Frequently we hear about the benefits of yoga for stress relief. But why does yoga have such a reputation? Although yoga practitioners have known for thousands of years that the practice gives deep health benefits, more recently the science world has delved into studying the physiological processes that are effected by yoga, supporting the claims that it’s truly a stress reliever.
The Stress Response Part 1: Fight or Flight
What it comes down to is a physiological process called the “stress response.” Any stress – whether the loss of a job, a screaming toddler or a busy wedding day – triggers an instantaneous cascade of stress hormones in the body, producing physiological changes that enable us to respond; it’s nature’s innate survival mechanism to help you either run or fight… which is why we commonly call it the “fight or flight response.”
The stress response begins in the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with emotional processing. A message gets sent to the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls involuntary functions such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and dilation or constriction of blood vessels and lung tissue. The ANS has two branches – sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic side triggers the fight-or-flight mechanism, providing you with a burst of energy to avoid that oncoming tiger. Once the stress event is over, the parasympathetic side takes over, promoting rest and recovery, or what is commonly called the “rest and digest” state.
The details of this physiological response are too broad for the scope of this article, but for our purposes, a couple parts are of key interest. Namely, during the stress response, the adrenal glands first pump out adrenaline (epinephrine) to help the body ramp up into “fight or flight” mode; heart rate and blood pressure rise, breathing rate increases, sight and other senses become sharper, and there is a release of extra blood sugar and fats into the bloodstream to allow for extra energy. This change is instantaneous; it happens before the visual center in the brain even process the whole scene in front of you!
After this first stage, the body then activates the HPA axis, a communication network between the hypothalamus and pituitary glands in the brain, and the adrenal glands on top of the kidneys. The HPA axis helps to keep the stress response moving; experience enough stress and you start releasing cortisol to keep the body on high alert (is this ringing any bells for you adrenal fatigue folks?).
The Stress Response Part 2: Rest and Digest
When the perceived threat passes, cortisol levels fall, and the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, bringing the body back down to the “rest and digest” state where it can recover and go about normal bodily functions. Fostering a restive baseline within the body helps our cardiovascular, respiratory, lymphatic, digestive, and circulatory systems work harmoniously. The less perceived stress the body feels, the better it can perform its functions that keep us alive, including regulation of blood pressure, sugar levels, and hormone levels; extracting nutrients from our food; enhancing our reaction time to events; and preventing general daily “wear and tear” on the body.
In a perfect world, our bodies can return to that calm, restorative parasympathetic state every time we experience stress. However, in our lives so full of chronic low-level stress, our bodies rarely have the chance to do so before the next stressful event occurs.
Chronic Stress Prevents Restoration
Chronic low-level stress keeps the HPA axis activated, which can contribute to health problems including, and not limited to: persistent surges in epinephrine that can damage blood vessels; increased blood pressure and risk of heart attack or stroke; and chronically elevated cortisol that can lead to buildup of fat tissue, weight gain, and eventually chronic exhaustion. Anyone who has suffered from severe adrenal fatigue knows exactly what this is like.
Yoga Helps Improve the Stress Response
A well-rounded yoga asana practice (asana = pose) requires the body to go into both the sympathetic “fight or flight” mode (your teacher holds you in warrior pose for two minutes, your legs feel like they will collapse, your heart rate climbs, and you’re sweating buckets!) as well as the renewing parasympathetic “rest and digest” mode where the body readjusts and comes back to calm (you take a meditative forward bend on the floor, the heart rate lowers, and breathing returns to normal). Through regular practice where the body is made to transfer between these states repeatedly, it gets better at returning to that restive state, and you can actually improve the ease with which you recover from stress in general. May I have some more, please?
All yoga poses are considered restorative in some fashion, simply due to the varied benefits of doing them; stretching and strengthening your body; improving breathing; inverting the body to help with lymph drainage; hormone regulation; immune system strengthening, and the list goes on. There are a select group, however, that receive the name Restorative, due to their profoundly restful and regenerative effect on the body, mind and spirit. And what stressed out, depleted, autoimmune-fighting, recovering body doesn’t need more of that?
Restorative Yoga Poses are Stress-Busters!
Restorative postures, which are often supported by blocks, blankets, bolsters and other props, are designed to maximize comfort and allow the practitioner to fully let go; this is why they are held for longer periods of time than most other poses – 5 to 20 minutes. The head is near or below the level of the heart, which helps stimulate reflexes that quiet the brain and heart. These poses may look like nothing, and that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do while you’re in them. But that doesn’t mean nothing is happening! Give yourself 5-20 minutes in each pose, and be mindful of how you feel before and after. For many people, these poses are more effective for stress relief and body renewal than sleep. Not that you’d want to replace your solid 8 hours with them, but if you’re hankering for a nap, try one or two of these poses for 5-20 minutes each and see how you feel. If you fall asleep in one of these poses, though, don’t worry. Many people do! Best nap ever.
For this article, I’ve chosen five poses that are possible for most anyone to get into with a few props and perhaps a bit of physical help if you are facing physical challenges. Improvise with what you have at home to mimic the props shown here. There are many more Restorative poses, and if want to learn more, I encourage you to find a yoga teacher who knows them, in order to learn how to use them at home for your own stress relief.
How many of these to do in one session? Do what you can. One is great, more is heavenly!
5 Restorative Poses
1. Reclining Cobbler’s Pose (Supta Baddhakonasana = Supine Bound Angle)
Your prop should be firm, not squishy (a stack of three or four firm blankets folded to the width of about 12 inches, or a yoga bolster; add another blanket as a pillow). Sit just in front of the support. Once you lay back, if the low back isn’t happy, move the prop a few inches away from the back and settle back in. Supporting the outer thighs helps the hips and low back to totally release, bringing a deeper relaxation than if not supported. If the back is still grumpy, extend your legs straight. Optional: strap the thighs as shown in photo 2, to help the legs relax more – make sure it is very low around the hips in back. Add a black Lab for keeping the feet warm and in place 😉
2. Supported Child’s Pose (Adhomukha Virasana = Downward Facing Hero)
Use a stack of 3 or 4 blankets folded to about 12 inches wide (make the prop higher if you are not comfortable at this height). Kneel on the floor, and make the legs wide enough to pull the blanket stack all the way to the inner thighs. Lean forward, getting as much of your tummy on the prop as possible, so your entire upper body is supported. Allow the seat to sink down toward the heels. Rest the arms wherever they are comfortable. Optional: Use a blanket pillow for your forehead if your neck isn’t comfy turning to the side. Skip this pose if your knees are not happy when deeply bent.
3. Supported Child’s Pose with Twist
Sit with your legs out in front of you, with the blanket stack sticking out perpendicular to your hip. Turn toward the blankets, use your hands on the floor on either side of the stack, to turn your torso, and lean over the prop so as much of your belly and chest as possible are resting upon it. Turn your head to whichever side is most comfortable.
4. Supported Upright Angle (Upavistha Konasana = Upright Angle)
Sit on the floor with your legs wide. Pull the support (the same 3-4 blanket stack, with pillow, that you’ve been using) close into the legs, and extend forward to rest on the support.
Photo 2: Option for stiff hamstrings/stiff back: Use a chair with padding for the head, and rest the arms on the support. Also: Use a stack of blankets under the butt to make this easier on the hamstrings and back (not shown but a good idea).
5. Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani = Inverted Lake)
Caution: If you are menstruating or have high intra-ocular pressure, don’t do “Legs Up the Wall.”
This one can be a bit awkward to get into, but it’s totally worth it! Set the 3-4 blanket stack about 5 inches from the wall. Sit on the blanket stack with your right hip, facing away from the wall (trust me!) and lean your right shoulder down to the floor. Roll your feet up and around, extending your legs up the wall. Now that you’re upside down you need to waddle in closer to the wall so your buttocks sink into the divet between the blankets and the wall. Once you’re settled in, the blanket stack should be helping to open your chest/heart area up and outward. The legs can be in a variety of positions; to keep them up the wall, use just enough leg muscle to keep them from bending. Cobbler position (photo 2); bend the knees to the outside and bring the soles of the feet together. Other options: Crossed legs, or legs wide to the side. If the blankets are too much for you to deal with, you can do this pose without them; the benefits aren’t as profound but it’s worth doing.
20 minutes in Viparita Karani and you’ll feel like you’ve had a long nap!
Thanks to our fabulous models, Jessi Chung of Little Bird Therapies in Seattle, and Charlie the yoga dog!
Susan Vennerholm is a certified Iyengar Yoga instructor and teaches at Seattle Iyengar Yoga Studio in Seattle, WA.
All images are by Susan Vennerholm.
Fantastic! I recently did the legs on the wall with feet together when I was having upper back/neck tension. I’m glad I followed my intuition, I didn’t know that was a “thing”. I felt so relaxed after!
That pose is one of my favorites, Erin! Fifteen minutes there, and I feel like I’ve had an hour nap!
The poses do look like good stress relievers. I’d say the dog helps though :).
Yes, a dog always helps one’s practice. Fur therapy!
I think the dog is the most chill of all! I do like these poses but forget to do some of the hip openers. Will bookmark this. Thanks!
Glad you found it! And remember, you don’t need all the poses at once for it to make a difference. But doing them all is nice, too!
/cry. I’ve been looking for something like this. My muscles are so painful and tight and the inflammation is so great, that I can’t “do” yoga right now. I’ve been looking for something that I can work up to. Thank you!
Pam – I’m glad you found the post! I hope you can find a yoga studio and teacher that works with people in your situation. Some Americanized styles of yoga only cater to super-athletic types, but in my training and experience, anyone can have a practice with the right modifications. You might try finding an Iyengar yoga teacher near where you live. We are trained to work with a wide variety of of abilities and issues.
[…] “Restorative postures, which are often supported by blocks, blankets, bolsters and other props, are designed to maximize comfort and allow the practitioner to fully let go; this is why they are held for longer periods of time than most other poses – 5 to 20 minutes. The head is near or below the level of the heart, which helps stimulate reflexes that quiet the brain and heart. These poses may look like nothing, and that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do while you’re in them. But that doesn’t mean nothing is happening! Give yourself 5-20 minutes in each pose, and be mindful of how you feel before and after. For many people, these poses are more effective for stress relief and body renewal than sleep. Not that you’d want to replace your solid 8 hours with them, but if you’re hankering for a nap, try one or two of these poses for 5-20 minutes each and see how you feel. If you fall asleep in one of these poses, though, don’t worry. Many people do! Best nap ever.” Restorative Yoga for Stress Relief – Autoimmune Paleo […]
[…] Two great restorative yoga poses. Some ideas what you can do with your blocks! . A variation of supported baddha konasana and […]
I am so very grateful to you for sharing these! I am new to yoga, thanks to my functional medicine doctor encouraging I try it for adrenal issues. After two hot yoga classes left me incredibly racy and dizzy and with a pinched nerve, (though during them I thought I felt awesome) I realized I needed something a bit more calming. This informative and profoundly timely email came to me that week. I have been doing your restorative poses almost daily since and I so love how wonderful, calm, relaxed they make me feel. I find them even calming to body parts that may be sore or painful. Many many thanks for teaching me restorative yoga!!! I am now a huge fan
Hi Amanda! I love hearing stories like yours. Sadly, even many doctors don’t know the range of yoga styles, and don’t realize that some types can be too much for someone with adrenal issues. Especially hot yoga and vinyasa (which have their benefits for the right body!). I couldn’t do anything but restoratives for quite some time, and I worked my way back to a more rounded-out practice only when my body told me it was time. I’m glad you found the article!
Thanks so much for responding. And you have me even more encouraged to be patient and to listen to my body on when it will be right to add in different types of yoga and exercise in general.
You’re welcome! Keep up the good work, you’re on the right track!
[…] Vennerholm considers restorative yoga and how optimism helps manage stress in her guest posts on Autoimmune […]
[…] Restorative yoga uses props such as blocks and blankets. It involves getting in comfortable positions and holding these positions for periods of time. The idea is that you are relieving stress, and quieting the body! For more information on restorative yoga and some poses to try it home, click here. […]
[…] Practice restorative yoga. […]