Like every other person on the planet, my life has had its share of ups and downs.
However, some times are more challenging than others and the past 18 months have been a good example of that. (I have written about some of those challenges here.)
No matter how chaotic things become, I try to maintain a consistent yoga practice, if only because it gives a sense of stability and order to my life. No matter where I am or what has come up, I have my yoga with me.
Still, the advantages go beyond the mental. Like many, I tend to physically hold my stress particularly my neck, shoulders, and low back. While I usually practice at my local studio whenever I can, some days my “studio” has been anything from the floor of a motel room, to the spare bedroom or “storage” room of my home, to a public rest stop off of I-64.
While I often try a create some variety in my practice, the following poses are ones that I have returned to time and again. The best thing about these poses is that they can be done by just about anyone and do not require any sort of props or a large amount of space.
You don’t even have to wait for a tough time to try these out. Indeed, they may even help with just the every day stress of life.
Without further ado, here are my top five poses to help with the tough times:
1. Balasana or child’s pose.
Probably my favorite pose of all, but this is an especially good one to end and begin with in times of stress. Psychologically, I feel like I am surrendering to whatever the universe or fate has in store for me. Physically, it is a great way to check in with the body and see what is going on. For example, if my shoulders or hips are tighter than usual, I can tell in this pose. It’s also a great way to connect with the breath.
2. Adho mukha svanasana or downward facing dog.
Besides stretching the shoulders, calf muscles and hamstrings, downdog is an incredibly grounding pose. Letting the head and heels fall towards the earth allows me to visualize that all my worries are just rolling off me like water droplets off a dog’s coat. If I am really pressed for time and space, then this and balasana are my two default poses.
3. Supta Matsyendrasana or reclined spinal twist.
Twists are a great way to wring out toxins and strengthen the abs. I love them in general, but when I am down, I prefer to back off a bit and take things a bit gentler. This pose fits the criteria and in addition, it allows me to have full contact with the floor. Just being able to feel that makes me feel supported and helps with feeling grounded. Another benefit is that it opens up the hips as well. For these reasons, I sometimes call this the “Swiss Army Knife” of twists because it is so useful for a variety of reasons.
4. Vrksasana or tree pose.
I use this pose both to steady myself and check in with how balanced I really am. Like many, I am sometimes guilty of lying to myself during difficult times and telling myself and others that I am “just fine” when in fact, I am not. I used to think it was nonsense that my inner balance affected my ability to balance on one leg, but experience has taught me it is true.
In addition to balance, vrksasana is a great way to strengthen the abs and align the spine. While there are many variations of this pose including keeping the hands in front of the heart the entire time, I like to lift them to the sky like I am offering myself up the universe.
5. Viparita Karani or legs up the wall.
It’s been said that this pose is great for whatever ails you, and I tend to agree. First of all, just having the legs up the length of the wall tends to slow down the heart rate and the breathing which is great for stress. Secondly, there is just something refreshing with seeing the world from a different perspective than we usually do. (I’m always surprised by how different familiar things like my own legs look upside down.) Plus, having that support of the wall is psychologically steadying. It makes me realize that I am not alone in life. There are people and things around me that support me.
If you have the physical and emotional strength, you may want to consider taking salamba sarvangasana or shoulderstand instead, but I still suggest taking a supported variation with the legs resting on a wall.
Going through trying times is a natural part of living.
While yoga may not be able to prevent or “cure” us of that, it can be an incredibly useful tool to help us cope. When I look back on my own personal challenges of the past year and a half, I can see firsthand how yoga has helped.
Try them for yourself and see.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman