Modern lives are stressful: fact.
But when the clock is against us, how can we incorporate a stress-busting practice into our life that doesn’t eat a chunk out of our already jam-packed day, and therefore leave us more…stressed?
If I told you that finding just 15 minutes in your daily schedule for yoga could result in significant benefits to your mental, physical and emotional health, as well as boosting your energy levels, promoting quality sleep and enhancing your cognitive capacity, what would your response be?
If it’d be, ‘okaaay, I’m listening….’ then stick with me, dear reader, because I’ve got stuff you want to hear.
What is Stress?
Stress is, broadly, how our bodies and minds cope with being put under (or feeling that we are under) pressure.
Twin sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski, in their ground-breaking book Burnout, differentiate between stressors and stress. According to their definitions:
Stressors are what activate the stress response in your body. They can be anything you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or imagine could do you harm. There are external stressors: work, money, family, time, cultural norms and expectations, experiences of discrimination, and so on. And there are less tangible, internal stressors: self-criticism, body image, identity, memories, and The Future. In different ways and to different degrees, all of these things may be interpreted by your body as potential threats.
Stress is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter one of these threats.Nagoski, E. and A. (2019). Burnout. The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.
This fantastic book (which I highly recommend you to read if you haven’t yet!) explains why women experience burnout differently from men and eloquently describes the ‘stress cycle’ that so many women face and the impact that this can have on our identity and sense of wellness.
What stress can do to the body?
Stress often manifests in physical issues, as levels of cortisol rise in the body and adrenaline is pumped into the bloodstream. We might feel nauseous, shaky, or dizzy and experience migraines, tachycardia, digestive issues, lack of energy, etc.
Mentally, prolonged stress can wreak havoc and have exacerbating effects on sleep and appetite, among other things.
Emotionally, exposure to stress, when long term, can make us feel overwhelmed, depressed and can negatively impact our self-esteem.
It’s impossible to totally eradicate stress from our lives, but by incorporating some self-care into our day through holistic practices such as yoga, we can certainly reduce it significantly.
How Exercise Can Help
Quoting again my favourite sisters at the moment, Emily and Amelia Nagoski:
Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for youNagoski, E. and A. (2019). Burnout. The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.
But what does that mean?
Just because you think you’ve dealt with your stressor, it doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with the stress itself. And when that happens, you get stuck in the stress cycle. You have to deal with the stress – and therefore complete the cycle – or this will slowly kill you.
And guess, what’s the best way to do that?
Physical activity is what tells your brain you have successfully survived the threat and now your body is a safe place to live. Physical activity is the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress response cycle.Nagoski, E. and A. (2019). Burnout. The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.
Exercising releases endorphins into the bloodstream, which promote happiness and calm and act as painkillers. Exercise also promotes good sleep, which, in turn, has a tremendous beneficial impact on our mental health. Plus, physical activity, through the way in which it mirrors a stress response (elevated heartbeat etc.), can help mitigate the negative effects of stress on the body by effectively strengthening the body’s ability to cope with these side-effects.
How Does Yoga Help with Stress?
The benefits of yoga for stress are enormous and encompass improvements to both physical and mental well-being.
Yoga encourages mindfulness; it requires us to take, in this case, fifteen minutes out from the mania of our day to bring our awareness to ourselves and to focus our intention on our breath and the movement of our bodies.
Practising yoga can lower blood pressure – really important if we’re feeling the effects of stress – and help to relax the muscles. The resultant decrease in cortisol levels in the body is also a benefit, which allows us to feel more relaxed and dial down any panicky feelings that our stress may be causing.
Yoga also helps us to be still, to centre and ground ourselves, encouraging us to listen to our bodies and what they need: slowing the pace, even for 15 minutes a day, really can make a profound difference to how we experience stress by alleviating physical discomfort, calming the mind and bringing harmony to our emotions.
Yoga offers a safe space to reconnect body/mind/spirit and rebalance the nervous system by relaxing the Fight or Flight response (sympathetic nervous system) and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the rest and digest response.
Practising yoga is also an effective treatment for premenstrual syndrome, period cramps relief and more severe menstrual disorders such as amenorrhea (the absence of menstruation) and oligomenorrhea (the condition of abnormally long menstrual cycles).
Yoga Poses for Stress Relief
You might be wondering at this point, ‘but how do I start doing yoga?’ Don’t worry, I’ve got you. Try these easy but mighty poses to begin incorporating yoga into your daily routine:
Sukhasana (Easy Pose)
One of the best yoga poses for stress and anxiety relief is also one of the easiest, so it’s perfect for beginners and those more experienced alike. To begin, unroll your yoga mat and sit down on it with crossed legs. Put your hands on each knee, with your palms facing upwards. Visualise the parts of your body that are connected to the floor, and imagine yourself grounding; feel the solidity beneath you. Sit up as straight as possible, bring your attention to your breathing; take a deep breath in, hold for a few moments, and then slowly release. Do this for a couple of minutes, or however long feels right to you.
Balasana (Child Pose)
More yoga for stress relief, the balasana is a beautiful, easy pose that promotes relaxation and self-nurture. Kneel on your mat with knees apart, and then sit back so that your bottom is resting on your heels. Next, lean forward, arms outstretched in front of you, palms down until your forehead is resting on the floor. As before, relax and breathe in this position for as long as is comfortable and until you feel the stress leave your body.
Viparita Karani (Legs up the Wall Pose)
This restorative pose is excellent for beginners and is a beautiful way to end your 15 minutes of yoga. For this one, lie on the floor with your bottom pressed against a wall. Next, walk your legs up the wall until your body has made an L shape. Place a blanket beneath your lower back for extra support if you find this more comfortable. Breath slowly and deeply, being mindful of the breath entering and leaving your body, and allow a feeling of peace to suffuse you as you prepare to finish your yoga practice.
How Can I Reduce Stress Quickly?
Sometimes stress can sneak up on us and grip us seemingly without warning. If, during your day, you find your stress levels spiking, try a breathing exercise to quickly reduce stress and calm the mind.
Breathwork – or pranayama practice – is a crucial part of the yoga practice, and breathing exercises can be used as stand-alone techniques if you need fast-acting relief.
Try finding a quiet space and closing your eyes. Now bring your attention to your breath. If your mind starts to wander, gently pull your focus back to your breath entering and leaving your body. Notice the speed and depth of your breathing. Next, breathe in deeply, visualising all the stress in your body coalescing in your chest; as you breathe slowly out, imagine the stress departing your body along with the dispelled breath, and, in your mind, see it evaporating in the air. Repeat this exercise a few times until you feel calm.
Which Pranayama is Best for Anxiety?
The Bhramari pranayama (Bee Breath) is a perfect breathing exercise to calm an anxious, stressed mind.
To start, find a quiet space and sit down with your eyes closed. Hold a soft smile on your lips. Next, place your index fingers on the cartilage between your cheeks and ears. Now, inhale; as you exhale, make a humming sound while keeping your fingers gently pressed on the cartilage next to your ears. You can either continually keep a gentle pressure on the cartilage or press and release, press and release, as you exhale.
Inhale again and repeat 5-9 times. Afterwards, remain quietly sitting with your eyes closed for a moment, paying attention to your body and your sensations. Any anxiety will now be entirely dispersed or considerably reduced. Practice Bee Breath whenever you feel your anxiety levels rising or when your mind feels noisy and overcrowded.
How to Practice Yoga Every Day
Ok, so now that we’ve established the many benefits of incorporating yoga into our daily lives, how can we make this a reality without putting additional time pressures on our busy selves? Finding an hour a day to perform a complete, multi-faceted yoga routine just isn’t feasible for many of us. I mean, I suppose I could set the alarm earlier….as I said: unfeasible.
First of all, establish what poses you find most beneficial and which type of yoga works best for stress relief for you – different people will have various favourite poses or poses that bring them the most peace.
Next, think about when you could realistically take 15 minutes out of your day to practice yoga consistently. Perhaps first thing in the morning could work for you, before the kids get up and the chaos of the day begins. Or maybe before lunch works for you, in an office or meeting room that’s never in use at that time. Night-time might fit best as part of a wind-down routine before bed. There are no rules, apart from the intention to commit to the practice.
My favourite moment is in the morning, when everything is quiet and everyone is asleep. That’s my me-time, when I take care of myself.
Once your intention is set, simply begin! Alternate your poses, holding each one for as long as feels comfortable for you (or the recommended hold time), remembering to be mindful of your breathing throughout. At the end of your first 15-minute session, assess the poses you have used and how you feel, and either change up your poses for the following day’s session or perhaps plan to stick with them for a week before making any alterations to your routine.
Throughout the day, incorporate breathing exercises to retain calmness and mental balance.
Yoga as a Lifelong Practice
There are so many physical and mental benefits that come with practising yoga that committing to a 15-minute daily routine could be one of the best things you ever do for your overall wellbeing. As well as helping to bring balance to the body, practising yoga for stress and anxiety is a highly effective way to manage stress-related conditions and mitigate the side effects they can have on, for example, our digestion, our hormones and our overarching mental health.
Using yoga poses for stress relief calms the mind, nurtures the body, and exemplifies the holistic nature of the yoga practice.
So, unroll your yoga mat, set your intention to self-nurture – and breathe.
 Nagoski, E. and A. (2019). Burnout. The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.