The majority of our clients, whether they are coming for naturopathy or yoga, experience high levels of stress on a daily basis. Of course, a moderate amount of stress occasionally is good for us. However too much stress, and particularly ongoing stress, has many health implications. (To learn more about the impacts of stress on your health head to our blog “Are stressed adrenals the source of your health problems?”.)
So how do you de-stress?
When I ask clients this question the answers usually include; watching TV, drinking alcohol, going to the gym, surfing the net or more often, nothing. It seems the idea of active relaxation is indulgent (by “active” I mean, mindfully practising a relaxing activity, not mindlessly watching TV for example). For many, relaxation feels like precious time is being wasted when there are more important things to do.
Why should you practice active relaxation?
Active relaxation allows your body to switch on your parasympathetic nervous system. Activating this system allows your body to rest and digest. Switching on this part of your nervous system means your heart rate slows and your digestive system does its job of breaking down and absorbing nutrients from your food. It also helps to balance your hormones and neurotransmitters (your feel good chemicals) and leads to an improved ability to cope with the inevitable stress of busy lives (i.e. improved resilience).
How does yoga fit in with relaxation?
Yoga focuses on breath, movement and meditation. Regardless of what type of yoga class you go to, the underlying philosophy is that yoga aids the connection of your mind and body as well as the connection of your spiritual and physical self. Whilst that may not be evident in some types of yoga classes (particularly those that feel more like a gym workout than a practice of mind and body) they all share this fundamental theory.
For yoga to be relaxing and calming, I recommend you don’t use yoga as a fitness tool.
There’s no doubt your fitness will improve with yoga, however it doesn’t need to be the main goal. Yoga, as I see it, is a moving meditation, allowing you time and space to connect with your breath, down regulate your stress response and cleanse your nervous system. A class that fulfills these objectives can sometimes be elusive (which is why you should come to one of my classes to experience the difference!).
Without getting into the yogic philosophy and energy of chakras etc, for me, de-stressing with yoga can be achieved with 2 simple steps that ideally should be included on a daily basis for maximum effect. This is not always easy to implement, so perhaps start one day a week and then increase as it becomes habitual. This is a simplistic view of the benefits of yoga for relaxation but perfect for those who find it difficult to relax.
Step 1: Move your body
Movement with yoga helps to transfer the energy of your life force, your vitality, throughout your body. By practicing yoga you are creating space in your joints allowing this energy to flow through your body without interruption or restriction. Giving you energy and renewed vigour. This improves your ability to deal with stress in a calm and considered way. Something we all need, me included.
Start your day, or if you’re not a morning person, end your day with a short yoga sequence to help your body and mind to relax. Focusing on a sequence which involves the movement with your breath such as sun salutations will help to focus your mind in the moment.
Step 2: Practice deep breathing
Following your yoga sequence, sit in a comfortable position to practise some deep breathing. I find it is much easier to sit and practise deep breathing after movement. Your mind is more relaxed and your body feels more comfortable as you find some stillness.
Focus on breathing in and out of your nostrils, expanding the chest and belly with each inhale and emptying the belly and chest with each exhale. Soften your jaw by turning up the corners of your mouth slightly – there you go, serenity!
There are some very simple poses that can help you de-stress at home or in the office. If you have 10 minutes try these whilst focusing on deep breathing throughout.
Balasana – child’s pose
Sit on your knees and lean forward resting your forehead on the ground. Place your arms by your side with the palms of the hands facing up toward the sky. Close your eyes and breathe in and out through your nose feeling your belly and chest press against your thighs with each breath. Resting your forehead down on the floor is a wonderful way to reduce anxiety and stress. It is calming in nature and a beautiful resting pose to help you unwind. If you have high blood pressure, raise your head and rest it on something (a high pillow for example).
Viparita Karani – fountain of youth pose
Viparita karani is particularly good for supporting your adrenal glands (the small triangle shaped glands that sit on top of your kidneys producing your stress hormones).
To get into this pose, sit with your right buttock pressed against the wall. As gracefully as possible (you will see what I mean), lean on your left side and swing both legs up against the wall. Hopefully you’ve landed with your back flat on the floor, your buttocks pressed against the wall and your legs extended up the wall. Point your toes down towards your face, place both hands over your abdomen and close your eyes. Connect with your breath as you inhale and exhale through your nose.
Vrksasana – Tree pose (as pictured)
This is a balancing pose, so if you find balancing difficult this is a good one to practise. It is great for balancing the physical body but also for balancing the emotions.
Stand with your feet together. Place your right heel on your left ankle, or on the inside of your left shin, or on the inside of your left thigh. Anywhere but on your knee. Work with your body, if your balance isn’t great, leave the heel on the ankle. Turn the right knee outwards opening up the right hip. Bring your hands to a prayer position at your chest and concentrate your focus on a fixed spot in front of you. Connect with your breath, in and out through your nose. Repeat on the left side.
Do you need help to manage your stress?
Managing stress can be difficult and relaxation takes practice (like any skill you want to improve). It can be really beneficial to seek the hands-on support of an expert when you are starting out and as you learn to incorporate relaxation into your daily life.