10 yoga poses for when it all gets too much
How many of us have days where everything gets on top of us and it all just seems too much? Sometimes the seemingly smallest thing can send us over our stress threshold in to overwhelm. You are not alone. We all have our own stress threshold and these micro-doses of stress can rapidly build us up to our limit.
When we feel stressed out there is a physiological response, our body creates the stress hormone cortisol, our muscles tighten and get ready to burst in to action to either fight or flee from whatever is causing the stress. This was, and sometimes still is a useful response (maybe we might need to run for a train rather than away from a lion) but when we stay in this stress state through constant micro-doses of stress then these natural responses can start to become a problem.
There’s no need to despair though, there are many things you can do for yourself to help get back out of that overwhelm and in to a state of calm.
Lifestyle and holistic approaches are becoming more and more popular, with social prescriptions on the rise even our medical system is promoting the benefits that lifestyle changes and managing our health holistically can have.
There are many ways in which we can combat feelings of stress and overwhelm, including getting out in to nature, practicing mindfulness, talking therapies, feeling connected, spirituality, yoga and meditation. Today we are focussing on how yoga can help.
This short yoga sequence is designed to help combat stress and overwhelm. It starts with our breath, something you can choose to control at any time and anywhere - lengthening our breath and breathing deeply to our belly sends a message to our brain that we are safe and that we can relax.
We then move in to yoga poses to calm and restore, focussing on poses that will stretch muscles that will have tensed in this “flight or fight” response and tapping into our body’s natural ability to return to calm by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Just remember that your body always wants to support you and bring you back to that peaceful state, it just needs you to help create the right conditions.
Easy Pose (Sukhasana)
The best place to start for dealing with any type of stress or tension in the body is with your breath. Bring yourself in to easy pose, a cross legged position by starting with legs extended out in front of you then crossing legs at the shins.Think about lengthening up through the crown of the head to keep the spine long. Place one hand to your chest, the other to your belly, or rest hands on your knees if more comfortable. Close your eyes and start to notice your breath, start by simply noticing how you are breathing, whether it’s fast or slow, whether it is in to your chest or all the way in to your belly. Take this opportunity to check in with how you are feeling, both physically and mentally, without judgement. Starting from your head and working your way down the body, notice where you are feeling tension in your body. Notice how you are feeling emotionally. Next start to breathe a little deeper, creating an even inhale and exhale, you can count in your head - inhaling for a slow count of 3 or 4, then out for the same. Draw the breath all the way down to your belly, if your hand is on your chest and belly you should feel it travel down past the best to the tummy then the rise and fall of the hand with the breath as it travels down then back up.
Seated Side Stretch (Parsva Sukhasana)
Take this opportunity to change the cross of your legs, swapping so that the opposite shin in in-front. Sitting in easy pose, gently rest the hands down beside you. Take your right hand to the floor beside you. Inhale to reach the left hand up and exhale to stretch it over to the right, keeping your chest facing forward and both sit bones grounded, bending into the right elbow and reaching through the left fingertips. Hold for 3 deep rounds of breath before inhaling back up to centre and exhaling there. Repeat on the other side. This stretch will release the neck, head, and shoulders.
Cat & Cow (Bitilasana Marjaryasana)
Come forward on to hands and knees with fingers spread wide, hands under shoulders and knees under hips.Moving with your breath, on your inhale dropping your belly towards the lat, lifting your sit bones and chest as you take your gaze up.As you exhale move slowly through the spine, rounding it up in to cat pose, tucking chin in as your gaze or drishti turns to your belly and gently draw the belly button in towards the spine and shoulder blades squeeze in towards each other.
Keep moving with your breath for 5 rounds of deep slow breath, then return to a neutral spine on hands and knees.The gentle movement with the breath brings our focus inward and gently warms through the spine, releasing tension in the back.
Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Shvanasana)
From tabletop on hands and knees, spread your fingers wide with middle fingers facing to the top of the mat, tuck toes under and push your hips back to downward dog. Think about pressing your tummy towards your thighs, creating an upside-down V shape and lengthening through the spine as you push your hips up and back. Bend into the knees as much as you need to be able to lengthen the spine. Stretches through your hamstrings, legs, and hips, we can hold a lot of tension in our limbs if we are suffering with stress as our body prepares itself for the fight or flight response.
Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana)
From downward dog, bend your knees and slowly walk your feet towards your hands at the top of the mat. Step feet a narrow hip distance apart and let your body dangle down, keeping spine long and again thinking about bringing your belly towards your thighs, knees can be as bent as you need. Imagine all of your worries and stress pouring out from the crown of your head. Forward folds are considered restorative and calming poses but also stretch through the hamstrings, legs and back, places where we can hold tension in our body from stress. On an inhale slowly start to roll up to stand, stacking the vertebrae and finally bringing the head up last. Bend in to your knees as much as you need.
Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Bring big toes together and heels slightly apart, or widen to feel hip distance apart if needed. Think about keeping your spine long, but neutral, not over-tucking the tailbone, with the crown of the head reaching up. Gentle engagement in to the thighs, bring hands beside you with palms facing forward. Close your eyes and take 5 deep rounds of breath, bringing awareness to the feet and imagining grounding down through the feet, even weight across each foot and setting our foundation. It may look simple, like you are simply standing up, but mountain pose is essential to setting your foundation for any standing poses. In addition to stretching through the legs and ankles, it focuses attention and posture and is a grounding pose.
Tree Pose (Vrksasana)
From mountain pose, find a focus point on the floor or the wall and keep your gaze steady. Start to take the weight in to the left leg as you draw the right knee up to the chest, rotate the knee out to the side and bring the sole of the right foot to the inner thigh, or calf of the left leg (you can use your right hand to position the foot to the inner thigh). Any position on your leg is fine if you can’t get it all the way up towards the groin but avoid pressing it directly on to the side of the knee of your standing leg.Think about engaging your thigh muscle in your standing leg as if you were pulling your kneecap up to strengthen through the standing leg and balance. Bring your hands to the heart in prayer, keeping them here or extending the arms up above you, keeping palms pressing together and trying not to scrunch the sounders up towards the ears. Hold for 5 rounds of breath. Repeat on the other side. Balancing poses are great for stress as they bring your focus inward as you need complete focus on your pose and breath.
Child’s Pose (Balasana)
Bend in to your knees and bring yourself down to the floor, to the centre of the mat on hands and knees. Take your knees wide and bring big toes together behind you. Sit back towards your heels, and fold forward with your head on the floor. Draw your attention to the point between your brows, the third-eye space, where your forehead is in contact with the mat, blanket or block.Feel free to bring knees together and wrap arms around behind you with palms facing up if that is more comfortable for you.A deeply restorative and calming pose, if you are in the wide legged version you are also stretching through the shoulders which may feel tight or be holding tension when we are stressed.
Legs Up The Wall (Viparita Karani)
If you have a wall space available you can use the wall for this, sliding your mat so it is up against a wall, if you don’t have one then you can use a yoga block, bolster or a regular cushion or rolled up blanket to create a support for the base of your lower back.If you are by a wall, sit yourself next to the wall, with you hip against the wall before lying yourself down and bringing your legs up the wall. You may need to shuffle to get in to position, the closer you bring yourself to the wall, the stronger the stretch. If you have tight hamstrings you might ease slightly way.
If you are using a prop, lie on your mat and place the bolster, rolled up blanket or block to the edge of the buttock and lift your hips on to slightly elevate and extend the legs up. They do not have to be completely straight and don’t worry if they start to drop in closer towards you as you hold the pose. Try to relax the shoulders and upper back down to the mat. Hold for at least 5 breaths, several minutes if you have time. This is a deeply restorative pose, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, relieving stress and reversing blood flow back down the legs to the heart and upper body. If you only have 5 minutes to de-stress, this is the pose for you. It is a passive pose, needing very little flexibility or strength. To come out of the pose, bend knees in towards you and ease out.
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Come away from the wall or gently lift your hips to remove props. Come to lie on your back, legs extended with feet out towards the outer corners of the mat for our final resting pose. Arms rest beside you, slightly away from the body with palms facing up. Let yourself take up some space and let your breath settle into it’s natural pattern. Close your eyes, soften your jaw and scan from the top of your head down like we did at the start relaxing everything that you can and allowing yourself to feel heavy on the mat.
Take as much time as you can here to soak in the benefits of your practice and allow the body to fully relax.
Come out slowly, starting with a little movement to your fingers and toes, rolling the head from side to side, moving on to circling the wrists and ankles and then taking a big, full-body stretch before rolling on to your side and easing yourself back up to a seated position from there, keeping the eyes closed if possible.
Bring hands into prayer position at the heart, drawing attention to the heart and noticing if there has been any change to how you are feeling from the start of your practice. Take a deep breath in through the nose and out of the mouth. Gently blink the eyes open.
This article was originally written for Health & Wellbeing Magazine in the UK.
You can find a video version of the class on YouTube here:
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