It would be very hard to find someone who doesn’t get stressed or experience anxiety at least every once in a while. These states of being are normal, but they shouldn’t last very long – if they do, they put your health at risk. Luckily, yoga is one of the best tools for stress and anxiety relief!
How stressed are we?
Recent surveys show that stress levels are at an all time high. It’s not just our finances, jobs and families that we stress about, but also food supply chain security, inflation, war conflicts, Covid-19 pandemic, and climate change. According to an American poll, up to 87% of the population is stressed, and another survey shows that up to 57% of workers experience daily stress at work.
Sadly, stress levels are constantly rising. For example in 2021, 57% of adults in the US were stressed about money, while in 2022, it’s 65%. In March 2022, 80% of people were stressed about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, fearing it may lead to a world war – something that people generally weren’t worried about before. And with Covid-19 pandemic lasting for over two years, 58% of adults report it’s a daily stressor that also puts a strain on relationships.
Some of this stress is short-lived – your boss yells at you or you have too many commitments in one day. But the rest can be long-term and difficult to shift – financial worries, living situation, safety concerns or relationships. And to top it up, we often add to it ourselves when we set unrealistic goals, and fail to achieve them.
What does stress do to your body and mind?
Short-term stress is natural and normal, it’s an immediate reaction of your body to what’s perceived as a dangerous situation. You receive some bad news or get angry and your body responds with the fight-or-flight reaction, activated by the sympathetic nervous system.
In this reaction, your adrenal glands release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which trigger a chain of reactions: your heart rate goes up, your breathing speeds up, your blood pressure also increases, blood circulation is redirected away from the skin, digestive and urinary systems, and is funneled into the muscles and brain, at the same time, your body breaks down its emergency energy stores to increase your blood sugar and fats.
Why does this happen? It’s all fine-tuned to prepare you for action – to fight for your life or run away. Your muscles are supplied with energy and oxygen, your brain is alert, and your body isn’t doing anything unnecessary, such as digesting, to conserve energy for physical action.
Once you calm down, the body returns to normal, thanks to the parasympathetic nervous system that balances out the sympathetic. You can help speed this up by yogic breathing techniques or by physical activity – that helps your body get rid of the stress hormones faster.
Long-term or chronic stress
The trouble is when stress lasts for more than a couple of hours because your body cannot quite return back to normal. Chronic stress can cause high blood pressure, bad digestion, insomnia, lowered immune response and weight gain. The latter is because your body is mobilizing its energy reserves and it makes you hungry and tired, craving sugary and fatty foods as rich sources of energy.
And another impact of stress is purely mental – it skews your perception and makes you focus more on negative aspects of your situation. While that may be useful when you’re facing an immediate danger, it’s not so useful in your daily life and self-care. It may sway important decisions, damage relationships, undermine your self-esteem and ability to focus.
How to combat stress on a day-to-day basis
Yoga and mindfulness are some of the best tools for stress and anxiety management. Yoga practice stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, particularly through the slow and deep breathing, and actively lowers your stress hormone levels. And you don’t necessarily need to be on the mat – yogic breathwork techniques can be used almost whenever and wherever.
Then, there are some simple steps you can take to reduce your stress. For example, a mindset adjustment – think of constructive solutions, and view problems as challenges rather than obstacles.
Engaging in a physical activity is important for many aspects of our health but especially for stress management. It doesn’t mean you have to immediately go to the gym, even going for a walk will help.
Lastly, taking care of yourself is an irreplaceable puzzle piece in stress management. It means taking care of personal hygiene because all these small routines help to reset the mind, and stop it from fretting for a moment. And it also means eating fresh, wholesome foods, focusing on plant-based, and avoiding junk foods. A poor diet can actually increase your stress levels!
6 yoga poses for stress and anxiety relief
Try these yoga poses when you feel like you need some restorative practice, rather than a workout. It’s ok to slow down and give your body and mind a break. You should pay attention to your breath and make sure it’s slow, full and flowing freely.
1. Child’s pose
A simple but very effective pose. Resting your forehead on the mat helps you relax, and releases neck tension, while breathing expands your back ribs, gently massaging your back muscles from the inside.
How to do it:
- Sit on your heels, and move your knees as wide as the mat
- Walk with your hands forward while lowering your upper body down
- When you’ve reached a comfortable distance, rest your forehead on the mat and relax
- Option: If your shoulders are too tense, move your arms, so they rest alongside your knees, next to your body on the mat, palms up
- Stay there for at least 20 breaths
The alternating spine movements in this pose have a balancing and calming effect. As you move slowly, you automatically also breathe slowly, stimulating the parasympathetic system to de-stress you.
How to do it:
- Start on all fours, hands under your shoulders, knees under your hips, spine neutral
- Breathe in, arching your back – dipping your mid-back down, looking up
- Breathe out, rounding your back, tucking you ‘tail’ under, looking down
- Repeat 15 times
This pose makes you feel safe, re-centers you and at the same time, relieves some tension in your back and hips.
How to do it:
- Sit with your knees bent, and let them fall out, joining the soles of your feet – wrap your fingers around your feet to keep them together
- Straighten your back, and lower your knees as much as possible
- If your hips allow, bend forward, walk your hands slightly ahead of your feet and relax, letting your head hang heavy
- Option: If you have a yoga block, put it on the highest height on your feet and rest your forehead on it
- Stay in your final version of the pose for at least 20 breaths
Another calming pose that enables you to release stress and tension with every breath, and it stretches your lower back and hamstrings, too.
How to do it:
- Sit on the mat with your legs stretched out in front of you, bend your right knee, and let it fall out, placing your right sole on the inner left thigh
- Straighten your back, and push the right knee down
- With an inbreath, raise your arms up, and turn your torso towards the left leg
- With an outbreath, slowly lower your torso and arms over your left leg, keeping your back long
- If you can reach your toes, great! If not, place your hands on either side of the left leg or on the shin
- When you settle in the pose, stay there for at least 10 deep breaths
- Repeat on the other side
5. Bridge pose
The bridge pose has multiple benefits – it offers a gentle backbend that helps to expand your breathing, it releases neck and shoulder tension, and it is also an inversion and all inversions have a calming effect.
How to do it:
- Lie on your back, knees bent, feet on the floor, hip-width apart
- Place your arms next to your body, palms down – try to move your feet so close to your pelvis that you can brush your heels with your fingertips
- Root down with your palms and feet, and with an inbreath lift your pelvis off the floor as high as you can
- Interlace your hands under your back and hold the pose for at least 10 breaths, be mindful of your knees so they don’t fall in or out
- When you’re finished, lower down to the mat, move your feet mat-width apart, and let your knees fall in to relax your lower back
6. Reclined twist
This pose releases a lot of tension – from your neck, shoulders, back and hips. At the same time, because you’re supported by the floor, you can rest and breathe deeply, relaxing your mind.
How to do it:
- Lie on your back, legs straight, then draw the right knee towards you, and hug it with your arms
- Stretch out your right arm to the side, and rest it on the floor
- Keep your left hand on the right knee, breathe in
- Breathe out and draw your right knee over your body to the left, resting your left hand on top of it
- Turn your head towards the right, away from the knee
- Stay there for ten deep breaths, then return to neutral and repeat on the other side
Top it up!
When you’re finished with this little sequence, sit cross-legged or on your heels and try the alternate nostril breathing technique. It has a brain hemisphere balancing effect, reduces stress and anxiety, lowers blood pressure and makes you feel good. Here’s how to do it:
Start de-stressing today
Remember, yoga is an excellent stress-relieving tool and you don’t always have to strive to achieve something physical. The mental effects of yoga can be much more profound, and provide the best help when you need a break. Try the six yoga poses above or follow our video for stress release. One thing’s for sure – you won’t be sorry you dedicated that time to your own well-being!