With everyday life disrupted due to the ongoing pandemic, stress is at an all-time high. Fears of getting sick, uncertainty of jobs, uneasiness about sending kids to school and cold winter weather (and flu season) all are sources of stress in the lives of many. Add to that the pressures of the holidays and overturned plans, and you’ve got one big stress pileup.
Not only does stress affect you mentally, but it also affects the gastrointestinal system and appetite, according to research. Bad moods, dips in energy, fatigue and chronic body aches can be attributed to stress as well. That’s why now, more than ever, it’s imperative to establish a stress relief workout routine that’s integrated into your daily life.
Whether you’ve got five, 10 or 15 minutes, we’ve created a routine just for you. Yoga poses help balance the mind and body, and specific balance exercises help stabilize the mind. Neck and shoulder exercises also help alleviate chronic tension headaches or stress headaches and muscular tightness. Continue reading to get relief.
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If you have 5 minutes
Standing or sitting, place your hands behind your head in a basket grip.
Gently drop your chin toward your chest and hug the elbows around your face.
Use the tension of your hands and arms to weigh your cervical spine down while maintaining a straight thoracic spine. Feel a stretch from the base of your skull down through your cervical vertebrae.
Breathing in and out through the nose, hold this for five deep breaths, and then release slowly.
This pose allows you to start by feeling grounded and centered with the breath. It connects you to the Earth, aligns your spine and allows your body to ease into the start of the yoga practice.
Standing with your feet as wide as your hips, press down evenly through all 10 toes and squeeze your quadriceps (the large muscle at the front of each thigh) to engage your legs. Pull your naval in toward your spine. Roll your shoulders back, and allow the arms to dangle down by your sides with the shoulders externally rotated. Open the palms to face forward.
Bring the chin back so that the upper back is straight. Relax the shoulders. Take five slow, deep breaths, breathing in through the nose and out through the nose. Fill up the belly and then the chest as you inhale, and release the chest then the belly as you exhale.
Forward fold clasping opposite elbows
This pose has a calming effect on the nervous system because it places your body in a position that is inward-focused. Holding on to opposite elbows also provides traction for your shoulders and neck to help relieve tension in the upper body.
Stand with your feet as wide as your hips, place your hands on your hips and slowly hinge forward at your waist. Allow your arms to dangle down, and then hold on to opposite elbows with your head in the center.
Shake your head yes and no, and press the weight evenly down through both feet. Hold for five deep breaths, and then release the arms down and slowly roll up to standing.
While standing or sitting, outstretch your arms. Cross your right arm over your left arm, and then bend at the elbows.
Flex your wrists so that you can then press your palms together. Your forearms will be entangled and the shoulders will be forward.
Feel a stretch in between the tops of the shoulder blades like a pull along the upper back. Hold for three breaths, and then release.
Repeat with the left arm crossed over the right arm.
Arm and leg extension
Come down to your mat onto your hands and knees. Line up your wrists so that they’re parallel to the center of the mat and directly beneath your shoulders. Line up your knees underneath your hips and open them as wide as your hips.
Pull your naval in toward the spine and reach the right arm forward. Relax the shoulder as you reach the arm and fingertips forward.
Extend your left leg behind you and flex the left foot, keeping the left leg straight. Balance on your right knee and your left hand for one second, then place the right hand and left knee down onto the ground into the starting position.
Repeat 10 times like this, and then switch to extend the right leg and the left arm to do 10 repetitions.
If you have 10 minutes, tack on some more moves
Side neck pull
With your head upright, reach your right hand around your head and place it on the left side of your head. Gently pull your head so that your right ear reaches down toward your right shoulder. Feel a stretch in the left side of your neck.
To intensify this stretch, bring your left hand around your back and open up the left shoulder by pressing your left hand onto your back.
Breathing in and out through the nose, hold this for three deep breaths, and then switch sides.
Standing or sitting, shrug your shoulders forward.
Then shrug them up toward your ears.
Next, pull them back. Finally, pull them down. You’ll be making a box with your shoulders in the shape of a square.
Perform this five times. Then reverse the box and perform five times by shrugging your shoulders backward.
Standing with your feet as wide as your hips, slowly fold forward, hinging at your hips. Allow your arms, head and neck to dangle down.
Reach your arms toward the floor and allow your chin to drop toward your chest. You’ll feel a stretch in the backs of your legs, but if this is too intense or if your low back is stiff, feel free to bend your knees.
Hold this pose for about a minute. You can shake your head gently “yes” and “no.”
To come out of this pose, slowly roll up one vertebra at a time with your head being the last thing to come up.
Stand up with your feet as wide as your hips. Then shift your balance onto your left foot while lifting up your right foot off of the ground. Grab your right ankle with your right hand to place the right foot to the left inner thigh. Press the inner thigh into the foot to help with balance. Pull your abs in and press your hands together in a prayer position at the center of your chest.
If this is too challenging, you can lower your right foot down so that it’s resting on your inner left shin or balance the right toes onto the ground for more help.
Hold for five deep breaths. If you wobble or fall out of this pose, just refocus and come back into the pose.
Then switch sides to hold for five breaths on the other side.
Extended hand to big toe pose
This exercise requires flexibility in the hamstring, groin and shoulders, so work up to the full expression of this pose. To start, stand with your feet as wide as your hips.
Then draw your right knee into your chest with both hands. Hold onto your right knee with just your right hand as you open the knee to the right. Hold here for three breaths, or proceed onward if flexibility allows.
Reach for your right big toe with your first three fingers and grab onto it.
Extend the right leg and right arm straight out to the right and relax the right shoulder. Press down firmly through the left foot for balance.
Hold for three deep breaths. This pose is more challenging, so concentrate on one deep breath, then two, then three. Then switch sides.
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Tight hip flexors also contribute to low back pain, which can keep you awake at night. By opening up the hips in a low lunge position, your body will feel more relaxed without feeling overly energized. This is a great pose if you’re sedentary or sitting all day as the hip flexors get tight from being in a cramped position throughout the day.
Step your right foot forward and your left foot back. Lower the left knee onto the ground underneath the left hip. Bend the right knee over the right ankle. Reach the arms up toward the sky, relax the shoulders, pull the naval in toward the spine and breathe for five slow breaths.
Release the arms down, and turn around to face the opposite side of the mat and repeat with the left foot forward.
If you have 15 minutes, add these, too
Side lunge to center balance
Standing on your yoga mat with your feet as wide as your hips, step the right foot to the right. Bend the right knee and reach the right glute behind you as if you are sitting on a chair. Keep the left leg straight. Pull the naval in toward the spine.
Then slowly push off of your right foot to come back to center. Without putting your foot on the ground, bring the right knee toward your chest and balance.
Then step the right foot out to the right into a side lunge again and repeat.
Repeat 10 times to the right, and then switch to perform 10 times to the left.
Wide-leg forward fold
This is another inward-facing pose as your head positioned below your waist and the back of the legs being stretched. This has a soothing effect on the nervous system. Stretching the back of the body helps to relieve tension from the neck all the way down the spine and down the back of the legs.
Open your arms out wide and then step your feet out as wide as your wrists. Be sure to point the toes forward. Hinge forward at your waist and allow your arms to dangle down in front of you and then place the palms of your hands down flat on the mat. Release the chin toward the chest.
Hold this for five deep breaths, and then slowly come up to standing by pressing down through your feet.
Standing pigeon pose
Another forward fold, this pose aids in winding down the mind, body, and nervous system and also stretches one of the largest muscles in the body: the glutes.
Standing with your feet as wide as your hips, balance on your left leg as you lift your right leg up and cross your right ankle over your left knee. Bend the left knee and place your hands together at the center of your chest. Relax the shoulders. Flex the right foot and slowly lean forward over the legs only as far as is comfortable for you.
Hold for three deep breaths, and then slowly stand up and release. Repeat on the other side.
This pose opens up the inner thighs and groin, which can become tight and stiff after working from home in awkward positions. This pose also opens up the side waist and low back. A tight low back and inner thighs contributes to hip and back pain that can cause you to stay up at night.
Step the feet out wider than the shoulders, and turn the left foot in at a 45-degree angle so that the toes are facing toward the front corner of the mat. Turn the right foot so that it points straight to the right edge of the mat with the right heel lined up with the arch of the left foot. Open the arms out to the sides, and turn to look over the right fingertips.
Hinge forward with the right hand, and then lower the right hand down toward the right shin. Feel a stretch on the left side waist. Press down evenly through both feet and open the shoulders so that they are stacked on top of each other. Hold for three breaths, and then come up to the starting position.
Turn the feet to repeat on the left side.
Bird of paradise with modifications
The final expression of this exercise is an advanced yoga pose. However, if you feel uncomfortable at any step along the way, don’t hesitate to hold the pose in the phase that feels best for your body.
To start, step into a Warrior II position. Your left foot will face to the left, and your right foot will be 4 to 5 feet away, turned on a slight angle. Line up your left heel with the arch of your right foot. Outstretch the arms and bend the left knee over the left ankle.
Next, place your left forearm onto your left thigh and reach the right arm up toward the ceiling. Open the chest so that the shoulders are stacked on top of each other.
Then place the right hand along the small of your back and open up the right shoulder even more. Reach the elbow back and turn the head to the right slightly to look up toward the ceiling.
From here, wrap the left arm underneath the left thigh. Reach the hands toward each other, coming into a bind. Open the chest as much as possible and use the hands to pull on each other to facilitate the opening of the chest and shoulders.
To move further into this pose, step the right foot forward to the center of your body, and slowly lift the left leg up off of the ground. Stand upright while maintaining the bind of the arms around the underside of the left leg.
Lift the left leg up. Finally, extend the left leg straight as you lift the chest and stretch the shoulders.
Wherever you find yourself holding this pose, hold for three slow breaths, and then slowly come out of the pose in the reverse of how you came into it.
Extended side plank
Holding plank on its own is a serious balance challenge! But if you’re looking for a way to step it up, balance on your outer left foot as you lift your right hand off of the ground and onto your right hip (see photo at top). Stack your right foot on top of your left foot.
Pull your naval in toward your spine and lift your hips up away from the floor and extend your right leg straight up. Then, extend the right arm straight up from the shoulder, grab your right big toe and hold.
Hold this for three breaths per side.
Familiarize yourself with these moves and work them into your daily routine. You could also practice these workouts in conjunction with a five-minute yoga routine I designed for better sleep that you could do before bedtime. Having these stretches and exercises in your regular arsenal will support you through life’s ups and downs.
Stephanie Mansour, host of “Step It Up With Steph” on PBS, is a health and wellness journalist and a consultant and weight loss coach for women.