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Whether it’s tightness in your shoulders, tension through your spine, or a seemingly never-ending headache, stress manifests itself in our bodies in various ways. Yoga, with its focus on breathing and mindful movement, might be the ultimate form of stress relief. The practice has been proven to help you relax and unwind, even on the most anxiety-filled days.
How does yoga relieve stress?
The better question might be how doesn’t yoga relieve stress? As a practice, yoga triggers the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which when activated, signals the body and mind to relax. The deep breathing we practice in yoga helps calm you, lowering blood pressure, decreasing your heart rate, and focusing your thoughts and attention. The gentle asanas allow you to tune into your body, stretch and strengthen your muscles, release tension, and ease pain.
Yoga also has been shown to decrease the levels of cortisol, or the stress hormone, in the body. It can improve your sleep, digestion, immune system—all of which are impacted by stress. It can ease depression, sadness, and mood swings by restoring dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Yoga also tones the vagus nerve—otherwise known as the well-being nerve—which, according to research, allows people to more easily shift from a stressed to a relaxed state.
There are many (countless, even!) benefits of yoga. But the best thing about it is that the more you practice, the more prepared you’ll be to mange daily stress and emotionally and physically fraught situations as they arise.
How to practice yoga for stress relief
Before heading to your mat for a stress-busting practice, make sure you’ve created a space that cultivates a sense of calm. Lisa Jang, a Yin Yoga teacher and trainer, says personalizing your space—and reminding those around you that you’re seeking some dedicated quiet time–can help create a serene practice area you can retreat to whenever you need it.
We asked Jang to share some of her favorite yoga poses for stress relief, plus how she uses acupressure to prep for a serene at-home practice (even in times of chaos).
Acupressure for stress relief
Before moving into asana poses, Jang recommends engaging in a brief acupressure practice. And all you need is a set of yoga blocks. “[I do] a little acupressure at the occipital ridge of my skulls using blocks, specifically below the base of the skull, in the hollow between the two vertical neck muscles,” she says. Jang, who completed acupressure training at the McKinnon Therapy School, says that two trigger points from Traditional Chinese Medicine—the “Gates of Consciousness,” and “Heavenly Pillar”—are located here. This acupressure practice can help release tense necks—and relieve painful headaches.
To set this up, place one yoga block on the floor and lean the second block horizontally against the first. Face away from the blocks, and come down to your back, with your neck resting on the angled block and the base of your skull pressing gently against its top edge. Relax here before rolling to your side to return to sitting.
6 yoga poses for stress relief
A variation of Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose), Jang says this pose helps release tension in two stress-ridden areas—your neck and hamstring. To practice this pose, Jang advises placing a long yoga strap over your ears. (The strap will sit above your ears, she says.) One additional benefit of this particular variation? You’ll feel al the benefits of a lower body stretch without having to hold the strap with your arms.
Eye of the Needle Pose
Feeling some stress and tightness around your glute muscles? Jang recommends practicing this posture. “This one is my go-to for my glutes,” she says. “There’s something about how I can just tilt a little from side to side to get a tension release around my glutes.” If you’re looking for some additional support in this pose, Jang says you can also opt to practice it against a wall.
This Yin Yoga posture is a great pose to turn to when you’re feeling some increased stress. “Settling into a banana or half-moon shape [and] releasing my intercostal muscles and obliques for three to five minutes makes me breathe more fully into my body,” Jang says. While she chooses to practice this pose with a strap, she says you can opt to come into the shape without props, as well. But even without props, you’ll still be able to reap the benefits of this restorative posture.
Thread the Needle
This pose, practiced in a Balasana (Child’s Pose) position, helps relieve tension in your shoulders, Jang says. If you’ve been stressed out while hunching over your laptop or phone all day, this is a great pose to include in your stress-relieving practice. While Child’s Pose is already a calming posture, adding this arm variation allows you to relax through your upper body, Jang says.
Open Wing Pose
Need a pose that will help you tap into your breath? Try this posture. Like Thread the Needle, Jang says this pose helps relieve stress and tension throughout your shoulders by opening them up. While in this pose, focus on deep breaths and relaxing through your entire upper body. You’ll find yourself wanting to linger in this pose for more than a few breaths. (And we don’t blame you.)