Yoga for Calm – Why Yoga Works and Which Yoga Poses to Try
Most of us have heard that yoga can be a good remedy when you are feeling stressed, anxious, or struggling with sleep. But why? This post, by yoga teacher Rachel Harvey, takes a deeper look at why yoga is good for calming our nervous system, and which yoga poses will help you create a calm mind.
Why yoga is good for calming the nervous system
Basically speaking, our nervous system works through a series of connecting channels - from the body to the brain, and vice versa.
You may have heard of the ‘fight or flight’ response - something that happens when you feel acute levels of stress, and adrenaline is released. This is our sympathetic nervous system in action, which sends messages from the primal part of our brain, preparing us for danger.
Another type of stress is less talked about – and that’s the more long-term, low-level stress born of constant worry. To-do lists buzzing at the back of our minds, difficult ongoing relationships, jobs that we don’t enjoy, etc. This type of stress releases a steady flow of the cortisol hormone, which affects our sleep, menstrual cycle, and digestion, if left unchecked.
Neither of these responses are all bad. They helped our ancestors survive challenging environments. In our modern day setting they help keep us focused and driven in our daily tasks.
Issues only arise as we struggle to drop out of this “go-go-go” mode, and into our parasympathetic nervous system, or our ‘rest and digest.' There are many aspects of yoga that can help us in this process of learning to truly relax. To fully drop into a deep state of rest, where we feel safe and supported.
The connection to our breath is key here, and plays a major role in most yoga practices, from a more dynamic vinyasa class, to a deep stretch yin class. Take this a step further and much of what we do in a yoga class is to cultivate this mind body connection. To notice small sensations in the body, from top to toe. Moving our bodies in different ways, after a day at the desk, also increases blood flow, warmth, and the mobility of our joints.
Regardless of which type of yoga you practice, the idea is to aim towards this presence, focusing fully on what is happening on the mat. All these aspects together help send messages to the brain that the body is safe. As we start to feel safe and calm, we relax, our breath becomes slower, our heart rate starts to drop, as do our stress levels.
So, which yoga poses are good for a calm mind?
Each individual’s experience is so different, I encourage you to have a play, explore, test and retest, until you find your own flow that helps you drop more ease-fully into this state of calm. Here are some suggestions to help you on your way.
One of the quickest and most effective ways to calm the nervous system is via the breath. One of the simplest methods is Sama Vritti, or box breath.
First find a comfortable seat and soften the belly and face.
Start with an inhale for four counts, and exhale for four counts. Once you’ve started to become comfortable with the breath, explore a pause at the top, and at the bottom of the breath. If it feels ok to do so, lengthen these pauses to four counts, creating a ‘square breath.’ Repeat 5 - 10 times.
Movement matched with breath
If you feel restless, or have a busy mind, a more constant form of movement could be beneficial. A dynamic vinyasa style class where one breath is matched to one pose could help you get present in your body. A favourite sequence amongst my students is simply switching from reversed warrior to side angle, inhaling, and exhaling. In a slower paced class, we might explore moving with breath more slowly and intentionally, rolling back and forth from a side lying position to an open twist (Supta Matsyendrasana) before fully surrendering into the pose.
Restorative poses using support
To drop into a deep state of rest, using props like bolsters, bed pillows, blocks, or blankets, can be a beautiful way to practice restorative yoga, and regulate the nervous system.
Some ways to use support props:
- Wide Legged Child's Pose. Place a bolster or two pillows lengthways on the mat, resting the torso and one cheek on this support. This brings the ground up to you, taking some of the strain from the hips and helps the body relax.
- Supta Badha Konasana. Lay the length of the spine along the bolster with the head raised above the heart, using a block or extra cushion beneath. You could also try wrapping a rolled blanket or strap around the ankles, drawing it under the knees, and tucking it under the pelvis, providing extra support and a feeling of security.
- Forward Folds. Any supported forward folding helps further guide this introspection, especially if the forehead can rest on a raised block or bolster, providing gentle pressure at the calming third eye centre, making it an ideal bedtime pose.
So much of what we practice in yoga is intrinsically linked to the nervous system, and this journey of switching from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic state. The breath, the practice of embodiment or mind body connection, the supported poses … it all relates back to one of the over-arching principles of yoga: the practice of simply pausing and noticing. Becoming the observer, the witness, and dropping into a state of being, as opposed to doing.
Post by Rachel Harvey, Yoga Teacher
Therapeutic yoga, including yoga for a calm mind, is Rachel's passion as a yoga teacher. Rachel runs a fortnightly a yoga and pranayama workshop via Zoom, which delves deeper into the workings of the nervous system and stress management.
Alternatively, you can drop into one of her weekly restorative Sunday night sessions, or catch up with some pre-recorded yoga, meditation and pranayama classes on her website.