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There are days when you want your typical hour-long yoga practice. And then there are days when you need—desperately—whatever measure of yoga you can sneak into your schedule so you can come back to yourself. There is a simple fix for that second kind of day — calming yoga poses that you can do in less than 5 minutes, and will bring about that coveted vibe-leveling effect.
What makes some yoga poses so insanely calming?
There exists a plethora of research related to the science of yoga. Many contemporary explanations as to why yoga has such a calming effect are traced back to the breath. When you consciously slow the rhythm of your inhalations and exhalations and intentionally draw in more than the typical shallow breath for more than just an isolated breath at a time, a profound shift takes place in your physiological and psychological state. And it can happen in as little as 90 seconds. That’s less time than it takes to post a story to Instagram.
Inherent in the practice of yoga is the constant emphasis on the breath and the reminder to slow it down and align your movements with your breath. Ancient yogis apparently knew what contemporary science has repeatedly found to be true.
Yoga takes things even further, though, by incorporating the breath with the awareness aspect of meditation, which is also well-documented in its benefit to the psyche. Yoga asks you to remain present with how you are showing up to yourself and your situation in the moment at hand. It trains you to be conscious of the clenching in your jaw, the hunching of your shoulders close to your ears, the gripping of your hands, and any of the countless other places where you may be so accustomed to holding tension that you forget it’s there. It asks you, in each moment, to notice where you’re making things harder on yourself than they need to be, both in your physical practice and in your mental practice.
What’s so special about forward bends?
The subset of yoga known as forward bends are, as the name implies, a class of postures characterized by a bending forward from your hips. And these calming yoga poses tend to particularly impact your psyche.
Psychologically, as you fold forward, you effectively shut out the rest of the world and it becomes a little—or a lot—easier to withdraw from the chaos of life. In ancient traditions, this aspect of yoga is known as pratyahara and is described as a turning inward of the senses.
Once your attention is drawn within, though, it can quickly become a tricky place to linger unchaperoned. Those looping thoughts that wonder “what if” or constantly tally your to-do list or try to figure things out can cause tremendous unease. So it’s not sufficient to simply turn inward. It’s essential to do so with some measure of mindfulness. The practice of yoga trains you to keep your awareness on the breath, which repeatedly draws you away from the looping thoughts and literally short-circuits your tendency to ruminate. And that brings your thoughts back to the moment at hand and nothing more.
Physically, yoga does essentially the same thing. The practice helps you not overburden the current moment with the tension that has been accumulating in the last hours, days, or even lifetime. It requests that you instead settle into the reality at hand and loosen the grip tension has on your body. And it affords you tools to help you do exactly that. Forward folds are particularly adept at this, as they require only that you lean forward in a manner that is comfortable and allow gravity to have its way with you.
There are other ways that calm happens when the musculature of the back body is lengthened and stretched in forward bends. It’s complicated, but put simply, when physical tension dissipates, there is a lessening of emotional distress. The effects vary somewhat depending on the particular posture.
When time is of the essence and you simply need to quiet down and come back to yourself, follow the calming yoga poses below that require no prior stretching or preparation. Simply stop, drop, and yoga, as a Yin Yoga teacher once said.
The more you practice awareness and ease on your mat, if even for minutes at a time, the more likely you are to bring this attitude back to the rest of your life. That’s why yoga is referred to as a “practice.”
See also: Get to Know the 8 Limbs of Yoga
How to practice these calming yoga poses
All you need to practice these stretches is a stolen moment between Zoom meetings. That’s it. No hauling out your yoga mat. No coordinating your schedule with online classes. No rushing to change into yoga clothes. Just stretch.
How to do these poses:
- Do slow your breath.
- Do bring your awareness to how you’re holding yourself physically. Release any tension.
- Do return your awareness to your breath if you get distracted.
- Do explore if there is more tension that can release. Unclench your jaw. Release your shoulders. Ungrip your hands. Reassess and release every few breaths.
- Do stay in each for a minimum of 30 seconds.
- Do remain in any pose longer if you feel like it—up to 3 to 5 minutes each.
- Do know that the time spent in any pose is going to pass regardless of whether you let yourself revel in it or rush through it. You may as well relax.
How not to do these poses:
- Do not constantly check the time or your texts.
- Do not attempt to intensify the stretch to multitask.
- Do not rush as you transition between stretches to get into the next one.
- Do not contemplate dinner or deadlines or that series you just began to binge-watch last night.
5 calming yoga poses to do right now
Why this pose is so calming: No need to clamber onto the floor. Instead, step back from your keyboard and simply let yourself slump forward into Standing Forward Bend. Chances are it will feel like lazy traction on your lower back—and even that simple reduction in physical tension can bring less mental tension.
How to: Stand with your feet alongside one another or as far apart as you like, even a little wider than your hips. Bring a slight bend to your knees. Slowly start to bend forward, bringing your chest toward your thighs and the top of your head toward the mat. Allow your hands to dangle on the ground or you can bend your elbows and gently rest your hands on your opposite forearms. You want your shoulders to release, your neck to relax, and your head to be heavy. This posture is oft (and accurately) referred to as ragdoll. Continue to draw your breath toward your hips and, with each exhalation, release a little more tension. Stay here for at least 30 seconds.
Why this pose is so calming: Forward fold meets backbend in this soothing stretch that counteracts hunching all day. You can easily rest your forehead on the mat instead for a stretch that’s less intense.
How to: Come into your hands and knees on the floor, in your bed, or even on your couch. You may want to slide a blanket or pillow beneath your knees. Walk your hands about a foot forward and slightly wider than your shoulders. Ensure your hips remain stacked over your knees. Slowly release your forehead toward the mat. Relax your shoulders, arms, and hands. Let most of your weight be in your knees. With each exhale, let your chest sink a little closer to the ground. If you have no known neck issues, you can slowly lift your head and rest your chin on the mat if you like. Stay here for at least 30 seconds.
Why this pose is so calming: Child’s Pose sounds like it’s all play. It’s actually less about that and more about taking a moment’s respite from being an adult. Given the proliferation in the last year and a half of memes depicting this as the yoga pose people most want to crawl into—and remain in—it’s safe to say this is a place that unfailingly brings some measure of quiet escape.
How to: From hands and knees, bring your feet toward one another at the back of the mat. You can bring your knees a little wider than your hips or you can bring them together. Try one and if it’s not comfortable, come into the other. You may want to slide a blanket or pillow beneath your knees. Start to walk your hands forward and lower your forehead and your chest toward the mat. Your forehead may rest on the mat. If it doesn’t touch, consider sliding a folded blanket, a block, or a couple books underneath—you simply want enough height to lift the ground to meet you. Let your shoulders release. There’s no need to tense the arms or press through the palms. With each exhale, let your hips and shoulders release a little closer to the mat. Stay here for at least 30 seconds.
Why this pose is so calming: It doesn’t matter what this pose looks like when you attempt it. It’s all about how it feels in your body. You want a slight stretch in your lower back, the back of your straight leg, and the outer edge of your bent knee as well as that same side hip. Your neck, shoulders, and arms get to completely relax—something that rarely happens during the day. You may end up lingering here longer than you’d imagine. Let yourself.
How to: Come to a seated position with your legs straight in front of you. Bend your right knee and bring the bottom of your right foot to your left inner thigh. You may want to slide a folded blanket or a pillow under your bent knee and/or your straight knee. Inhale and sit tall, as though you’re lifting your chest away from your hips, before you exhale and turn slightly to the left and let your chest fall toward your thigh. Relax your arms on either side of your left leg. When your upper back starts to round, simply stop falling forward and relax into whatever position you’re in. Let your neck and head hang heavy and your right shoulder release. Remain here for at least 30 seconds. Slowly lift your chest and switch to the other side.
Why this pose is so calming: If you’re tight on time and need a single stretch to target multiple joints and muscle groups, this is it. The name of this pose, Bound Angle, implies intensity, yet it doesn’t need to be. The bottoms of your feet come together, your knees fall apart, and your heels either tuck in close to your hips or slide away from you and bring more ease to the stretch— that’s something you get to decide. (The closer your heels, the more intense the physical aspect of the stretch. The further your heels are from your hips, the less intense and, arguably, the better you’re transported to a relaxed state.)
How to: Come onto your bum, bend your knees, and bring the bottoms of your feet together. If you want, slide your heels further away from you—a little or a lot—to form a diamond shape to ease the physical intensity of the stretch. Shift your weight slightly forward onto the front of your sit bones. Exhale, hinge at your hips, and let your chest come forward. Don’t worry about how close your chest comes toward the ground. And don’t force yourself toward the mat. Instead, simply draw your chest forward a little. When your upper back starts to round, cease trying to lean forward and simply let your shoulders and neck relax and your head hang. Stay here for at least 30 seconds. Slowly lift your chest and use your hands to bring your knees toward one another and then straighten your legs and pause prior to resuming your life.
See also: A Calming Sequence to Help You Slow Down