standing on your knees. Extend your left leg out to the side in line with your right knee. On an inhalation, reach your arms out to the sides. As you exhale, slowly lean to the left, sliding the back of your left hand down your left leg. This arm placement allows for complete external rotation of the left arm, a perfect support for the function of the heart and lungs. Reach the right arm overhead. Who knows? Maybe someday your two palms will touch in this position. Whatever you do, don't stress about it. Just stay with your breath and the feelings in your body. Remain here for 3 to 5 breaths.
5. Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)
From Parighasana, bring your torso and arms back by your sides. On an exhalation, bring your knees together, sit down on your heels, and then shift your buttocks to the floor to the left of your feet. Swing your legs around in front of you and straighten them, coming into Dandasana (Staff Pose). Engage your legs firmly and invite the backs of the thighs to make contact with the floor, a powerful technique for grounding and calming the nerves. With a long spine and open chest, walk your hands forward and hold on to your legs wherever you can reach. Then exhale and fold forward. To do a restorative version of this pose, place a block or blanket under your forehead and allow the upper back to round. What would it take for you to fully rest in this pose today? Recognizing your own habits of pulling, grabbing, or wishing things were different is a first step toward reducing stress. Stay here for as long as you like.
6. Ardha Matsyendrasana Variation (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose)
From Paschimottanasana, slowly inhale and sit back up. Bend your left leg and cross it over your right, planting the left foot on the floor outside of your right thigh. Inhale to lengthen the spine as you raise your arms up by your ears. As you exhale, twist to the left, wrapping your right arm around your left leg as you place your left hand on the floor just behind your sacrum. Go slowly and feel how the twist begins deep inside and unfurls as you turn the corner. Rest your gaze on whatever is in front of you. Imagine you have eyes in the back of your head and see what is behind you. Hold for 5 breaths, then unwind from the twist and place both feet flat on the floor. Hold on to the backs of your thighs and slowly roll down to the floor. Do the entire stress-reducing sequence to the other side; repeat it as many times as you like. Hold the poses either for the suggested amount of time or as long as you like. Keep the breath quiet and refined as you explore how full and deep you can make it without placing any stress on your lungs.