As our culture is deeply intertwined in and consistently hunching over our beloved devices, it is no surprise that the modern-day human complains of not only aching backs but also scattered brains. The physical and mental stress is detrimental to our health as a whole—both the body (organs, muscles, bones, discomfort/disease) and mind (anxiety, worry, guilt, fear).
In my experience both as a student (always) and teacher, I have witnessed and personally felt tremendous results from practicing both meditation and asana—even breathwork yields positive and transformative outcomes. Learning how to maintain composure while practicing challenging poses reveals our ability to make the same efforts off the mat/outside of the classroom, which especially comes in handy if you live in a city.
Although energetic asana can be incredibly rejuvenating, sometimes the body simply needs to stretch and rest. Life can cause stress from a variety of angles; we must learn how to realign and rebalance in ways that feel both attainable and sustainable to us.
Here are a few yoga asana postures to help relieve general physical stress, which may very well result in more mental ease to boot. Listen to where your body might be in need of a little more space, and choose a posture that feels right for you today, remembering that sensations and emotions ebb and flow like the tide.
1. Child's pose
Sit on the shins; bring the big toes together and knees a little bit wider than the hips. Crawl the arms forward to lower the torso, placing the head on a prop if necessary to keep the neck long and easeful. Keep the butt close to the heels. If necessary, place a blanket or bolster on top of the heels to keep the seat from lifting high. Lengthen and strengthen the elbows and wrists, pressing the hands down evenly the width of the shoulders. Breath into the side and back ribs, enjoying the traction in the back and side body from the seat to the hands.
For a more restorative option, place the torso on a bolster or neatly folded blankets. Turn the head to rest on one ear, and bend the elbows to let the forearms drape down onto the floor on either side of the prop.
Come up calmly after a few breaths or a few minutes—whatever feels best for you.
2. Simple twists
Lie on the back with the arms out wide to the side in a T-shape at shoulder height, stretching long through the fingers. Draw the knees together into the chest and bring them up toward the left armpit, so the left outer leg is on the floor to at least the height of the hip. Do your best to keep the right shoulder blade on the floor; if it lifts up, bend the elbow out to the right and place the right hand on the belly.
If you need, place a pillow between the inner shins and ankles.
Take a few calm nostril breaths in and out of the side and back ribs before coming to center and repeating on the other side.
3. Supported seated forward bend
Sit on the floor or on folded blankets with the legs extended in front of you. If necessary, place a pillow or rolled blanket under the knees to keep from rolling onto the lower back. Place a bolster or a few pillows on top of the legs (running the same length as the legs) and fold the torso over the pillows, adding more as needed so the belly, chest, and head are supported.
Let the arms drape by the sides. Switch the turn of the head after a few breaths on one side.
Breathe calmly in and out of the nose, wide into the side of the ribs.
(In yin yoga this is often referred to as caterpillar pose.)
Stay for up to 5 minutes; sit up slowly when finished.
4. Upward salute with a side bend
Sit tall or stand with the feet firmly planted, parallel and hip-width apart. Reach the arms up by the ears with the palms facing each other, extending strongly through the elbows, wrists, and fingers.
Grab on to the left wrist with the right hand and lean the torso over to the right without collapsing the chest toward the ground, continuing to lengthen the left arm through the fingertips. Stay steady on the opposite foot to keep from falling over.
Take a few breaths into the side of the ribs before returning to center and repeat on the other side.
5. Cow face pose
Stand or sit tall; have a towel or strap or belt nearby. Reach the left arm out to the left, turn the palm to face the wall behind you, bend the elbow and swing the back of the left hand onto the middle back—use the right hand to help scoot the left forearm and hand up the middle back, keeping the left collarbone wide.
Holding a strap/belt or towel in the right hand, reach the right arm up, bend the elbow up, and place the right palm on the upper back—right armpit rolling in and right upper arm close to the right ear. Grab onto the prop with the left hand if needed, or link the fingers together and curl them in to form a sturdy grip.
Keep the left inner elbow wide and the right upper arm long, pulling the elbows gently apart. Maintain a tall spine without popping the front ribs forward. Breathe gently in and out of the nose, directing space into the shoulders and side/back ribs.
Slowly unwind and come to center before repeating on the other side.
6. Figure 4
Lie on the back, knees bent and feet flat. Place the right ankle on the left thigh above the knee, keeping the right foot flexed and active so the ankle doesn't roll, right knee open to the right. Either stay with the left foot flat on the floor, or draw the left thigh toward the belly and interlace the hands behind the left leg (right hand goes through the open space between right and left leg, left hand wraps around outside edge of left leg).
Keep the right inner knee open to the right and the collarbone wide as you breathe in and out of the nose, directing space into the right hip or wherever feels tight for you. Slowly release and come through center before repeating on the other side.
We hold a lot of tension in the hips—when they are less gripped, they can reveal more emotional freedom and space for creativity to flow. Try it out for yourself and see how you feel.
7. Low cobra
Lie on the belly, forehead down, legs close together, tops of the feet pointing back behind you. Press the hands flat next to the lower ribs so that the elbows point up toward the ceiling, and lift the shoulders up away from the floor so the collarbones widen.
On the inhale lengthen the head and chest forward and up off the mat, keeping the sides of the knees long and strong, reaching through the toenails. Come down on the exhale, or hold low cobra for a few breaths, gently squeezing the shoulders on to the upper back.
Consider coming up a little bit higher on each repetition if that suits you, lengthening the elbows slightly.
Although this is a more active posture, it can help open the chest and strengthen the back if done effectively (maintaining length through the legs and lower back), which may decrease back pain over time.
8. Supported bridge pose
Lie on the back, knees bent over the ankles, feet flat, arms long by the side of the body, palms flat and fingers reaching forward toward the heels. Press the upper arms and feet down, lift the hips, and place a bolster/neatly folded blanket or block under the sacrum (a small triangle above the buttocks).
Once the pelvis is steady and neutral (not rounded or arched), press the upper arms down and tuck them slightly in toward each other so the chest broadens into the chin, keeping the neck even (similar to the pelvis—neither flat nor over-arched). Bring a little bit of energy into the arms and feet for stability and let the pelvis rest passively on the prop, allowing the breath to move freely and softly.
To come down: Press again into the arms and feet, lift off the prop, lower the pelvis down to the floor and pause there before rolling to one side and sitting upright.
9. Downward-facing dog
Place the hands shoulder-width apart with the wrist creases parallel to the front edge of the mat, drawing the biceps in and up. Measure the length of downdog by coming to plank pose, then lift the hips up and back. The feet can be hip width apart or as wide as the mat, kneecaps engaged so the legs are both long and strong just like they were in plank (separate the feet wider if the spine does not easily extend up and back). Press into the hands evenly, lift the side ribs up into the hips, let the chest widen back toward the thighs. Press the thighs back from the lift of the kneecaps, creating a long-line of energy from the hands up to the height of the hips. Relax the neck and let the head hang. Take a round of five breaths and if you stay for longer, continue to let the breath both invigorate and calm the body and mind. For assistance, press the heels down into a wall and energize the limbs up away from the floor.
Have more energy?
If you have a bit more energy, consider gentle sun salutations at your own pace—with or without a yoga mat. These are great for before or after long trips/days where you are seated for long periods of time; it gets the blood circulating through the muscles, joints, and organs.
What's one or two poses you can try today to relieve some physical or mental stress?
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