Feeling stressed? De-stress with this yoga sequence
Do you have too much to do and can never get through your to-do list no matter how hard you try? Do you feel like you’ve “dropped the ball” in important areas in your life to maintain your career commitments? Is your energy or health affected? Let’s take a look at the physiology of stress from a yogic perspective and give you practices to enhance your mental capacity for work, leaving you feeling refreshed and empowered to achieve what you need with greater ease and balance in your life.
Physiology of stress
Your nervous system treats modern-day stress with the same physiological response your ancestors had when chased by tigers: the body is flooded with hormones like cortisol for “fight or flight”. With chronic stress like work overload and not switching off from your task lists, the sympathetic nervous system remains triggered and your body stays in hyper-alert mode, shutting down digestive functions and immune responses and depleting all other bodily systems. Is your career worth all the stress — or can you have your career and adapt your lifestyle for change?
Make your work your meditation by giving it your full attention. There is satisfaction in the joy of concentrated effort.
Through the yoga of conscious choice it is possible to balance your doshas (bodily humours) and manage your workload without taking on negative stress states. The aim of yoga is to create a sattvic (pure) mind for harmony, promoting joy and stress-free living.
Ayurveda on stress
As the nervous system is ruled by vata (wind and air), Ayurveda views chronic stress as a vata imbalance no matter your constitution. When you’re under stress, the downward-moving apana vata heads up in the wrong direction, blocking prana (life force) and reducing your energy and health. Yoga ameliorates this by opening the nadis (energy channels), redirecting the free flow of prana and purifying the mind.
The more the ritual becomes habit, the less effort is involved and the healthier your thoughts, words and actions.
A distracted mind is nothing new to human history. Patanjali explained the goal of yoga as the “cessation of the fluctuations of the mind” some 5000 years ago. Even if your work is your passion and fuels you, without the equanimity of sattva (purity), an overly rajasic (passionate) or tamasic (heavy) mental state will ultimately lead to stress. An imbalanced mind douses the digestive fire (agni) in the body, causing ama (toxins) to accumulate. Ama then creates the stress hormone cortisol and before you know it your nervous system responds as though a tiger is chasing you.
How you react to stress depends on your doshic (body type) constitution. Vata (wind/air) types are most vulnerable to fear and anxiety. While creative, under stress they exhaust themselves, lose focus and space out. Pitta (fire/water) types competitively push themselves, responding to stress with irritability, frustration and anger. They are most at risk of burnout. Kapha (earth/water) types work diligently, slowly and steadily. Under stress, they procrastinate, become resentful, lazy and depressed, gain weight and lose productivity.
How to thrive at work
• Keep your workspace clean and clear of clutter. A calm, fresh space impacts positively on your mental peace and harmony.
• Eat healthy, good food regularly and drink plenty of water.
• If you are pushing through and overreacting (pitta), procrastinating (kapha) or spacing out (vata), go for a walk outside. Feel the sun on your face, move your body and free your mind by taking a much-needed break.
• Move your pelvis in your chair and rotate your shoulders and neck regularly to release tension.
• In the moment, stop and breathe. Ask yourself, is the addiction to a habitual reaction worth the pain? What will it cost your health? Each time you choose a powerfully positive reaction, a new samskara (mental imprint) for more positive choice develops.
• Make your work your meditation by giving it your full attention. There is satisfaction in the joy of concentrated effort. One-pointed concentration allows for more efficient, effective results and frees you up for less stress. Focus on serenity to allow the mind to calmly stay on task. Turn off distractions like email and social media to stay focused, and simplify your thoughts for greater ease. Practise kindness when others distract you then reframe, breathe, refocus. Apply your best efforts as you gift back to the universe, no matter what your work involves, then surrender the outcomes to Spirit.
Your to-do list
Be honest with your to-do list. What niggling tasks consistently remain unattended and contribute to your accumulated stress? Could they be easier to address than ignore? By calmly attending to small tasks, you can ease your list and feel empowered. Prioritise time to beautify your space for harmonious living. Plan in sattvic eating, breathing and thinking, prioritising peace.
Rushing imbalances vata and makes mistakes more likely. Take moments for joy, gratitude and love, adding these to your list. Extend time in small increments by choosing to relax your whole being as you walk to the bathroom. Say an affirmation of love to yourself in the home/office bathroom mirror. Remind yourself that you’re achieving success and your health is important for your career. Listen to your body and notice your stress responses so you can consciously choose new outcomes.
Make your work your meditation by giving it your full attention. There is satisfaction in the joy of concentrated effort.
Celebrate success in key areas of your life. Include not only your career wins but also the less noticeable yet rewarding ones such as relaxed cuddles with your children, kind words to someone in need, time for family and self-care, and any ability to react in a healthy way during a stressful moment.
Importantly, on your list, ritualise the beginning and end of each day. Dinacharya, the Ayurvedic daily routine, will drastically improve your stress levels and moment-to-moment reactivity as you physically attend to Spirit. Nourish the soul first and you’re well on your way to a stress-free life. The more the ritual becomes habit, the less effort is involved and the healthier your thoughts, words and actions.
Dinacharya balances all three doshas and vastly improves the quality of your life. Slowly incorporate this new sattvic daily routine into your life and watch how things fall into place.
• Wake before sunrise, gently weaning yourself off the need for an alarm. Eminent Ayurvedic physician Dr Vasad Lad (ayurveda.com) says, immediately after waking, look at your hands for a few moments then move them over your face and chest, down to your waist to clean the aura.
• Next, say a prayer of thanks for your life and the day to God/Universal Consciousness/All That Is before getting out of bed. After the prayer, Dr Lad says, touch the ground with your right hand then touch your right hand to your forehead with great love and respect for Mother Earth.
• Rinse your face and mouth, wash eyes, gently rub eyelids, blink, rotate eyes in all directions.
• Drink warm water with lemon.
• Empty bladder and bowels.
• Scrape tongue, brush teeth.
• Perform abhyanga oil massage, gently stroking warmed sesame oil onto the limbs up towards the heart, circling around each joint as you go. Make the ritual sacred, quiet and loving. This beautiful practice regularises vata. As vata moves, it is balanced by the patterned movement of the massage. In this way, abhyanga is essential for stress management.
• Practise yogic breathing while the oil soaks in.
• Practice sun salutations, then meditate.
• Have breakfast in silence, expressing gratitude for daily nourishment.
• Eat the main meal of the day around 12pm, when pitta is at its peak, for best digestion.
Once this morning routine is established, add gandusha: oil pulling before abhyanga to release tension from the jaw and remove toxins. Gandusha involves swishing refined sesame or coconut oil inside the mouth and through teeth for 20 minutes, spitting out and rinsing with warm water.
• Spend time in soft lighting with gentle music and sweet scents of lavender.
• Reflect on your stress levels from the day and how you could improve your reactions. If you responded with fear or anxiety, consider grounding vata with gentle movements, cooked soups and supportive thoughts. If you became hot headed, cool pitta with non-competitive thoughts and action, drink peppermint tea and aim to chill out. If you became lazy or resentful, choose to move kapha by incorporating strong asana into your day, add a run and play upbeat tunes to get out of the negative state. Purifying the small responses, uplifting them, makes the bigger picture more inviting, enjoyable and fulfilling.
• Make evening sacred by reading ancient scriptures, sacred works or sacred poetry to relax and bathe your being in the gifts of Spirit.
• Apply oil to the soles of the feet before going to bed. This soothes vata for a sound sleep. Ensure adequate sleep each night.
Inverted or upside-down poses encourage an enriched blood supply to the brain, flushing out toxins and purifying blood and lymph throughout the body. Inversions increase self-confidence and uplift all negativity. They increase mental power and concentration with patience and perseverance.
Dedicate your life to sattvic acts of devotion for peace, removing disturbances for focus and bringing joy to the tasks at hand. Create space for what is truly important, giving those your full attention and spending time on the things you love. Determine to be more productive through the lifestyle designs of yoga. Apply the tools given here, reduce fear and anxiety (vata), temper and frustration (pitta) or resentment and procrastination (kapha) for a stress-free existence with equanimity, joy and sacred love.
Om shanti (peace).
A sequence for work overload
The purpose of this sequence it to increase your capacity to sustain your workload without feeling overburdened. It can be practised as part of your daily routine or included at any point in your week. It involves balancing poses for focus and coordination, to stabilise and balance the mind, and inversions for stress reduction. If you are depleted or exhausted, refer to restorative yoga sequences in my articles Yoga for Difficult Times, Yoga for Compassion and Yoga for Conscious Living (available at wellbeingyogaimmersion.com.au), before returning to this sequence another day.
Set your intention. Say, “I embrace health with balance for stress-free living. I allow yoga to support my work efforts and offer my life’s work back to the source of all. I am liberation and I am love.”
To begin, sit down and centre yourself with the yogic intention as above. Perform joint rotations of ankles, knees, hips, wrists, elbows, shoulders and neck. Warm up with a few rounds of sun salutations that include lunges to open hips and plank to warm the shoulders.
Tree pose (vrksasana)
Standing, firm thighs and place weight evenly across feet. On inhale, lift right foot, place sole of foot against left inner thigh. Bring hands together above head, shoulders down. Draw right hip down, square navel and chest to centre, relax gaze. Keep your heart centred on balanced living and your mind strong for peace. Breathe. Bring foot and hands down simultaneously, repeat on other leg.
Side staff pose (vasisthasana)
Place hands and feet on the ground in plank position. Draw abdomen toward spine. Drop heels towards the left, raise right hand, rotating body up, aligning hips and shoulders vertically. Balance on left hand and outside of left foot. Turn chest toward sky, look up. Breathe in strength and commitment. After a few moments, return to plank then drop to right, repeating on other side.
Crow pose (bakasana)
Squat down with hands on floor in front. Separate knees, lean torso forward, bend elbows as you raise hips, placing outer arms deep on inner thighs. Lift onto balls of feet, lean further forward and begin to balance on arms by taking feet off floor, toes touching. Embrace play and courage.
Note: Do not perform inverted poses if you are pregnant, menstruating or have high blood pressure.
Forearm balance preparation pose (salamba pincha mayurasana)
In this headstand preparation position, your head never touches the floor. Stand with back towards wall and come onto all fours near wall. Bring elbows on floor, shoulder-width apart, clasp hands. With head off floor, lift hips, walk feet up wall to perpendicular, straighten legs. You may need to come down initially to adjust distance from wall. Lift thighs to elongate spine. Breathe. Lift shoulders away from floor. Remain for a few minutes then rest in child’s pose after release.
Supported shoulderstand (salamba sarvangasana)
Carefully stack three or four half-fold blankets on floor close to wall. Sit on blankets, roll into position, shoulders on blankets, with head resting on floor, feet on wall, knees bent. Lift pelvis, bring elbows in line with shoulders to hold and straighten back. Remain here, or choose to lift one leg, then the other, off wall into full shoulder stand, straightening legs, softening gaze. Remain in pose for a few minutes.
Inverted lake (viparita karani)
Line up bolster or three-fold blankets with a small gap close to the wall. Sit sideways on the edge of bolster with left hip touching wall. Bring legs up the wall as head and shoulders rest on floor. Adjust so buttocks touch wall. Strap thighs together just above knees to allow for deep restoration. Enjoy the detoxifying benefits, relax, refresh and rebalance. Stay here for a few minutes at least.
Humming bee breath (bhramari)
Seated in a comfortable meditation position, lift spine. Close eyes, relax. Focus attention on the third eye centre: ajna chakra, the space between the eyebrows. Raise arms, place index or middle finger inside ears as a plug, relaxing shoulders down. Breathe in through the nose. Keeping mouth closed, release a soft, slow, humming sound on the exhale. Continue for a few minutes at least. This breath can be practised at any time to provide immediate relief for mental tension, anxiety or anger, and is helpful when experiencing insomnia.
Note: Do not practise this breath if you have an ear infection.
A Q&A with John Ogilvie, owner and founder of Byron Yoga Centre
We sit down with John Ogilvie, owner and founder of Byron Yoga Centre, based in Byron Bay, New South Wales.
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