According to the American Institute of Stress, 77% of individuals in the US report regularly feeling the physical symptoms of stress (e.g., upset stomach, headache, and fatigue), and 73% report regularly feeling the psychological symptoms of stress (e.g., anxiety, depression). In other words, the majority of people polled in the US are under enough stress that they feel physical and/or psychological symptoms of stress!
Anxiety, one of the primary psychological outcomes tied to stress, is defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness, fear, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.Feelings of fear and insecurity tied to anxiety typically result in the physiological arousal of our internal stress response. In other words, our thought processes are overactive and so are our bodies (i.e., our heart rate increases, our brain waves are agitated, our breathing is shallow, and our muscles are tense or trembling). It’s normal to experience occasional anxiety in our lives; in fact, anxiety can be adaptive if it motivates us to find effective coping behaviors. However, oftentimes, anxiety becomes so severe that it interferes with daily activities.
The following sequence of poses is designed to ease stress, anxiety, and increase a sense of relaxation, not only in the body but also in the mind. You will need at least one blanket or beach towel, a pillow, and a small towel or eye pillow to cover the eyes in the final pose.
1. Basic breath awareness (6-12 breaths)
Lay on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor and at least hip-distance apart. Once comfortable, place a hand on your abdomen. Begin to just notice your breath. Does your breath feel strained or smooth? Just observe your breath without judging whether or not you’re doing it right or wrong. Gradually begin to make your breath as relaxed as possible. Introduce a slight pause after each inhale and after each exhale. Now begin to bring your awareness to your hand on your abdomen. Notice that with each inhale, your abdomen rises, and with each exhale, your abdomen contracts. Without being forceful, just begin to gently try to expand the abdomen on the inhale and contract the abdomen on the exhale to support the natural movement of your diaphragm. Continue for 6-12 breaths.
2. Supine twist (5-10 breaths on each side)
This pose is used to help release the muscles around the spine and should be a relaxing experience without any pain. Start on your back and loosely draw your knees in toward your chest. Take both legs over to your right and find a comfortable position to rest your legs on the floor. If you experience any discomfort, try placing a rolled towel or pillow between or under your knees. Find a comfortable position for your arms to rest on the floor out to your sides.Close your eyes and relax here for 5-10 breaths on each side. Scan your body for any areas of tension here and use your breath to soften into any areas you find.
3. Child’s pose with the forehead supported (10 breaths)
From your hands and knees, widen the knees a comfortable distance (be willing to play with this positioning as there are individual preferences). Bring the big toes together to touch and sink the hips back toward the heels. If your forehead is not touching the floor, place a pillow or rolled up towel under your forehead. This connection of your forehead to the prop or the floor can bring a sense of being grounded. Once comfortable there, rock the head gently from side to side. This massaging of the forehead is soothing and brings a sense of ease to the body. If you experience any discomfort here, you can stack several pillows or blankets between the belly and the floor to increase the support. You can also place a small rolled up towel behind the backs of the knees to give the knee joint some space.
4. Supported forward fold (10 breaths)
Start in a seated position with legs outstretched in front of you. Place a bolster (or pillows, couch cushions, or blankets) under the knees. Hinge from your hips and gently forward fold over your legs. If needed, additional blankets/towels can be placed between the tops of the legs and the chest for extra support. There should be no stress or force in this shape. It’s not about touching your toes, but rather about relaxing into this posture and allowing the muscles on the back of the body to relax. We tend to want to look around or look to our toes, but for this sequence, play with softening or closing the eyes and pay particular attention to relaxing the muscles of the neck with each exhale. When we close our eyes we take away visual distractions, which can help to quiet the mind.
5. Supported savasana (stay 5-15 minutes).
Keeping the bolster (or props used in the supported forward fold) under the knees, lower yourself down onto your back. To increase the feeling of groundedness, place a folded blanket across the abdomen/hips. If your feet are not grounded, place a blanket under them to bring the floor closer to the feet, or remove the bolster. You want to feel grounded during savasana. Once you set up and comfortable, you can place an eye pillow or small towel over the eyes. For some individuals, this slight pressure on the eyes can ‘quiet’ eye movement and thus, quiet the mind. This pose is the perfect opportunity to come back to your Basic Breath Awareness.As you awaken and rise to a seated position, notice how you feel. Allow yourself to take a ‘feeling moment’ and acknowledge any changes or shifts that have been made by unplugging, breathing with purpose, and slowing down for as little as 20-30 minutes. If you’re short on time you can use any of the above poses by themselves to create a sense of calm in the body and mind. Remember all of the above postures should be stress free and shouldn’t feel forced.