Your partner forgot to do the dishes this morning — again. As you were leaving work, your boss asked to meet with you in the morning, her face grim. Your stomach clenched: Is she displeased? Are you being fired? On the way home, faced with the usual rush-hour antics, you hear yourself nearly shouting at other drivers in the emptiness of your car.
By the time many of us reach our yoga mat, we’re more than ready for a little stress relief. But how do you deal with some of the most visceral feelings we experience, like anger and fear? These two emotions are flip sides of the same coin — the human nervous system’s fight-or-flight response. Because it has been shown to calm the nervous system, yoga can be a great antidote.
Some yoga traditions recommend vigorous breathing practices (such as Bhastrika, or “bellows breath”) to express strong emotions. Like shouting in a safe place or punching a pillow, they may help, but they may also be too stimulating — increasing emotional volatility rather than decreasing it.
If you’re struggling with fear or anger, however, a vigorous practice will almost certainly be helpful. You may also be in need of support. The sequence below, designed for beginners, will give you both.
1. Child’s Pose. Start your practice in this supremely restorative pose to check in with your body — and give yourself a break. To begin, kneel with your big toes touching, then fold your torso over your knees, splayed to your degree of comfort. Allow your weight to sink into your hips. Rest your forehead on your mat and extend your arms straight above your head, on either side of your ears. Rest here for four inhalations and exhalations. For an active stretch, press your hands firmly forward, down into your mat, and rotate your outer arms toward the floor so your shoulder blades flatten. Hold the stretch for two breaths. Then rest again for two breaths.
2. Downward Dog. To move into Downward Dog from Child’s Pose, simply press your hands and toes into the floor and lift your hips. Your feet should be hips’ width apart; keep your knees bent unless you can comfortably straighten your legs. Spread your fingers, pressing your hands down into the mat while keeping a microbend to your elbows (don’t lock them), and check that your middle fingers are pointing forward. Roll your shoulders down your back. The spine, head, and neck should be in a straight, neutral line, or you can let your head hang comfortably. Feel your way into the movement available in this pose — “walk it out” by straightening each leg individually, or try pushing forward with your hands as you did in Child’s Pose to get a full stretch down the length of your spine.
3. Warrior II. The Warrior poses in yoga increase energy and confidence along with stamina and physical strength — all of which help when handling powerful emotions. To come into Warrior II from Downward Dog, move your right leg up to your right hand and position your left foot at a 90 degree angle. Straighten up, stabilizing your back leg by pressing into the inside of the foot and firming the thigh. Bring your right arm out in front of you, the left behind you, both parallel to the floor. Drop your shoulders as you stretch your arms out and actively lengthen each finger in your hands. Try to shift your hips in this pose so that both face forward, while keeping the right knee positioned over the ankle — you might feel a stretch in the back left hip as you do so. As you sink into the pose, if you can, bend the right knee until it makes a 90 degree angle to your thigh, being sure to keep your knee directly over your ankle. Take four breaths.
4. Triangle Pose. To come into Triangle Pose from Warrior II, simply straighten your legs, then drop your right hand to your calf or to a block, if you have one. Be sure the right foot points forward and the left is angled out at 90 degrees. Keeping a microbend in the right leg, bring your arms to a “T” and point your left arm to the sky, rolling your torso open. Stabilize yourself in this gentle twist by pressing down into the floor with the soles of both feet. Take four breaths.
Twists are wonderful for releasing energy, emotion, and stress. If you’d like more, try these poses after a warm-up and three to five Sun Salutations: Side Angle Pose, followed by Revolved Side Angle Pose, and Chair Pose, followed by Revolved Chair Pose. (If you’re new to yoga, practice these with the help of a qualified teacher until you have a sense of proper alignment.)
5. Come back to Downward Dog and take four inhalations and exhalations. Then move through Warrior II and Triangle Pose with the left leg forward.
6. Standing Forward Bend. From Triangle Pose, bring the back leg up to meet the right foot, then place your feet hips’ width distance apart. Take opposite elbows and fold forward as you bend your knees. Focus on lengthening your torso over your thighs and grounding through your feet as you let your head hang. Take four breaths.
7. Child’s Pose. Take Child’s Pose again, focusing on your inhalations and exhalations and scanning your body to see what your practice has changed. Rest here for at least 90 seconds, or as long as you like.
After practicing, you may find upsetting emotions have dissipated. Maybe you realize your partner's forgetting to do the dishes isn’t evidence of an egregious pattern of neglect and find yourself able to forgive the lapse. You could discover your strong feelings reflect something that needs attention and walk away from your mat with greater clarity. Perhaps your fears are perfectly natural — after all, your company has been going through a round of layoffs—and you consider taking next steps to prepare.
Allow your practice to be nonjudgmental, and simply see what comes up for you. When your body is free of tension and emotions are calm, it’s far easier to act in ways that generate positive responses and solutions.
Janet O’Dell, RN