When we’re stressed out, our sympathetic nervous system responds as if we’re in danger — aka the fight-or-flight response. And while not all stress is bad, chronic stress can lead to a myriad of health issues such as:
- reduced immunity
- heart disease
To help combat stress, yoga can be a particularly effective tool. Thanks to its physical benefits like toned muscles and increased flexibility, it’s become incredibly popular. But it’s actually the internal effects that make it so powerful.
Studies have shown yoga to be linked to lowered cortisol levels (the stress hormone), increased resilience and pain tolerance, improved mood, and reduced anxiety. Certain yoga poses and longer hold times are even believed to activate the parasympathetic nervous system — our rest-and-digest response, which is the body’s antidote to fight-or-flight.
The best part of yoga is that you don’t need to spend a fortune on medications or invest in any fancy equipment to get healthy. All you need is your body and your breath.
Try this 5-pose sequence to reduce stress and help cultivate your inner calm:
This reclined resting pose will help you feel both supported and anchored. Having your feet on the floor encourages a settled feeling, while hugging your arms can be comforting.
Muscles lengthened: rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, quadriceps
Muscles strengthened: serratus anterior, pectoralis, hamstrings, internal hip rotators
- Lay on your back with your knees bent and feet and legs hip-width apart. Wiggle your feet a little wider and allow your inner knees to fall in toward each other.
- Inhale and spread your arms wide, out to the sides in a T-shape. On an exhale, hug your arms around your chest with the right arm on top. Remain in this position for 10 long breaths.
- To switch, inhale and spread your arms wide. Exhale and switch the cross, so the opposite arm is on top.
Sukhasana (simple cross-legged position or comfortable pose)
Poses that are close to the floor help with grounding, while the hand placements in this variation are designed to cultivate a sense of connection and peace.
Muscles lengthened: glute medius, glute minimus, glute maximus, hip adductors
Muscles strengthened: hip flexors, lower abdominals
- Begin by sitting in a cross-legged position on the floor (or on a folded blanket if your hip mobility is restricted), with your right shin in front of your left. Your shin bones should cross at the center, with your knees stacked directly above your ankles. Your feet should be actively flexed, which will help protect your knee joints.
- For the first variation, place your hands palms down, on your upper thigh bones. This is meant to cultivate a feeling of grounding. Allow your elbows to fall by your sides and the muscles of your neck release away from your ears.
- Keep the back of your neck long and the crown of your head reaching toward the ceiling. Gently close your eyes and remain here for 10 full breaths.
- For the second variation, switch the crossing of your legs, so that your left shin is in front of your right. Keep your legs active and heels flexed away from your body.
- Place one hand on your lower belly and the second hand on your heart. Take 10 full breaths and track your breathing as it moves within your abdomen.
Half Surya Namaskara A (half sun salutation)
Our body’s response to stress is the anticipation of movement — either fighting back or running away. Yet, in modern times, many of us get stressed but then remain sedentary. Moving during moments of stress can help blood circulation, increase oxygen throughout the body, and reduce cortisol levels at a faster rate.
Muscles lengthened: hamstrings, spinal extensors, erector spinae (when folded), pectoralis, biceps
Muscles strengthened: hip flexors, spinal extensors (when in extension), triceps
- Begin by standing at the top of the mat with your feet together or hip-width apart. Your arms should be by your sides and your breathing should be smooth.
- On an inhale, raise your arms up to the ceiling.
- Exhale and fold over your legs with your arms and hands placed on either side of your legs. Slightly bend your knees if you need to lengthen your back.
- Inhale and place your hands on the outside of each shin bone and lift your torso half way, extending your chest to the front of the space. Look forward.
- Exhale and fold over your legs once more. Again, slightly bend your knees if you need to lengthen your back.
- Inhale and rise to a standing position, with your arms raised above your head with a long spine.
- Exhale and lower your arms by your sides. Repeat 1 or more rounds.
Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2)
Standing postures strengthen our legs and our perseverance, while the outstretched arms (used in this variation) are what’s called a Power Pose — an expansive shape, which has been linked to reducing cortisol levels.
Muscles strengthened: front leg: external hip rotators, hamstrings; back leg: hip abductors, quadriceps
Muscles lengthened: front leg: adductors; back leg: hip flexors; chest: pectoralis
- Start by standing with your feet together, resting your arms by your sides. On an inhale, outstretch your arms into a T-shape position and step your feet out so that your ankles align beneath your wrists.
- From deep within the hip socket, turn your right leg outward (external rotation) and slightly turn your back hip and foot inward toward your front leg.
- On an exhale, bend your front knee until your knee tracks above your ankle. Remember to keep your back leg straight and strong.
- Your arms should continue to reach away from your body, while the muscles of your neck release away from your ears. Gaze at your front hand and take 10 long breaths.
- To come out, straighten the front leg and turn your feet parallel. Repeat on the left side.
Prone Savasana (corpse)
Laying on your stomach can help you feel held and supported — not to mention it forces you to become more aware of your breathing. During significant stress, lying quietly without agenda initiates the relaxation response, a state where your blood pressure, heart rate, and hormonal levels all return to normal. During this time, your brain can shift toward what’s known as the alpha state or “wakeful relaxation.”
- Lie on your belly, with your arms by your sides. Let your legs fall open comfortably.
- You may turn your head and switch halfway through or bend your elbows and rest your palms atop one another for a “pillow.” You may also fold a towel under your head.
- Allow the front of your body to melt into the ground beneath you.
- Remain for 5 to 10 minutes. Note: The longer you hold this pose, the more you’ll benefit from it.
- To come out, gently move your hands and knees to create a table position. Sink your hips back toward your heels and enter into Child’s pose.
Not all stress is bad, especially if it mobilizes us to act and circumvent danger. But chronic stress combined with a sedentary lifestyle can wreak havoc on the body and mind.
Using yoga will both help to repair the negative effects of stress and help to prevent future stress, as practitioners learn to handle challenges more effectively.