Yoga for stress relief

When I speak of Yoga with a capital ‘Y’ I’m referring to all eight limbs referenced in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. What are the Yoga Sutras? To keep it brief, they are a guide to living a purposeful and meaningful life. Not a script. But words or phrases, that encourage questions, and self-reflection. Today I want to specifically look at the fourth limb, Pranayam, and how we can use this part of yoga for stress relief.

Why ‘Pranayam’?

‘Prana’ in Sanskrit is often translated ‘life force’ and is referring to our breath. Pranayam is about controlling that life force (also sometimes called ‘pranayama’).

We can use Pranayam to stimulate or relax; so tapping into the Sympathetic Nervous System (fight or flight) or the Parasympathetic Nervous System (rest and digest).

These Systems need to be in balance with one another and are constantly working at doing that. An example of when they do this is during and after exercise. You can stimulate the Sympathetic Nervous System when you go for a run, this is no bad thing because as soon as you stop, the Parasympathetic Nervous System kicks in, and brings you back down to a more balanced state.

The issue is, that a lot of people end up staying more heavily in the Sympathetic Nervous System due to stress and anxiety ie the constant fight or flight mode where the Parasympathetic Nervous System is too ‘weak’ to kick in.

Using Pranayam to ease feelings of stress

Below is a controlled breathing exercise you can try right now. Have a read and then try the practice. You can also try the Deep Yogic Breath, which is a foundation Pranayam.

Three deep breaths

  • Sitting tall, close your eyes or have a soft gaze.
  • Begin to breathe in and out through your nose.
  • On your next in-breath, suck your belly in towards your spine and much as you can.
  • Let the belly relax and soften as you breath out.
  • Take your focus to your shoulders. On your in-breath, draw your shoulders up to your ears. As you breathe out, let the shoulder drop quickly back to their natural position.
  • Focusing now on your face. As you breathe in, squeeze all the muscles together; your eyes, your nose, your mouth, your jaw and push your tongue into the roof of your mouth.
  • Breathe out and allow the muscles in your face to relax.
  • Continue to breathe deeply for a few moments before opening your eyes and bringing your awareness back into this space.

You can do this just once, or repeat the practice as many times as you like. Do what works for you today.

Why does this work?

When we suck our belly in, draw our shoulders to our ears and squeeze the muscles in our face, we send a message to our brain that we are safe.

We tap into what is called the Vagus Nerve.

What is the Vagus Nerve and why it is important?

The Vagus Nerve one of the longest in the body and originates from both sides of the brain stem. It spreads down the body, across the thorax (chest) and into the abdomen. It sends messages to and from the brain to the heart, the digestive system and the spleen. Which is why often we associate ‘butterflies’ in the stomach as nervousness, or tight knots as distress, and even when we feel a pain in the chest often referred to as ‘heartbreak’. These feelings are all caused by the communications between the Vagus Nerve and the brain.

The Vagus Nerve is part of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (rest and digest). So, if you read the information towards the beginning of this blog, you’ll understand why activating the Vagus Nerve helps to ease feelings of stress.

Using yoga Poses to ease feelings of stress

In my post Yoga for good posture, I share not only that, but how to avoid injury during yoga, the difference between a yoga injury, and the importance of introspection and self-inquiry.

Asanas (yoga pose), where your heart is above your head, can have a relaxing effect. Keeping in mind what I said about avoiding yoga injuries, I do not expect you to start doing handstands, headstands or shoulder stands! There are some other much more simple poses to do, and personally, I find them more relaxing.

Here is one you can try on your floor at home.

Bridge Pose (in Sanskrit: Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

  • Lay on your back.
  • Bend your knees and bring your feet about an inch away from your backside, feet hip distance apart.
    Your arms are by your side with your palms facing down.
  • Breathe out and draw your navel towards your spine to engage your core muscle group.
  • On your in-breath, push your feet into the floor as you raise your backside away from the mat, taking your hips up towards the ceiling. You’ll feel your buttocks engage, as well as your thighs.

A couple of things to consider when practising this pose

  • Any pain in the body, stop the activity.
  • You can move up and down into this pose with a flow if you want to loosen tension in your lower back.
  • If you decide to hold the pose, start with 10-30 seconds, and then slowly increase to an amount of time that is challenging but doesn’t push into pain. Do the right level of practice today so you can still practice tomorrow.
  • Be sure not to rest onto your neck, the pressure is on your upper back and shoulders.
  • You may find you get more lift in your hips if you bring your feet so that your ankles are sitting underneath your knees.
  • This also may take unnecessary pressure off your knees. But close your eyes and experiment, learn how your body moves and what’s right for you.
  • Make sure your knees don’t splay out and away from one another, keep them in line with your hips.

So why does having your heart above your head trigger a relaxation response?

It actually triggers what’s called the Baroreflex. The Baroreflex is one of the homeostasis mechanisms that maintain our blood pressure. In simple terms, when you raise your heart above your head, the change in the pull of gravity signals to the brain that the blood pressure has risen, and so the brain signals to the heart to slow down. This, in turn, has a relaxing effect on the body.

Other Poses that help relieve stress

In a slightly different way, balancing poses such as Tree Pose, Eagle Pose (Garudasana) and even Crane Pose (Bakasana) help alleviate feelings of stress. One major reason for this is that when practising these poses, all your thinking about is not falling over! (or face planting it in Bakasanas case!)

Tree Pose (in Sanskrit: Vkrsasana)

  • Begin in Mountain Pose (in Sanskrit Tadasana)
  • Close your eyes or have a soft gaze.
  • Take a couple of deep breaths to connect to a place of peace and stillness.
  • Open your eyes and focus on a point about 2m in front of you.

For level one

  • Take your weight into your right foot without sinking into your hip.
  • Lift your left heel, keeping the ball of the foot on the ground. Rest the left heel onto the right ankle.
  • As you do this, begin to circle the arms up and around your body so they meet above your head, palms together.
  • Feel the lift through the body from the right foot all the way to the fingertips.
  • Keep the shoulders relaxed.

For level two

  • Take your weight into your right foot without sinking into your hip.
  • Lift your left heel and begin to point your left foot as you draw your toe up the inside of your right calf muscle.
  • Rest your left foot on your calf muscle, underneath your knee.
  • As you do this, begin to circle the arms up and around your body so they meet above your head, palms together.
  • Feel the lift through the body from the right foot all the way to the fingertips.
  • Keep the shoulders relaxed.

For level three

  • Take your weight into your right foot without sinking into your hip.
  • Lift your left heel and begin to point your left foot as you draw your toe up the inside of your right calf muscle, past your knee and just about onto your inner thigh.
  • Rest your left foot on your thigh muscle, with your toes above your knee.
  • As you do this, begin to circle the arms up and around your body so they meet above your head, palms together.
  • Feel the lift through the body from the right foot all the way to the fingertips.
  • Keep the shoulders relaxed.

You’ll notice in these instructions that you either place the foot below or above the knee. This is to avoid unnecessary pressure on the knee and to avoid pushing it in a direction that is not natural to its normal function (straight and bending back, rather than to the side).

You’ll also notice I haven’t said to grab on to the left foot and hoist it into the higher position where the heel sits into the groin, and thus higher up the thigh. This is a personal choice of mine as I feel the journey to building the strength to use the muscles in the legs and feet is more important than achieving the final pose.

Each of these levels is Tree pose. No matter how high you are to get the left foot (in this case) up the right supporting leg.

To come out of the pose

  • Slowly and with control, you release your palms from above your head and circle them back around the body so they finish at your sides.
  • At the same time, you lower the left foot back down onto the ground. Come back to standing in Mountain Pose.
  • Ready to repeat on the other side.

And remember, If you don’t feel comfortable doing an Asana because you know it doesn’t work for your body, then don’t do it. Likewise, if you feel any pain, stop the activity. Yoga is your practice, and being confident in knowing your body, will allow you to challenge yourself, without the risk of injury.

LEARN HOW TO STRENGTHEN YOUR BREATH TO CALM YOUR BODY AND MIND

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