Yoga lovers aren’t just drinking the Kool-Aid when they espouse the benefits of yoga for relaxation. A growing body of research (and anecdotal evidence) supports the idea that a regular practice can help reduce anxiety and stress.
In a study completed by researchers at Germany’s University Duisburg-Essen, a group of women dealing with emotional distress were led through a three-month-long yoga practice. At the end of the three-month period, their levels of anxiety, stress and fatigue had decreased remarkably. Other research has shown that yoga can help reduce levels of cortisol—the stress hormone.
How exactly do pretzel-like poses help us unwind? Here’s a quick summary of how yoga produces bliss-boosting effects, and the best poses to reap the relaxation rewards.
It helps us control our breathing
When we’re stressed, we tend to take shallow, rapid breaths—the very opposite of the slow and deep breathing that’s proven to promote relaxation. Many styles of yoga consider breath to be the foundation of the practice as it floods oxygen to our muscles and minds. Mindful breathing helps us connect the mind and body; making us more aware of how we’re feeling.
It forces us to slow down
With the exception of ashtanga yoga and its variations, most yoga isn’t fast-paced. It prioritizes thoughtful execution of poses, rather than fast progressions. Stress often brings with it racing hearts and whizzing, worried thoughts. An activity that forces us to slow down physically can get us to slow down mentally, and is a welcome antidote for anxiety and stress.
It focuses us
In other words, it’s a distraction from the stress-causing factors in our lives. Stepping onto the mat is like stepping into a 30- to 90-minute reprieve from daily life, where the only task is to listen to the guidance provided by a teacher’s calming voice and your body.
It provides bone-friendly exercise
The benefits of exercise for stress reduction are well documented. Yoga provides some of those benefits —increased production of feel-good endorphins, for example—but without the weight-bearing intensity that can lead to injury.
The best poses to try for relaxation
To make yoga a regular part of your self-care and wellness routine, seek out a restorative or gentle flow class at your nearest studio. If a home practice is more your thing, YouTube is a great resource for both full-length, follow-along classes and quick sequences.
Keep these positions tucked up your sleeve for when a stressed-out moment strikes or simply to infuse your next practice with some much-needed restoration:
- Child’s pose
- A kneeling position that involves relaxing the torso onto the thighs and extending the hands in front of the body. It’s a resting pose that can be used for a few seconds or a few minutes, on its own or between more challenging postures. Try propping a bolster in between your legs on which to rest your torso, for added relaxation.
- Shavasana aka corpse pose
- The ultimate in restorative poses, corpse pose involves simply lying on your back, with your legs and arms generously spread out on the floor, in a soft, neutral position. A blanket can be placed beneath your head or pelvis if needed. Sensitive low back? Try propping a bolster or blanket under your knees. It’s most effective when held for five or more minutes.
- Legs-up-the-wall pose
- Lying on your back with your arms beside you and your legs propped up against the wall helps release tension in your feet and legs, improve digestion by flowing blood to your stomach, and of course, relax your mind. Support your pelvis with a folded blanket and experiment with the distance between your body and the wall to find a comfortable position that doesn’t strain your back.
- Supported bridge pose
- This pose releases tension in our hips and pelvis—the region of the body where we’re believed to hold much of our emotional stress. Lay on your back with your arms by your sides and knees bent with feet on the floor (you should be able to graze your heels with your fingertips). Simply prop a block or bolster (if you’re at home try a pillow or thick book) under your sacrum (where your low back meets your glutes). For an added stretch (and if your hips are already flexible), straighten your legs on the floor.
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