Stress, that nasty little word associated with ALL kinds of unwanted ailments; impaired immune function, inflammation, increased appetite and weight gain, increased insulin resistance, memory problems and decreased bone density, just to name a few! Truthfully, stress has its’ place in life. In the face of danger or adversity, stress gets your blood pumping and prepares you to make the moves necessary to deal with obstacles in your way. Chronic or extreme stress (typical in our society today) can cause unwanted side effects.
Let’s take an example from my college years. I would always get very sick around December 5-10th and again April 10-17th, something I liked to call examinitis. It took years for me to realize that I was just studying for exams in ALL of the wrong ways, the stress I was putting MYSELF under was lowering my immune system, leaving me open to get a cold. One semester I added a yoga class to my schedule (2x a week), and would you believe that I went through my first semester examinitis free---not exam free unfortunately. Here are a few ways you can incorporate yoga into your daily routine to keep a cold at bay!
1. Dirga Breath
What is it?
Dirga breath is a breathing technique, aka 3-part breath, that encourages you to slowly and completely fill the lungs as you inhale and completely empty the lungs as you exhale. Breath can be controlled involuntarily and voluntarily. Like most systems of our body, the lungs will take the path of least resistance when possible. When the involuntary system controls breathing the body will take in what it needs to survive, which is not nearly as much as your lungs can handle. As a result, your body, though functional, operates at reduced efficiency.
How to do it.
I prefer to practice dirga breath while lying down, but it can be done from a comfortable seated position as well.
1. Place your hands on your belly. Take an exhale and release all of the air out of your lungs. Through your nose inhale and fill your stomach with air. Notice how the hands rise as the belly balloons open. Exhale through your nose again until you are completely empty. Repeat 3-5 times.
2. Now, place your hands on your ribs in such a way that the finger tips meet in the center. As you inhale notice how the belly rises, but before you complete your inhale, focus on breathing into your ribs so that they flare out to the side. The finger tips will separate when you do this. Exhale and let the ribs settle back in, and then the belly falls until your lungs are completely empty. Repeat 3-5 times.
3. Finally, bring the hands onto your chest, the fingertips will rest on your collar bones. As you inhale the belly will fill up, the ribs will flare out to the sides, but before you are finished inhaling focus on your chest. Allow the top of the lungs to fill so that the chest puffs up towards your head. Exhale release the air from the chest, then the ribs, and then finally the belly. Repeat 3-5 times.
4. See if you can notice the change in shape of your torso with the hands relaxed to the floor. Repeat 3-10 times.
How it helps.
Controlled breathing, particularly controlled SLOW breathing, is known to reduce stress by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system counters the sympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for activating the stress response. Parasympathetic stimulation reduces the heart rate, regulates blood pressure, and brings you to the present moment. The 3-part breath also encourages you to fill all three chambers of the lungs by using accessory muscles in the diaphragm. This leads to greater oxygen flow (which can also help with chronic fatigue) AND helps to strengthen these accessory muscles for future use.
2. Viparita Karani
What is it?
Viparita Karani, also known as "legs up the wall", is a yoga pose commonly used to reduce stress and improve immune function.
How to do it.
Place a blanket or soft pillow on the floor against a wall. Sit down next the wall and swing your legs up the side of the wall as you lie down on the floor. Stretch your arms out wide with the palms facing upwards. Focus on slowly breathing in and out for 5-10 minutes. If you feel numbness in your legs gently come out of the pose.
How it helps.
Inversions encourage the drainage of excess lymph that can be exacerbated by stress. Proper circulation of lymph is necessary for distribution of white blood cells that fight infections and insure the body is able to work efficiently.
Try adding these 2 exercises to your routine this week! Check back next week to see 2 more ways to reduce stress with yogic techniques.