Stress manifests differently in everyone and it doesn’t always manifest the same in the individual from situation to situation or day to day. Sometimes stress can make the body feel filled with anxious and nervous energy and at other times, the system can feel totally depleted, the body heavy with fatigue. The most effective way to use asana and pranayama for stress management is to find time for a little bit of practice as regularly as possible, ideally every day. Just 15 minutes of mindful, deep breathing coupled with gentle movements or poses can make a big difference.
Maintaining a daily practice is like creating a base-line for the body and mind, stress levels in both decrease. For beginners, or for anyone who has fallen away from their practice and is looking to get back into it, the follow sequence can be helpful:
Shoulder gyrations with fingers on shoulders:
Stand comfortably. Extend the arms laterally, lifting them to shoulder level with palms face up. Bend the elbows and bring the tips of the fingers (and thumb) to the shoulders. Begin to make small circles with the elbows, gradually increasing the size of the circles. Breathe deeply as you move the arms, continue for about a minute, then switch directions and repeat. To release, extend the arms out to the sides, palms face-up. Turn palms face down and lower the arms. Relax the body.
Stand with feet parallel to one another, approximately 4” apart. Place the hands on the hips, lift and open the chest, elbows will be pointed back. Bend the knees slightly and take a deep breath in. Exhaling, fold forward at the hips, releasing the belly over the thighs, the chest over the knees. Release the arms to the floor (or hold behind the ankles) and allow the neck to relax and the head to hang comfortably. Hold for about 1 minute, breathing deeply. Release the forward fold and return to a standing position. Relax the body.
Lay in a prone position (face down) on the floor. Place the forehead on the floor and slide the palms underneath the thighs. Bend the knees so the feet are pointing toward the ceiling. Exhale completely. Take a deep breath in to prepare. Exhaling, lift the thighs off the floor. (If you feel strong in this position, try to draw the knees close together as you lift the thighs.) Hold for 15-20 seconds, breathing gently. Release the legs to the floor and relax the body. Repeat once more.
Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position with an erect spine. (If it feels challenging to sit upright in this position, sit on top of a folded blanket or other support.) Inhale deeply, lifting the arms overhead. Exhale and twist to the right, bringing the left hand to the right knee and the right fingertips to the floor behind the body. Breathe deeply, gradually increasing the rotation of the spine. Inhale slowly to release back to center. Inhale, lifting the arms again. This time, exhale and twist to the left, placing the right hand on the left knee, left fingertips to the floor behind the body. Again, breathe to increase the spinal rotation. Release back to center. Relax the body.
Lay on the side of the body in a compact fetal position, placing the buttocks and feet against a wall. Roll onto the back and extend the legs up the wall. Place a few inches of support underneath the head and neck. Breathe deeply. Relax the body.
While regular practice is recommended, we can all benefit from a “quick fix” too.
A quick technique that can be done almost anywhere to reduce stress and induce the relaxation response is to take a full yogic breath. Choose a comfortable position, either seated with an erect spine or laying down on the back is recommended. Empty the lungs. Inhale slowly through the nose, directing the breath into the lower lungs first, feel the expansion of the abdomen below the navel, then above the navel and in the lower ribcage, then in the upper chest. Exhale through the nose, releasing the breath slowly (at least as slow as the inhalation) and wait for the lungs to be completely empty. Feel relaxation in the neck, shoulders, arms, back and belly. Repeat.