Stress Less: A Routine for the Holidays

It’s sometimes hard to have a happy holiday. You’re so sleep-deprived you could kill/cry, your brain is a gray mush of to-do lists, and the prospect (or lack) of family time is cuing thunderclouds of emotion. Plus, it’s so cold/windy/sunless that your shoulders are frozen somewhere near your ears and you haven’t really exhaled in weeks. Ready to party?

I thought I’d share my favorite yoga routines for stress relief. I tend towards anxiety year-round, so I would say much of my yoga exploration has been a search for natural Xanax. I came up with this particular routine for a friend in crisis, and I’m happy to say she reported an incredible amount of stress relief after we went through it. The whole thing takes about 75 minutes; you can do just one or two sections, or all three. Practice with a friend for double the energy. I call it Kunyatha © ™ ® :)

Note: If you don’t have time to practice, just read through the exercises, visualizing each for a few seconds. The brain cannot really tell the difference between reality and a strong visualization. You’ll feel the effects.

KUNDALINI
WAKE UP THE SPINE AND FIRE UP THE GLANDS

Sit in a comfortable seated position (cross-legged etc.) Move as quickly as you comfortably can, breathing through the nose. In these poses we do “Breath of Fire” where the exhales are quick, pulling the navel up and in, and the inhale comes as a passive relaxation. Make sure to relax for a few breaths after each exercise, to observe the effects and regain your peace. These poses are part of Yogi Bhajan’s spinal warmup series. They stretch each portion of the spine, massaging major glands along the way.

  1. Camel Ride: Sitting comfortably, holding the ankles. Inhale and arch the spine forward; exhale and round the back. Head stays level with the ground. Breath of Fire, quickly. (60 seconds)
  2. Chinese Drum: Hands on shoulders, fingers in front, thumbs in back. Arms parallel to the floor. Inhale and twist and look left; exhale and twist and look right. Breath of Fire, quickly. (60 seconds)
  3. Camel Ride: Same as before, but siting on the heels. Hands rest on the knees. (60 seconds)
  4. Shoulder Shrugs: Sitting comfortably. Inhale and lift the shoulders to the ears; exhale and drop them down. Breath of Fire, quickly. (60 seconds)
  5. See-Saw: Clasp the hands in front of the heart. Inhale and lift the left elbow; exhale and lift the right elbow. Breath of Fire, quickly. (60 seconds)
  6. Bear Grip: Pull hard; take a deep breath in and out. Raise the grip above the head; take a deep breath in and out. Repeat 2 more times. (30 seconds)
  7. Neck Rolls: Let the chin fall towards the chest. Inhale and roll it very slowly towards the right; when you reach the back exhale and return the chin to the chest. Repeat in the other direction, making a few figure eights. (60 seconds)
  8. Antenna: Sitting on the heels, raise the arms and make a steeple grip towards the sky. With sharp exhales, think “true.” With passive inhales, think “name.” Breath of Fire, quickly. (2 minutes)

VINYASA
STRETCH AND STRENGTHEN THE MUSCLES AND NERVES

This sequence is a Moon Salutation variation. Moon Salutes have a lot of back bends and forward bends, which calm us down. There are some tricky transitions, which help us regain balance and focus. And they feel great, stretching arms, legs, and spine in nice swinging arcs. Do a few sets, until your heart rate is raised and/or you break a light sweat. It’s not what you can do, but how you do it — move gently, like your breath. Don’t worry about doing it perfectly; if there were instant mastery we’d have nothing to practice. Start off standing, with your hands in Prayer Pose in front of your heart.

  1. Raised Arms: INHALE, lift hands and gaze up to the sky.
  2. Forward Bend: EXHALE, fold forward, arms extended, and interlace fingers behind back.
  3. High Lunge: INHALE, step first foot back and raise arms to sky.
  4. Low Lunge: EXHALE, place hands down in line with front toes.
  5. Plank: INHALE, step second foot back to meet first, hugging belly in.
  6. Knees-Chest-Chin: EXHALE, drop knees, chest and chin to floor; tail in the air.
  7. Baby Cobra: INHALE, pull heart forward between the shoulders, belly in.
  8. Child’s Pose: EXHALE, send hips back to rest on heels.
  9. Toe Stretch: INHALE, tuck toes under, breathe into back, press palms down.
  10. Down Dog: EXHALE, straighten legs and arms to push tail towards sky.
  11. High Lunge: INHALE, step first foot forward between hands; raise arms to sky.
  12. Forward Bend: EXHALE, step second foot forward and interlace fingers behind back.
  13. Raised Arms: INHALE, sweep arms forward and up, gaze follows hands.
  14. Prayer Pose: EXHALE, bring palms together in front of heart.
    Repeat on the other side to make one set. (Try 3, 5, or 9 sets)

HATHA
RELAX THE BREATHING AND CLEAR THE MIND

These poses are just you and gravity. They alter the standard blood flow, to rejuvenate the organs and other systems. Holding poses longer lets you experience stillness and more subtle sensations. You don’t have to “do” anything, you just want to let things be as they are. Become completely fascinated by the breath, letting the thoughts rise and flow out like steam. Take a vacation from your thoughts; if they try to intrude on your nothingness just let them go away, and start listening to the breath again and again.

  1. Half Headstand: Sitting on your heels, clasp your hands and place them on the mat or carpet 18 inches in front of your knees. Spread your elbows apart, slightly narrower than your shoulders. Roll the flesh of your forearms out from underneath the bones. Place the crown of your head on the floor in front of your hands. The back of your head should graze your fingers. Press into your forearms to move your shoulders away from your ears, and take most of the weight off of your neck. If this is comfortable — as relaxing as sitting on the couch — gently exhale the legs straight, into an inverted V shape. If this is comfortable, walk the toes 12 inches forward and feel the hips balance over the head. (Hold 1–5 minutes)
  2. Legs up the Wall: Place a small cushion or folded-over bed pillow against the wall. Rest your hips on the pillow, and extend the legs up the wall. This pose prevents and eases swelling in the legs and feet. (Hold 1–5 minutes)
  3. Straight Leg Twist: Sit upright, with legs extended. Draw the right knee into the chest. Place the foot on the outside of the left knee. Inhale the left hand up to the sky. Exhale and twist gently to the right, about 80% of your maximum, taking the extended arm around or in front of the bent knee. Place the other hand on the floor behind you for support. (Hold 1–5 minutes; repeat on other side.)
  4. Seated Forward Bend: Sit up, with legs extended. Place the hands on the thighs. Inhale and lift the chest; exhale and move the chest towards the toes. Keep the shoulders relaxed and the toes pointing straight up. With every inhale, feel all the little stretches. With every exhale, relax the chest forward and down. Surrender to gravity. (Hold 1–5 minutes)
  5. Corpse: Lay down on the back. Feet are 18 inches apart; palms face up, 12 inches from the body. Lift the ribcage for a second and tuck the shoulderblades down the back. Lengthen the back of the neck and relax. From the toes to the tongue, feel each part of the body relax. Let the eyes and mind rest on the tip of the nose. Enjoy the feeling of your breath rippling across the surface of a deep, still pool of water. (Hold 2–10 minutes)

After your final relaxation, it is nice to enjoy some alternate nostril breathing, or a seated meditation to continue this vacation from your thoughts. When you are ready to rejoin the world, imagine a thin plexiglas shield surrounding you, sealing in your peace. Let stress and stimulus just slide right off it.

For further explorations, try Lauren Cahn’s Walking: Meditation for Non-Meditators (thanks for the “vacation from our thoughts” idea) or Boris Bhagavan Pisman’s Yoga-Based Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Anxiety™ workshop at Integral Yoga.

POSTSCRIPT: These 3 types of yoga are also great spread across an entire day. Kundalini is nice in the morning because it has a lot of quick movements and breathing to wake up and warm up. Vinyasa is great in the afternoon or twilight to clear out the stress of the day, and stretch with naturally warm muscles. Hatha is perfect before bed, to slow down the pace of the mind and prepare for sleep.