Yoga - Self Care and Soothing by Sarah Burgess
Yoga for stressful times - self care and soothing
2020 has undoubtably been a very stressful year for everyone. In addition to the usual 21st century stresses of deadlines, information overload, endless emails, demanding jobs etc., we’ve all had the additional worries related to Covid-19: job insecurity, health concerns, missing loved ones, cancelled holidays and plans - the list goes on….
Much of the reason we feel stressed and anxious is because we tend to ‘hold on’ to thoughts, worries and problems, instead of letting them go. The good news is that there are many easy ways to help de-stress and find more inner peace and stillness in our day to day life thanks to yoga and other simple techniques. They don’t cost a thing, and you can practice them anytime you need. So why not try some of these at home and see how you feel.
As simple as it sounds, conscious breathing really is just breathing and being conscious and aware of it. The way we breathe sends messages to the brain and body, telling us how we should be feeling in that moment. A short, shallow breath indicates there’s something to be stressed about. A slow and long breath lets the whole nervous system know there’s nothing to fear. Conscious breathing slows our heart rate, relaxes muscles and reduces anxiety.
- Lie down in a comfortable position with your legs bent, and feet on the floor.
- Soften your face, take a few big yawns, and slightly part your back teeth to relax your jaw.
- Take 3 or 4 deeper breaths, sighing the breath out on the exhale, maybe even making an “Aah” sound as you do.
- Now lightly place your hands on your lower stomach and see if you can start to feel the breath in this area. Each time you inhale, feel your belly gently rising into your hands and as you exhale, feel the belly gently fall back towards your spine.
- Find an easy, steady rhythm to your breath. As you continue to breathe, imagine that with each exhale you can release any tension from the body and mind, almost as though it can just melt into the ground beneath you.
- Set a timer and continue for between 5 and 15 minutes. If your mind wanders off at any point, simply bring it back to your body and breath.
- When you have finished, slowly roll to the side and come back to sit. Take a moment to notice how you are feeling before moving on with your day.
When animals have been in danger from a predator or an enemy, they naturally "shake it off” when the danger has passed. We humans, however, tend to store these stressful experiences in our minds and bodies. Simply shaking your whole body each day can do wonders and really allows you to release deeply-held tension from both the body and mind.
Begin by stamping your feet, then gradually move up the body, shaking more and more of it. Eventually let your whole body shake, releasing anything you’ve been holding on to today. Continue for as long as feels comfortable, and then come back to stillness, place both hands on the abdomen, close your eyes for a few breaths and notice how you feel.
Reconnecting With Nature
Now more than ever, spending time outside is so important and so beneficial for both our bodies and minds. Even if you can’t make it to the countryside, a walk in your local park is a great remedy for reducing stress and anxiety.
The combination of fresh air, natural colours (especially the beautiful colours of autumn), daylight, sounds and outdoor movement combine to help elicit the relaxation response, bringing the body and mind back to a state of balance and rest, allowing us to gain a sense of clarity and calm.
So step outside and observe the colours, scents, sights, sounds and textures around you. Go for a walk somewhere you can be amongst trees and plants. Try to be present with what is around you as you walk and allow other distractions in your mind to fade away.
Slow and gentle yoga
During stressful times, what our bodies and minds really need is to be able to slow down, take deep rest, move gently and to connect to our breath. Stronger and more dynamic yoga practices are fantastic, but to really soothe our nervous system we need slower and more mindful practices. Restorative and yin yoga can be great practices when we need to replenish and deeply rest, and slower ‘somatic’ movements can also be really beneficial. Here are a couple of simple practices to try at home:
Neck, shoulder and upper back release
Many of us hold a lot of stress and tension in our neck (and as a result also in our jaw) so this can be a great movement to do regularly.
- Begin sitting comfortably and upright, either on the floor or on a chair (making sure not to slump if you’re on a chair) and take a moment to notice your neck and shoulders and how they are feeling.
- Then interlace your hands behind your head, where the bottom of the skull meets the neck, around the occipital ridge - it can be nice to hold beneath your hair so you really feel the contact to your skull.
- Initially take a few breaths feeling as though you could almost lift your head up off your neck (without pulling!), making more space at the base of the skull.
- Then inhale here with the elbows wide and exhale to allow the chin to drop towards the chest, bringing the elbows closer together and gently rounding the spine and the back of the neck.
Continue flowing between these two movements at your own pace
- Eventually after your next inhale come back, release the hands to the legs, keep the eyes closed and notice your neck and shoulders - maybe the neck feels a little longer and maybe it feels like there is more space between the shoulders and ears. Maybe the jaw has softened too.
Taking time to rest - Legs Up on the Chair
Raising the legs above the head and hips is highly soothing for our nervous system and allows our whole body to calm down.
- Sit next to a chair and lie back, lifting your lower legs on to the seat of the chair. You can place a folded blanket over the seat and edge of the chair so that your lower legs and backs of the knees feel comfortable. You can also use your sofa as an alternative.
- Wriggle forward or backward to get your legs to a comfortable angle and take a cushion under your head for extra support.
- Block out the light or any visual distractions with an eye pillow or folded scarf.
- Extend your arms out alongside you, or simply place your hands onto your belly for a feeling of reassurance. Settle in and tune into the full awareness of your body on the ground, fully supported and safe, and your lower legs supported by the chair.
- Set a timer and stay for 10-15 minutes, breathing slowly and steadily.
- Let your belly, ribs and heart expand with each inhalation and let release and relaxation pass through you with the exhalation.
- This is one of the most deeply nourishing and restorative yoga postures; it lowers blood pressure, and drains away stress, anxiety and fatigue almost immediately. It’s also a great pose for insomnia, so a good one to do before bed. The heart can slow down, the mind can quieten and it’s very soothing for the nervous system.
Practising at least one of these techniques each day can help shift the body and mind into a new state where we’re less pulled and pushed by the world, less stressed and reactive, and more calm, clear, present and positive. Give it a try and notice the difference in how you feel…..
Sarah Burgess is a London-based yoga teacher, who teaches classes primarily in East London, as well as in a number of corporate gyms in the City of London. During lockdown all of her classes and workshops are being live-streamed via Zoom.
She also offers individual and small group private classes to help people achieve their own specific goals, focus on their individual needs, and address particular health concerns and injuries.
She has been practising yoga since 2001, teaching for over 12 years and is registered as a Senior Teacher with Yoga Alliance. She enjoys practising and teaching the full breadth of yoga styles, from dynamic ashtanga and vinyasa through to quieter and more healing practices of restorative and yin yoga as well as being an experienced pre and post-natal yoga teacher.
To find out more about Sarah and her upcoming workshops and courses, visit: https://www.sarahburgessyoga.com/schedule/ or follow her on Instagram @yogini.sarah
If you’re feeling in need of some self-care and soothing, you can join Sarah for her forthcoming online workshops:
Yoga for Better Sleep - Sunday 29th November - 19h00-21h00 - live online
A Mid-Winter Retreat: Yin Yoga, Meditation and Deep Relaxation - 15h30-18h00 - live online