The ancient practice of yoga is a powerful tool for holistic stress management, often practiced with the intention to integrate the mind, body and soul. Though it sounds effortless, often it can be a major challenge to take even just five minutes to pause, be still and pay attention to your body. Taking a pose or two even for just a few minutes a day can result in physical, mental and emotional relief. Unfortunately, yoga has become widely commercialized, resulting in mistaken beliefs regarding what the practice entails.
As a new yoga instructor, I have heard several misconceptions, the most common being “I’m not flexible enough/don’t have the right body type!” These statements are heartbreaking because yoga is truly accessible to everyone and easily modified to meet practitioners where they are. The goal of yoga is not to bust out an aesthetic pretzel-like pose, but to strengthen your body-mind connection, know yourself deeply and ultimately apply this heightened awareness to bettering the world around you.
Your body is your best teacher. Poses will look and feel different on every body because each is unique with an individual set of needs. You will reap the benefits regardless of what variation you choose. When practicing yoga, there are a few things to keep in mind.
If you are craving more sensation, go further into the expression, but you should never experience sharp or shooting pain. If a sensation feels wrong, carefully back out of the pose and try a different version. Experiment with both stillness and movement in each posture to find what feels best. Allow your connection and attention to breath to guide your practice. Breathe with intention into places of tightness. Inhaling, imagine breath filling your whole body, particularly the belly and lungs. Exhaling, envision releasing that which no longer serves you. Take note of the environment you are in and emotions that arise. Pay close attention to where your mind wanders as well as your inner dialogue. Attempt to maintain a kind inner narrative throughout your practice, finding grace and appreciation for yourself wherever you are. Your body, mind and soul will thank you. Here are five postures I find particularly worthwhile for dropping into the present moment, finding ease and reducing stress.
Standing Forward Fold
A phenomenal back stretch, standing folds aid in soothing asthma, insomnia and strengthening organs such as the liver and kidneys.
Tips: I begin this pose by first extending my arms towards the sky (think “good morning stretch”) and then fold from there, hinging at the hips. Keep a slight bend in the legs to protect your knees. It may also feel beneficial to bend one leg and then the other, releasing tension in the back. Recognize if you are clenching or holding onto tension in your neck and shoulders. Let your upper body fully relax and hang to allow for the full benefits
Variations: Your feet may be hip distance apart (two fists in width) or you may take a wide legged forward fold if you would like more of a stretch on the inner thighs and calves. Let your arms dangle or grab opposite elbows for a ragdoll position.
Reclined Heart Opener
Our society seems to be plagued by an epidemic of hiding raw emotions and holding back from speaking our truth. Additionally, the age of technology has contributed to the habit of hunching forward as we walk, sit and live our everyday lives. To counteract this detrimental combination, heart-openers physically remind us to open ourselves to new situations and speak from the heart.
Tips: Lie on your back with your legs bent. Place the soles of your feet firmly on the ground about a hand’s distance in front of your booty and hip’s width distance apart. Extend your arms out in line with your shoulders.
Variations: Arms can be straight out in a T shape or bent at the elbows for cactus arms. Place a block in between your shoulder blades for a deeper chest opening.
Garland squat allows a release of pent-up emotions stored in the hips, fires up your metabolism and aids in digestion. As you sink your hips low and bring awareness to the ground beneath you, perhaps consider this pose a tribute to your “roots,” ancestors and where you came from.
Tips: Place your feet hip distance apart or wider at a 45-degree angle out — you can move them in or out as needed. Keep your hands at heart center in prayer or place them on the floor or a block for support. Breathe into your hips and lengthen your tailbone towards the ground as the crown of your head extends tall. For a deeper stretch, use your elbows to push your knees wide.
Variations: If your heels don’t touch the ground right away, try setting a folded blanket under your heels.
In child’s pose, your head is below your heart, relieving both muscular and mental tension. Closing your eyes allows space for reflection as you turn your gaze towards your internal landscape.
Tips: Sit your hips back towards your heels. Rest your forehead between your arms. Let your belly soften onto your thighs or hang between your legs. Breathe deeply into your back.
Variations: Arms can be extended in front of you with palms down, by your sides with palms facing up, or above your head in prayer while your elbows rest on the ground.
Also known as “Legs up the Wall” pose, this inversion works to fight insomnia and improve circulation. Waterfall is excellent for tired, sore and swollen feet or before bed.
Tips: Lie on your back and scoot your booty flush against the wall, extending your legs straight. Relax your body, unclench your jaw and draw your tongue away from the roof of your mouth. Rest in the pose for 10 minutes or longer, taking breaks as needed.
Variations: If this pose is uncomfortable, try tucking a folded blanket or cushion under your hips to elevate them and provide some support. Another option is bending your legs ninety degrees and letting your calves rest on a chair.
Brianna Thompson is a certified integrated yoga instructor. She completed her training at Yoga Sol in Columbia.