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September 23, 2020 Practice Points

Yoga for Stress Relief

Learning to regulate our bodies’ biological response to stress is important, and yoga helps us to do just that.

By Sarah White

Yoga has quickly become a hot word amongst professional adults with stressful careers, such as healthcare workers, first responders, attorneys, therapists, and even teachers. Science shows that yoga’s movements, meditations, and breathing practices can increase the size of key brain areas involved in thinking clearly, more thoughtful and purposeful decision-making, improved memory, and increased ability to regulate difficult emotions.

When our bodies are in a stressful situation, our central nervous system activates its “fight or flight” response, which makes our bodies tense, increases our heart rate and breathing, and disables the body’s ability to accurately process incoming information because we are too busy trying to stave off a perceived threat. Living in a body that is experiencing this kind of high stress and perceived threat for long periods of time leads to difficulties sleeping, health problems, and a lowered immune system.

Learning to regulate this biological stress response is important, and yoga helps us to do just that. Along with the fight or flight response, we also have a system that calms our bodies back down, or the “rest and digest” response. Yoga and breathwork practices activate this calming system and is therefore beneficial for managing stress. 

The first step of mastering self-regulation is tuning into your breath. Take a moment to sit comfortably with your feet flat on the ground with ankles directly underneath your knees. Sit up straight, relax the shoulders away from your ears, and relax any tension that might be in your jaw. Place your left hand over your chest and your right hand over your belly button, close your eyes, and just breathe naturally for a few moments. Now, breathe deeply in through your nose and see if you can feel both your chest and your belly expand outward as your lungs fill with air for about 2–4 counts, followed by exhaling back through the nose for the same amount of time, feeling the chest and belly retract. Do this for several rounds if comfortable without straining or creating any unnecessary tension in the body. (Remember, tension = threat!) Practice this during your down time in between clients, before going into a meeting, or even before going to bed at night and see if you can notice a difference.

Shoulder Sequence

Once you feel comfortable with your breath, adding some gentle, stretching movements in can really boost the stress relieving benefits of yoga. While seated with the spine nice and straight, but not arched, inhale through your nose and lift your shoulders up towards your ears. Release them back down on the exhale. Do this for several rounds at your own pace, paired with your breath, taking time to match the length of your inhales to the length of the exhales. These simple movements release tension in the shoulders and neck, which tends to be tension spots.

Cat/Cow Pose Flow

From here, place your palms on your thighs and inhale through the nose, arching your back and shifting your gaze up to the horizon or sky for cow pose. Then round your back and tuck your chin on the exhale, coming into cat pose. Flow through these two movements paired with your breath to release tension in the shoulders, back, and along the spine.

Downward Facing Dog

For this next posture, scoot your chair away from your desk about 2-3 feet. Begin folding from your hip joints and extend both arms straight out in front of you placing both palms face down on your desk. Stay here and breathe for several rounds and feel the stretch along the front side of your body. To take things up a notch, do this posture against a wall or on the floor. Play around with your stance and walk feet closer/farther away from hands to find a place where you can hold this comfortably for a few rounds of breath.

Examples of wall and floor variants of the downward facing dog pose.

Examples of wall and floor variants of the downward facing dog pose.

Left photo is from "Your Yoga with Janis" and is used with permission.

To get the full benefits of these exercises, do them slow and purposeful. The key is pairing the movement with the breath and doing it on a regular basis. Practice them a few times each day until you feel comfortable and natural in each one. Search around in your community for any yoga class with the words “gentle, yin, or slow flow,” or check out free videos online to further your practice. 

Sarah White is a licensed mental health therapist, a registered yoga teacher, and is the owner and founder of Balanced Mind & Body, LLC, in Des Moines, Iowa.

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