Most of us can agree that there are many positive side effects to the practice of yoga. From weight loss to increasing flexibility, yoga encompasses many qualities of enhancing overall health and well-being. Stress and anxiety have become major culprits of dis-ease. Using yoga asana can benefit one’s ability to reduce these uncomfortable states and help reframe balance in both mind and body. Below you will find ten simple postures to support the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest system) and create a sense of calm. Give them a try the next time you’re feeling out of sorts.
Child's Pose (Balasana)
This resting posture can help to release neck, shoulder, and back strain as well as calm the nervous system. Whenever you fold the body into itself, you instigate a cooling action. This can support you in drawing your energy inward, and beginning to practice a withdrawing of the senses (pratyahara).
Instructions: Kneeling on the floor, you place your sit bones onto your heels. If this is uncomfortable for you, roll up a blanket and place it into the creases behind the knees (knee pits). You can either rest your chest on your thighs or spread your knees out to the sides, keeping your feet together, and lower your torso towards the ground. Your arms can be stretched out in front of you or reaching back towards your feet, whichever you prefer. Relax into this pose for up to five minutes if you’re comfortable. Work to keep your thoughts centered. If you notice that you start thinking about dinner or what happened at work, try to simply return back to your breath and give yourself some space to relax.
Thunderbolt Pose (Vajrasana)
This posture can aid in stretching the thighs, knees, ankles, and feet, while also working on strengthening the back and core. It can help tone the pelvic floor, aid the digestive fire (agni), and even relieve indigestion. This is a wonderful pose for seated meditation and breath work (pranayama) practice.
Instructions: Begin by kneeling on the floor. Place a folded blanket beneath your knees, shins and/or feet if you have any discomfort. If you need even more support, you can bring an extra blanket behind the knee pits. Working to draw the knees and thighs together, carefully begin to come into a seated position on the heels with the tops of the feet pressing firmly and evenly onto the ground. Work to keep your feet directly in line with your shins and touching, trying not to allow the toes to cross. Sitting tall, draw your shoulder blades firmly down your back and reach the crown of your head towards the ceiling. Imagine widening through the chest and lowering the shoulders down and away from your ears. Rest your hands onto your thighs and gaze softly forward, or close the eyes if this is more comfortable. Hold this posture for one to fifteen minutes, or for the duration of your meditation or breath work practice.
Easy Pose (Sukhasana)
One of the more visually common postures of yoga, this pose can offer many positive benefits to the entire body, including strengthening the back and core, stretching the knees and ankles, and bringing a relaxing quality to the mind. This pose, with Vajrasana, is a wonderful pose for seated meditation and breath work (pranayama) practice.
Instructions: I like to recommend that this pose be done with support, so begin by grabbing a block or folding a thick blanket into a firm support (approximately six inches high). Rest your sit bones down and take a seat closely to the edge of either support material you chose (block/blanket) crossing your shins and widening your knees apart. Carefully place the feet so that each one is positioned below the opposite shin. You know you are in the basic leg fold of Easy Pose if you look down and see a triangle; its three sides are formed by the two thighs and the crossed shins. Find a neutral position for the pelvis and extend long through the spine, reaching the crown of the head towards the ceiling, softly engaging the core for support. Relax the hands onto the thighs. You can turn the palms face down for a more grounding gesture or face up for a more receiving gesture. Feel free to enjoy this posture for one to five minutes or for the duration of your meditation or breath work practice.
Seated Forward Bend Pose (Paschimottanasana)
When done correctly, this forward fold offers many cooling benefits, including lengthening the hamstrings, stretching the spine, and softening the lower back, while strengthening the core and quadriceps. As mentioned previously, folding the body into itself has a very calming quality on the nervous system.
Instructions: Begin by sitting up straight with your legs stretched out in front of you, keeping your spine tall and your feet in dorsal flexion (toes coming back towards your shins). You want your legs engaged with a slight inward rotation. As you inhale reach your arms high towards the ceiling, and when you exhale, lean forward, bending at the hips and lengthening forward. Let go of the idea of getting your head to your knees. Instead, start to think more about lengthening and extending your heart towards your toes. Reach your arms as far forward as possible without rounding your back. There’s a good chance you will not reach your feet, but if you do, start to hook your index and middle fingers around your big toes. If you don’t quite make it all the way to the feet, relax your hands on your shins or ankles, focusing on keeping the heart moving forward and the neck long. You can also use a strap and wrap it around the balls of the feet and draw yourself slowly forward. With each breath, continue to deepen your stretch and find more space between each vertebra. Engage your core to create space between the upper and lower body, deepening the hinge of the hip joints. Rest into this posture for five to ten cycles of breath then carefully release, lifting the torso back up on an inhalation.
TIP: The more you can activate your quadriceps, the more space you will find in your hamstrings.
Wide-Legged Straddle Pose (Upavistha Konasana)
This folding posture can cool the body and mind, bringing a sense of calm. It has the ability to stretch both the inside and the backs of the legs while simultaneously toning them. It can support a strengthening of the spine and core and advance release in the groin and hip areas.
Instructions: Begin by sitting up straight with your legs stretched out in front of you, keeping your spine tall and your feet in dorsal flexion. Press your hands against the floor and begin widening the legs 10 to 20 degrees. With your thighs pressed firmly into the floor and your kneecaps pointing up at the ceiling, walk your hands forward between your legs. Keep your arms long. As with all forward bends, the emphasis is on moving from the hip joints and maintaining the length of the front torso. As soon as you find yourself bending from the waist, stop. Re-establish length from the pubis to the navel, and then continue forward if possible. You might only move forward a little bit. Practice contentment (santosha) with wherever you arrive, and focus on how deeply you can breathe, not how close you can get to the floor! Stay in the pose one to three minutes, and come up slowly on an inhalation.
TIP: The more you can activate through the balls of your feet, the more space you will find throughout the legs.
Legs Up the Wall Pose (Viparita Karani)
This restorative pose is wonderful for relieving lower back pain, abdominal cramping, bloating, indigestion, stress, sleeplessness, anxiety, and insomnia (I’m sure there are even more—just know, this pose is amazing).
Instructions: Sit next to a wall sideways with your knees bent and drawn closely into your chest. Slowly begin to rotate your body so that your back relaxes onto the floor and your legs extend up the wall (imagine your body in a 90-degree angle). Be mindful that your lower back is comfortable. You can use a blanket or a bolster beneath the hips if you would like even greater support. It's good to play with props and discover which variation makes you most comfortable. Enjoy this posture anywhere from one to ten minutes. To release out of it, carefully bend your knees and bring them towards your chest, roll to one side, and gently sit up.
Puppy Pose (Anahatasana or Uttana Shishosana)
This posture is wonderful for extending the spine, releasing tension in the back, opening the shoulders, and grounding through both the "third eye," or center temple, and heart. It can bring a relaxing quality to an overactive mind and offer an opening to the emotional heart.
Instructions: Beginning on hands and knees, stack your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees. Keeping your legs stationary, slowly walk your arms forward, stretching your spine until your chest is close (if not touching) your mat. You can either choose to relax your forehead onto the mat or begin to work your chin to the floor, being mindful not to create wrinkles in the back of your neck. Enjoy being here for five to ten breaths and then to release, carefully walk your hands back and return to a neutral tabletop position.
Tree Pose (Vrksasana)
Stress and anxiety often cause us to have feelings of weakness both in mind and body. Standing balance postures are a very tangible way to find your roots and grow your strength. This posture can help support increased focus, balance, and full body awareness. It can also help the mind center when implementing a gaze point (dhristi) and breath (prana).
Instructions: Begin by standing with your feet together placing your hands onto your hips. Ground your balance into your left foot and carefully float your right thigh up towards your abdomen. Mindfully place the bottom of your right foot either on the calf or upper thigh (be aware not to press weight into the knee as it can cause injury). Pressing your right foot into your left leg, simultaneously press your left leg into your right thigh initiating upward moving energy (udana vayu), which governs speech, self-expression, and growth. Once your balance is established, draw the hands together in front of your heart in prayer position (anjali mudra). Work on keeping your heart and head lifting towards the sky while pressing firmly towards the earth with your standing leg, maintaining a steady breath. Repeat on the other side.
Changing perspective by literally turning your world upside down can be highly beneficial. Headstands increases the digestive fire (agni), strengthen deep core muscles, support the ability to focus, benefit balance, and slow the fluctuations of and in the mind (vrittis).
Instructions: If you are new to the pose, start near a wall for support. Begin by coming onto hands and knees, stacking your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees. Take a deep breath and lower your forearms to the ground. Once the forearms are parallel, keep the elbows rooted and interlace the hands together, making a triangle with your arms. Place the crown of your head onto the ground and cradle it in your hands. Tuck your toes and lift your hips high. Start walking your feet towards your head, getting as close to your elbows as possible. Engage your abdominal muscles and press your forearms into the mat, lifting out of your shoulders. You can practice bringing one leg up and then the other until you feel steady. To enter full headstand, lift your feet straight up over your shoulders and hips until your legs are completely straight overhead. Hold for five to ten breaths, or longer if you desire. When you're ready, lower your feet down and rest in Child's Pose for a minimum of three breaths.
Savasana (Corpse Pose)
It seems like a no-brainer that this would make it onto the list and be an important posture for calming the mind and nervous system. Its benefits are too numerous to name, but a few are that it can relax the sympathetic nervous system, help decrease blood pressure, soften stress and tension out of the muscles of the entire body, and challenge the mind to let go.
Instructions: Begin by lying flat on your back. If needed, you can modify this posture by placing a bolster or thick blanket beneath the knees or under the head. Put your arms and legs out at about a 45-degree angle, turning the hands palms face up and allowing the feet to relax. Relax your spine, straighten your back, and focus on your breath. It’s easy to believe that, once in this pose, you are meant to not think—but this isn’t a reality. Our beautiful minds are made to think for us, and what you can do is focus on not attaching to any particular thought or set of thoughts. Practice becoming the observer of your mind. Notice what you are attracted to thinking about and every time you catch yourself wandering away into the land of the future or the past, bring it back into the present moment and focus again on your breath. You can enjoy this pose from one to thirty or more minutes.
I hope these postures will help serve your practice of reducing stress and anxiety in your life. It’s often the simplest things that afford the most beneficial relief! Wishing you well on your journey.