No matter who you are or what is going on in your life, stress is something you probably deal with on a daily basis. When we consistently face moments that cause stress, anxiety, or uncomfortable feelings or emotions in the body, it can cause a build up of tension in the muscles. This results in pain and stiffness. Most often this pain manifests in the shoulders, hips, and glutes.
Yoga offers a peaceful, meditative way to release this build-up of tension in both the mind and body through breath and movement. By stretching and soothing the muscles and fascia, or connective tissues of the body, we can let go of some of that tension and release any negative energy that is stored there. Not only can doing this regularly have fantastic results as far as pain relief and flexibility, but it can also help improve your mental health and serve as a healthy emotional release. You can take charge of both your body and mind by making regular self care and stress relief a priority. Finding coping methods that work for you is extremely important to living a happy life.
Since I started doing yoga several years ago, my quality of life has dramatically improved. The stress relieving benefits of yoga have made such a difference in my daily life and altered the way I cope with anxiety, anger, and depression. During a yoga practice, I can feel the sensation of tension and stress melting out of my muscles, which in turn helps me feel better emotionally afterward. I thought it might be helpful to share a few poses that I find especially good for stress relief and emotional cleansing. Try holding each of these poses for a minute or two and see how your body and mind respond!
1. Simple Neck Stretch
This is an easy and basic stretch to release stress out of the neck and shoulders, where many of us store emotional tension. It is also easy to cause strain in your neck when sleeping, causing many of us to face neck pain and stiffness frequently, especially in the morning.
Sit up tall with your feet crossed in front of you. Place your left hand over your right ear, relaxing the arm and slowly allowing the head to release over the left shoulder. There is no need to apply pressure or pull down on the head, just let gravity do most of the work for you and feel that nice stretch in the right side of the neck and shoulder. Make sure to keep the spine straight. To increase the stretch, place your right fingertips on the mat and slowly inch them out to the side. Repeat on the other side.
2. Sphinx – Salamba Bhujangasana
Sphinx is another great pose for the neck and shoulders, but also provides an amazing stretch for the low back and spine.
Lay flat on your stomach. Come onto the forearms, creating two straight parrallel lines. You want to keep the shoulders over the elbows, opening the chest and lengthening the ears away from the shoulders. Create one nice long line with the body, keeping the legs and feet straight. Hold for a few minutes to a allow a nice release of the muscles along the spinal column and surrounding the sacrum.
3. Tree Pose – Vrksasana
Poses that require concentration are beneficial for stress because they help you to focus the mind on the present moment. They can also be fun and challenging, which can help you to let go of negative emotion you may be carrying. Tree pose is one of my favorite poses, because it helps me feel connected to nature. You can imagine little roots growing out of your foot and down into the ground, anchoring you to Mother Earth and releasing negative thoughts.
Bring your weight to your right leg and slowly lift the left foot off the ground. Use your left hand to bring the sole of the foot to the inner thigh. Firmly press the thigh into the foot, and the foot into the thigh to help your balance. Bring your hands to prayer, or anjali mudra, at your heart. Keep your spine straight and tall. Find a focal point, or drishti, to focus your gaze on, such as a spot on the wall or specific object in front of you. For an easier version or to practice your balance, you can bring your left foot to the calf or anywhere that is comfortable along the right leg so long as you’re not pressing into the knee. Repeat on the other side.
4. Boat Pose – Navasana
Boat pose also requires focus and concentration while strengthening the core and building endurance, making it a great stress burner. I find these types of poses to be particularly helpful if I’m in a bad mood or had a frustrating day.
Start by sitting with your feet flat on the floor in front of you, knees arched. Sit up straight and tall and bring your hands behind your knees. Begin to lean back onto your sitting bones, doing your best to keep your spine straight. Lift your feet into the air and try to create two parallel lines with your legs. You should feel your core muscles turn on immediately. You can test your strength by bringing your hands at your heart or out in front of you. Hold for as long as you’re comfortable.
5. Heart to Earth (Puppy Dog) Pose – Anahatasana
Heart to Earth, or Puppy Dog pose, is another one of my favorites because I tend to carry a lot of stress in my upper back and between my shoulder blades. I find this to be the best pose for targeting that area. It is great for opening the chest and heart as well, and taking a few deep breaths in this pose can be very comforting and calming.
Come to all fours, lining shoulders over wrists. Walk your hands out to the top of your mat, and slowly lower your chest as close as possible to the ground. Keep your hips aligned with your knees, and try to prevent the feet from coming together if you can. Take deep breathes and allow your chest to sink lower. You can deepen the stretch by tiling the chin up and bringing the gaze to the top of the mat, but you must only do this if it is comfortable to prevent injury to the neck!
6. Yogic Squat – Mālāsana
Yogic Squat is a posture that combines focus and a good stress-relieving stretch that releases tension out of the inner thighs and hips. This is another area where we can hold alot of our daily stress as well as build muscle tension from sitting, walking, etc. You can sometimes feel a great emotional release from working in this pose.
Bring your feet a little wider than hips-distance apart and point the toes outward, heels in. Keeping the spine as straight as possible, slowly begin to lower the hips down close to the ground. If you can, try to keep the heels grounded, but if they begin to lift, do not worry. You’ll be able to lower them in time! Keeping the hips wide, bring your hands to heart and use your elbows to push into the thighs. Push the thighs back into the elbows. By doing this, you help your balance as well as increase the stretch.
7. Eagle Pose – Garudasana
Eagle pose is another one of my favorites, and maybe the best stress-relieving pose of all because it utilizes balance and concentration, but also stretches all the major areas we’ve discussed for holding bad energy and stress; the hips, back, and shoulders.
Start in standing, allowing a slight bend in the knees. Bring your arms up to the sky as you slowly shift weight into your right foot. Begin to lift the left leg off the ground and cross it over the right thigh, creating a tight bind and pointing the toes. Bend into the right leg, going even lower if possible. Find a drishti, or focus point, like in Eagle Pose. Slowly begin to lower the arms, crossing the left arm underneath the right and bringing the palms together, pointing them to the sky. You should feel a nice stretch in the hip as well as in between the shoulders. You can lift or lower the elbows while crossed to feel the stretch all along the back body. Repeat on the other side, crossing right leg over the left and reversing the arms.
8. Lizard Pose – Utthan Pristhasana
Lizard pose is a great posture for getting deep into the hip and the glute muscles. It also opens the heart and chest. By holding this pose for a few minutes at a time, we can get deep into that connective tissue and allow built up stress to melt away.
Start by coming to all fours or downward dog. Lift your right leg and bring it to the top right corner of your mat, creating a wide lunge-like position. Walk your left leg back, lowering it to the ground and making sure to keep it straight. Keep your body lifted with your two hands in the middle of the mat in front of you, or come down to your elbows if that is comfortable. My favorite variation of this pose is to bring my foot to the lateral, or pinky toe side and allow the hip to open up away from the body. This can be pretty intense but effective for releasing the muscle, so find whatever version of this pose is right for you. You can even lift the back knee of the ground if that is in your practice. Repeat on the other side.
9. Half Splits – Ardha Hanumanasana
The shins and hamstrings are another area where we can feel some aches and pains after a long day. If you like to run or spend alot of time on your feet, this pose can be especially beneficial for you, even getting into the groin and calves. Half splits can also provide a nice release for the back and neck. I love the way this pose feels in my body, and it can even help build flexibility, moving you closer to performing full splits if that’s something you’re interested in.
Come to all fours or downward dog. It can be nice to take a few breaths in downward dog to prepare for this pose, lengthening the legs and “walking-out” your dog. Bring your right foot forward between your hands and lower the back knee onto the ground, relaxing the foot. Point your right toes up towards your face, flexing the foot. You should begin to feel a stretch throughout that right leg right away. Take a deep breath and keep the spine straight as you begin to bend over that right leg. If that is too much for you, stay up on your hands and in time you’ll be able to release that muscle. Keep your hips straight as much as possible, pushing the left hip forward and the right hip back. Relax the shoulders. Practice on the other side.
10. Butterfly Pose (Cobbler’s Pose) – Baddha Konasana
I find Butterfly Pose to be particularly calming and comforting. Do you remember being a child and “fluttering” your wings in gym class? Not only is it a fun and freeing posture, but it can help us to go deeper within ourselves and connect to what really matters. It feels great in the thighs, groin, and legs but also up the lower back and spine, opening up the whole body and relaxing the mind. It’s also a great pose for digestion, menstrual cramps, prenatal prep, and sciatica pain.
Sit up straight with your legs out in front of you. Bend the knees and bring the soles of the feet together, allowing the legs to fall out the to the side. If they come nowhere close to the ground, that’s okay. You can use yoga blocks, pillows, or even books to place under the knees for extra support. Keeping the back straight, hands wrapped over the tops of the feet, begin to fold forward as much as comfortable. You want to fold from the hips, not the lower back. Take several deep breaths in this pose, feeling the muscles let go. Allow your thoughts to float by like clouds and release anything that isn’t serving you.
As we continue to progress through this rough year, I hope that yoga can bring you some comfort and serve as a way to release tension and stress. You can try practicing these poses in the morning or at night, maybe lighting a few candles and putting on some relaxing music. By finding ways to let go of negativity and feel good in our bodies, we can regain control over our day to day lives and find joy in the smallest things once again.