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6 Poses to Calm Your Nervous System and Find a Sense of Safety

Try this sequence release stress in your body and mind.

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When life rattles us, we can turn to our yoga practice to help us re-ground, find calm, and release pent-up emotions. Boulder, Colorado-based yoga teacher Patricia Gipple recommends the following poses and pranayama breathwork to bring you into a more balanced state when stressful events unsettle your world. 

Photo: Chris Dougherty

Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing)

This technique can balance your energy, inviting calm or boosting your alertness. Sit tall in the yogic seat of your choice. Curl your right ring and pinky fingers into your palm. Join your middle and index fingers and point your thumb upright. Rest your left hand on your thigh. Gently press the extended two fingers to seal off the left nostril as you inhale for 4 counts through the right. Close your right nostril by pressing down with your thumb, releasing the left nostril as you exhale out of it for 4 counts. Inhale through the left nostril for 4 counts. Close the left nostril, open the right, and breathe out of it for 4 counts. Practice 4–6 rounds.

See also A Beginner’s Guide to Pranayama

Photo: Chris Dougherty

Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) 

From seated, straighten your legs, bring your inner legs together, and place your hands next to your outer hips. Flex your feet. Activate your thigh muscles by drawing them up, away from your kneecaps. Draw your low belly softly toward your spine. Let your shoulders move back. Breathe into your chest and your entire rib cage.  

Reach forward to hold your big toes, the sides of your feet, or a wrist beyond your flexed feet. You can also wrap a yoga strap around the arches of your feet and hold onto the prop. Maintaining the hold, inhale and lift your chest, lengthening your abdomen and sides. Gently relax your shoulders away from your ears. Exhale and begin to move deeper into a forward fold. Try not to pull with your arms. Instead, keep your shoulders relaxed. Bend your elbows and bow your head, gazing toward your legs. Relax your neck and let your breath move freely.

Keep gently drawing your low belly toward your spine, lifting your waist off of your thighs. On inhalations, feel a broadening of your chest and a lengthening in the front of your torso. On exhalations, feel a widening in your upper back as you continue to relax your shoulders. Hold for at least 5–10 breaths. To exit the posture, inhale and lengthen your torso upward while straightening your arms. 

Photo: Chris Dougherty

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, variation (Bridge Pose)

Lie on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet planted beneath your knees. Place your hands next to your hips. Press evenly into your hands and feet, and lift your pelvis up toward the ceiling, into Bridge Pose. Interlace your hands underneath your back as you draw your shoulder blades closer to your midline. Opening your chest can help counteract stress-induced shoulder tightness. For a more supported version of this pose (shown), place a block under your sacrum and secure a yoga strap to your thighs. The strap reduces the amount of muscular energy you’ll need to use keep your legs from splaying apart. Hold for 510 breaths.

Photo: Chris Dougherty

Matsyasana (Fish Pose)

Place one block on its middle height and, optionally, one block on its highest height, both parallel to the top of the mat. The block at the middle height will go just under your mid-back and the block at the highest height (if using) will go under your head. As you are ready, slowly recline onto the two blocks.

You can elongate your legs if you are looking to stretch through your belly. If this variation of Matsyasana puts too much pressure on your lower back, bend both knees and place both feet flat on the floor to relieve tension in your back. You could open your arms wide to find a nice opening across the chest. Rest here anywhere from 2–15 minutes. This shape offers many benefits, including relief for a constricted chest and shoulder tightness.

Photo: Chris Dougherty

Bharadvajasana, variation (Bharadvajasa’s Twist)

Sit on the floor, with your legs straight out in front of you and your arms behind your back. Place your hands on the floor behind you with your fingers facing away from you. Take your left foot and place it flat on the ground on the outside of your right knee. Inhale and lift your right arm up. Turn your chest, head and eyes to the left. Place your elbow on the outside of your left leg. Hold for 510 breaths. Slowly return to center. Repeat on the other side. Twists help open your chest, shoulders, and back, all of which can help to decrease anxious feelings. They help in releasing stored tension in your body, which can have a positive impact on your emotional state.

Photo: Chris Dougherty

Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose)

From seated, bring one side hip as close as possible to the baseboard of the wall, swing your legs up the wall until you are reclined on your back with your hips close to the wall. Extend your legs up the wall. You can bend your knees slightly, especially if your hamstrings feel tight. This posture is good for low back pain and revitalizing the body. Remain in the pose for 520 minutes. 

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