It’s no secret that chronic stress can have a deeply negative effect on your mental and physical well-being. When you’re overwhelmed with anxious thoughts, your body’s stress response activates. Your body interprets those thoughts as a danger to your well-being.
It may be hard to calm those racing thoughts and convince your body that you’re not facing impending doom.
Fortunately, the mind-body connection is an amazing two-way street that also lets us tap into the relaxation response. Yoga is one of those tools that will help activate the relaxation response, decrease stress, and relieve the tension of your body.
Yoga (or Hatha yoga) is an ancient practice that uses physical exercises to center the mind.
While yoga can be used as physical exercise, it is also heavily focused on connecting the movement of the body to the fluctuations of the mind. Many yoga practices include slow breathing and meditation, which use that same mind body connection to provide stress relief.
Why Yoga Works
While your mind may be reacting to different types of stressors that are not necessarily life-threatening (like pressure from work or the birth of a child), your body jumps into action the same way every time. It activates the sympathetic nervous system to get your heart pumping, your blood flowing, and your muscles tensed for action.
Once the danger passes, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to cool the body down.
Regular yoga practice can help our body be more selective of these stress triggers so we can respond more accurately to life situations. It conditions both the mind and the body to recognize stress and then overcome it, rather than letting It spiral out of control. It helps trigger the relaxation response from the parasympathetic system by releasing a neurotransmitter called GABA. Yoga not only increases the levels of GABA in your body but also improves mood and decreases anxiety. (Study)
It may sound confusing but it’s actually one of the ingenious ways we can retrain our bodies’ stress response for the modern times.
Yoga uses stretching and poses to impose stress on our body while we tell our minds to stay calm and keep breathing. In fact, controlled breathing is one of the key disciplines in yoga. Controlled or mindful breathing has huge benefits in managing and fighting off stress.
The physical aspect of stretching and accomplishing difficult poses sets off the sympathetic nervous system. But the controlled breathing helps keep your mind focused, calm, and mindful of each physical activity. Each movement sets off your fight or flight reaction while your focused mind and controlled breathing engage the relaxation response.
When you finally move your body into the final stages of relaxation (the ending poses in a yoga session), the sympathetic system goes to work by bringing your body temperature down, slowing your heart rate and slowing our breathing.
Even More Benefits of Yoga
In addition to conditioning your body to manage stress better, practicing yoga has resulted in many other health benefits.
In one study, practitioners saw a 14% reduction in anxiety when participating in a two hour yoga session. The same study had a different group learn about yoga but not practice it. Surprisingly, the “learning” group also saw a decrease in anxiety! (Study)
As yoga helps with managing stress, it can also reduce the risk of various diseases related to stress, especially cardiovascular diseases. (Study)
During another study, a group of participants practiced yoga in a biweekly session for two months to see what effect it might have on depression. The results showed that the two month experiment did in fact alleviate symptoms of depression in the participants. (Study)
The fact that yoga can help with both your physical and mental health shows that it is a powerful tool to consider for your well-being.
Yoga Poses for Stress Relief
The next time you feel stress mounting or anxiety building, try one or two of these yoga poses to calm your nerves. All you need is a yoga mat to cushion against the floor. Yoga is a low risk activity but as always, take caution and listen to your body’s boundaries when starting a new physical activity.
Child’s pose is a restorative pose that is usually used anytime you need a quick break during a yoga session. This pose helps you release your muscular tension, relaxes your nervous system and quiets the mind. This pose is also very soothing for your adrenal glands which release stress hormones like cortisol.
Start by kneeling on your yoga mat with your legs as close together as you can or with your knees wider than your hips. Sit back on your heels so your butt or hips are touching your heels.
Then carefully, fold your torso forward until your forehead rests on the mat and your elbows are on your thighs.
Tuck your arms to your side, letting your shoulders curl forward and hands rest next to your feet. If it’s easier or more comfortable, you can also stack your forearms and rest your head there.
Stay in this position for 5 to 10 breaths, deepening the breath with each exhale.
This pose is similar to downward dog. This is a great pose for slouchers with bad posture, as it releases tension in your shoulders and back. With your heart held a little higher than your head, it’s known as a mild inversion pose which opens up the chest and eases blood flow to the head.
Start by getting on all fours with your shoulders over your wrists, hips aligned with your knees, and the tops of your feet down on the mat.
Then slowly walk your hands out in front of you and lower your chest to the ground. Keep your hips aligned and your arms shoulder-width apart. Gently bring your forehead down to the mat.
Press your palms deeper into the mat and keep your shoulder blades drawn into your back. Stretch your hips towards the ceiling.
Relax your neck and breathe into your back, lengthening your spine in both directions.
Hold this position for 5 to 10 breaths. When you’re ready, gently lift your forehead and crawl back into starting position.
Cat pose and Cow pose are two gentle, stress-relieving poses. When we combine them, we get a gentle flow that improves posture, stretches the spine, and massages organs in the belly.
You’ll start in tabletop position, coming down to all fours with your arms shoulder-width apart and hips stacked over knees. Keep your spine in a straight, neutral position for a moment.
Look to the floor, a few inches in front of your hands, to lengthen your spine. Draw your shoulder blades towards your back.
Once you feel comfortable in this position, move into the cow position. Inhale. As you inhale, drop your belly to the floor and lift your chin towards the ceiling. Let your chest follow your gaze up. Lift the back of your hips up as well.
On your exhale, pull your belly in toward your spine. Round your back up towards the ceiling while naturally dropping the top of your head toward the floor. Tuck your tailbone in and round out your spine.
Repeat this flow for 5 to 10 breaths. Make sure to match your movements with each inhale and exhale. When you feel ready, find your way back to tabletop position.
Bridge pose not only opens up your chest but stretches out many body parts that hold stress in. It stretches your spine, the back of the neck, your thighs, and your hips. It is also a mild inversion exercise which means the heart is held over the head and increases blood flow to your brain.n
Start by lying flat on your back. Then walk your feet back and bend your knees. Make sure your feet are hip-width apart. Slide your arms down alongside your body with palms facing up.
Press your feet into your mat. Take a deep breath in and lift your hips, slowly rolling your spine off the floor. Make sure to keep your knees hip width apart.
Press deeper into your arms and shoulders, lifting the chest higher. Engage your legs and tuck your tailbone into your pelvic area to help bring your hips up higher.
Remain in this position for four to eight breaths. When you release, exhale and slowly roll your spine back to the floor.
Standing Forward Bend
The standing forward bend (or standing forward fold) is an inverted pose that boasts numerous benefits.
Forward bends help stretch the whole backside of your body, engaging your heels, calves, hamstrings, hips, spine, and fingers. This stretch helps build flexibility and strength in your spine while releasing tension in your neck, upper back, and lower back.
As this pose stretches your spine, it creates space between each vertebra, increasing circulation. By folding forward, you’re also increasing the circulation to your abdominal organs – your spleen, pancreas, liver, intestines, and kidneys. Additionally, a standing forward bend allows fresh blood to rush to your head.
To initiate a standing forward bend, start standing with your hands on your hips. On your exhale, lean and fold forward at your hips. Do this while keeping a small bend at your knees. Place your hands either beside your feet or palms down in front of you.
Feel your spine stretching up towards the ceiling as your head is naturally pulled down to the ground. Press the hips up to deepen the the stretch by switching the weight to the balls of your feet or straightening your legs.
Hold this pose for four to eight breaths.
To come out of this pose, lift your arms to your side on the next inhale. Then raise your arms and torso back up to standing position.
The legs-up-the-wall pose is a semi-supine pose, which means it’s done on your back and is usually done towards the end of a yoga practice. Because it is a semi-supine pose, it shares a few benefits with regular supine poses including lowered heart rate and eliciting a relaxed response within your body.
This pose also elevates your legs which promotes drainage and facilitates circulation of blood back to the heart.
Additionally, this pose stretches out the hamstrings and lower back while allowing the lower back to relax.
To begin, bring your yoga mat right up to a wall. Sit with your hips as close to the wall as possible. Then roll onto your back and bring your legs up against the wall.
Make sure your bottom is pressed tight against the wall. Lay your arms out to your sides or on your belly. If you start to feel tingly, bend your legs slightly at the knees.
Corpse pose is a simple but difficult form. When done correctly, it’s one of the most relaxing poses in a yoga practice. But what it’s asking for is difficult – it asks the practitioner to be completely still and at ease.
This pose is almost always done at the end of a practice as a way for the mind and body to fully relax. It intensifies your ability to listen to your body which especially useful after the strenuous stretches from your practice. It gives you time to reset before heading into your next activity. It lets your body do absolutely nothing and refresh before going back to your day.
To get into the pose, simply lie on your mat with your hands and feet comfortably spread out. Turn your palms up and keep your toes pointed out. Keep your shoulder blades back, under your chest.
Invite silence into your mind and body. Take a few deep breaths before letting it come and go naturally. Stay in this pose for five minutes.
When you’re ready, bring awareness back to your body by gently wiggling your fingers and toes.
Yoga is a powerful method of stress management. By using physical movement and controlled breathing, it can help to bring your body and mind back into harmony. Give it a try the next time you’re overwhelmed with stress. Even better, try including it into your regular routine because just like other disciplines, you’ll benefit more with frequent and regular practice.
Teaching your body better stress management habits will take time, but it will pay off in the long run. In the meantime, if you need a gentle reminder to take a deep breath before you get too stressed, try Spire.