Modern life can be busy and hectic. Kids tend to be over scheduled adding to the general whirlwind of households. We’re reachable at all hours of the day and night on cellphones and prompted to check in constantly through Facebook notification. Of course, technology allows us the amazing opportunity to access information and connect with people around the world, but being on multiple platforms on the internet and dashing from page to page has been shown to raise stress levels. So how can yoga benefit us in our fast-paced, wired world? Here’s my top five yoga practices for stress and anxiety that covers all aspects of what yoga has to offer: philosophy, or a way of positive way of looking at the world, posture, breathing, sounding and relaxation.
One — Focussing In
First, there is just the overarching wisdom to create space in our lives by focussing on one thing at a time. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras start with the phrases, ‘yoga is the settling of the fluctuations of the mind’ and ‘in this way we rest in our true nature’. What stands out here is ‘settling’ and ‘rest’. We think we’re getting more done by multi-tasking and moving quickly from thing to thing, but in fact, if we can train ourselves to keep with one task and complete it, we can then move our full attention to the next task at hand. I love that song from Brother Son and Sister Moon by Donovan:
If you want to live life free
Take your time, go slowly
Do few things and do them well.
Simple joys are holy!
Leaving tasks half complete creates a split in the attention and actually decreases our motivation by having outstanding ‘to do’s’ floating in our consciousness. And, rushing and multi-tasking cause spikes in adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones that leave you in fight or flight mode, decreasing energy for digestion, immunity and concentration. But by focussing on one thing at a time and taking to complete it before moving on, we actually train ourselves and our whole immune system not to rush or multi-task, creating mental habits of calm and focus, decreasing stress, keeping immunity high and allowing the wellbeing hormones to flow. So, there is really something to it! Focussing in and taking things one at a time! You’ll actually get more done and feel better about small accomplishments!
Two — Deep Belly Breathing
Naturally there are days when even our habit of not over scheduling and focussing in are foiled by the unexpected. On those days, deep belly breathing is your best friend. If you’re in traffic trying to get to an appointment, on the bus having just run to the stop or in a doctor’s waiting room, take advantage of that natural lull to check in. Place your feet flat on the floor (if possible). Notice any clenching in the belly, the shoulders the jaw or between the eyebrows. Consciously relax those areas and begin to take deep breaths, relaxing the lower belly and allowing it to become round and full as breath enters the lower lungs. As you exhale, squeeze the lower belly a little bit. Then consciously relax it again and inhale deeply into the pelvis. It is easier to learn this technique in a laying position, so when you have the chance, lay down with a pillow under your knees so that your belly and lower back are relaxed and allow your breath to become full and slow. Deep belly breathing can immediately shift you brain waves from beta to alpha, dropping you into a more calm, clear state of mind. It also has the same effect as described above of shifting you from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system of ‘rest and digest’. You can trigger this more clear and healing state in just a few breaths turning a stressful moment 180 degrees. With this simple yogic tool, you can stop the train wreck of rushing moments and thread these moments of peace throughout even the busiest of days!
Three – Brahmaree Pranayama (the Honey bee breath)
Do you feel often calmed and uplifted by singing or humming? In yoga we have a technique called the Brahmaree breath that is a prolonged “mmmm” sound that is known to decrease anxiety and stress. In most languages, the word mother is full of soothing “mmm” sounds: mama, oma, ma, mata et cetera. It is also the last part of the Om sound. Brahmaree is also known to help combat insomnia. So, each night, why not take five to ten minutes for this amazing technique. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Then just inhale fully, keeping the jaw relaxed and the tongue on the palate and exhale making a long, slow humming sound. As you practice, you’ll be able to feel the sound moving up though the sinuses into the brain, vibrating your whole chest, throat and head, vibrating and relaxing you at a deep level.
Four – Forward Bending Postures
Forward bending postures are like natural cocoons – we turn inwards and release with the force of gravity. These postures are therefore grounding and trigger the relaxation response. A great way to practice these even when you’re on the go, is to place your hands on a wall and lean forwards in an L-stretch. Allow the natural curve of your spine to release the belly towards the earth and tip the tailbone slightly up. Take a few breaths here. If you have a private spot, you can even soften the knees and fold forwards into the rag doll, letting the shoulds fall off your shoulders. Lengthen the neck and allow the weight of the head to draw you into the posture with each exhalation. Take a few restorative breaths here and then when you’re ready, bend the knees and curl yourself back up to standing taking a few breaths to do this so that you don’t become dizzy. Stand for a moment and just feel your feet on the earth and the fresh oxygen flowing through your body. Ahhhhh!
Five – The Heart-opening Fish
While forward bending is calming and restorative, sometimes our anxiety is paired with feeling down and unmotivated. For this reason it is important to balance our forward bending with some gentle and supported chest opening poses. My favourite of these is the supported, heart-opening Fish! If you have a round bolster, place it along your spine, starting from behind the heart and leave the head supported as well. This is a gently uplifting relaxation pose. Let the legs and toes roll open and surrender to the force of gravity. You can stay here for 10 minutes and then gently roll to the side and off the bolster into the foetal position. If you want a slightly deeper heart opener, you can use a soft block or a folded bed pillow and place it behind the heart while laying. This way, you allow the head to tilt back and rest on the floor, chin towards the ceiling and teeth gently closed. This pose will counteract the hunching and slouching that are so common as we sit at the computer, which restrict breath and lead to us feeling down. The uplifting Fish will set you up for the day and will bring a sense of lightness and buoyancy.
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Yoga, when practiced holistically is so much more beneficial, so I’ve included here a contemplative aspect, breathwork, sounding, and postures to help you get the maximum benefit. With these few simple yoga techniques, you’ll become more resilient, less harried and on the road to a creating a healthy approach to modern living, equipped with tools and habits for less stress and more upliftment! Enjoy!