Our world is full of stresses, at work and at home, which build tension in muscles and stimulate stress responses in the brain to leave you feeling wired and tired.
There is a growing body of research to show that practising yoga not only reduces tension in the muscles by controlled stretching, but also works in more subtle ways, for example by reducing cortisol levels (the stress hormone).
A mindful yoga practice, taking time to focus on the breath and holding stretches for long enough, has also been shown to produce a shift in the autonomic nervous system. From its sympathetic side, which we associate with the “fight or flight” response which so often kicks in when we are in stressful situations, to the parasympathetic side, which once in control, allows deep relaxation, rest, release of muscle tension and that yummy walking on air feeling you may have experienced after your yoga practice.
If you can tap into your body's natural resources you will be better able to cope with life’s challenges and ready for a restful night’s sleep.
Here are some suggestions for a short evening yin yoga practice.
Remember, in all poses, try to focus fully on what you are doing (as opposed to that terrible meeting in the office or what you have to do tomorrow) and take deep, even breaths through your nose. The object is to still mental chatter and to prepare the body for rest.
Kneeling, taking knees wide and big toes touching, fold forward over thighs, extending your arms, your forehead to the mat. Draw the shoulder blades down your back, shoulders broad and away from the ears. Palms can be flat or come onto fingertips to deepen the stretch. Take 5-10 deep breaths, feeling the back ribs expanding on the inhale.
From child’s pose, tuck toes and push your bottom high so the legs are straight or nearly straight and heels are reaching towards the mat. Feel the stretch along the side of the torso and backs of legs and arms. Take a deep 5-10 breaths, feeling the exhalation deep in the abdomen and mobilisation of the thoracic spine.
Come to standing, feet together, toes spread. Transfer the weight to the left food and feel it ground into the mat, draw the right knee up and rotate out at the hip as far as is comfortable. Take the right foot and place it on the left inner thigh or calf, avoiding the knee. Bring palms together at the chest or raised above the head. Repeat on the other leg. The “monkey mind” should be so focussed on the balance that it will become still.
A forward bend and gentle spinal twist, this should be held for 5-10 breaths on each side. Sitting with left leg extended and right foot against left inner thigh, inhale and reach arms up high and rotate the torso slightly to the left, then exhale and hinge from the hips to fold over the left leg, keeping length through the spine, shoulders relaxed. Repeat on the other leg.
A great strengthener for the upper back and counter movement for a day hunched over a computer but not to be attempted with an existing back or neck injury. Lying on your front, arms to the side, forehead resting on the mat, legs extended hip width apart, press weight across the tops of both feet. Inhale, lift head, exhale, lift chest and arms, keeping arms along the side of the body. Lifting the upper spine, reach hands towards the feet. Use inner thighs to lift legs off the mat. Weight should rest on lower abdominal and pelvis. Hold for 5-10 breaths before exhaling down to lay on the mat for a few breaths.
Shoulder stand is long known for its calming effects because it reverses the effect of gravity on the circulation, slowing everything down. However, if practised incorrectly it is dangerous. So try this modification instead which elevates the legs above the torso, providing most of the benefits of the full expression of the pose without the risks. Lying on the back, knees bent feet on the floor, use a block or rolled blanket to elevate the hips and extend legs vertically coming to a relaxed position where natural muscle tone holds the legs with little effort. If this is uncomfortable, legs can rest against a wall. Hold for 10 slow breaths.
As its name suggest, the body comes to total stillness, the limbs heavy, feet and hands to the outer edges of the mat, palms facing upwards, eyes closed. Observe breath and thoughts without any judgement or attempt to control them. If thoughts of the past or the future start to crowd in, come back to observing the breath. Stay here for at least five minutes, completely still, before bringing movement back to toes and fingers, drawing knees in, rolling to the right and pushing yourself up to seated with your left hand.
Have a restful evening.
“The Science of Yoga” by William J. Broad
I wish I had time to do a 50 minute yoga session every day, like The Yoga Journal recommends. But it's just not practical for most of us. These poses are good, and a short recommended yoga session would be useful too.
I used to do the modified shoulder stand a lot when I was a kid. It's much easier than a proper headstand and it feels really good for your head, while straightening out your spine too.
I feel soothed just reading this - but I think I need to take a class to get the hang of the poses!
I can't sleep or relax at all without my daily 15-20 minutes of yoga - it's nice to be able to do it for longer but I find even 15 minutes can help bring my body and mind into check.
These are all good poses you can do in front of the TV in the evening, even if it's not truly a peaceful yoga session you still get the lovely physical relaxation.
These are all very good poses for relaxation. I like the idea of calming the monkey mind, like the Chimp Paradox again, but would say that acceptance of sometimes not being able to calm it is also powerful.