Want to Relax? Try Yoga

Stress is ever present. Fortunately, we’ve got yoga, which is proven to help reduce stress and the health effects it causes. The best part? You don’t need any prior experience to benefit from the practice. Whether you are at home, work or somewhere in between, yoga is always here to help you relax. We’ll show you how to get started.

A 5-Minute Relaxing Yoga Practice

This short sequence works the body and rests the mind in just five minutes.

What You Need

You don’t need anything but yourself. If you have a yoga mat, that’s great but not necessary. A towel works, too, or you can just sit on the floor. Find a comfortable spot where you can be alone and uninterrupted for only five minutes. Depending on how your body feels, you may want to use a yoga block, blanket or meditation cushion to place underneath your body to support your body in a comfortable seated position.

You can also take this same yoga and mindfulness practice outside for a change of scenery and influx of nature. Experiencing the vibrant colors, sounds and feel of the outdoors during your yoga practice can provide a positive energy boost.

Start With Some Mindfulness

Let’s start with your breath. This is a great way to slow down, become present in the moment and connect with yourself: 

  1. While sitting, allow your shoulders to relax. 
  2. Extend your tailbone down and contract your stomach, which will help to straighten your back and lengthen your back from the top of your head. 
  3. Inhale for six seconds while pushing your stomach away from your body. 
  4. Exhale, allowing your stomach to come back to your body. 

Do this four times (or more if time permits).

Now Begin

As you go into each yoga posture think about your own self-care, self-respect and a curiosity toward yourself and your moment-to-moment experience. This will put you in the right mindspace for the exercises. 

1. Easy Pose (Sukhasana). Begin in a comfortable seated position, legs crossed. Relax your feet and allow your pelvis to be in a neutral position. Think about how you are breathing. Feel the sensations in your body. Sit for a minute and feel the sensations that come with being unrushed, still and internally aware.

2. Neck Roll: Allow your head to fall toward your chest and slowly move your head around in a full circle to the right three times and then to the left three times. Invite the feeling of letting go. Return to the easy pose and lift the crown of your head up.

3. Shoulder Roll: Roll your shoulders in forward circular motions four times and then backwards four times. When you are finished inhale, bringing your hands over head and exhale, placing your hands together at chest level. 

4. Tabletop Position (Bharmanasana): Slowly move onto your hands and knees, placing your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Your palms should be on the floor, fingers facing forward with your weight evenly distributed on your palms. Center your head in a neutral position and soften your gaze downward. 

5. Cow Pose (Bitilasana): Inhale as you drop your belly toward the mat. Lift your chin and chest and look up toward the ceiling. Pull your shoulders  away from your ears. 

6. Cat Pose (Marjaryasana): Exhale and pull your stomach toward your spine and round your back toward the ceiling. Gently release the top of your head toward the floor. 

7. Repeat Cat-Cow five to 10 times in an unrushed and peaceful rhythm.  

8. Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana): Tuck your toes under your feet, press your palms into the floor and lift your hips up, extending your tailbone toward the ceiling. Push your heels back and slightly down toward the mat. They do not have to touch the ground. Allow your head to drop so that your neck is long. Stay here for a few deep breaths.  

9. Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana): Slowly move your hands to your feet, and release the muscles in the neck and shoulders. Also release the weight of your head and allow your legs to be straight. 

10. Cross your forearms. Place your right hand in front of your left upper arm and weave your left arm behind your right upper arm. Press your heels into the floor and extend your tailbone up to the ceiling. Shake your head back and forth to release your neck. Stay here for at least three breaths before releasing the arms from the crossed position.

11. Mountain Pose (Tadasana): Bend your knees, pull your stomach toward your back and roll your body up.

12. Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana): Extend your tailbone down. Inhale here and place your hands together at chest level. 

13. Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana): Slowly move your hands to your feet, and release the muscles in the neck and shoulders. Also release the weight of your head and allow your legs to be straight.

14. An additional option is to bend the knees slightly to place one palm flat on the floor or onto a block or anywhere on your leg other than your knee and raise the opposite hand over the head. Try to align the shoulders, slightly twist and look up following the length of the extended arm. Do this on both sides. 

15. Child’s Pose (Balasana): Softly come to your knees in a kneeling position. Extend your hands forward in front of you. Allow your torso to relax down and back onto your thighs. Allow space between your knees  and the toes to touch. If possible, allow the buttocks to touch the  heels of your feet. 

Breathing Exercises

We do it mindlessly, over and over, but with a little thought, the process of breathing can be transformative.

Breath Regulation

The key components of yoga include postures, meditation, relaxation, and breathing exercises. These features of yoga are not exclusive and do complement each other, but the one that transcends most profoundly is breath. Breath is often thought of as the guide in all areas of yoga. Yoga helps bring more awareness to the breath which has both physical and psychological benefits. When we are stressed, we often will hold or shorten our breathing or breathe in a short, stilted manner. Being able to continue to inhale and exhale calmly and deeply throughout life is a tremendous stress reliever. 

Throughout yoga class, teachers will remind you to regulate your breath and this is one of the most transferable skills that you can very quickly take off of the mat and into your everyday life. 

Breathing Exercises

Below are a few breathing practices that you can do anywhere, anytime, to get back in touch with your breath. Consider these exercises a stress-relieving pause whenever you need it. 

Belly Breathing

  • Sit comfortably with your legs in a comfortable cross-legged position and close your eyes.
  • Inhale from the bottom of your belly, then into your chest and imagine filling up your body with breath all the way up to your throat.
  • Exhale from your throat, chest and belly.
  • Repeat five times.

A Heart-Calming Breath

  • As long as you don’t have any knee problems, sit in kneeling position with your heels underneath your hips. If you have any knee problems, sit comfortably with your legs crossed.
  • Place one hand above your heart and another on your belly (it doesn’t matter which; choose whatever comes naturally).
  • Close your eyes and inhale and exhale to the mantra, or repeated saying, of “let” on the inhale and “go” on the exhale.
  • Repeat at least five times before placing your hands on your thighs and opening your eyes.

Combining Breath With Full-Body Movement

  • Begin in a child’s pose with your knees on the ground and your hips on your heels resting on the backs of your feet and your hands outstretched in front of you.
  • Tuck your toes and lift your hips up and back into downward facing dog
  • Inhale into a plank pose (kumbhakasana), or the top of a push-up, with your shoulders over your wrists and a straight line between your shoulders and your heels.
  • Exhale as you lift up and back into downward dog. 
  • Repeat five to 10 times inhaling into plank and exhaling into downward facing dog. 
  • Rest in child’s pose.

Practicing Yoga Anywhere

Take the stress out of yoga class and do it wherever you may be.

Time spent commuting, changing and showering after class, and finding a yoga studio to practice away from home can be a significant (sometimes worthy) investment, but it also requires time, money and possibly childcare arrangements. Cultivating a home practice can enable you to keep up with yoga even when you can’t make it into a studio.

These tips will make it easier:

  • Start small. Begin with a short sequence, such as the one included in this guide. You may think of yoga as what you experience in an hour long class, but your home practice may be a few postures paired with a meditation.
  • Ensure that you practice in a quiet place. If that’s not possible, you could put on headphones that move well and play music from your favorite yoga playlist (below). Place your yoga mat on hardwood or cement (ideally not carpet). If you must use carpet, use a sturdy mat.
  • Try to practice at the same time every day to work it into your daily routine. But don’t give up if you forget for a day or a week or even a year -- the yoga is always there for you.

Add Some Music

Music can be a motivator to get on the mat at home or in a class, even if some yoga traditions do not encourage music. If you like to practice with music, the choices you make can help to set the mood. They vary widely by studio and teacher so to get a sense of the diversity of options, we’ve linked to a variety of playlists. These can be used in a home practice, by yoga teachers in studio classes or just listened to for fun anytime:

The Science of It All

Much research has been done to support the idea that yoga can reduce stress.  

Yoga and Your Nervous System

One way yoga reduces stress is through regulating the nervous system — specifically the autonomic nervous system and its response to stress. You may think that yoga should focus primarily on relaxation and meditation if you want to destress. While relaxed forms of yoga are helpful, improving your ability to return to a calm state after stress requires a well-toned nervous system that is resilient. Think of it this way: If we could spend all our time in a quiet, peaceful environment, then stress would not be an issue. So varying the types of yoga you do to include both slower and more vigorous practices can help improve our nervous system’s ability to find balance and cope with stress.

Yoga and Your Genes

There is growing evidence that yoga and other mind-body interventions can alter the expression of certain genes and reduce the inflammatory response that cause disease, aging and stress in the body.

Similarly, yoga has been shown to improve the tail-end of genes, called telomeres, which can shorten and fray due to many factors like aging, disease, poor nutrition, smoking and chronic stress. Studies show that yoga can help lengthen and strengthen telomeres, which are the parts of our DNA that protect the genes from damage. 

Make Class More Comfortable

Want to take your practice further? Yoga in a studio doesn’t have to be intimidating. 

Don't Stress at The Studio

Prefer doing yoga with an instructor? Great. But sometimes the idea of going to a yoga class can be stressful itself. Some people may feel uncomfortable if they feel like they are being judged in a class setting. If you are experiencing these feelings, know that you are not alone. Instead of imagining how you think you “should” be, consider focusing on letting go of thoughts of how you look in a particular posture, or how you look in general. 

The Yoga Glossary

Yoga teachers often say things during class to help guide students through the practice. Here’s what we mean when we say them. 

Namaste: Namaste is a greeting that means that “the light in me bows to the light in you.” When someone is bowing to the light in you they are essentially giving a nod to that oneness of everything that is yoga. You can also think of it as a nod to the goodness in all of us.

Om: The word “om” refers to the oneness of the universe and the aspiration for us all to be connected. When we say it together, often at the beginning or end of a class, the sound of it is a metaphor for the word itself. The way the voices in the room come together and the vibration of the “mmm” has a powerful energy to it. If you do not feel comfortable joining in an om, you can certainly skip it and sit quietly instead.

Set your intention: This is a cue from your teacher to choose an affirmation, or words of encouragement to help you through your practice. You can repeat your intention to yourself throughout the class as a mantra (which is a repeated saying). Sometimes it can feel stressful to have to think of an intention on the spot, so consider: “I am grateful,” “I am present,” or just a word like “Peace” or “Harmony.” Also, if this doesn’t work for you, always feel free to just let the suggestion of setting an intention pass; bringing awareness to your breath can have the same effect of relaxing you and focusing yourself on your practice.

Connect breath and movement: Match a movement with an inhale and the next movement with an exhale and continue in this manner. 

I am not this body: A reference to the fact that your true essence is not encapsulated by your physical body. Yoga teachers may say this to remind students that the look of a posture is not the important part of the practice - the trying is what matters.

Sanskrit: Yoga teachers will often cue poses by calling out their Sanskrit name - for example: downward facing dog is called adho mukha svanasana. Some people love hearing the Sanskrit words, but others who do not know the meaning may find such words to be confusing. If you find yourself in the latter situation, look toward the teacher or other students to find the pose that’s being cued. And remember that the postures are just opportunities to practice - it really doesn’t matter what your body looks like.

Notice your breath: Teachers often remind students to check in with their breath, which is simply an opportunity to re-engage with your inhale and exhale. Often as we move through the practice we will forget to consistently breathe and sometimes even hold our breath in physically strenuous postures. 

Connecting the mind and body: When a yoga teacher brings this up during class, she or he is reminding you that by focusing on the physical experience of the yoga postures you are able to leave behind some of the stressors of the everyday (work, kids, bills, etc.). 

Find your edge: The idea of yoga is that you practice removing your ego and letting out your most connected self. Creating and finding your edge is to experience the balance between effort and ease - that place at which you are challenging yourself but not to overexertion or injury.

Send your energy: To put thoughts and intentions toward something in particular. This could be a cue toward something very particular, such as “send your energy to your hands” or something of your choice, such as “send your energy to someone who may need it.” 

About the Authors

Ari Isaacman Bevacqua is Director of Communications at The New York Times, an adjunct professor at The George Washington University and a yoga teacher at Hot Yoga Capitol Hill where she teaches warm vinyasa flow. She is also a stand-up paddleboard yoga (S.U.P.Y.) instructor. Twitter: @ari_nyt

LaShone Wilson is an Integrative Health and Wellness Coach, Yoga and Mindful Living Teacher. She is the Director of One Breath at a Time Health and Wellness Services. She empowers hundreds of children and adults with her demonstrations of self-regulation, yoga and partnership in paradigm shifts.  

Lara Atella is the Director of Hot Yoga Capitol Hill and part of this inclusive, caring community that gives back to the neighborhood and prides itself on its diversity, wonderful students, and thoughtful teachers and staff. Lara is an Experienced-Registered Yoga Teacher and Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider and also has work experience at Johns Hopkins University and Hospital and the National Institutes of Health in neurobehavioral science, which has helped her to appreciate yoga even more. Twitter: @hotonthehill