Yoga Poses to Beat Stress

Written by Michelle MacDonald, Certified Bikram and Ashtanga Instructor | Photos by Dave Laus

Almost every one of us suffers from some degree of stress and anxiety from time to time (or maybe even all the time). Practicing a few simple yoga postures daily can help alleviate that stress and accompanying fatigue by helping to regulate blood flow to all body parts, especially the nervous system, and by expanding the breath, relieving built up tension in the muscles.

Proper Breathing: The foundation of yoga is the breath, so aim to breathe consciously and deeply as you practice each posture. Think of moving the rib cage outwards with each inhale, and inwards with each exhale. Gently constrict the air passageway just behind the nose and at the back of the throat, to help slow down and control the breath. Yogis call this Ujjayi breathing, or “sound breathing” because it makes a very soft vibration in the throat helping to calm down the nervous system and focus the mind inwards.

Wide Leg Forward Bend (Prasarita Padottanasana)

Benefits: Calms the mind, decompresses the spine, relieves fatigue and anxiety, and stretches the groins, hamstrings and hips, improving blood flow to the brain.

  1. Inhale deeply and step your feet about 4 feet apart, heels in line and feet parallel, hands on your hips.
  2. Exhale and slowly bend forward with a long spine, going as low as flexibility will permit. Inhale, place your hands on the floor between your feet, shoulder distance apart, and fingertips in line with the toes.
  3. Elbows should be bent and pointing backwards. Stretch out the spine and look forward.
  4. Exhale and relax your head towards the floor, keeping the belly scooped out, breathing slowly and deeply, decompressing and lengthening the spine, and opening up the hips and back of the legs. Stay in this position for 30-60 seconds.
  5. To come up, place your hands back on your hips, engage the core, lengthen the spine, and slowly inhale back up. Step your feet back together and take a few more deep, slow breaths to let circulation return to normal before moving to the next pose.

Half Bridge Pose (Ardha Setu Bandasana)

Benefits: Stretches the chest, neck and spine, compresses the thyroid and parathyroid glands, stretches the abdominal organs, opens the lungs and rib cage, stimulates the kidneys and adrenals, and tones and strengthens the legs and spine. It alleviates fatigue, anxiety, backache and insomnia.

  1. Exhale and lay down flat on your back.
  2. Inhale, bend at the knees and bring your heels as close to the hips as possible. Clasp your ankles in each hand. If you can’t grab your ankles, you can clasp your hands together underneath your hips.
  3. Exhale, engage the glutes and lift your hips up to the ceiling, push through the heels, and activate the inner thighs to keep the feet and legs parallel. This is an intense pose, so aim to hold for 5 slow, deep breaths.
  4. To release, exhale and gently relax your hips to the floor, straighten the legs, and take a few more deep, slow breaths, then move into the next pose.

Plough Pose (Halasana)

Benefits: Stretches the calves and hamstrings, reduces leg cramps, massages the thyroid and parathyroid glands, and compresses the abdominal organs, improving digestion and elimination. Stretches out the shoulders, neck and pec minors, arm muscles, and alleviates stress and fatigue.

  1. Lying on your back, place your hands on the floor by your side, palms facing down. Keep the legs straight and tight together, and press the low back flat on the ground. Inhale and lift the legs and hips up and over your head, toes pointed, and slowly bring the tops of the feet to the floor.
  2. Exhale and clasp your hands together on the floor behind you, keeping your arms straight to deepen the stretch of the chest and shoulders. Always scoop out the belly and lengthen the spine during the pose.
  3. This is an intense pose, bringing maximum blood flow to the head and compressing the lungs. Try to stay in it for 5 breaths. Experienced practitioners can hold for 1 minute.
  4. To release, bring the palms back to the floor, engage the core muscles and slowly roll the hips back to the floor, and then lower the legs. If you are a beginner you can bend the knees to make lowering the legs back down easier, otherwise keep the legs straight. Move to the next pose.

Half Spine Twist Variation (Ardha Matsyendrasana)

Benefits: Massages the digestive organs, aiding elimination, opens the ribcage and improves breath, calms the nervous system and tones the nerves of the spine, strengthens back muscles, alleviates low back pain and spasms, and stimulates secretion in the adrenals and gall bladder.

  1. Begin in a seated position with the legs stretched out in front of you. Inhale and bend the right knee, placing the foot flat on the floor on the opposite side of the left knee.
  2. Exhale, twist to the right and bring the back of the left elbow against the outside of the bent knee, keeping the hand pointing up to the ceiling. Place the opposite hand on the floor behind you, close to the tail bone, fingers pointing away, and keep the arms straight to help keep the spine straight.
  3. Inhale and stretch the spine up to the ceiling, flex the left foot towards you to stretch the back of the leg. Lengthen the spine as much as possible.
  4. Exhale and twist the spine from top to bottom, look back over your right shoulder, and push the elbow against the knee to help twist farther with each breath. Keep the chest lifted and the spine straight.
  5. This is an intense pose, so aim to stay in it for at least 5 deep breathes, going deeper into the twist with each exhalation
  6. To release, exhale and untwist, and repeat on the other side before moving to the next pose.

Child’s Pose (Balasana)

Benefits: Gently stretches your lower back, hips, thighs, knees and ankles, relaxes the spine and sacrum, increases blood flow to the head, massages the internal organs with each breath and calms the mind, helping to relieve stress and tension.

  1. This is the final pose. Come into a seated, kneeling position. You can keep the knees together or open them if you prefer, but keep your hips on your heels.
  2. Bend forward at the waist and bring your forehead to the floor, rest your belly on your thighs and relax your arms on the floor by your side, palms facing up.
  3. This is a deeply relaxing pose, and you can stay here for 1-3 minutes, keeping the breath very deep, slow and even.
  4. To come up, place your hands on the floor beside your knees, scoop up the belly, lengthen through the spine and slowly come back into a seated kneeling position. From here you can relax into savasana for 5-20 minutes.

Michelle MacDonald is a certified Bikram and Ashtanga Instructor, and has been teaching and practicing yoga since 2001. She is currently based in Montreal, where she continues to teach yoga and coach women for physique competitions using yoga to keep her athletes flexible and focused.

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Web: www.yourhealthyhesonista.com

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