The Yoga Minibook for Stress Relief: A Specialized Program for a Calmer, Relaxed You (Yoga Minibook Series)

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9780743227018: The Yoga Minibook for Stress Relief: A Specialized Program for a Calmer, Relaxed You (Yoga Minibook Series)

Take a deep breath and say good-bye to stress

There is no getting around it -- at work, at home, or while commuting from one to the other, stress is always there. Whether you are anxious about your health, your safety, or your relationships, daily stressors can feel overwhelming.

Why let stress control your life when you can send it packing? In as little as 10 minutes a day, this targeted yoga program relieves tension effectively and restores the sense of balance that stress so often disrupts. Step-by-step illustrated instructions guide you through calming asanas, breathing exercises, and meditations specifically selected to:

  • combat anxiety, depression, and stress-related illness

  • soothe muscles and lower blood pressure

  • provide rest, relaxation, and tranquil sleep

  • improve your flexibility and cardiovascular fitness

Ideal as the start, midday break, or calming cap to your day, this unique yoga program will renew your body, mind, and spirit and bring you the inner peace and poise you crave.

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About the Author:

Elaine Gavalas, M.A., M.S., is an exercise physiologist, weight management specialist, and nutritionist. She has practiced, taught, and written about yoga, fitness, and weight management for more than fifteen years. She lives in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 3: Yoga Relaxation and Breathing

Would you like to remain calm, alert, and focused, even as a storm of stress rages around you? You may be one of the millions of people around the globe who have been deeply troubled by shocking global or personal events, and you may be searching for ways to restore a sense of calm and balance to your life. With the relaxation and breathing techniques that follow, you'll tap into yourself and find inner balance as you gain strength and stability. At one time or another we all face chaotic events beyond our control, but we can learn to counter their effects. Yoga practice is a great way to do just that.

Daily life is full of challenging and sometimes stressful moments. Many of us deal with the pressures of two-career households, long work hours, and a shifting economic landscape. It's no wonder we're in the midst of a stress epidemic. The American Institute of Stress has determined that stress lurks behind nearly 90 percent of visits to the doctor. Stress has been linked to all of the leading causes of death, including heart and lung diseases, cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, accidents, and suicide. Research has also confirmed the role of stress in many serious health problems, from depression to insomnia. But don't let the numbers get you down. You can learn to manage and beat stress with regular practice of these relaxation and breathing techniques.

Stress is an inevitable part of life. We usually think of stress as negative -- something that knots the stomach, brings shortness of breath, and challenges our immune system. However, certain types of stress are actually good for you. There's the positive stress that helps us to win a race, or that creates sexual tension or inspires us. The magic of yoga is its power to release the negative stress that can cause us harm.

The Stress Response

Stress results from the way we react to a situation, not from the situation itself. It's our reaction to the event that determines its effect on our physical and mental health. For example, if we perceive a situation as dangerous or threatening, we'll experience anxiety and fear. This fearful response generates a fight-or-flight physiological reaction.

Our body's autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts, the sympathetic system -- identified with the fight-or-flight response -- and the parasympathetic -- which counteracts the physiological effects of the sympathetic. Our sympathetic nervous system energizes and prepares us to either flee or engage in battle by releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline. These hormones sharpen perception and reaction, dilating our pupils to allow more light in (to help us see better); increasing our breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure (to maximize blood flow to our limbs); and stopping digestion.

Although the threatening situations have changed, our physiologic reaction to danger is much the same as early man's. Obviously modern negative stressors generally aren't life-or-death situations, but our bodies respond just as cavemen's bodies did when faced with a saber-toothed tiger. When our fight-or-flight response is evoked daily by life's annoying hassles, such as being stuck in traffic or waiting in line at the supermarket, or by more serious life events, such as a death in the family or a contentious divorce, it takes a toll on our health. Our sympathetic nervous system becomes overloaded, often producing chronic muscle tension (especially in the shoulders, neck, and jaw), elevated heart rate and blood pressure, and digestive problems. Left unattended, this can result in chronic illness, pain, and disease.

We can release chronic muscle tension and the other symptoms of negative stress by practicing yoga relaxation and breathing techniques. Performing yoga's relaxation poses and deep breathing turns off the fight-or-flight response and turns on the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the relaxation response. This slows our heartbeat, decreases our blood pressure and respiration, lowers our stress hormone levels, and brings our body back into a healthier balance.

Three Yoga Steps to Relaxation

You can elicit the relaxation response in three easy steps, with yoga practices that help you recognize the stress, release the tension, and breathe deeply. The complete Yoga Relaxation and Breathing Practice Plan follows this section, but first, here's how and why it works.

1. Recognizing the Stress

The first step in reversing negative stress is to recognize it. Be aware of what your body is feeling. This is the perfect opportunity to practice the understanding of self, or svadhyaya. Be the observer and look for places where stress accumulates within your body (see Yoga Observation, page 29). It makes sense to identify where stress resides in your body, because once you know, you can do something about it.

2. Releasing the Tension

The second step in reversing negative stress is to release the tension. As soon as you become aware of negative stress, stop what you're doing and release it from your body. You can do a few seated yoga tension-relieving poses at your desk or wherever you might be sitting (see the 7-Step Yoga Relaxation Sequence, page 44).

Yoga poses and self-massage are powerful tools to relieve stress and tension. You can easily do any number of poses at your desk, including Seated Head Tap, Seated Shoulder-and-Arm Tap, and Face Massage. As discussed in Chapter 1, do-in and self-acupressure can help to relieve and prevent tension and tightness, promote relaxation, and increase the circulation of prana.

Regular yoga asana practice, including vinyasa yoga (see Chapter 5, "Yoga Movement Meditation"), restorative yoga (see Chapter 6, "Restorative Yoga"), and wellness yoga (see Chapter 7, "Yoga for Emotional Wellness"), will also relieve and prevent tension and negative stress.

3. Breathing Deeply

The third step in reversing negative stress is to breathe deeply. Now that you've done some tension-relieving poses, you're ready to slow your breathing down. Yoga deep breathing is a natural tranquilizer for the mind and body. When we're under stress, we hold our bellies rigid and our breathing is shallow. This may deprive the brain, muscles, and vital organs of oxygen. You can change your breathing pattern from tension-producing to relaxation-enhancing by practicing yoga deep abdominal breathing.

By shifting your awareness to your breath and away from upsetting thoughts, you shift your body into relaxation mode. Research indicates that breathing slowly and deeply sends a message to the body and mind that all is well, thereby interrupting the stress cycle.

Take a 1-minute vacation from work with the routine outlined in the Yoga Relaxation and Breathing Practice Plan. You can practice the art and science of pranayama (yoga breathing) lying down in Modified Relaxation Pose (see page 24) or sitting up in Easy Pose with Chin Lock (page 58), with techniques including Complete Breath, Alternate-Nostril Breathing, and Cooling Breath, all described in the section "Yoga Breathing (Pranayama)," later in this chapter.

Once you become familiar with yoga breathing, follow your pranayama practice with yoga meditation (see Chapter 4, "Yoga Meditation and Mantra"), which has been shown to elicit the relaxation response.

Yoga Breathing Basics

Breathing is something that many of us take for granted, yet it's one of the few autonomic functions we can control consciously. Breathing is an essential part of our survival; it supports all of our basic physiological processes and strongly influences mind, body, and spirit. We can live for a few weeks without food and a few days without water, but for only a few minutes without breath.

Pranayama is one of the eight essential limbs of the Tree of Yoga described in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. In Sanskrit, yama means restraint or control. Pranayama seeks to harness and control the breath to direct, circulate, and store prana (life-force energy) in the body, to facilitate spiritual enlightenment and reach a higher consciousness.

Yoga masters believe that by slowing down the breath, and thereby slowing down the heartbeat, we may enjoy longevity and perfect health. Regular pranayama practice is a wise investment. With yoga breathing, you may build a supply of life-force energy from which you can draw during times of stress.

Shallow breathing (or even holding the breath) is a typical response to negative stress. In shallow breathing, you are taking air into the chest only, rather than the abdomen, and utilizing only the upper lobes of the lungs. In contrast, with yoga deep breathing you first breathe into the lower abdomen, then the rib cage, and then the upper chest. Utilizing all three areas of the lungs during yoga deep breathing will increase your lung capacity over time and will supply more oxygen for the trillions of cells in your body. You'll also enjoy increased energy, vitality, and life force, and a calm mind.

Deep breathing may be difficult to master at first. My students often find it helpful to visualize the mechanics of deep breathing. The organs and muscles of respiration include the diaphragm -- a large, dome-shaped muscle that separates the lungs and heart from the stomach and other abdominal organs -- the twelve pairs of ribs, the intercostal muscles between the ribs, the abdominal muscles, a pair of lungs, and the heart. With deep inhalation, your diaphragm presses downward to make more space for the air coming in, your abdomen expands, then your ribs and chest widen to make room for your expanding lungs. On exhalation, your diaphragm rises, pushing the air back out, as your chest, lungs, ribs, and then your abdomen contract.

If you're just beginning pranayama practice, you may find yoga deep breathing easier when you're lying down. That way you don't have to contend with the challenge of maintaining a stable, seated posture while learning pranayama. Begin practicing Complete Breath lying down in Modified Relaxation Pose or Supported Relaxation Pose. Once you're comfortable practicing pranayama lying down -- without strain, dizziness, or shortness of breath -- you're ready to try a seated pose. Begin your seated pranayama practice with Complete Breath, Easy Pose with Chin Lock, Alternate-Nostril Breathing, and Cooling Breath. Gate Pose will help you prepare for deep breathing by stretching the intercostal muscles and sides of the body.

Before You Start

· If you have any physical limitations, such as asthma or heart disease, consult your physician before beginning yoga breathing exercises.
· If you're just beginning a yoga breathing practice, comfortably and gradually work up to the recommended frequency and duration of these pranayama exercises. Respect your own abilities.
· You should never experience strain, dizziness, or shortness of breath while practicing pranayama. If any of these symptoms occur, stop immediately. Try a less challenging yoga breathing exercise. If symptoms persist, see your physician.

Yoga Relaxation and Breathing Practice Plan

After practicing the Yoga Basics from Chapter 2 for 1 week, begin this Yoga Relaxation and Breathing practice. Be aware that it may take you more than 4 weeks to do this routine comfortably, depending on your physical condition. If you feel comfortable and confident doing the poses in Weeks 1 and 2, proceed to Week 3, then Week 4. Otherwise, stay with Weeks 1 and 2 until you feel strong enough to continue.

Week 1

Practice Schedule: Practice for 20 to 30 minutes, 3 days a week.
Yoga Observation: Practice seated Yoga Observation (see page 29).
7-Step Yoga Relaxation Sequence: Choose 3 of the following for each practice session:

  • Seated Head Tap
  • Face Massage
  • Seated Head-and-Neck Tilt
  • Seated Shoulder-and-Arm Tap
  • Seated Stretch and Yawn
  • Tighten-and-Release Pose
  • Progressive Relaxation Yoga Breathing:
  • Gate Pose
  • Complete Breath, lying down in Modified Relaxation Pose or Supported Relaxation Pose

    Week 2

    Practice Schedule: Practice for 20 to 30 minutes, 3 or 4 days a week.
    Yoga Observation: Practice seated Yoga Observation.
    7-Step Yoga Relaxation Sequence: Choose 4 of the following for each practice session:

  • Seated Head Tap
  • Face Massage
  • Seated Head-and-Neck Tilt
  • Seated Shoulder-and-Arm Tap
  • Seated Stretch and Yawn
  • Tighten-and-Release Pose
  • Progressive Relaxation Yoga Breathing:
  • Gate Pose
  • Complete Breath, sitting up

    Week 3

    Practice Schedule: Practice for 30 minutes, 4 days a week
    7-Step Yoga Relaxation Sequence: Perform the entire sequence in each practice session:

  • Seated Head Tap
  • Face Massage
  • Seated Head-and-Neck Tilt
  • Seated Shoulder-and-Arm Tap
  • Seated Stretch and Yawn
  • Tighten-and-Release Pose
  • Progressive Relaxation Yoga Breathing:
  • Gate Pose
  • Alternate-Nostril Breathing
  • Cooling Breath

    Week 4

    Practice Schedule: Practice for 30 to 40 minutes, 4 days a week.
    Yoga Observation: Practice seated Yoga Observation.
    7-Step Yoga Relaxation Sequence: Perform the entire sequence in each practice session:

  • Seated Head Tap
  • Face Massage
  • Seated Head-and-Neck Tilt
  • Seated Shoulder-and-Arm Tap
  • Seated Stretch and Yawn
  • Tighten-and-Release Pose
  • Progressive Relaxation Yoga Breathing:
  • Gate Pose
  • Alternate-Nostril Breathing
  • Easy Pose with Chin Lock

    The 7-Step Yoga Relaxation Sequence
    1. Seated Head Tap
    What It Does: Practicing do-in in Seated Head Tap helps to release tension and tightness in the head and neck, promotes relaxation, and increases the circulation of prana. This exercise also helps relieve and prevent tension headaches and improves concentration.

    How to Do It:
    1. Sit straight in a chair with your legs together and feet flat on the floor.
    2. Gently and lightly tap all around your head with loosely closed fists. As you tap, take slow, deep breaths.
    3. Tap for approximately 10 seconds.

    2. Face Massage
    What It Does: Practicing do-in and self-acupressure in Face Massage is very helpful for relieving sinus pain as well as chronic tension in the face and jaw.
    How to Do It:
    1. Sit straight in a chair with your legs together and feet flat on the floor. Before you begin, observe how your face feels. Does your jaw feel tense? Is your face cold? Do you have sinus pain?
    2. Moving your fingertips in slow, circular motions, massage your temples, around your hairline, up and down the sides of your nose, in front of your ears, behind your ears and the back of your neck. As you massage, take slow, deep, relaxing breaths.
    3. With your fingertips, massage your jaw mus...

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