Yoga for Stress

By letting go, it all gets done - Lao Tzu

Yoga for relaxation and stress relief workshop at the Bristol Yoga Centre

We often think that we are relaxed when watching TV or cycling. Whilst these can be more relaxing than going to work or driving the kids around, they are still bombarding our senses. Yoga is a great remedy for stress as it teaches you how relax to fully. 

Relax the yoga way

One of the main causes of chronic stress is our inability to release tension and strain once the cause of the stress has passed. We often worry and carry the disturbance with us long after an incident has taken place. This can cause many of us to suffer tension in our head, neck and upper back. We literally carry the weight of the world on our shoulders! In Savasana, we take the weight off and our body can begin to really relax and rejuvenate.

Be with the breath

Bringing our awareness to our breathing enables us to be in the present moment, rather than focusing on the past or future. Breathing properly means that our body is being supplied with the right amount of oxygen, replenishing our brain and other vital organs.

Balance the nervous system

Yoga also helps our nervous system to rebalance after a challenge has passed. In our practice, we often alternate between strenuous poses and gentler postures, conditioning us to move easily between states of challenge and rest. This teaches us to let go & release once the challenges have been met.

Regular Asana practice

Doing regular asanas keeps our body and mind balanced, strong and flexible. It also relieves muscular tension and mobilise our joints.  If you're feeling healthy, it's much easier to handle stress and worries.  

Learning to accept change

One of the main benefits I’ve gained from regular practice of yoga is the ability to accept change. Quite often we feel really stressed when going through changes. Just like stress, changes are inevitable part of living. Therefore, it’s really worth learning techniques to help us when these changes become challenging and stressful.

New relaxation and stress relief Workshops at Bristol Yoga Centre

I am running a short relaxation and stress relief workshop on 4th June. Come and learn how to relax fully and ward off stress! This will be a lovely Sunday afternoon event supporting Bristol Mind, a mental health charity who do great work in Bristol.  

We have also scheduled a new meditation workshop on stress and life management on Sunday 2nd July by Kay Baxter at the Bristol Yoga Centre studio. 

Savasana (Full Relaxation Pose)

‘Proper relaxation is a gift everyone of us should give to our bodies each and everyday’ - Tara Fraser, a senior yoga teacher.

Full relaxation yoga pose

After the Christmas and New Year, we often take up new activities and projects, and run around trying to achieve our goals. Whilst it’s a great time to take on new things and reflect on our intentions, it’s really easy to over do it and end up feeling burnt out.

Relaxation is a key element in yoga practice; Savasana or ‘the full relaxation pose’ is the ultimate position for relaxation…as the name implies. It is one of the most important asanas as it teaches us how to release physical and mental tension and assimilate the practice we have completed. Allowing time to reflect and absorb our actions will enhance their benefits.

It’s easy to over look simple poses like Savasana but I have found that it’s often one of the most powerful ones to do regularly. Savasana teach us important lesson of letting go. Experts believe that one of the primary causes of chronic stress is inability to release worries and strain. We often hold on to these feelings and tension even when the stressful situation has long passed. Practicing Savasana regularly is a great way to notice how we are and encourages us to let go.

Savasana is often translated as the corpse pose and is synonymous to Mrtasana, which means death pose. The pose symbolises death and letting everything go. No longer trying to do or analyse but letting everything be as it is.

At a first glance, it may seem like the easiest pose to practice but it can actually be one of the hardest postures to do properly. It can be challenging to relax fully whilst maintaining full awareness. It’s very easy to be lost in our thoughts or just fall asleep! As with most things, the more you practice, the easier it becomes; so I recommend doing this pose regularly.

Savasana is normally practiced at the end of asana practice but it can also be done at the beginning or on it’s own. When I feel depleted and tired, I often spend 5 -10 minutes (longer if I have the time) in Savasana to rejuvenate. It has a quality of a power nap and is incredibly restorative. As Gheranda Samita, one of the three classical text on Hatha Yoga says ‘Lying flat on the ground like a corpse is called Mrtasana. This posture destroys fatigue, and quietens the agitation of the mind’ - Chapter 2, verse 11. After practicing Savasana, the body feels rested and the mind becomes less cluttered and clearer. You will also have more energy to do what you want.

To practice this pose, it’s important to spend some time ensuring that you are as comfortable as possible. Make sure that you are lying down in a balanced way and allow yourself to relax completely. Use as many props as you need such as blankets, cushions and eye pillow. Blankets can be placed over the top of the body to keep warm or folded up and placed under any part of the body for support.  Cushions can be used to prop up the head or used under the knees to release your back. I highly recommend using eye pillow as it will help you to relax your face and head. Experiment and see what works for you.

If you are pregnant, it’s not advisable to spend too long on your back so choose to lie down on the left side of the body.

Once you are in Savasana, gently watch over your body, breath and mind. Try to observe your thoughts without becoming attached to them, by feeling your body and keeping yourself connected to the ebb and flow of your breath. Simply learning to observe your thoughts in this way will help to calm your mind.

If you are worried about falling a sleep, try setting a timer or a gentle alarm. When you are ready to end the practice, come out slowly and take the time to notice the effects of Savasana. Sit quietly and observe how you feel.

Yoga For Your Back

I thought I would write about yoga for healthy backs because I recently hurt my back and had to modify my personal practice. Yes, yoga teachers sometimes do get ill and injured! In my opinion this can actually improve our teaching because we can understand what it is like and how to deal with it from a first-hand experience.

Injuries can be frustrating and stressful but it can also be an excellent time to reflect and get to know ourselves better.  After all, one of the most important elements of yoga practice is self-understanding. Illness and injuries are common part of living and now that we are all living longer, we are bound to encounter problems from time to time. 

In yoga, what is important is not necessarily whether you can do the pose well (or even at all) but how we deal with the challenges that we face.  Try to take a moment to question, do you try and force yourself into a difficult pose without paying attention and listening to your body? Does your practice benefit and reflect where you are at the moment?

Whilst you are injured, it is really important that you are sensitive and aware of the body so that you can adapt the practice creatively. Try to avoid doing strong poses or sequence. This is not the time to challenge yourself. Instead try to practice in a gentle, mindful way.  Think of how we would act if your looking after those we love that are in pain. 

Whilst there are many different types of back problems, I thought I would try and provide a general tips and guidelines for practice. These are the movements and postures that I found particularly beneficial.  If any of the poses or movements hurt, try modifying and if it’s still painful you can skip it altogether. Remember less is more. Doing a regular short gentle mindful movement is much more helpful for recovery. Make sure to consciously breathe through the whole practice. This will help you to relax and recover more quickly. Most of the practice is done on the floor to avoid compression and remove the pressure of gravity on the spine.

1. Semi supine pos

Yoga for your back Pose

Try experimenting different ways of lying that feels best for your back.  Start by connecting with your breath and encouraging your whole body to relax completely.

2. Wind Releasing Pose and variations

Yoga for your back pose

If it doesn’t hurt your back, try moving very gently in a circle, side to side or forward and back movement .

3. Supine mountain pose with arm raise

Yoga full stretch pose

Lie with your feet flexed and your legs engaged as if you are standing with your arms by your side. Slowly extend your arms over head. Try to get your arms and hands to touch the floor above your head. Repeat this movement slowly with your breath. Inhale, raise your arms and exhale release your arms back to the original position.

Once you have repeated the arm rise, try holding the pose with your arm extended overhead and point and flex your feet several times. Use of a block is optional.

4. Pelvic tilts

Pelvic tilt yoga pose

In this exercise, you are gently moving from anterior to posterior pelvic tilt. Inhale arch your back slightly and tilt your hips forwards. Exhale gently pull your belly in and flatten your back. Move with your slow deep breathing.

To strengthen your belly, hold in the posterior tilt position with the abdomen drawn in for several breaths and release. Repeat the hold few times.

After the exercise, try to find a neutral alignment for your spine and relax completely.

5. Supine twist (dynamic and static)

Supine Twist Yoga Pose

Start from semi supine pose and slowly release into the twist on an exhalation.  On an inhalation, return back to centre. Repeat on the other side. Once you have completed several rounds, hold the twist for several breaths on each side. 

6. Supine cobbler pose

Yoga pose

In this dynamic variation of the lying cobbler pose, we will be moving our legs in and out slowly with your deep smooth breath.  Exhale bring the knee into wards one another and feet down on the floor. On your inhale return to the original position. Repeat this several times.

When your ready hold cobbler pose for several breaths. If it’s a strain to hold this position, try using yoga blocks underneath the legs or use a yoga belt to support your hips.

7. Full relaxation pose

modified relaxation pose

To make the final pose even more relaxing use folded up blanket underneath your legs and optionally use eye pillow and another blanket to cover yourself. Try and make yourself really comfortable so that you can relax fully. Feel free to use semi supine pose instead.

Developing a Home Yoga Practice Part I

‘Home practice explores the exquisite relationships between the body, the breath and life itself. The whole reason for doing yoga is to enjoy this relationship, the natural intimacy with life itself’

 – Mark Whitwell, an internationally renowned yoga teacher 

Home Yoga Practice

Developing a consistent home yoga practice is one of the most rewarding and important activities for serious yogis but it can also be one of the hardest things to achieve. A regular practice requires motivation, creativity, discipline and confidence – all qualities that are really worthwhile to try and develop.

I’ve met dedicated students that attend taught group yoga classes almost every day and yet find it a real struggle to get on their yoga mat alone at home. This is important to remedy as it’s within a regular home practice that we truly discover and connect to ourselves. As Tara Frazer in her book ‘Yoga for You’ says, ‘Although you will learn a great deal from a teacher, you will experience most of yoga’s benefits by practicing alone. This is because, ultimately, yoga is a process of self-realisation and you are the best expert on yourself’.

No matter how excellent your yoga teacher is, they will never be able to feel and connect to yourself like you can. Instead of relying on other people, you can begin to look after yourself.

When we know ourselves better we are in a much better position to take care of our minds and bodies. One of the greatest benefits from my own practice is the ability to really listen and adapt my practice to suit my changing needs. I believe this is an essential point as no matter how strong or flexible you become, if you are unable to modify your practice when you have injuries or at challenging times then it’s severely limited. In fact, it’s during these times that our yoga practice should help and support us.

The yoga practice then becomes a therapeutic transformative activity for the individual. Gary Kraftsow, a senior viniyoga teacher said ‘...Yoga lies in the adaption of the practice to the individual, not in the adaptation of the individual to the practice’.  When designing a balanced personal practice, Krafsow says to respect our individual situations and requirements and take into account constitution, place, gender, time, age, capacities, aspirations and activities.

It is easy to ignore our personal needs and circumstances and set unrealistic aims and goals in our practice. Yoga is not something we accomplish but it is a life long development. You will naturally find that your practice will continuously grow and change.

Over time my own practice has changed to be more self-reflective and contemplative. It is now much less about achieving certain postures or complying with rigid ideals. I do my home practice to try and achieve greater harmony and balance within myself. I believe these important changes have come from my continuous personal practice.

In the next part of this blog, I will give tips and advice on starting a home practice.

Restorative Yoga Postures

I caught a particularly bad cold earlier in the year and had to adapt my personal yoga practice. I didn’t have the energy to do my regular asanas so I chose to do restorative postures instead. I thought I would write about the benefits of poses that I used to help.

I believe that it’s really important to be able to modify our practice to suit our changing needs. My personal practice enables me to connect and reflect on what’s going on within my life.  It’s imperative that we learn to listen to our body and adapt our practice as much as necessary.

In restorative postures, it’s much nicer to use props but if you don’t have any, you can always use alternative things that you can find in your home.  For example, you could use couple of pillows instead of a yoga bolster and a scarf or belt to replace yoga strap. Eye pillows are wonderful for restorative practice but if you don’t have one, you could use eye masks or cover your eyes with a small towel. Get creative and use whatever that works for you. Just make sure that you are supported and really comfortable. Here are some recommended restorative postures:

Supported Supine Bound Angle Pose

This is a great heart and hip opening pose, especially beneficial for relieving some symptoms of a cold.

 Props: Bolster, yoga straps or blocks and eye pillow

Cobbler yoga pose

Supported Child Pose

When you’ve got a cold, it can be difficult to do forward bends but this is a lovely calming and relaxing one to do.

Props: Bolster, cushion, blanket 

Yoga Child Pose

Legs up the wall pose

Similar to forward bends, inverted postures can be challenging postures to practice when your feeling under the weather but you can practice this pose easily.  It is also said to be a great pose to encourage you to get a good night’s sleep. The trick to getting close to the wall is to start by sitting very close sideways and flipping your legs 90 degrees. If your buttocks are still far away, use your elbows to nudge yourself closer.

 Prop: a wall or a chair, bolster

Yoga legs up the wall pose

Practicing points

  • Stay in the pose from 5 – 10 minutes
  • Feel and decide for yourself how much props to use
  • Relax and enjoy