1 May, 2018
Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, stress and anxiety are a natural duo and always seem to come hand in hand for me.
Whenever I’ve allowed myself to become overwhelmed in a particular situation or relationship, the scathing voice of anxiety is hot on my heels.
We appear to live in a world where ‘feeling stressed’ has become the new normal. The juggle of responsibilities, schedules, workload, children and finances is overwhelming emotionally, and also (generally unobserved) toxic on the nervous system and body.
If you’re already prone to a little anxiety from time-to-time, then coping with high levels of stress can create a more vulnerable situation. Worrying excessively, flashbacks, self-consciousness, poor sleep, chronic indigestion and perfectionism are all signs that anxiety is lurking in the shadows.
I know first hand how easy is it to sweep away a bad day with a little online shopping or a quick glass of wine. However do these habits really sweep the problem away, or do they just suppress them more deeply in the body?
It’s not possible to rid one’s experience completely of stress and anxiety, and neither would we want to! A little bit of either of these can be the inspiration one needs to get moving on a creative project or beloved art.
But just like Shakespeare’s out of control husband and wife, they do need to be managed and definitely NOT in charge!
In fact, I wouldn’t be with out these experiences, because they have led me to my current love – Restorative Yoga. A natural, gentle way to manage stress and anxiety that works.
For the past year I have been running short courses of restorative yoga in Birkdale on the North Shore of Auckland. (You can learn more about that course here)
Restorative yoga is a gentle style of asana practice where we use props like bolsters and blankets to support the body to release deep layers of stress and tension.
Compared to a practice that flows or builds strength, this is a deeply relaxing practice where we hold poses for up to 10 minutes at a time.
Here are my top 5 favourite restorative yoga poses which will aid to naturally release stress and anxiety.
The props I've used include:
2 X Bolsters
5 X Blankets (a mix of soft and firm)
1 X Eye pillow
2 X Large cork blocks
However, you can also make do with what you can find at home. (Although I recommend everyone invest in at least one bolster to have at home, they are invaluable!)
To set this pose up, you want to start by T crossing the bolsters, one on top of the other. Place two large blocks along the back of the bottom bolster and cover with a soft blanket. Fold a large thick blanket and place along the length of the top bolster. Take your knees about hip width on either side of the top bolster, being careful not to take them too far apart. Bring your hands forward on to the blocks and bring your chest down, while slowly drawing your sitting bones back towards the heels. If your back is tight and needs more support, you can add more bolsters or blankets underneath you for extra height.
Take your time to find the most comfortable position for your body, move your neck, face, elbows, hands until you feel just right. Once you've found your shape, connect in to your breath. As you breath, draw your breath in to expand the lower back ribs. If it's comfortable for you, you can alter the breath pattern, inhaling for a count of 3 and exhaling for a count of 5. Hold the post for as long as comfortable, but I recommend anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes. Making sure to turn the head every 3 minutes or so to keep the neck comfortable. In my Restorative Yoga Class in Auckland I often position an extra blanket underneath the yogi's neck, it's not always easy to achieve practising alone, but give it a try.
Legs up the wall pose
This is one of my go to, every day poses. For the set up fold two thick blankets and place them horizontally 3 - 4 inches away from the wall. Take another thick blanket and T section this with the horizontal blankets (although they should just meet and not be on top of each other). Position a further two soft blankets to the left and right for your arms. As elegantly as you can (!) sit down on the horizontal blanket with your side body to the wall and swing your legs up, positioning your pelvis so it is even on the blankets. If you find it challenging to get the legs up, move the horizontal blankets further away from the wall. Legs can be together or slightly apart and if you have any lower back pain, I recommend taking them further apart. Knees can be softly bent here. Take a moment to adjust your shoulder blades, so they are drawing down away from the ears. Allow the arms to rest deeply in to the soft blankets, you could even bunch them up around your hands to make them extra cozy. Place the eye pillow on and just breath. Stay in the pose for as long as comfortable, anywhere between 5 - 10 minutes. As this is an inversion, some people will eventually feel tingling in the legs and that is a sign to slowly transition out. Once you draw your legs down, roll to one side and rest for 2 - 3 minutes before resurfacing.
Reclining chair pose
If you're ever having a day when you're feeling overwhelmed by stress, this is a fabulous way to release and come back to stillness. For this set up T bone two bolsters, one on top of the other. Place a long thick blanket down the length of the top bolster. Roll two thick blankets and place them on either side for the back of the thighs to rest. Position two soft blankets for the backs of the forearms and hands. Sit down in front of the top bolster with your bottom on the floor and sacrum pushed up gently against the bottom of the bolster. Slowly recline backwards assisted by your elbows. Draw the soles of the feet together and allow the knees to fall out. For extra pelvic stability you could also use a strap around the sacrum, coming on the inside of the thigh/knees and looping around the feet, but I find the height of the blankets here is usually enough. Allow the arms to rest down in to the soft blankets. Place the eye pillow over the eyes. Take a few minutes to find your comfortable shape, adjusting the blankets so you feel completely supported (The body will not rest down if it does not feel completely at ease). Hold the pose for as long as comfortable, from experience it is possible to hold this pose for a very long time, it is AMAZING.
When people first come and practice with me at my Restorative Yoga Course in Auckland, sometimes they will say to me afterwards, I really don't feel like anything happened in this or that pose. And I say Perfect. We are so caught up with our burning desire to be constantly doing something, we've forgotten the art and huge value in just resting. Here is my take on the classic end of class pose, savasana or final rest pose. For this set up take a bolster underneath the knees. Roll up a small towel or thin soft blanket to place underneath the neck, however this is just to support the natural curve of the neck and not to act as a cushion for the back of the head which should be grounded. Place two soft blankets on either side of the body for your arms. If cool, take another blanket right up over your body. Lie back and let go, cover the eyes and let the eye balls drop downwards. Come back to your natural breath and observe it drawing in and releasing from the body. Hold for as long as you have time to. 30 minutes is not ridiculous.
Gentle twist pose
This is a beautiful, gentle twist that is not overly taxing on the body. To set up take your bolster length ways on the mat. Place 1 - 2 long blankets along the length of the bolster. Come to seating at the the base of the bolster with one hip pressed firmly against the end. Take both hands on either side of the bolster and as you come forward gently twist, bringing your face down and away from the direction of the legs. Rest the side of the face against the blankets and take a moment to find the most optimal position for your arms and knees/ankles. Connect back to breath. Hold the position for 5 - 8 minutes and then slowly, swap sides. To finish take shavasana for 2 - 3 minutes.
To explore this wonderful practice and more, please enquire about my upcoming Restorative Yoga Course - Zen + Soften - in Auckland. It's also my intention to host this as a workshop in other New Zealand locations in the coming months. To receive notifications about these courses you can sign up to my newsletter here, or alternatively, use the link below to join my private Facebook group 'Gratitude Is My Superpower' and join a group of beautiful like minded souls, all on a journey of less stress, less anxiety and less overwhelm.