Because stress takes its toll both mentally and physically, yoga’s mind-body approach can be very effective at reducing its impact. As a widely recognized stress-relieving practice, yoga has been shown to mitigate the body’s physiological response to stressors. Its primary effectiveness is based on helping practitioners switch from their sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system to their parasympathetic “rest and restore” nervous system.
The following five strategies offer ways to leverage yoga’s ability to calm the nervous system as well release physical tension and emotional unease. If you’re looking to tame tension and find peace, give them a try.
When you notice yourself reacting to a stressor, like a negative news story or an overly opinionated friend or neighbor, it’s helpful to have a means of regaining your sense of peace and composure. Practicing yoga breathing and mindfulness meditation have both been proven to dramatically reduce mental and physical stress; mindfulness meditation was even recently shown to relieve chronic back pain.
The simplest way to meditate is by focusing on your breath. As the only aspect of our autonomic nervous system that we can control, breathing
is truly a stress-busting superpower that grants us access to the physiological processes that make us feel stressed. According to Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Herbert Benson, we can use our breathing to elicit a “relaxation response,” lowering heart rate, blood pressure and stress-hormone production.
To put this into practice, sit comfortably with your eyes closed and focus on your breathing. Establish a count as follows: five-count inhale, seven-count exhale and three-count pause. Take a minimum of 10 breaths in this manner, but ideally, try to build up to four sets of 10 breaths. This should take about 10 minutes.
Roll stress off your shoulders.
Emotional stress manifests as physical stress, especially in the neck and shoulders. To release upper-body tension, from standing, clasp your hands behind your back and straighten your arms to the best of your ability as you look up, opening your chest, neck and shoulders. Hold the posture for a few breaths. Release and repeat. You can also shrug off shoulder and neck stress with some shoulder rolls and gentle head turns, like you are shaking your head “no” slowly. Think: stress — no, no!
Twist away tension.
Because muscles work in chains, tension that starts in one area can quickly spread throughout our bodies, especially in our backs and hips. That’s why I like to use a kneeling lunge twist that does double duty, twisting away back tension while releasing hip flexors (the muscles of the front of the hips).
To do the posture, start in a kneeling lunge with your right leg forward and left knee down, with your left toes curled under. Place your left hand on the outside of your right thigh. Rotate your straight right arm behind you with your palm facing up. Turn your head to follow your right arm. Draw your right shoulder blade down to keep your shoulder from lifting and neck muscles off. Take three long, deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
If balance is an issue, begin with the left side of your body braced against a wall, so you can lean into it when needed. For added comfort, place a folded towel or mat under your back knee.
Strike a power pose.
Stress-induced anxiety can leave us feeling powerless. But research says you can pose your way back to a sense of power. Although its physiological effects are questionable, research
still showed that a majority of participants reported feelings of power while holding an expansive pose. So, regardless of the hormonal impact, if you want to feel powerful, strike an open-body power pose by standing with your arms overhead or outstretched or, even better, with your hands on your hips like Wonder Woman or Superman.
For an added sense of power, add a mantra or positive affirmation to your pose. Try one of these phrases that promote feelings of power: “I am confident” or “I feel strong.” Repeat it out loud several times or simply concentrate on it for a moment while you hold your power pose.
Unplug, rest and recharge.
One of the most important strategies for easing stress is to give our bodies and minds time to recover. There’s no substitute for a solid night’s rest, but sometimes even a short midday nap or 10 minutes lying down comfortably — even if you’re not sleeping or meditating — can offer a profound recharge.
We spend so much time “plugged in,” receiving a constant influx of news and messages, that any time we can spend unplugged is worthwhile. Lie down comfortably with a bolster or pillow under your legs and set a timer for a desired length of time; eight to 10 minutes is a good starting point. Make sure you are in a different room than your electronic devices, and they’re set to “do not disturb” or turned off. Close your eyes. Notice your breathing and the sense of release and comfort in your legs as they rest on the bolster.
If you’d like, you can focus on breathing exercises or meditation, but don’t pressure on yourself do so. Try simply being comfortable and content. Allow yourself to think, but don’t let yourself take any action on your thoughts; no checking your phone or writing anything down! Remain committed to simply being in your body in your relaxed posture for your designated amount of time, resting and recharging.