No matter where you look right now, there's a running theme of collective fear, frustration, anxiety and stress permeating the country. And while it may feel selfish, helpless or not important enough, now is the time to take care of yourself. What that looks like varies from person to person, but even small things, like simple stretching exercises, can make a big difference.
Yoga is known as a zen exercise for a reason. There are actually quite a few reasons why yoga is helpful for relaxation and stress. Two of the main factors? Stretching your body helps relieve physical tension, which many people also say helps them feel less mentally or emotional tense. Secondly, an important part of yoga is connecting to your breathing and learning how to breathe deeper and in sync with movement. It's these two key components that help you find that zen, calmer state -- but you don't really have to do yoga to get there.
Yoga instructor and certified health coach Meredith Wadsworth says that another reason why yoga and stretching can help relieve stress is because you break the cycle of worrying or focusing on what's going on in your life to focus on your body.
"We experience most day-to-day stress from external stimuli, such as work projects, busy schedules, relationship conflict, etc. All of these things take us out of our bodies and into our heads, where we continue to create further drama and stress," Wadsworth says. "To break this cycle, it's important to bring yourself back into your body through activities like stretching and yoga, which not only improve circulation to bring fresh blood and oxygen to your brain, but offer your mind a much-needed break."
How you breathe, not only during yoga or while stretching but every day, is an important tool you can use to help your body feel less stressed on a physiological level.
"From an anatomical perspective, the breath is the most effective way of toning the vagus nerve -- the two-way highway delivering feedback between your body's autonomic nervous system (the involuntary processes) and your brain," Wadsworth says. "It delivers messages to major organs, controlling things like breath, circulation, digestion, heart rate, blood pressure, elimination, even orgasm and fertility, and also takes messages from those organs back to the brain."
Wadsworth recommends practicing deep breathing and also breathing from your diaphragm to help with stress. "So while stress can cause a shortness of breath in the fight-or-flight response, actively connecting to and controlling the breath (especially making your exhale longer than the inhale) can activate the vagus nerve and shift the body back into a rest-and-digest state," Wadsworth says. "All that to say, deep diaphragmatic breathing brings you out of external stimuli and into your body, deepening your practice while calming your body and mind."
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This is technically a yoga pose (called Viparita Karani), but it's a "passive" pose and requires hardly any skill or flexibility. "This is one of my absolute favorite ways to relieve stress, tension and overwhelm, as well as help with digestion and back pain," Wadsworth says.
How to do it: Simply lay on the floor or on your bed with your butt a few inches away from the wall and have your legs propped up on the wall. It helps to have a block or pillow underneath your tailbone. Rest as long as you like.
On all fours, breathe in as you drop your belly and gaze up; breathe out as you round your spine and bring your chin to your chest. Continue for several rounds.
Go into a forward fold with feet hip distance apart (measure two fists between your feet). Either grab your big toes with your index and middle fingers, or slide your hands underneath your feet so your toes come into your wrist creases.
Inhale as you half-lift to lengthen the spine, and exhale as you fold deeper, bending your elbows out the sides and bringing your chest closer to your thighs. Hold the stretch as long as you like, continuing to breathe deeply.
Laying on your back, hug your knees into your chest. Hook onto your big toes or the outer edges of your feet, and with your legs outside your arms, bring your knees towards your armpits. Close your eyes and breathe deeply, gently rocking side to side.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.