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Last week I crumbled in the shower after I dropped the razor and broke off the handle. I could barely breathe as I sat down in the shower with my head in my hands. I didn’t even have enough energy to cry. What the heck? I had endured a lot in my life and a broken razor was taking me down? It had been a stressful week of deadlines that weren’t met, disappointing people that I felt were counting on me, family bad news, a broken phone, and I felt like I couldn’t even spare a couple of hours off for date night with my husband. I was running as fast as I could but was coming up short on every realm. My fuse was spent and the trigger just happened to be the razor. Can any of you relate?
Stress demands all of our energy. When our batteries are so depleted, we can’t deal, and anything can push us over the edge. It’s like being stuck in semi-panic mode, where there is very little exhale, and the neck, head, and shoulders are likely to be tense. Yoga gives us tools to cope. When inner peace is nowhere to be found, it’s time to tune into the body. One technique is to notice where stress or panic lands in the body, and take our mind and breath there. Eventually, we want to get into a forward bend, which increase the exhalation, leading to the relaxation response. Forward bends are also restorative and move the needle of our battery back to the black. The following forward bend sequence can help address the symptoms of stress.
8 Yoga Poses for Stress Relief
Easy Pose (Sukhasana) with Forward Bend
Sit in Easy Pose, shins crossed with your right shin in front. Come into a slight forward bend. Stay for 5 breaths, then put the other shin in front. Put your hands on the floor, then straighten both legs into a Standing Forward Bend.
Adding a forward bend increases the exhale, leading to the relaxation response.
Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana) with Shoulder Opener
Not only do forward bends increase the exhalation, helping to relieve stress, they also turn us inward. Plus, with the arms behind the back, we release shoulder tension. This pose also helps to release the hamstrings, which can get bound up when you’re stuck in fight-or-flight mode.
When in Standing Forward Bend, use your front thigh muscles to actively pull your kneecaps up toward your hips. With your fingers interlaced and your arms behind your back, lift your arms any amount away from your back. Hold for 5 breaths, then change the interlace by putting the other index finger on top and stay for another 5 breaths. Take your hands to your hips, and your thumbs to the top of your behind. Drop the flesh of your buttocks to the floor to propel you up to stand. Take a giant step out to the right.
This pose has the benefits of a forward bend with the comfort of the head touching a prop, which also releases some of the pressure in the head.
Turn your feet parallel to each other and place your hands on your hips. Inhale, lift your chest, and with an exhale, bend forward from your hip joints to come into a forward bend. Place your hands on the floor, shoulder-distance apart, fingers in line with your toes. Release your head toward the floor. If your head doesn’t reach the floor, you can place it on a block. Hold the pose for 10 breaths. Inhale, come to a flat back, take your hands to your hips, and drop the flesh of your buttocks to come to stand. Heel-toe your feet together and step to the front of your mat to transition into Child’s Pose. Take your knees to the floor, sit on your heels, and fold forward with your head on the floor.
Rabbit Pose (Sasangasana)
I find this to be one of the best poses when I’m stressed, exhausted, and bordering on panic. It is safe. It almost feels like what the body wants to do. You get the relaxation of the exhale and comfort of being curled up in a ball. When you add the hands interlaced behind your back and lifting and lowering your hips, you also get a shoulder release and the nurturing quality of rocking.
From Child’s Pose, interlace your fingers behind your back, lift your hips, and roll to the crown of your head. Keep pressing the tops of your feet down, so that you can control the amount of weight on your head. Take your hands any amount away from your back. Lower down, change the interlace, lift your hips, and roll to the crown of head again. Lift and lower 3 times on each side, changing the interlace each time. Create a rhythm with the breath and movement.
Thunderbolt Pose (Vajrasana) with Eagle (Garudasana) arms
This is an easy way to sit, and we add a shoulder release with Eagle arms. This pose also creates a broad back, which is the opposite of what happens when we are stuck in stress mode. Usually, we push and squeeze the back to propel us forward.
Kneel and sit back on your heels. For Eagle arms, bend your elbows and bring the right elbow into the left, with the backs of your hands facing each other. Then pass your right hand in front of your left and bring the palms together, thumbs pointing toward the tips of your nose (grab your wrist if you can’t press your palms together). Hold for 5 breaths, then reverse your arms and hold for 5 breaths.
This stretch will release the neck, head, and shoulders. Take one hand to floor, walk it away from the body, and drop your head to your ear, with your other arm over your head. Repeat on the other side.
Plow releases the neck, head, shoulders, and hamstrings. It also increases the exhale and turns one inward.
Lie down with your head on the mat. Swing your legs back and over your head and rest your toes on the floor. Stay for 10 breaths. Slowly roll out of Plow, keeping your head back so it doesn’t whiplash forward when the legs and torso touch down.
This variation of Savasana uses blocks on the head: one to steady, and one that is resting on the forehead to calm the mind.
Lie down on your back with your legs straight, heels slightly apart. Wiggle around until you’re comfortable, then take your arms alongside your torso with your palms facing up. If you’ve never done this before, you must try the blocks on your head to understand the depth of solace and relaxation that they bring. The gentle touch of the block that scrubs the skin of your forehead toward the nose calms the nervous system in the same way that a touch from someone you love can make you melt. It also reduces the pressure in the head that builds up when we are stressed. Place one block on the ground about 3 inches above the crown of your head (the block should be at its highest height). Place the second block on the one that is above your head and angle it down to rest on your forehead. Stay in the pose for 5–10 minutes.