Truth time: Our brains don’t know the difference between being chased by a tiger and being pinged by a triggering email. Both activate the amygdala—the part of our brain that kicks on when we are in distress and perceive a danger (real or imagined).
This brings on the fight-flight-freeze response. Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline flood your system, creating intense and immediate reactions: Your heart rate increases, your palms sweat, and you may feel the urge to run or hide until the danger goes away.
This biological response can save your life when you’re in real and urgent peril. But when the reaction is repeatedly triggered by non-life-threatening events, the constant onslaught of hormones can take a toll on your immune system, mess with your gut health, and leave you more susceptible to long-term mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Yoga, meditation, mindful breathing, and tuning in to your senses can help you cultivate presence, which can help to counter the stress reaction and reduce feelings of anxiety. For example, slowing your breath can move thoughts out of the amygdala and back into the prefrontal cortex—the thinking mind where more conscious and deliberate decisions are made.
Asana is similarly beneficial. As your body flows through different movements and poses, it stimulates the vagus nerve, which carries “calm down” signals to your body.
When you engage these relaxation responses regularly, the flood of hormones coursing through your system becomes a trickle. Your digestion balances, and your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal. Your mind slows down and your emotions settle. You begin to feel more balanced.
This following series of poses is designed to bring a little more ease and balance your way. Practice it whenever you feel tense and need to stretch away stress. As your body finds equilibrium, you’ll start to regain your power.
2 powerful, fast tension tamers
Try these simple practices whenever you need a refreshing reset.
If you’ve ever been in a car accident or another scary situation, you may have noticed yourself trembling afterward. This is the body’s way of naturally releasing stress and the cascade of cortisol. Try doing it on purpose: Stand at the top of your mat with your feet shoulder-width apart. Shake your body freely. I like to start at my knees and let that nice jiggle move up my whole body, through my arms and head. Practice for 1–3 minutes.
This technique is taught to Navy SEALs to help them remain calm in critical situations. Sit in a comfortable seat or lie on your back. Lower or close your eyes as you inhale for 5 counts, hold your breath for 5 counts, then exhale for 5 counts. Practice up to 10 rounds.
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with your feet hip-width apart and parallel. Hinge at your hips and fold, allowing your head and arms to dangle, or hold opposite forearms. Slightly bend your knees if you feel tightness in your back body. Hold for 10 breaths.
Neck stretch with a chair
Sit tall in a sturdy chair. Hold the right side of the seat with your right hand, and let your left arm dangle. Drop your left ear toward your left shoulder to open your neck and release your sternocleidomastoid, the jaw muscle that we tend to clench when we’re stressed. Hold for 8 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
Stand in Mountain Pose. Keeping your heels rooted, bend your knees as if sitting back into a chair. Lower yourself as far as possible, shifting your weight back so that you can see your toes. Extend your arms above your head, and release your shoulders down to create more space in your neck. This pose is also known as “powerful pose,” because it’s all about standing in your power and being able to sit with what is. When we can learn to sit with discomfort on the mat, we can sit with it off the mat. So stay. Hold for 8 breaths.
Come into Tabletop. Bring your left knee toward your left wrist. Keeping your left thigh parallel to the long side of your mat, inch your foot forward until it’s just in front of your right hip. If your hips allow, walk your left foot closer to the front of your mat to create a more intense stretch. Lower your pelvis, keeping your hips even and parallel to the floor. Elongate your right leg behind you as much as you can, and fold over your left shin. Hold for 10 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
Lie on your back with the soles of your feet on the floor, hip-width apart and parallel. Lift your hips, interlace your hands under your sacrum, and press your arms into the mat. Release tension in your shoulders, and allow your upper back to widen into the floor. Hold for 2–5 minutes.
Supta Matsyendrasana (Supine Spinal Twist)
From Bridge Pose, lower your hips to the mat, shifting them slightly to the right. Cross your right shin over your left thigh. Drop both knees to your left. Keep your shoulders on the floor. Hold for 8 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Savasana (Corpse Pose)
Lie on your back with your eyes closed. Extend your legs, and let your feet fall outward. Place your arms by your sides, and let your hands relax away from your body. Release any tension in your muscles. Rest in this position for 5–20 minutes.