Yoga, meaning Union, has helped me to be more relaxed and at ease in my life simply by developing an internal awareness of the mere aspect that my body, my mind and my soul are one. My body is not separate from my mind, they are working in perfect unity and if one is feeling out of balance, I immediately feel total disharmony in my entire being. It is the Asana practice as a whole that brings the physical body into balance, preparing it to sit still for the practice of Meditation and Pranayama, which instils harmony in the mind. Thus, Asana is a significant step in the process of Yoga and Meditation to allow the body to release tension and physical or mental blockages, which cause us to major stress in our daily lives. If I had to list each and every Asana I could think of several, stress relieving properties of each posture. However to simplify things I will list just 5 Asanas that I have personally found particularly beneficial in reducing my stress levels on a daily basis. These postures can easily be applied and adjusted to suit your needs.
This posture has had a remarkable impact on relaxing my nervous system. My Yoga teacher in Cape Town first introduced me to this Asana and for years he has always started his classes by bringing people into this position before anything else. Now I simply cannot start my practice every day without spending some time here, lying on my front in Makarasana. Sometimes if I find myself feeling slightly anxious during the day for some reason, I just give myself some time out in Makarasana and I immediately feel myself calming down.
How to do this position – lie down on your front and bend your knees, taking them out as wide as you feel comfortable for your body.
Straighten the legs and allow the toes to point outward and the heels to face inward.
Then bring your elbows out in front of you so that your shoulders and chest are slightly elevated from the ground. Make sure that your elbows are in line with the shoulders.
Place the right forearm on top of the left and simply let your forehead rest down on the arm.
Once you are comfortable, spend a few minutes in this position just allowing the body to settle on the ground and the mind to slow down. In this shape begin to watch your breath. Observe how the breath is flowing very naturally through the body. Notice how the breath will begin to slow down, becoming smoother and more refined as you release tension from the body. See how your breath automatically moves smoothly into the abdomen and expands the navel area with each inhales. On each exhale; the navel area very naturally relaxes and deflates. This is called diaphragmatic breathing and is of primary importance in helping the nervous system to remain calm throughout the practice. Makarasanasets up the foundation of your Yoga practice (or even your everyday life activities) by encouraging the body to breathe slowly, smoothly and diaphragmatically, enhancing a relaxed state of wellbeing.
To come out of the position, do so slowly and try to remain in a relaxed state, bending the knees, bring your legs together and roll on to your left-hand side. Allow yourself to spend a few moments in a foetal position still observing the diaphragmatic breath. When you are ready, without disturbing anything, using your right hand to press onto the floor, bring yourself up to a comfortable seated position.
Benefits of Makrasana: Relaxes the entire nervous system and relieves stress in the body and mind. Focusing the mind on the natural movement of the breath in this shape helps alleviate disturbing thoughts and mental blockages. Overall it is extremely beneficial for all stress related ailments by lowering the blood pressure and decreasing fatigue and anxiety.
Forward bending helps to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. It is therapeutic and revitalising, with the head positioned below the heart, it provides an opportunity for the blood to rush from the heart to the brain, replenishing the cells with fresh oxygen.
How to do this posture-stand with your feet hip-width apart, placing the hands on the hips and softening the knees (I like to encourage people to bend their knees at first in this Asana, as forcing the knees to straighten when the body isn’t prepared can strain the hamstrings and the spinal cord, which enhances the risk of an injury and totally defeats the purpose of this pose). Start to fold forwards by moving from the navel first. The navel spine moves forward and down, followed by the rest of the spine moving one vertebra at a time and then fold at the hips. With the knees bent this forward fold should be passive allowing you to receive the huge therapeutic benefits. Either allow the arms to dangle passively or place the hands down on the floor next to the heels. Only if comfortable you can begin to straighten the knees. Press the sitting bones down towards the heels to lengthen and release tension in the lower back. Draw the ribs inwards and spread the shoulder blades apart to create space in the middle and upper back. Then bring the chin in and let your head hang loose to release all tension in the neck, back and the shoulders. Stay in this Asana for up to 5 breaths, still breathing diaphragmatically and allowing your torso to lengthen with each inhales and relax a little further with each exhalation.
To come out, let the arms dangle, keep the head and neck relaxed and bend the knees if they are not already bent. Pushing the sitting bones to the heels, start to unwind, rolling the spine back up to stand, moving one vertebra at a time.
Forward bending Asanas generally help reduce blood pressure by encouraging the blood to circulate more fluidly through the body. Energetically the spinal cord, as well as the nerves of the spine and the limbs are lengthened, which enhances nerve conduction and the circulation of blood without putting the nervous system under strain. This Asana also massages and compresses the organs of digestion and reproduction at the front of the body, while lengthening and expanding the kidneys at the back of the body. This helps to improve the function of these organs by eliminating toxins that may have built up in the digestive and reproductive organs and at the same time allowing fresh blood and energy to flow into the kidneys. As a result of these physiological aspects, this pose may improve digestion, relieve symptoms of PMS and menopause, reduce levels of fatigue, while stimulating the blood flow into the liver, kidney, ovaries and uterus.
How to do Paschimottanasa – sitting with your legs out in front out your body, place your hands or your fingertips on the floor by your hips to help you to sit up straight. Slightly bend your knees (this protects the hamstrings from overstretching when bending forward) and gently grip backwards with your heels into the floor, pushing the ball of your foot away from you to activate the muscles at the back of your thighs. Slowly bring the fingertips next to the heels with the knees still bent. Press the sitting bones and tailbone down and lengthen the spine. With the heels still gently pulling towards you push the top of the hips back. Start to move your navel (navel spine) forward and upwards and draw the lower ribs in. Then allow the forward bend to happen from your navel, followed by your ribs and then your chest. Always make sure you are breathing diaphragmatically, into your abdomen. This is the first stage of the posture. If your head and knees are able to comfortably touch without overstretching, then you can start to straighten the legs if it does not cause any discomfort. In the final stage of the posture, you can grip the feet with the hands, keeping the legs straight. Continue to breathe into the abdomen and lengthen the spine and trunk by moving the navel towards your knees and your toes. Stay here and allow the spine to lengthen and relax, allowing the breath to move naturally, slowly and diaphragmatically.
To come out of the posture, first, lengthen the back of the body, lift the hips and straighten the elbows. Anchoring the sitting bones into the floor, lengthen the front of the body by lifting from the navel first, then the ribs and then lift the chest back into a seated position.
4) SuptaVakrasana variation:
This Asana is one of my particularly favourite postures simply due to the release it brings about in the hips, leaving me feeling completely open and content with life. This shape has various stages depending on what feels comfortable for your body.
In the first step, lying in a supine position (on your back) with the knees bent. Take the feet out to the edges of the mat and allow the knees to knock inwards. Start by placing the hands on the abdomen and observe the flow of breath in and out through the abdomen. Let the breath become slow, smooth and steady. Then without disrupting the natural rhythm of the breath, gently and slowly move the knees to the right and then back up through the centre, rocking them over to the left. Do this a few times just to open up and release the hips. Allow the knees to settle over to the right-hand side and pause here for a few moments. Check in with your diaphragmatic breath to encourage more relaxation. Stay here if this feels like it is serving its purpose or move a step further to enhance the posture by placing the right ankle on top of the knee and reaching the left arm up over the ear to create a sideways lengthening bend along the left side of the body. Enjoy the release in the hips in this shape for a few moments and if you like, for a juicier release in the hips, bring the right knee towards the armpit and gently hug the thigh, gripping the hand around the shin. This stage for most people is more than adequate but for some who have the openness in their bodies can attempt the final variation of this Asana. Do so with ease, always moving slowly and carefully without forcing any of the limbs into a position that creates tension. You can bring the left foot into a vipassana position (placing the top of the foot onto the floor next to the hip), keeping the left arm in a lengthened, sideways bending shape, stay here with the right ankle hooked on top of the left knee. Or draw the knee towards the armpit to deepen the stretch, or in the final step start to straighten out the right leg, bringing the right hand underneath the right heel and the left hand will find the top of the right foot. Try to keep the left thigh and knee pressing down to the ground, relax your neck and your throat and remember to breathe diaphragmatically. Always repeat on the other side to balance out the body.
The benefits of this Asana and its variations include massages the lower back and abdominal organs with the side-to-side motion of the legs. The gentle twist helps facilitate digestion, regulate the secretion of digestive juices and thus reduce constipation, which is a significant cause of stress for many people. The elasticity of the spine gradually increases with these movements, thus relieving stiffness in the spine by creating space in between the vertebrae, allowing blood to flow more fluidly through the spine. The stretch will also help to strengthen and open up the hip joints (specifically the Psoas, which is known to store tension in the body, particularly for females) and lengthen the quadriceps muscles, increasing the blood flow in these areas providing them with more oxygen and nutrition. Lying in the supine shape with the knees bent to one side also opens up the chest muscles and increases blood circulation in the chest area, which reduces any strain from the blood vessels and prevents the build-up of cholesterol in the body (also caused by stress in our daily lives). Ultimately this posture can help improve our mental health, by also stimulating blood flow to the brain, calming the mind and thus releasing stress.
“Legs up against the wall” is an all-around favourite therapeutic posture. It’s similar to Savasana, where most students look forward to that moment in class when the teacher indicates the time to lie down and relax (either in Savasana or with the legs up the wall). ViparitaKarani is a very passive inversion and has many therapeutic, health and anti-aging benefits. Being a restorative posture, it allows the blood to circulate to every part of your body, helping to relieve stored tension and possibly any ailments in the physical body. This Asana specifically provides a release with the spine, feet, legs and the nervous system, enhancing the flow of fresh energy (prana) throughout the body, bringing it into a state of complete relaxation.
How to do this posture – find a space next to a wall and sit next to it so that the left side of your hips and body is touching the wall. Then come to lie on your back, bringing your legs up to rest against the wall. Adjust yourself as need be to be comfortable with lying here for a while. Ensure that the hips are about 20 – 30 cm away from the wall and that your back and head are resting on the floor, creating an almost 90-degree angle with the body. Relax your hands by the side of your body. Allow your neck to relax and soften your throat and your face, closing the eyes and breathing deeply and smoothly into the abdomen. Stay here for at least 5 minutes to receive the full therapeutic benefits of this Asana. Feel the support of the floor beneath you, as the hips and spine sink into the floor. Notice the space that this creates in between the vertebrae, stimulating the blood to circulate through the spine and thus increasing the flow of prana through the body. Taking the time out with the legs elevated above the hips encourages the blood to drain back down from the feet, releasing all the tension that we build up every day through being on our feet and doing activities. Resting here calms the mind and allows you to go into a state of deep meditation.
To release, bend the knees and roll to the right-hand side. As with Makarasana, give yourself some time here on your side to watch your breathing. Always breathing diaphragmatically. Bring yourself up to a comfortable seated position and transition slowly and gradually into your day. Try to maintain this sense of calm, ease and contentment in your daily life.
The main purpose of this posture is to reverse the flow of gravity in the body by increasing the blood flow to the brain. This decreases tension in the heart, decompresses the internal organs while giving them a gentle massage and improving their overall function.
When considering Yoga and how it’s practice can reduce stress I feel that it is important to understand the functioning of the Nervous System. There are two parts of this system: the Somatic Nervous System (the part that voluntarily responds to external stimuli) and the Autonomic nervous system (which involuntarily responds regulating internal body functions). The Autonomic Nervous system has two subdivisions – the Sympathetic and the Parasympathetic Nervous systems. The Sympathetic Nervous System is what is often referred to as the “fight or flight response” and prepares the body for intense physical activity. Whereas the parasympathetic nervous system has almost exactly the opposite effect by relaxing the body, slowing down the high energy functions (such as heart rate and breath) and allowing the body to “rest and digest”.
If we analyse the scientific effects of yoga and its benefits we will experience that if practised correctly it will activate your Parasympathetic nervous system, bringing you into a restful yet aware state of being. Unfortunately, given the pressures we face today in society it is so common for us to spend our lives being in a state of “fight or flight”. So many of us have forgotten our natural ways of breathing. As I have discussed, our natural breathing mechanism is diaphragmatic yet somehow the majority of people today chest breathe and are completely unaware of our body’s natural method of breathing diaphragmatically. Chest breathing is the very cause of stress in the human body, bringing us immediately into a state of fight or flight. If we simply reverse the effects of environmental influences on our bodies and relearn how to breathe naturally and diaphragmatically, the parasympathetic nervous system will automatically become activated, which in turn relaxes the entire nervous system.
To conclude, if one of these postures were to completely transform your life and help you to physically release stress, it would be Makarasana. I have experienced and witnessed in others how spending some time in Makarasana each day has inevitably shifted the breath from being shallow, quick and stuck in the chest to becoming slow, smooth and diaphragmatic. When I find myself becoming stressed or anxious I simply remind myself to breathe into the abdomen. Try this for yourself and see how your breath will automatically slow down and the mind will become calm, content and more aware. A regulated breath leads to a balanced and peaceful state of wellbeing.
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