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Yoga for Stress

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

Wouldn't it be great if we could avoid stress?

stressed looking woman with her head in her hands

I was amazed when I went to therapy and was introduced to the idea that stress is something we do to ourselves, rather than something that happens externally and is put on us.

Stress happens because we care about something a lot, and worry that the outcome will be anything other than the ideal we've built up in our heads. So we might get stressed about work because we know that we're a capable, enthusiastic contributor, but something else (maybe a heavy workload) is getting in the way of how we feel we're demonstrating that. Or we get stressed about an exam because future possibilities and opportunities ride on the the outcome. We get stressed about relationships because perhaps we have a clear idea or model of how the relationship should go but something comes along to disrupt it and throw our plans off course.

I'm sure it's hypothetically possible to live a life almost without stress. In yogic terms, this means embracing two of key teachings; living in the moment and not being attached to outcomes. Techniques to approach both of these are already embedded in our regular yoga practices.

To live in the moment we allow our consciousness to focus on what's right here, right now without ruminating on things that happened in the past or worrying about what's going to happen next (or tomorrow, next week, next year...). We can focus on how and who we are now, bringing our nervous system back to responding to what's in front of us rather than some hypothetical future threat. In this way we begin to calm the physical and mental manifestations of stress by using techniques such as grounding, breath focus and noticing the sensations in our bodies.

Not being attached to outcomes can develop through our regular and mindful yoga practices. Sitting in meditation from day to day, you may notice that your mind produces different experiences- sometimes quiet and accommodating, sometimes noisy and wayward- but a key part of meditation itself is being with this fluctuation.

In yoga posture practice, sometimes you can touch your toes in a forward fold and other times it just doesn't happen, in the same way that sometimes you can balance on one leg and at other times you can't. It doesn't mean that you've 'failed' in your practice if you can't reproduce the same result day to day, or even move your practice in a direction that you think it should go; but it might give you the chance to evaluate what you are getting from it. Maybe it's not what you thought it was at the start.

If you're attached to a particular outcome (say, learning to headstand) you might end up disappointed, but if you're open to notice what is actually going on, you can learn about yourself in the process. No need to stress that you can't headstand yet, you're building core stability that's coming in handy in day to day life.

For most of us, even armed with these concepts and techniques, avoiding stress all the time is just a lovely idea. We're still human, we get wrapped up in things and project our expectations and fears onto outcomes that are beyond our control.

Sometimes a yoga practice is just the thing we need to come back to ourselves and to the present moment. Find one of my stress-busting sequences below.

Yoga for Stress- 20 minute sequence

Shake it out

Begin by standing with your feet hip width apart or wider, and starting to shake out your hands and wrists. Notice how this feels, and the vibration and movement that travels up your arms.

If you're happy to do so, begin to bring the shoulders and the head into the shaking movement. You can make the movement bigger or smaller in amplitude, and even begin to circle your body more as you move.

You might like to try shaking one side of the body at a time, followed by the other.

If you're happy to, you can bring in the lower body by gently bouncing the knees, or lifting one foot at a time and shaking each leg. Notice the feeling of the whole body participating in the movement, the contact of your clothes against your skin.

After a couple of minutes, return gradually to standing still again. Notice the sensations that are happening in your body after having shaken things out. Notice if anything's changed in the way you feel in yourself.

Lengthening your exhale

Lengthening your exhale helps to calm your body's fight-or-flight response, which is activated by stress.

Standing or sitting, begin by inhaling through your nose for the count of 3. This should be a fairly sharp, full breath, but don't force it, let your breath come in a way that's comfortable for you.

After the inhale, purse your lips and exhale through your mouth for the count of six.

Repeat this ten times and pause to notice how you feel both physically and energetically. How is your heartbeat?

Repeat another ten times if this feels good.

Mountain to high prayer repetitions

Woman on a hillside practicing mountain pose or tadansana, standing up straight and tall with her hands over her head, palms touching

Working with synchronised breath and movement helps to focus in the here and now.

Standing with your feet hip width apart, try to feel your weight evenly distributed between each part of both feet. Maybe lift your toes and feel the contact of each toe as you place them back down on the mat.

Concentrate on switching on the muscles of the legs, lifting the kneecaps, then bring the pelvis into neutral with the tailbone pointing to the ground. Feel the muscles of the lower belly activate a little as you bring the breastbone forward and up to open the chest. Allow the shoulders to relax and the shoulder blades to come in towards one another. Feel the head lightly balanced on top of the spinal column. Mountain pose.

As you inhale through the nose, sweep the arms up so that the palms meet as they straighten above your head. High prayer. Look up towards your thumbs at the top of your inhale, then exhale the arms back down to your sides.

Repeat, inhaling to lift your arms and exhaling to lower them, four more times.

Mountain to forward fold repetitions

woman on yoga mat practicing forward fold pose with her hands resting on the mat in front of her feet as her lower body is upright but her upper body stretches to wards the floor

Allowing your head to fall below your heart and releasing your upper body can feel like a wonderful way to let go of stress.

From mountain pose, inhale to raise your hands up to high prayer and as you exhale bend softly in the knees and hinge from the hips to bring the upper body forward and down, belly towards thighs, shoulders towards knees. Forward fold. If your hamstrings are very tight, bend your knees as much as you need to in order to get your belly onto your thighs. Continue breathing in and out through your nose for five full breaths. Allow tension in your upper body to release as you breathe, letting hands dangle down towards the floor, long in the back of your neck and shoulder blades falling forwards.

After the fifth exhale, curl your head in to look at your navel as you begin to inhale and uncurl upwards like a new leaf opening in the spring. Exhale in mountain pose, then inhale and repeat twice more.

Downward facing dog

woman on yoga mat in downward facing dog pose

Another inversion with the head below the heart, downward facing dog can also help to release tension from the back of the body.

From mountain pose, inhale up to high prayer and exhale again to forward fold. Bend your knees as much as you need to in order to get your palms on the floor, stretching your fingers out wide to create a stable base. As you inhale, first step one leg back and then the other until you find yourself, hips high, in an upside-down V shape. If your hamstrings are tight, keep your knees softly bent to help keep your back straight, and draw your belly button in towards your spine.

Inhale and exhale 5 full breaths. As you do so, concentrate on pressing up through the whole of your hands to feel like you're creating a straight line between the wrists, the shoulders and the hips. Try to keep your head in line with your upper arms, and broaden out through your shoulders. Pedal your legs if you find this comfortable and useful.

On the fifth exhale, step one foot at a time forward to forward fold and then inhale to roll back up to mountain pose.

Exhale in mountain pose and repeat twice more.

Seated twist

woman on yoga mat practicing a seated twist pose

Twists help to relieve tension that we hold, particularly in the back of the body, when we're feeling stressed.

Sit with your left leg out long in front of you and the sole of the right foot on the floor next to your left inner thigh so your right knee is pointing up towards the ceiling. If you need to bend your left knee a little or sit on a block or a thick book to keep your hamstings happy, do so.

Sit up tall in the back, broaden and release your shoulders and allow your shoulderblades to move towards each other. Keep your neck long.

Stretch your left arm out in front of you before wrapping it around the front of your right knee, then turn your torso towards the right and walk your right hand around behind you on the floor. If it suits your neck, turn your head to look over your right shoulder.

Stay here for five full breaths. On the fifth exhale, uncurl back to centre.

Extend your right leg and bring the sole of your left foot onto the floor, repeat on the other side.

Constructive rest or Savasana

Just letting it all go for a few minutes might seem impossible when you're stressed, but it can make the world of difference in allowing you to get back up and carry on with life.

From sitting on the floor, lower your upper body down so that your back and the soles of your feet are in contact with the mat. Hug your knees into your body and give yourself a good squeeze. Notice the sensations you feel in your body as you do this, and the quality of your mind in this moment.

Let your knees go, and return your feet flat to the floor, maybe wider than your hips this time and allow your knees to rest in towards each other. Let your arms fall alongside your body or let them rest on your belly. Feel the length of your spine in contact with the floor, notice how it supports you.

Take a couple of light but full inhales through the nose to fill up your lungs and then exhale in one go through your mouth. Repeat this breath twice more before returning to your natural breath pattern.

Choose to either keep your feet flat on the floor, or perhaps extend your legs away from your body with the toes of each foot falling away from the other. Notice the rising and falling of your chest with your breath, and the sensation of your body expanding and contracting as you inhale and exhale. Stay here for five minutes if you can, bringing your attention back to the sensation of your breath in your body every time you notice your mind drifting into thoughts or worries.

After 5 minutes, or however long you have been here, gently wiggle your body before stretching your right arm over your head and rolling onto your right hand side.

Pause, then very slowly bring yourself back upright by pressing into your hands.

Notice how you feel in your body, mind and energy now you've taken your yoga practice. Namaste.

Would you like to be guided through a yoga practice, or have a sequence built specifically around your needs and concerns?

Emmalene offers one-to-one and small group yoga classes online or in person in Leeds, tailored to your goals and requirements.

Alternatively, if you'd like to attend a weekly public class in North Leeds you can book on now via the website.

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