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Put down the wine bottle and step away from the chocolate. There's a better way to relieve stress: yoga. Turns out, this ancient practice might be healthier and more effective than a glass of merlot or wedge of Godiva. Yes, using yoga for stress relief can make a big difference.
Your body's response to stress stems from the prehistoric fight-or-flight concept, according to Harvard Health. When a stressor presents itself—back in the day, it was a wild animal; in today's world, it could be an unmasked shopper—your body kicks into fight-or-flight mode. Physiologically, that includes accelerating heart rate, quickening breath, tightening muscles, and sweating.
Joanna Brooks, founder and owner of Embody Yoga in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, explains why this can be harmful. "The stress response is tied to the central nervous system, and at the end of it, there should be closure," she explains. "We don't have that closure in our society, which leads to chronic stress, hypertension, and heart disease. We need to deactivate that part of the central nervous system."
Whether your stressors are work overload, online school burnout, a lack of Hinge matches, or something else entirely, yoga instructors shared with us some proven techniques for relieving all the stress through your practice.
Take a Deep Breath
One of the easiest ways to get closure on stress is through deep breathing. "Scientifically, it's impossible for you to be anxious when your breath is deep and calm. The body doesn't work that way," Brooks says. "So when we step back and take a few slow, deep breaths, your body has no choice but to relax."
Nikki Novoselsky, creator of Oh the Places You'll Flow, agrees. Currently based in Bali, Indonesia, she teaches yoga online and in person through outdoor socially distanced classes. Despite living in paradise, stress happens. "When you're on your mat, you're focusing and concentrating on the poses, on your breath, and on connecting the mind to your body," she says. "When you take a big breath in, it's hard to have your brain going at 100 miles per hour because you're slowing your whole system."
Novoselsky shared her three favorite breathing techniques:
Three-part yogic breathing: "[This] involves getting the air to your abdomen, up to your chest, and finally to your clavicular breathing so your shoulders expand," she says. "I like to start my practice by doing this breath. It's a signal to my body that we're stepping out of the anxiety and grounding ourselves."
Nasal breathing: With nasal breathing, you're alternating breathing in while blocking one nostril with your finger and then moving to cover the other nostril to exhale. Fun fact: Hillary Clinton shared a nasal breathing tutorial on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360°.
Ujjayi: This type of breathing relieves stress and powers Novoselsky through her yoga practice. "Ujjayi is calming when you want it to be but energizing and heating when you're flowing through yoga poses. You're basically breathing in and breathing out to make an oceanic wave sound, like you're trying to blow on a foggy mirror with your mouth closed," she says.
Strike a Pose
Along with the benefits of yogic breathing, here are a few poses that can induce calm and instill a sense of grounding.
It's also known as the standing mountain pose. "It's the mother of all poses. You stand with palms facing forward, and it’s super centering," Novoselsky explains.
Inversions are great stress relievers, too. But don't let visions of headstands scare you. Simple ones are perfect for beginners. "Scientifically, inversions relax the body by reversing the blood flow to calm the mind and the parasympathetic nervous system," Novoselsky explains. "Inverted poses where the feet are above the heart are calming and reduce the strain on the heart." Some examples include forward fold, downward dog, and putting your legs up on the wall.
3. Half Pigeon
"This pose gives your hips an opportunity to really open up and sink into the floor," says Laila Howard, a lead instructor for YogaSix. "Place one bent leg in front of you, with the other leg stretched out to the back. Your pelvis should be evenly supported on both sides. As you breathe into this position, you can relax and hold this for several minutes."
4. Happy Baby
"For this pose, you will lay on your back," Howard says. "Raise your knees in the air and grab the outside of each foot. Be sure to keep your elbows in between your legs. This pose is great for opening your hips and breathing deeply."
5. Reclining Bound Angle
"To enter into this pose, lay on your back and bring the bottoms of your feet together on the floor, making a diamond shape with your legs. Remain here for several minutes, breathing deeply through the pose," Howard explains.
Also known as the corpse pose, this one allows you to lay still and focus on your breath. "For this pose, all you have to do is lay on your back and place both hands down at your sides with palms facing up," Howard explains. "As you breathe deeply, your chest will open up, and your mind will find calm."
Most yoga classes will end with Shavasana. "It's the death of something you don't want to bring with you, the death of tension," Novoselsky says. After a few minutes of Shavasana, the instructor may cue everyone to roll over into the fetal position. "The fetal position is the rebirth and the energy you want to take with you," she adds.
Try Restorative Yoga
Brooks is an instructor with a mission: to make yoga more accessible to the Black community, and this has taken on increased importance during the pandemic. "The African American community is disproportionately affected. We have students practicing more each week because they're finding it's helping them deal with the stress of COVID," she says. "Restorative yoga is a way to complete the stress response cycle and bring ourselves back to homeostasis." She created a nonprofit, Embody Yoga for All, to help fund yoga scholarships and to fund yoga teacher training for aspiring Black instructors.
“In a restorative class, the instructor guides students into poses, and they stay in each pose for 10 minutes," she explains. "We use lots of props, so the body can release into those props. Classes are on Zoom now, so I tell my students to grab all the pillows, grab blankets. We want them to be warm because cold creates and activates a stress response. A restorative yoga session can offer tangible results, Brooks says. A student can come in feeling rushed, distracted, excited, and anxious, but she sees them relax as they get into the practice. Someone falling asleep and even snoring is the highest compliment, she adds.
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