Melissa’s Rap: The topic of Yoga for Stress Relief may seem a bit redundant, since yoga is known for reducing stress more than anything else. Perhaps it is, but as a yoga instructor and a woman who has dealt with chronic anxiety for much of my life, I do feel that some poses and practices are more effective than others in reducing stress in one’s life.
It is important to note, however, that every person is different. While a sweltering 100° power yoga class does it for one person, a slow flow, restorative class will be the right fit for another. You will need to try each and see what works for you, keeping in mind that different levels of stress may require different styles, and one day you may need to sweat it out on the mat and another you may need a restorative yin class.
Probably the most important yoga practice you can be doing on a daily basis to reduce stress is pranayama, or breath work. When we get stressed, our breathing becomes shorter in length and shallower, meaning we breathe into our chest instead of filling the body with the breath.
When this happens on a regular basis, you will begin to see the effects in the body: the skin will become dull and even gray; muscles will tense and tighten, especially in the face and upper body; shoulders will creep up toward the ears and may even round inward. In order to counter this, we must bring our focus to the breath again and again, bringing it deep into our abdomen and filling the body with the breath, allowing muscles to expand and let go and bringing prana, energy, back into our skin cells and tissue.
Stay tuned for a post soon with more on pranayama and some different ways to control the breath that will help your body thrive, as well as relax and release stress.
Inversions are yoga poses where your heart is below your head, one of the most famous of which is Downward-Facing Dog. Inversions have many benefits, including reversing the flow of blood, stimulating the lymphatic system and, in the more restorative inversions, triggering the parasympathetic nervous system, encouraging relaxation in the body. Here are some of my favorite inversions that are my go-to poses when my stress levels are high:
Meditation is another key to reducing stress and is a great tool for every yogini’s toolbox. It has been practiced for thousands of years and has been shown in study after study to reduce stress levels, improve blood pressure, strengthen the immune system, lower levels of depression, battle fatigue and improve cognitive function, among other things.
Meditation is essentially about training the brain to remain in the present moment while simultaneously letting go of the chatter in the brain. This practice is best done in a quiet space free from distractions, in a comfortable seated position after preparing the body with some of the poses I mentioned above. I recommend starting out slow, sitting for 2-8 minutes at a time. Gently close your eyes and bring your focus to your breath. Feel it moving in and out of your body through your nostrils. As thoughts and images come up, acknowledge them and then let them go.
Meditation is not something one learns overnight, and I believe it is a practice that one never fully masters, always learning and growing from the experience. You can also find other practices meditative in nature and reap similar benefits. This can include things like doing art, dancing, and driving. I will delve into the topic of meditation in future posts.
I know what you are thinking. Chanting conjures up images of monks in orange robes, or some woo woo practitioner you can’t possibly relate to. Stay with me. There are many benefits to chanting, such as:
- Lengthening of the breath: If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you know that expanding your exhale is one of the most important things you can do to help your body relax. This happens naturally with chanting, as it does with singing.
- Good Vibrations: If you are a parent, you know the benefit of vibration when you are trying to get an infant to sleep and nothing but the vibrating bassinet will do; or perhaps your child will only sleep in the car because the consistent vibration can lull and pacify them. This same calming action can be achieved while chanting as you feel the vibration in your chest.
- Point of Focus/Present Moment: Because you are focusing on a word or series of words while chanting, it brings you into the present moment and keeps you firmly grounded there while you chant away. Singing your favorite songs can have a similar effect, so perhaps you can start there, if you are not comfortable with this practice yet.
Chanting can simply be intoning one word or a mantra, such as Om Shanti or the Gayatri Mantra, or it can be a musical call-and-response vocal experience called kirtan. There are many Sanskrit mantras to chant, but you can also create your own using different letter sounds or affirmation-style verbalizations. Later this week, I will share some tips and chanting practices that you can try incorporating into your stress relief routine.
Mudras are hand gestures that are incorporated into yoga practices and meditation. They provide a source of focus and, when practiced regularly, can become a powerful tool to bringing the body into a state of relaxation quickly. There are many mudras, but the one you will most likely be familiar with is chin mudra, where the thumb and forefinger meet, palm typically turned to the sky. We will explore different mudras soon, but I encourage you to begin with chin mudra, putting it into practice during meditation and your asana practice, in poses such as tree pose and Extended Side Angle.
Affirmations are positive words or statements you can think or speak aloud that can become a source of focus, inspiration and peace. While some feel they are cheesy and ineffective, many swear by these repetitive words and phrases, crediting them with successful change, prosperity and positive life events. Give it a try this week by coming up with one of two statements you would like to focus on, such as: “I am patient and kind” or “I am strong and confident.”
By incorporating one or more of the yogic practices above, you will be taking an important step to living a more peaceful existence– one breath, chant, pose or affirmation at a time. Build your stress-relieving, peace-inducing practice your way, finding out what works for you and what doesn’t. As with anything, give yourself grace, allow yourself to be in the moment and continuously learn from your practice. Most of all, honor your body; listen to it, learning what you need day to day, being aware that your needs may change depending on what is going on in your life at the time.
Have you tried yoga for stress relief? What poses and practices work best for you? Comment below or message us here.
McCall M.D., T. (2007). Yoga as Medicine. New York: Bantam.
Stiles, M. (2000). Structural yoga Therapy. San Francisco: Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC
Everybody Upside-Down by Yoko Yoshikawa
Chanting 101: 6 Things To Know If You Don’t “Get” Kirtan by Jessica Levine
Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress
Everything You Need to Know About Inversions in Yoga by Meera Watts