by Mary Ann Lopez
Editor’s note: Mary Ann Lopez is a writer and yoga instructor who credits her yoga practice with helping her to heal from depression. She chose these poses for Crazy Good Parent because they are relaxing and simple. Try them on your own, or with the kids, as I did with my considerably more limber daughter.
The holidays can have a way of making life seem more stressful than normal. When you are already dealing with daily challenges, the thought of the holidays – all the expectations of gift giving and receiving, parties (or not being invited), food and visiting with relatives – can sink your spirits rather than raise them.
Finding balance – a little bit of equanimity – is one way to meet the challenges of daily life while not losing yourself in what can be a maddening time. A simple way to bring a little peace to day-to-day life and the crazy holiday rush, while quelling anxiety is with yoga.
I started a very basic yoga practice many years ago and found I really enjoyed it. I was in the midst of a depression and it seemed to bring me some lightness at a time when I felt I was living under a cloud. After practicing at my gym, at the prompting of my therapist, I tried a new yoga studio. I found my home and a practice I loved. It would turn out to be a life-altering experience, leading me to live a happier life and eventually to earning my teacher certification.
The benefits of yoga are holistic. Many people start a practice for the physical benefits, but over time it’s pretty normal for a practitioner to see mental and emotional benefits.
With the holidays around the corner, here are a few poses and practices almost anyone can do to find a little calm in the holiday storm. Not only can these practices help with anxiety and stress, they may also help those who have trouble falling asleep. You may choose to do one or all of them.
1) Child’s pose: Come down to the floor, or a yoga mat if you have one, your heels under your butt, big toes touching, knees wide apart and arms resting either beside you or comfortably lengthened out long. Rest your forehead on the floor, spend a few minutes just breathing calmly in and out through you nose (see No. 2) with your eyes closed. During a yoga class, this is a pose to come to when we need to calm our breath and reconnect with our bodies.
2) Breathing (pranayama): Paying attention to your breath is one easy way to take the focus away from the stress of the moment. In yoga there are several different breath exercises. For our purposes, here is a basic breathing technique, ujjayi pranayama. Taking a deep breath in through the nose, let it fill your lungs all the way to the belly. Once you have inhaled, hold the breath for a few seconds then slowly exhale out through your nose pushing all of the air out, as if you are fogging up a mirror. Be sure to take a second to recover before starting the process again. This is an action you can take when you’re sitting in the car stuck in traffic, are stuck in a long line at the mall or when you have that wacky uncle annoying you at dinner. Just take a few deep breaths in and out, mindfully breathing in something positive and exhaling out something negative.
3) Seated forward fold, also known as caterpillar: Sitting on the floor, legs extended long, feet either close together or hip-width apart, extend your arms up and lengthening the torso, fold forward from the hips, hands reaching forward toward your toes, folding forward and head dropping. For those with tight hamstrings, this pose may be more challenging, but straight legs are not required. You may slightly bend your knees and drop your hands where they land. Some people may be able to reach their toes, while others may bring their hands to their knees or shins. Once folded, be sure to relax and let go, trying to release any tension within the body. Hold this pose for a minute or two. Slowly sit back up.
4) Legs up the wall, or dragonfly: Lie down on the floor with your back and butt as close to a wall as possible, once you are scooted up against the wall, take your legs straight up the wall, your backside should be directly against the wall as your torso and head are flat on the floor. You can stay in this position with your legs together straight up the wall or choose to drop your legs open into a V. Arms should be outstretched on either side and your head should be resting on the floor. Eyes closed breathing calmly in and out, stay here for several minutes, up to about 5 minutes. Using a scented eye pillow is also comforting while in this position. To come out of the pose, roll onto your side and push away, slowly making your way back to seated, blinking your eyes open.
5) Corpse pose, savasana: Lie on the floor, with arms and legs extended long, you may choose to spread eagle as in yin yoga where this pose is called pentacle. With eyes closed, breathe in and out evenly. Using an eye pillow is also comforting in this pose. Notice if you are twitchy and want to move. Notice if thoughts are rushing through your mind. If you notice you are twitchy and want to move or cannot stop your thoughts, focus on your breath again, maybe using an unspoken mantra to focus on, such as “I inhale love, I exhale anger, I inhale abundance and exhale lack.” Whatever you choose. Stay in savasana for as long as you like, maybe 5 minutes or 20 minutes. To come out, roll onto your right side into a fetal position, pressing yourself up to seated and blinking your eyes open.
Sources: Yin Yoga, Principles and Practice by Paul Grilley and Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar