I am no stranger to stress, anxiety, and even panic attacks. While I am a certified yoga therapist and have trained with many master teachers, my deepest understanding of the tools and practices I share comes from direct experience. Over the past 25 years, my yoga and meditation practice has helped me work with mental wellness, injuries, illness, and grief.
Through sharing these practices, I’ve discovered a number of things. One is that many of us often feel stressed, reactive, and overwhelmed. Another is that we don’t know how to be gentle, kind, and compassionate with ourselves—the conditions that allow us to evolve.
Science tells us that yoga, breath awareness, and meditation practices can have a direct impact on our perception of stress and our experience of anxiety because of their effects on brain structure and the nervous system. These yogic practices set the conditions to initiate the relaxation response.
Slow-flow yoga is perfect for people who have trouble sitting still for meditation or those with higher levels of anxiety or depression. People suffering from these conditions may initially respond better to moderately paced asana sessions than to seated meditation or stillness, according to research. Anecdotally, many students I’ve guided over the years find this method much more calming and approachable than faster, more dynamic yoga styles. That may be because deep breathing and calming moves help quiet the mind and prime the body to initiate the soothing parasympathetic response.
Being gentle, slow, and mindful is not being lazy or passive. It’s learning how to balance strength, receptivity, and fluidity while continually making room for the free flow of breath. Over time, mindful movement practices train your mind and body to be more relaxed, aware, and stable, which can help you respond to challenging people and stressful situations with equanimity.
Make it yours
Yoga practitioners and teachers alike can use the following six steps to design a personalized slow-flow practice.
1. Begin with body awareness
At the start of most yoga classes, invite yourself or your students to simply sit for a moment with eyes closed. Intentionally scan the body with full awareness: soles of the feet, ankles, knees, hips, abdomen, chest, arms, neck, head, face, crown.
Many people who do this find—usually to their astonishment—that there are areas of their bodies that lack feeling or that exist outside their conscious awareness. Students often share that they experience the surprising discovery that somehow the “circuits have not been hooked up” to one or another part of the body.
“When I close my eyes, I just can’t sense what I am feeling in my belly; it’s just sort of numb,” one of my students said. Indeed, the circuitry may be weak if the sensory pathways have been underused. The neural pathways are available; however, the brain’s skill in intentionally using them has to be developed. A slow-flow session can help reawaken sensation and awareness.
2. Get grounded
Supine poses (like those in this calming sequence) help you become more present by getting you more deeply connected and attuned to your body and breath.
3. Cultivate a pranayama connection
Follow your breath throughout your session. Smooth, calm breathing encourages your nervous system to relax.
See also: A Beginner’s Guide to Pranayama
4. Practice standing poses
Start from a grounded Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and move through a few poses at a moderate pace, gently attuning to your breath and body throughout. Explore each pose for at least 5–10 breaths, allowing time for your mind and body to find calm. You may periodically bring your awareness to the parts of your physicality that felt less “online” when you scanned your body. This mindful attention helps boost awareness of these areas, in turn helping to build the neural pathways.
5. Scan your body again
Return to a still Mountain Pose, and without judgment, notice how your body feels now. Are you more aware and conscious of the areas where you felt less connection earlier?
6. Release into restorative shapes
Mindful movement and breathing help you to ease into a more relaxed, restful state. Sit or lie down, and as best you can, let go of any activation of your breath and body. Offer yourself compassion as you release into the floor, supported by props if you choose.
See more: Can Stress Cause a Broken Heart?
Your psoas and stress
At the core of your body lies the psoas, a long muscle that connects your legs to your spine. Your nervous system and psoas communicate with each other constantly. When you feel unsafe, this muscle contracts. In fact, it’s said to be the very first muscle activated if you need to fight, flee, or freeze. Imagine walking down the street and, unexpectedly, a car honks at you from behind. When you are startled this way, the fear center immediately fires up the psoas to help you move your body to safety. The psoas becomes constricted not only from feeling threatened but also from everyday activities. For instance, it tightens when you wear high heels or tight pants, walk on concrete, or sit for too long. When your psoas constricts, it’s hard to feel grounded. When this tissue is supple and pliable, it allows you to feel more supported—like you belong on the earth. Because your fear circuitry and the stress response activate your psoas, it holds a lot of tension (rigidity from the psychoemotional response) rather than more straightforward tightness (shortening of the muscle from exercise or overuse). Tension can’t be stretched—it needs time, care, and safety to unravel. Slow flow sequences like the one shown here can help.