Have you ever needed a vacation so badly, but the work and logistics to organize a getaway felt like just another addition to your to-do list? Taking a vacation—be it an actual excursion or just a mental reprieve—has certainly become even more complicated in this day and age. If you are a GenX woman, you may have an especially high level of responsibility. Balancing career, personal interests, a social life, and family life is no small feat! However, luckily there are ways to access peace, quiet, and harmony…even in the midst of daily life. Learning to practice yoga for stressful times is one such way.
Yoga has become incredibly popular in the West over the past few decades. Though some folks still see it as merely another fitness regimen, even those who know very little about yoga are typically aware that yoga offers much more than physical fitness. Increased strength, balance, mobility, and body awareness are certainly great side effects of the yoga practice. When you get into the heart of the practice, yoga has the potential to provide all that and more.
These are stressful times without a doubt. Yoga certainly is not a magic wand or a silver bullet. I know from experience—having even a daily yoga practice won’t make all your problems go away. What this ancient practice does provide, however, is the means and skill to better navigate the trials and tribulations of life. In the words of the great yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar, “Yoga does not just change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees.”
Beyond the physical benefits, yoga gives you the opportunity to step outside of the stress of daily living. It provides a chance to press pause, to quiet the mind, and to take a deeper look inside. Yoga is a practice that teaches you to become more body aware, and also more mind aware. When you learn to calm your mind and become a better observer, you can act more skillfully in the world. In fact, one of the definitions of yoga is “skill in action.”
TRAIN YOUR BODY, TRAIN YOUR MIND
For those who are new to yoga this may seem promising, but you may also be wondering what Downward Dog, Triangle Pose, or Headstand have to do with quieting the mind. The answer is twofold.
First of all, when practiced skillfully, yoga isn’t just about doing, pushing harder, and being better. It is actually much more about developing sensitivity and awareness. Of course, if you take classes regularly or practice on your own, you will become stronger and more physically capable. Your friends and family will become impressed with your ability to stand on your head, press up into a full backbend, or sit in Lotus Pose.
Yet, the ability to execute challenging poses is just the start. On a deeper level, the yoga poses, called asanas, train our minds. By learning to keep the mind and breath smooth and calm even while attempting demanding poses, we learn how to navigate stressful life situations with skill and grace. If you can stay calm while standing on your head, perhaps the odds of staying calm during a traffic jam increase!
Beyond training the mind, yoga poses have profound physiological benefits. This is the second part of the answer. Even if you know nothing about yoga, you may notice that by putting your body in certain positions, a quieting, calming effect is produced. There are other postures—the backbends for instance—that can be quite exhilarating. This actually can be helpful in instances of depression and/or anxiety. However, since the purpose of this article is to discuss yoga for stressful times, let’s look at some poses that help bring about a sense of calm.
When your nerves are especially jangled or you’re feeling fatigued, taking restorative, supportive poses is a great place to start. I practice passive, restorative yoga poses on a daily basis. Even if it’s just for few minutes before engaging in a more rigorous practice, these poses help smooth out the nerves. You can begin by practicing these poses 2-3 times per week. If you find that you crave these poses often, they can definitely become a daily practice.
Some examples of restorative poses are Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Bound Angle Pose), Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero Pose), and Adho Mukha Virasana (Downward Facing Hero Pose). For these three poses, it helps to have a bolster and a few thin blankets. If you don’t have these props on hand, you can improvise a couch cushion or other large, firm cushion and a few thin blankets. Beach towels work as well.
Creating a supportive atmosphere will help you sink into these poses. Consider dimming the lights, lighting a candle or salt lamp, and choosing a place and time of day where you will be able to enjoy minimal distractions.
Reclined Bound Angle Pose
In Supta Baddha Konasana, begin by sitting up on the bolster with the feet together and knees apart (like the “butterfly stretch” you may have done as a kid). Don’t bounce or stretch the legs, however. Instead let the inner legs release. Keeping the soles of the feet together, scoot your buttocks onto the floor, keeping your spine supported by the bolster. Fold one of the blankets and place it underneath your head and neck like a pillow. Keep the arms at your sides, palms facing up. If you feel too much stretch along your inner legs and groins, fold a couple more blankets or towels, and place them underneath your outer thighs for support. Maintain this posture for 5-10 minutes as long it feels comfortable and soothing.
Reclined Hero Pose
Supta Virasana is similar to Supta Baddha Konasana. However, instead of sitting with your feet together and your knees apart, you will sit in front of the bolster with your knees together and feet apart, toes pointing back. Then you will allow your buttocks to drop in between your feet, and lie back on the bolster. Begin by holding this pose for 2-5 minutes.
A word to the wise—this pose can sometimes be challenging for those new to yoga. Do not remain in a pose that is painful. Especially if you are a runner, cyclist, or hiker, this may be quite intense on your quadriceps and knees. If this is too much or if you feel any pain, simply sit cross-legged and recline back onto the bolster. This is referred to as Supta Swastikasana. Again, have your head and neck supported on a folded blanket. This pose also has a calming effect on the nervous system, and rest assured, you are still a reclining hero!
Downward Facing Hero Pose
Adho Muksha Virasana, or Downward Facing Hero Pose, is a wonderfully relaxing posture that can be done on a daily basis. Sit on your sticky mat with big toes together and knees a bit wider than torso-width apart. Have your bolster out in front of your torso length-wise and a blanket on hand for your forehead. Then keeping the buttocks on the heels, extend forward so that your whole front torso rests on the bolster. Try to keep your face down as this is more soothing to the nervous system. If you find that your nose and mouth get smashed into the bolster, fold a blanket underneath the forehead for easer breathing. Stay for 1-5 minutes and notice how it becomes easier to take full breaths through your back ribs and the back of the lungs.
A WEALTH OF OPTIONS
These three poses are just a few simple starting points. There are many, many poses that can be practiced when focusing on yoga for stressful times. For instance, the simple act of supporting your head on a yoga block or bolster in Downward Dog creates a soothing effect. To learn the more complicated asanas, it is helpful to work with a trained teacher. The more challenging postures can pose a greater threat of injury.
Ultimately, I hope this gives you a small glimpse into the many ways that yoga can help you navigate stressful, trying times. Remember, that yoga isn’t just about physical transformation; it’s about transforming the person who sees.