by Nate Widom
Between a year and a half of pandemic whiplash and the upcoming holiday season, stress remains a problematic, ongoing rot that takes a toll on many Americans.
“We’ve been concerned throughout this pandemic about the level of prolonged stress, exacerbated by the grief, trauma and isolation that Americans are experiencing,” states Arthur C. Evans Jr. PhD, CEO and EVP of the American Psychological Association (APA).
In addition to the stress compounded by COVID-19, the holiday season seems to take a particular toll on America’s mental health compared to other times of the year. The APA shared that 38% of people self-reported that their stress level increased around the holidays. Additionally, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 64% of people with mental health concerns describe the holidays as making their conditions worse.
To decrease stress, HAC Yoga Instructor, Personal Trainer, and Licensed Massage Therapist, Lindsey Slusser, recommends incorporating stress relief breathwork, sun breaths, a supported child’s pose, and a supported Savasana into your daily routine
Please keep in mind that the stress epidemic is not to be taken lightly. Though yoga may serve as a tool for coping with stress, it is not a solution for serious mental illness. If you still feel down despite your best efforts to cope with stress, please seek help from a counselor or other mental health resource.
Stress Relief Breathwork (Pranayama)
“Breathwork is fundamental to any yoga practice,” states Lindsey. “When you take time to breathe deeply, it stimulates the parasympathetic response which means your heart rate slows, you feel calmer, more at ease, and it allows some cortisol (stress hormone) levels to leave your body.”
Lindsey states the main goal of stress relief breathwork is to have the exhales slightly longer than the inhales. The slightly longer exhales create the effect of sinking into relaxation.
“As you begin, breathe in for a count of 3, holding for just a moment. Then as you exhale passively, allow that breath to extend to a count of 4.” Continue to breathe this way for 1-5 minutes. If you want to, set a timer.
This breathwork can be modified to last more than 3 or 4 seconds as long as the exhale remains slightly longer than the inhale.
“Sun breaths are an opening,” Lindsey says. “They’re a warming of the whole body – front and back. It’s a simple practice that you can do at any time throughout the day to feel a little bit more invigorated. It allows a chance to open up the front and back sides of the body, breathe deeply, and move the whole body to feel a little more energized.”
To begin, stand in mountain pose with your feet pressed down and shoulders relaxed. Once situated, inhale while moving your arms overhead and lifting your heart and gaze. As you exhale, fold from your hips to come into a forward fold with your knees a little soft.
On the next inhale, lift to a flat back by pulling your chest forward and exhale back into your forward fold with the knees soft. Then, inhale while pressing into the feet and come back up to a standing position while swooping the arms over your head. Conclude the pose by exhaling with hands to heart center and start the cycle all over, repeating 3 or more times.
“Savasana is the final pose in most of our yoga practices. It is the position of ultimate surrender,” Lindsey states. “When we add the extra support of a pillow under your knees, it helps the body more fully surrender into that full relaxation. No muscles are needed at all to maintain the position.”
“There are a lot of good ways to do supported Savasana. My favorite is with the knees elevated [so] your heels can be on or off the floor.” Having the knees bent during the Savasana position allows the back to flatten making it more comfortable for those with lower back issues.
To come into this pose, lay on the ground with your knees elevated on a prop. Once situated, breathe deep and relax.
“You lay still, you breathe, you allow your awareness to go inside, and you just restore everything,” mentions Lindsey. “You can always put on a guided meditation too if you find you have trouble allowing your brain to find quiet during a moment of stillness.”
Supported Child’s Pose
“Child’s pose is one of the ultimate positions of surrender in yoga,” says Lindsey. “It’s completely restful and relaxing. I liken it to being supported by a teddy bear. Like you give your pillow a nice big hug and you just allow your body to soften and to settle.”
However, there is a difference between a child’s pose and supported child’s pose in yoga. Lindsey recommends using the supported version because it allows the body to sink into position more fully without feeling the need to hold anywhere.
“Supported child’s pose can be done with a yoga bolster. If you don’t have one that’s totally ok, you can grab a couple of firm pillows and pile them up in front of you.”
To start a supported child’s pose, get down on your hands and knees with your knees placed wider than your pillows. Next, allow the pillows to come in between your knees, and then fold your body forward, bringing your big toes together so you are sitting back on your heels. Then, fold your body over the pillow and let your torso sink into the support of the pillows. Once situated and comfortable, sit still and breathe.