Stress and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. The fight or flight response, a physiological reaction to uncomfortable, sudden or new situations that we are not ready for, releases high amounts of the stress hormone, cortisol. When cortisol levels are elevated for prolonged periods, it leads to many health issues like increased blood pressure, a high heart rate, binge eating, shallow breathing and more. Thus, stress is considered the root cause of many problems. Understanding the fight or flight response is important when it comes to correcting how we react to situations. We normally end up thinking “Oh, what do I do now?!” or “Damn, how do I get through this?!”. These types of reactions only build up more stress.
How does it lead to anxiety? When we are faced with repeated instances or situations, our mind and body get so used to it that we start overreacting even to non-threatening instances. This starts to become a habit and eventually we start fearing what’s coming next. A sense of dread sets in. A single trigger multiplies into several, and we start worrying about the future all the time. That’s when anxiety has set in.
Multitasking is second nature today. With endless to-do lists and trying to maintain a balance between ourselves, our relationships and our careers, it’s easy to feel stress and anxiety. Even when you’ve been attending regular yoga classes, you tend to forget to take deep breaths and calm down before reacting. Don’t you agree?
Yoga practices for stress and anxiety
Asanas, breathing techniques, deep breathing, meditation, yoga nidra are all extremely beneficial in managing stress and anxiety. The yogic method of practicing asanas works specifically on the autonomic nervous system.
What is this approach ?
- Asanas / Physical positions that influence breathing patterns.
- Breath influences the brain centers that trigger stress related physiological responses
So the main approach here is to breathe. Yoga for anxiety and yoga for stress relief help us focus on our breath which helps control the mind and calm down the nervous system. When the parasympathetic nerves are active and balanced, tension and tightness is released, making us feel less stressed or anxious. Breath draws our attention to the present and makes us more aware. This awareness helps us control the way we react in what would normally be called a fight or flight situation. Let’s now learn more detailed information on yoga for anxiety and stress in this article.
10 yoga poses for anxiety and stress relief
The main aspects to work on when trying to release stress is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and relax the back, improve blood flow to the brain, and better focus and mental strength. Each asana below works on these different aspects.
Yoga poses that activate the parasympathetic nervous system and relax the back
Seated forward fold or Paschimottanasana
A wonderful asana to relieve back pain and improve blood circulation, Paschimottanasana is effective in providing stress relief. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system and vagus nerve, the asana infuses the body with energy, removing fatigue and weakness. It provides relief from headaches which are often experienced due to high levels of stress. The asana also ignites your digestive fire, improving the digestion, another area that is often affected by excess Cortisol.
How to do Seated forward fold Pose
- From Dandasana, the staff pose, inhale, move forward and hold your feet from the outside. Inhale, straighten the back and push the chest forward.
- Exhale, fold forward, bringing the chest closer to the thighs. Now stretch the lower back, and go down further with the exhale, engaging the core. Look up towards the toes.
- To come out of the pose, release the grip. Inhale, raise both the arms up and lift the chin and chest as well. Come back to the staff pose, Dandasana.
Child’s pose or Balasana
Often practiced as a counter pose to many intermediate and advanced asanas, this restorative posture has a very calming effect on the brain. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system and stimulates the vagus nerve (the longest cranial nerve). There is improved blood circulation to the brain, thus providing a soothing and relaxing effect. It also stretches the back muscles, chest, hamstrings and shoulders, releasing lower back pain (caused by excessive stress), and accumulated tension in any of these areas. Child’s pose is effective in encouraging mindfulness and relaxation too.
How to do Childs Pose
- Kneel down on your mat with your knees about hip width apart.
- Now slowly bend forward bringing your forehead on the mat. Your arms should be stretched out in front of the body.
- You can also place a cushion below your forehead.
- Stay here for a few slow deep breaths and then gently come back up.
Easy pose or Sukhasana
A meditative posture, this simple seated asana is powerful in keeping us grounded and confident. The spine is maintained upright ensuring the chest and abdomen are free to participate in deep breathing. It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, balancing the rest and digest response. The simple pose firmly connects the legs to the earth, which keeps us centered and balanced. Blood flow is directed upwards, energizing the body as well.
How to do Sukhasana
- Sit on your yoga mat with your legs crossed. Now straighten the spine, and keep it firm. Bring your torso in line with your hips and lengthen your tailbone.
- Roll the shoulders back. Don’t let him hunch. Relax the arms and place the palms on the knees, upwards upwards.
- Close your eyes and take slow, deep breaths. You can also chant a mantra silently if you wish to or you can simply keep your attention on your breath.
Legs up on the wall pose or Viparita Karani
This is also a relaxing asana that alleviates tension from the back and legs. Relaxing for a few minutes in this posture improves blood circulation from the legs back up to the circulatory system. It also activates and balances the rest and digest response. This improves oxygen levels, inducing a relaxed and calming effect on the mind and body. The stress that has accumulated in the back and legs also gets relieved, making us feel rejuvenated.
How to do Viparita Karani
- Lie down with your buttocks close to a wall and legs falling to one side. Now slowly lift the legs up along the wall. Adjust your position to make sure you are as close to the wall as possible. Make sure you are comfortable.
- Now relax the throat and head. Keep the arms on the side of the body or above your head - whichever is comfortable for you.
- Stay here for a couple of minutes. Try to take slow, deep breaths.
- To come out of the posture, slowly drop the legs to one side and push yourself away from the wall.
Cat and cow pose or Marjariasana
In this asana the spine and abdomen are both getting a gentle stretch and massage. These are two areas stress has a strong impact. It relieves lower back pain, giving a relaxing stretch to the body. A few rounds of this movement helps you let go of stress and relax.
How to do Marjariasana
- Come onto all fours with the palms directly under the shoulders and knees underneath your hips. Ensure your weight is equally distributed on all fours.
- Inhale and fill your abdomen with air as you let your belly drop towards the mat. There will be an arch in your back as you do this. Look up towards the ceiling and lengthen your neck and throat.
- As you exhale, pull the naval towards the spine, curve your back and tuck your chin into your chest as you lift up.
- Continue this movement for a few breaths. Let your breath guide you through the movements.
- After a few rounds, release and come into child’s pose.
Yoga poses that improve blood flow
Downward Facing Dog or Adho Mukha Svanasana
This asana not only lengthens the spine, releasing tightness and tension, but also increases the blood flow to the brain. This improves energy levels, provides clarity and strength to the mind. This releases the confusion or unsteadiness and disturbances the mind is facing when stressed.
How to do Adho Mukha Svanasana
- Come into the table top position on all fours with the palms and knees on the mat and back flat.
- Slowly lift your hips and knees up while pushing your toes into the mat. Keep your arms and legs straight. It’s okay if your heel is not flat on the mat.
- Push your chest towards the mat so that your back is straight and getting the right stretch. Keep looking between your palms.
- Your body should be in an inverted V-shape. Stay here for a few breathes.
- To come out of the asana slowly bring your knees down and come into child’s pose.
Standing forward fold or Uttanasana
This standing forward fold induces blood flow to the brain calming the mind. This releases stress and tension accumulated in the mind. The deep stretch from the asana also helps to release tightness and rigidity from the body.
How to do Uttanasana
- Stand straight with your feet firmly on the mat and hands by your side. Now slowly place the hands by the hip and start bending from the waist. You can bend your knees a little bit as you bend forward
- Bring your palms next to the feet. Your chest will be touching your thighs. Straighten your knees if possible. You can also grab your ankle.
- Stay here for a few breaths and then slowly start coming back up.
Shoulder stand or Sarvangasana
This is also a very effective asana for stress and anxiety. As an inversion, it also induces blood flow to the brain, making you feel refreshed and rejuvenated. It also provides clarity, strength and a sense of balance, thus releasing confusion and disturbances of the mind.
How to do Sarvangasana
- Lie down on your back with your arms by the side of the body. Now bend your knees and start raising your legs towards your chest. Take the support of your hands to raise the bent legs over your head.
- Now move the hands to the lower back where the rib cage ends. Using this as support, slowly move your hips towards your head and straighten your legs in a controlled manner.
- Keep your palms firmly on the back. The weight of the body should be on the shoulders and not the neck.
- Stay here for a few breaths. To come out of the asana, first bend the legs and lower them towards the head and then bring them back down.
Headstand or Sirsasana
A challenging inversion, the headstand provides many health benefits. There is blood flow to the brain which relaxes and rejuvenates the mind, releasing stress. The need to focus and keep our attention inward to hold the posture helps release distracting thoughts and worries. It flushes out toxins from the lymphatic and digestive system, removing stress and stimulating the organs. While in the posture, try to breathe deeply to experience all the wonderful benefits.
How to do Sirsasana
- Place the forearms down and interlock the fingers. Now place the crown of the head between the interlocked fingers on the mat and wrap the hands around the head. Make sure the elbows are shoulder width apart and pressing down.
- Lift the knees and buttocks, and start to straighten the legs.
- Walk the feet as close as possible and straighten the back. Transfer the weight towards the shoulders and crown of the head, and feel light on your legs.
- Bending the knees slightly, bring one knee to the chest. Tighten your abdominal muscles, hold the breath and then bring the other leg close to the chest.
- Stay with knees close to the chest for a few breaths. Once stable, straighten both the legs up towards the ceiling.
- To come back down, bend the knees and bring them to the chest. Now lower the legs with control.
Yoga poses for better focus
Eagle pose or Garudasana
Garudasana is a balancing posture that forces you to let go of internal and external distractions. All your effort goes into focusing and staying still when attempting the asana. The bind in the legs and hands also improves circulation. Thus, the asana induces a sense of balance, peace and harmony, helping you let go of stress, worries, tensions that you’re holding in the mind and body.
How to to Garudasana
- Stand in Tadasana, the mountain pose. Now take a step forward with your right leg, and then shift the body weight forward on to that leg. Lift the left foot off the ground, bend the knee and hold the left ankle from the inside or the outside - whatever is comfortable for you.
- Keep the right firmly placed on the floor. The left thigh is now over the right thigh. Take the upper body forward while simultaneously raising the left knee higher and pushing the foot into the hand.
- After reaching a stable position, join the palms in namaste mudra. Keep your gaze focused on a point in front of you. Take slow, deep breaths and try to relax here.
- Release the right hand down, straighten the body and come into Tadasana. Bring the left knee down and release the ankle from the hand.
It is also important to note the headstand is also one of the best asanas to improve focus. The improved blood flow to the brain and staying focused while inverted drives immense focus and clarity.
These are a few asanas that help you relieve anxiety and stress. There are many more asanas that have a profound impact on calming the nervous system. Even lying down in Savasana or the corpse pose for a few minutes can be helpful. The best thing to do is practice yoga regularly with a teacher. When you begin to see its wonderful benefits, you’ll be more motivated to attend classes!
What happens in the body when we are stressed or anxious
When every small event starts to make us anxious, our sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive. The fight or flight response is overactive, causing many hormonal imbalances, starting with high Cortisol levels. This throws the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the rest and digest function, out of balance. When the rest and digest function is not working as much as our bodies need it, disorders and diseases like headaches, high blood pressure, back pain, irregular menstrual cycles in women, unhealthy eating habits, etc. begin to kick in.
Common signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety
When you are constantly having sleepless nights or insomnia, fatigue, irritability, mood swings and uneasiness, you may even start to experience muscle tension or pain, loss of appetite or the urge to overeat, digestive troubles, headaches, irregular breathing, etc.
Common causes of stress and anxiety
Both stress and anxiety can occur due to everyday instances and situations, or due to big life changing events like death, divorce or an uncontrollable disaster. Common, everyday triggers are pressure from work or school, a hectic lifestyle, expectations from others, unhealthy eating habits, difficulty coping with changes, excessive physical strain, uncomfortable or fearful situations like public speaking or traffic, etc.
How can the body overcome stress and anxiety?
When in a state of fight or flight, our sympathetic nervous system is active. When our brain keeps getting this message that danger is close by, cortisol levels remain high. And as we saw, when this becomes ingrained, then we are in a constant state of fear, leading to anxiety. This keeps the muscles tense and body on edge. To consciously lower cortisol levels, stimulating and activating the parasympathetic nervous system is important. The parasympathetic nervous system is the rest and digest response. It relaxes the body and slows down the response by releasing hormones that slow many of the high energy functions of the body. Our mood improves, our immune system is stronger and blood pressure reduces. Breathing also becomes normal and relaxed. After this, all our functions that were imbalanced come back to normal, like sleep, diet, focus, decision making, etc.
There is also the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve that runs from the brain to the abdomen, and connects to all internal organs. Stimulating the vagus nerve sends a message to the brain to relax and destress.
All the asanas we saw above and focusing on the breath contributes greatly towards activating the parasympathetic nervous system and vagus nerve. Stimulating and activating this is important to ensure the body remains in a state of balance and calm, helping you manage anxiety and stress.