In life there are a number of things inside your control, however stress and stressful situations are not apart of that number. On a brighter note though we are able to control how we respond when faced with something stressful. Typically when stressed we either tend to shut down and retreat or we react mindlessly. Neither extreme is healthy or productive for us so having practical helpful tools can mean the difference between a complete meltdown and not batting an eye.
Yoga has been scientifically proven to be an effective method in stress reduction. Exercise and general movement are great for getting you out of your head and boosting your overall mood. In addition to the various physical and health benefits of yoga the aspect of mindfulness is an invaluable tool.
Remember being a kid and feeling a big emotion and being told to take deep breaths? Yeah it still works as an adult. This act of mindfulness through breathing pulls us out of whatever situation is causing us distress and brings us back to something we can control; our breath.
When compiling this list of 5 yoga postures to reduce stress I intended for this to be a short and sweet post but decided it would serve you best if I actually taught instead. I know firsthand how stressful practicing via internet can be. A pose gets called and you think you know the posture but then look up an image and wind up with conflicting ideas.
I chose a few staple postures to cover a bit more in-depth and provide you with a few different variations/modifications of each pose. Please enjoy!
Hand & Wrist Stretches
Relieves stiffness and tension while also increasing flexibility and reducing the risk of injury. This is a crucial part of practice that is often forgotten. By not spending adequate time warming/stretching this area you are at risk for injury not only in your yoga practice but everyday activities.
Take a few minutes before you start your day to circle your wrists (and ankles while you’re at it) in both directions. After circling your wrists a few times hold your hand out in front of you with your fingers pointing upwards and gently pull back on your thumb guiding it towards you. Work your way across your hand taking your time and feeling where the stretch travels to. Once you’ve stretched your pinky turn your fingers downward and repeat the stretches on each finger. Notice the different sensations compared to the fingers being upward. This is a great time to connect with your breath and settle into the present moment.
Variations & modifications:
As far as variations go I recommend exploring other movements that feel good. Shaking out the wrists, flexing/extending fingers, light massage/pressure therapy and anything else your heart desires. There are also many stretches you can do while in table-top in addition to the seated ones mentioned. For my yogis who may not have another hand/arm to assist in stretching your fingers using a surface like a table or countertop works like a charm. As always be mindful of any prior injuries and take your time when working with these sensitive joints.
Child’s Pose- Balasana
Releases tension from hips, thighs and ankles while also passively stretching the muscles in the back. placing ones forehead to the earth has a grounding and calming effect aiding in the reduction of stress. This posture also brings your gaze inward towards the knees, blocking out any external stimulus and allowing you to fully be in this moment.
Variations & modifications:
A few variations exist within this posture. Childs pose will always have the big toes touch but the knees can be together or apart in a V shape. Typically the posture is seen with the arms outstretched to the top of the mat firmly pressing into the ground. Practitioners may choose to press the hands together and raise the hands over the head for a shoulder stretch or let the arms wrap along the sides of the body for a more passive variation.
I highly encourage you to try any and all variations so long as you are mindful of your breathing. A good sign to look for is a steady full breath, however if it becomes forced or shallow that’s a clear signal from your body to back off and try something else. Remember that every day is unique and so is each practice, somedays certain postures just don’t feel right and that is perfectly okay.
The use of props to modify your practice allows you to fully experience the posture without causing pain or additional stress. For injured students props are a helpful tool to safely and effectively practice yoga. To modify Childs pose I always enjoy using a blanket as an extra layer of softness to cushion my knees and shins. For those who have especially tight hamstrings/quadriceps/hips you may want to place a few blocks or a cushion under your seat to help alleviate pressure in the knees. A block or cushion can also be used to also elevate the head/neck.
Eagle Pose- Garudasana
This seated version focuses on releasing tension from the shoulders and upper back. Stress is commonly held in this part of the body and frequently manifests as pinched up shoulders. This posture concaves the chest and broadens the upper back, particularly the space between the shoulder blades, a welcome contrast to our typically tightly squeezed shoulders and puffed out chests.
Variations & modifications:
Eagle pose involves a standing balancing element but for our practice I chose a less active variation. The foundation for this variation can be any comfortable seated position. Your legs may take any shape that supports a steady seat. The arms will wrap and the fingertips of one hand will reach for the palm of the other. If the fingertips are unable to reach pressing the back of the hand to wrist is just as effective. After creating the bind slowly start to lift the arms until you feel the desired intensity of stretch in your shoulders. If it becomes too intense you always have the option to lower the arms back down.
The props required to modify this posture will vary depending on what kind of seat you take. Sitting on a blanket or meditation cushion is my favorite way to ease tight hips and blocks are great to lift the ground up to you. Remember your seat should always be steady and easeful so feel free to change it up if it feels off. If your shoulders are tight creating this bind may require assistance from a strap. If you don’t have one a scarf/tie/belt will work just as well.
Seated Forward Fold- Paschimottanasana
This forward bending posture stretches the entire back of the body from the top of the neck to the achilles. It also calms the central nervous system and helps regulate emotions. Forward folds in general have an overall cooling effect on the body literally “chilling” you out.
Variations & modifications:
The posture itself has few variations the main one being the orientation of the legs/feet. There are other seated forward fold postures with the legs crossed in padmasana or the soles of the feet together, knees to the sides for baddha konasana. However not having the legs elongated will change the target area of the stretch so keep that in mind when changing things up. There is also a shoulder stretch variation that has you interlace your fingers behind your back and lift them up as you fold forward.
I enjoy this posture the most with the addition of a folded blanket under my seat. This helps to slightly elevate the hips making folding forward more easeful. However those that are more flexible/have more mobility in their hips may find that the addition of the blanket hinders how deeply they can fold. Another helpful prop is a strap (or anything like it) to loop across the balls of your feet and help pull your chest towards your toes. Remember that its not about destination and how far you can get your chest to legs but rather how deeply you can breathe in this posture.
Pigeon Pose- Kapotasana
You’ll either looooove or have a strong aversion to this posture. If you happen to be indifferent please send me a message I’ve been dying to meet one of you. Whatever your feelings toward this pose may be this is an incredible release to your lower back and hips while simultaneously stretching and strengthing the joints in your legs. In addition this pose can provide much needed relief for those with sciatic nerve pain. The hips are also said to house our emotions so many practitioners experience a great sense of emotional release in this posture.
Variations & modifications:
This postures variations largely depend on what kind of effect you seek. Beginning in the base of this posture you have the option to remain upright if that is enough stretch for your hips. Some may choose to take a more active version creating a bind by catching the back foot with the same hand or tucking it into the forearm. Others may choose to go deeper into the stretch and rest upon forearms/blocks/blanket or to flatten all the way onto the chest.
Modifications for pigeon first begin in orientation of the shape. You’ve likely visited a similar shape in yoga on your back, figure-4. This is a perfect alternative if bearing weight on your foot/ankle/shin/knee via traditional pigeon is not suitable. If you’re unable to get on the floor all together you can sit on the edge of a chair and cross your ankle over your knee to create the same shape. Blocks and blankets underneath the hip being stretched can help to fill in any gaps and help you to feel more stable in the pose.
Inversion or Arm Balance
This final posture can be any inversion or arm balance you enjoy. I recommend a good 5 minutes of your practice be solely dedicated to playing and just having fun. Especially when stressed we tend to forget to enjoy and to take time to play so try to remind yourself to do just this. And if you needed another reason to get upside down inversions have been scientifically proven to flush blood to your pituitary gland which in turn releases a rush of feel-good hormones. To those that may be new to inversions starting with downward dog or dolphin is a great start. If you’re ready to try headstand or handstand but are afraid to fall use a wall or have a friend spot you. Even putting your legs up the wall is an inversion. Get creative and see what makes your heart happiest.
Inversions have been scientifically proven to flush blood to your pituitary gland which in turn releases a rush of feel-good hormones.
I truly hope that this post has been beneficial to your personal yoga practice and answered any questions you may have had about specific postures. My biggest hope for your takeaway is that you feel more equipped and prepared to face stress rather than simply managing it. This begins with the understanding that it’s not your job to change/fix/save everything and everyone. Trust I know it’s far easier said than done but life, just like yoga, is one big practice. You don’t have to “get” it right away and it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s okay to feel those big overwhelming feelings but don’t allow them to consume you. It’s okay to wander away from practice but don’t let that deter you from coming back to your mat. It’s okay to be exactly as you are, right here right now. Namaste