Yoga sequences can help relieve stress that affects us all on a daily basis. Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you sense danger — whether it’s real or imagined — your body’s defenses kick into high gear in an automatic process called the “fight-or-flight” reaction. This stress response is your body’s way of protecting you. It can help you to stay focused and alert – especially in urgent situations.

Short term stress can help you rise to meet life’s challenges. It’s what keeps you on your toes during a high-stakes meeting or during a presentation at work.

However, in today’s demanding world, stress often becomes chronic. We may become so stressed that we begin to feel overwhelmed. This chronic stress and feeling of being overwhelmed can lead to major health problems and disrupt nearly every system in the body, not to mention the negative impact on your mood, productivity, relationships, and overall quality of life.

The good news: by adopting simple breathing techniques and yoga sequences into your daily routine, you can move through each day with greater calm and ease!

“Yoga is like music. The rhythm of the body, the melody of the mind, and the harmony of the soul creates the symphony of life.”

‒ B.K.S. Iyengar

Take a breather

In the modern world, most of us have lost touch with our breath. When we are stressed, fearful, or hear bad news, we often gasp by inhaling sharply and then holding our breaths. In contrast, optimal breathing is a full, free, and uninhibited breath from the diaphragm, one that fills our lungs, oxygenates our blood, and energizes us.

Yogic breathing, or pranayama, is meant to expand, intensify, and consolidate the energies of breaths by directing, regulating, and balancing their flow. This process helps us break our unconscious breathing patterns and make the breath long, easeful, and smooth. In fact, pranayama techniques activate what is commonly known as the “relaxation response,” which reduces stress and its negative effects on the mind and body. As a result, we gain greater resilience in the face of adversity, and our minds become less cluttered and frantic. Sound good? Try these simple steps:

1. Observe your breath as it is

Sit on a chair in a comfortable position with your spine erect and your feet flat on the floor (about hip-distance apart). Next, close your eyes. Breathe naturally and comfortably for a few moments (through your nose only) and notice the quality of your breath. Does it feel strained? Tense? Irregular? Shallow? What sensations accompany your breathing? Do you know when your breath is shallow or what makes it speed up? Simply becoming aware of your breath tends to slow your breathing rate down.

Finally, observe your breath without any judgment. Attempting to “correct” your breath simply imposes another pattern. Instead, witness your breath as it is.

2. Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing has long been a feature of Eastern health practices, as it helps you breathe more fully and consciously.

How to do it:

Sit on a chair in a comfortable position with your spine erect and your feet flat on the floor, about hip-distance apart. Place your hands at your sides, just under the lowest ribs you can find. Position your hands so your thumbs come around your back and your fingers wrap around your front, keeping your index fingers positioned just under the lower ribs. Press in with your hands to create mild resistance, expanding your lower ribs against your hands. Take a full breath through your nose, filling your abdomen, middle, and then upper chest while simultaneously concentrating on the expansion of the lower ribs.

The basic mechanics of deep diaphragmatic breathing include three parts: (1) inhale deeply through the nose for a count of five or so, making sure the abdomen rises while feeling the lower ribs expand against your hands; (2) hold the breath for three to five seconds; and (3) exhale completely through the mouth for a count longer than the inhalation. Once your lungs are empty and your belly is contracted, repeat the cycle.

Keep in mind that your goal is to breathe three dimensionally, expanding on all sides and aiming your breath toward your back as well as the front. This brings a feeling of being centered along the axis of your spine, as your attention will be drawn inward with each breath.

Complete eight to ten cycles. Check in with yourself – How do you feel?

Try simple yoga poses that support a state of peace and calm

A half sun salutation is a short but highly effective yoga sequence and a great way to start each day. Try to do this sequence by matching each breath with a movement.

1. Mountain Pose

 

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Begin by standing at the front of your mat in mountain pose. Then bring your shoulders over your hips and your hips over your heels. Roll your shoulder blades down your back. Next, engage your thigh muscles by lifting your kneecaps. While you’re doing this, be sure to let your arms hang at your sides with the palms turned forward. Take five to ten breaths to arrive fully in the present moment.

2. Raised Arms Pose

 

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First, inhale. Then reach your arms straight out to either side and overhead. You can bring your two palms to touch or alternatively keep them shoulder’s distance apart. Be sure to keep your shoulders relaxed and down away from ears. Finally, bring your gaze to your upraised hands.

3. Forward Bend

 

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Now exhale. Next, leading with your chest, swan dive over your legs into a forward fold. Then bend your knees slightly. Let your head hang heavy.

4. Flat Back

 

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Inhale again. Lift up on to your fingertips and raise your head while keeping your chin level to the ground. Then come to a flat back. You may place your hands anywhere on your legs that allows for a straight spine.

5. Forward Bend

Exhale again. Fold deeply over your legs to return to a forward bend. Then pull your belly in toward your spine to deepen your forward bend.

6. Raised Arms Pose

Inhale one more time. Leading with your chest again, reverse your swan dive to return to raised arms pose.

7. Mountain Pose

And finally, exhale. Release your arms back by your sides, slide your shoulder blades down your back, and conclude this short sequence back in mountain pose. Take several full, deep inhales and exhales before moving on.

Cat-Cow

 

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This pose is a gentle flow between two poses that warms the body and brings flexibility to the spine. Cat-Cow opens the chest, encouraging the breath to become slow and deep.  This sequence also brings the spine into alignment and helps you to develop postural awareness and balance throughout your body.

How to do it:

Start on your hands and knees. Place your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Place your shins and knees hip-width apart. Then point your fingertips forward. Also, center your head in a neutral position and soften your gaze downward. Now you’re ready:

  1. Begin by moving into Cow Pose: Inhale as you drop your belly towards the mat. Lift your chin and chest, gazing upward.
  2. Broaden across your shoulder blades and draw your shoulders away from your ears.
  3. Now move into Cat Pose: As you exhale, draw your belly to your spine and round your back toward the ceiling.
  4. Release the crown of your head toward the floor but don’t force your chin to your chest.
  5. Then inhale, coming back into Cow Pose, and finally exhale as you return to Cat Pose.
  6. Repeat 5-10 times.

Downward-Facing Dog

 

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Downward-Facing Dog builds strength while stretching the whole body. It’s named after the way dogs naturally stretch their bodies. This pose energizes and rejuvenates your entire body by stretching your hamstrings, shoulders, calves, arches, hands, and spine while building strength in your arms, shoulders, and legs. Because your heart is higher than your head in this pose, the flow of blood to the brain helps to calm the nervous system, improve concentration, and relieve stress.

How to do it:

  1. Begin on your hands and knees. Align your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips.
  2. Spread your fingers wide and press firmly through your palms and knuckles. Distribute your weight evenly across your hands.
  3. Exhale as you tuck your toes and lift your knees off the floor. Next, reach your pelvis up toward the ceiling and gently straighten your legs without locking your knees.
  4. Then press the floor away from you as you lift through your pelvis. Bring your body into the shape of an “A.”
  5. Align your ears with your upper arms. Relax your head. Finally, gaze toward your navel.
  6. Hold the pose for 5-10 breaths.
  7. To release, exhale as you gently bend your knees and then return to your hands and knees.

Child’s Pose

 

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Child’s Pose helps to stretch the hips, thighs, and ankles. It also relaxes the muscles on the front of the body while passively stretching the muscles of the back torso.

Child’s Pose helps to center and calm your mind, slow your breath, and restore a feeling of peace and safety. Practicing in the morning can you help transition from sleeping to waking. Practicing before bedtime can help to release stressors from the day.

How to do it:

  1. Begin on your hands and knees. Spread your knees apart while touching your big toes together. Rest your buttocks on your heels.
  2. Then bow forward and drape your torso between your thighs. Your heart and chest should rest between or on top of your thighs. Finally, allow your forehead to come to the floor.
  3. Keep your arms long and extended, palms facing down.
  4. Hold the pose for 10-15 breaths, allowing the tension in your shoulders, arms, back, and neck to melt away.
  5. To release the pose, use your hands to walk your torso upright to sit back on your heels.

During the practice of yoga, notice how you feel without judgment

Our minds create judgments, habitual knee-jerk reactions to people, places, and events. When our judgments are negative, we tend to worry and stress; when they are positive, we instead fantasize about the future. Therefore, our judgmental thoughts take us out of the present moment. By practicing non-judgment observing aspects of life without attaching an opinion we step back from our reactions and see situations as they are. This allows us to be in the present moment and to appreciate things as they are. Being non-judgmental is also a powerful tool for stress relief, since stress arises when we are hard on ourselves or frustrated with others.

During your yoga practice, try not to judge a pose as “good” or “bad”. Such qualities are not inherent in the pose itself. By suspending judgement, you will learn to breathe through each pose and to notice how your body feels, including how your mind reacts. As a result of all these things, you will learn to better manage stress.

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Julie Rosenberg
Julie Rosenberg, MD is a global healthcare leader who is passionate about promoting good health and wellness worldwide. Julie believes that each of us is our own best healthcare provider. In an effort to find ways to support people in adopting a conscious lifestyle, Julie has devoted that last 16 years to the in-depth study and practice of yoga, meditation and mindfulness. While trained in Western medicine, these Eastern principles and practices now inform her thinking, her leadership style and her work. Recognizing that chronic stress and burnout are on the rise with the relentless pace of business today, Julie works with senior leaders and teams to help them achieve their highest state of well-being and become more effective in their organizations. She is the author of two best-selling books: "Beyond the Mat: Achieve Focus, Presence, and Enlightened Leadership Through the Principles and Practice of Yoga" and "Be True: A Personal Guide to Becoming Your Most Authentic Self."