’Tis the season of good tidings, peppermint mochas, and gatherings with friends—and also lots to accomplish (gift-giving anyone?), people to accommodate (hello, Aunt Erma!), and more than likely, weeks of over-extending ourselves. And while all of this busy-ness is due to a truly wonderful time of year, it’s important to get clear on what “stress” actually entails – and how a holiday yoga practice can help.
The physiology of stress
When we are in high gear, plowing through a long to-do list to get stuff done (read: we’re stressed!), the body turns on the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), otherwise known as the fight-or-flight mode. When the SNS is turned on and we’re under perceived stress, it triggers energy to be released, allowing the body to fight or take flight.
By activating the SNS, the energy is directed to prioritized systems to fight or flight and takes energy away from (or shuts down) non-priority systems, such as the immune, digestion, and reproduction systems. This is why some people are more prone to illness, digestive upset, and for women, menstrual irregularities during or after stress.
The SNS’s counterpart is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS), or the rest-and-digest mode. When the PSNS is activated, the body conserves energy and turns “on” all down-regulated systems. So, how can you activate the PSNS? By stimulating the vagus nerve: the longest cranial nerve that interconnects the brain to many organ systems and runs through the back of the throat and through the diaphragm.
Pranayama and yoga are primary ways to access the vagus nerve, because the breath has the capacity to stimulate the vagus nerve through the back of the throat (hello, Ujjayi breath!) and diaphragmatic breathing (a.k.a. belly breathing). By stimulating the vagus nerve, we increase our vagal tone and turn on the PSNS, ultimately counter-balancing the stress response.
Interval Yoga: The ultimate counter to stress
Interval Yoga is a combination of heart-pumping, timed movements interspersed with strengthening flows. The dynamic change between increasing heart rate and space for the heart rate to slow is great for a few reasons:
- Research indicates interval training may lengthen telomeres by increasing activity of the enzyme telomerase. Telomeres are the ‘end-caps’ on chromosomes (DNA that carries our genetic information) that protect the genetic information and prevent cell aging. Every time a cell replicates, the telomeres become shorter, eventually leading to cell death when the telomeres have been “used up.” By increasing telomerase activity to add telomere length, we are essentially adding longevity to our cells—and therefore ourselves.
- In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), winter is the energy of yin within yin—and yin equals cold, rest, and non-movement. To counter-balance all of this yin energy, we will add yang energy (heat and activity) through movement and blood-pumping intervals.
- In TCM, stress affects the energy of the liver, creating Liver Qi Stagnation. One of the liver’s functions is the free-flow of energy throughout the body and to all organ systems. Which means stagnation here can feel like constriction in the body, neck and shoulder tension, constipation, irritability, and being quick to get angry. The best remedy for liver Qi stagnation is movement. Moving the body and getting the blood flowing will move the liver Qi to alleviate the above symptoms.
A 12-pose home practice to counter holiday stress
The holiday season is about giving to others—our time, presence, presents, and energy. That’s why it’s especially important to make this practice about giving to yourself. Create a space that feels supportive to you: play music that feels good for movement; light a few candles; diffuse your favorite essential oils; and set an intention to nurture you.
Also, keep in mind that you can customize how fast or slow you move based on your energy levels. Please, honor your body and modify this sequence to fit your needs.
The holidays can make us short-tempered and emotionally reactive, and can trigger a huge range of emotions. This pranayama technique, known as the Ego Eradicator in the Kundalini tradition, moves pressured energy out, brings us back to center, and switches us into a response rather than reactive state. The activation of the diaphragm that results from this practice also stimulates the vagus nerve.
Find a comfortable seated position with your hips slightly higher than your knees, so your spine can effortlessly lift out of the pelvis. Lift your arms at a 45-degree angle, extending your thumbs toward your body and wrapping your fingers to your upper palms. Kapalabhati breath has the emphasis on the exhale, by exhaling forcefully through the nostrils as you contract your abdominal muscles and draw your belly toward your spine, feeling your diaphragm lift in and up. The inhalation happens passively as the belly relaxes. Start kapalabhati slowly and increase as you feel comfortable for a duration of 2 minutes. At the end of 2 minutes, inhale slowly as you bring your thumbs together and hold your breath for 5 seconds. At the end of 5 seconds, release your exhale slowly as you lower your arms to your sides. When you’re finished, sit and notice your internal state for 30 seconds.
Note: Kapalabhati breathing is contraindicated for people with high blood pressure and women who are pregnant. It is not recommended if you have a full stomach. And if you feel dizzy during this practice, stop and sit quietly for a few minutes.
As we shift into our practice, we will warm up the spine and body.
Come to all fours, with your knees under your hips and wrists under your shoulders. On an inhalation extend your spine, drop your belly, and lift your head. On an exhalation, round your spine and drop your head. Repeat for 5 cycles.
Interval 1: Surya Namaskar A
In this expression of a Sun Salutation, we begin pumping the blood and introducing yang energy.
Inhale to Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute). Exhale to Plank Pose, Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) and Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). Inhale to Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute. Come to Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and inhale to raise your arms overhead, bringing your palms together. Extend the exhale as you bring your hands to the floor and jump or step back to high plank. Continue the exhale through Four-Limbed Staff Pose, keeping your shoulders above your elbows, and come straight back to a bent-kneed Downward-Facing Dog. Continue to exhale as you step or jump your feet forward. On an inhalation, lift your torso and raise your arms into Upward Salute.
Repeat for 5 cycles, then come to Mountain Pose for 3 breaths.
Here, we come to a slow, mindful flow to continue practicing breath awareness and strengthening vagal tone. See if you can consciously slow your breath and create a 5-count inhale and 5-count exhale.
Step your left leg back, ensuring your feet are hip-width distance apart and your front knee is bent over your ankle. On an inhalation, raise your arms for crescent pose and stay here for one full breath cycle. On an exhalation, bring your torso halfway forward, lengthening from your left heel to top of your head with your arms at your side. Inhale here, and on an exhalation, step your back foot slightly forward to lift into Digasana, extending your back leg behind you and keeping your toes turned down. Inhale here, then exhale as you slowly bring your left foot back to crescent. On an inhalation, raise your arms in crescent pose. Repeat for 5 cycles on both sides.
Interval Two: Plank Jacks
Come into Plank Pose with your shoulders over your wrists and feet together. Hug your shoulders into their sockets to stabilize the joint as you lengthen your tailbone and zip your lower abs up. On an exhalation, jump your feet outside your mat without moving your hips up or down. On an inhalation, jump your feet back together. Repeat for 30 seconds, moving at your desired pace.
See also: 9 Yoga Poses to Build Arm Strength
This flow allows us to tap into our physical strength. By connecting to and feeling our strength physically, we connect to our resilient nature so that no matter how much we have going on, we know we have the fortitude to complete it with ease. Notice your breath as your barometer for this flow. If it becomes restricted, lengthen and deepen your inhalations and exhalations. During your rest, see if you can immediately relax.
Come into Downward-Facing Dog and lift your left leg on an inhalation, keeping your front hip bones turned down toward your mat. Stay here for a full inhale and exhale. On an exhalation, bring your left knee to your nose as you round your spine, pressing into the ball of your back foot. Stay here for a full inhale and exhale. On an inhalation, shoot your left leg to the right, coming onto the outer edge of your left foot and left side Side Plank Pose, with your right foot planted into mat and right arm raised. Stay here for a full inhale and exhale.
On an exhalation, bring your right hand to the mat and hug your left knee in toward your chest, coming onto the ball of your back foot. On an inhalation, lift your left leg into a Three-Legged Downward-Facing Dog. Repeat for five rounds, ending in fallen triangle. Then, keep both hands on the mat and with straight arms, lower your left hip to the ground, keeping your right toes pressed into the mat. Stay for 30 seconds, then repeat on the second side.
Interval 3: Mountain Climbers
Come into Plank Pose, hugging your shoulders into the socket as you press the floor away from you. On an inhalation, come to Plank. On an exhalation, bring your right knee to your chest. Inhale passively, then exhale as you jump-switch, bringing your left knee to your chest. Continue for 30 seconds.
Our final flow focuses on the tissue most likely to become inflamed with too much standing or sitting with improper posture: the hips, glutes, and sciatic nerve. Try to move your breath to these areas for an added benefit of energy movement.
Come into Downward-Facing Dog. On an inhalation, lift your right leg, keeping your front hip bones facing the mat and toes pointing downward. On an exhalation, bring your right knee forward in between your hands, keeping your right heel close to your pelvis for upright pigeon. Stay here for a full inhale and exhale. On your next inhalation, engage your core to lift your right knee to your chest and your right leg back and up into Three-Legged Downward-Facing Dog. Repeat for 5 rounds. After the 5th round, stay in Pigeon Pose, keeping your right heel close to your pelvis and dropping onto your forearms for 30 seconds. Then, repeat on the second side.
Inversion: Dolphin Pose or Headstand
We will use this inversion to shift our perspective, increase blood flow to the brain, and improve mental clarity. We shift our perspective into grace and gratitude, a to remember to come back to our breath and to remember that if we are breathing, we have life!
To practice Dolphin Pose: Bring your forearms to the ground with your elbows slightly closer than shoulder-width apart and your fingers interlaced. Press into your forearms as you lift your hips up and back. Adjust how close your feet are to your torso for your comfort level to stay here in this inversion. On an inhalation, bring your navel to your spine as you lift your sits bones up and drop your heels down. On an exhalation, drop your head between your arms. Stay here for 1 minute.
To practice Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand): If you have a regular Headstand practice (not recommended for beginners), bring your forearms to the ground with your elbows slightly closer than shoulder-width distance and interlace your fingers. Bring the top of your head to the floor. Press down through your forearms to lift your shoulders and lengthen the sides of your neck to keep the pressure off your head. Lift your hips over your shoulders, walking your feet toward your torso until your knees lift into your chest and your heels come to your glutes. On an inhalation, lift your legs up, hugging your navel to your spine and gently tucking your tailbone and lifting your energy up and out through your toes as you continuously press into your forearms. Stay here for 1 minute.
Ah, we’ve made it to our respite. Allow your body to relax and bring the intention of releasing any remaining tension from your body or mind.
Bring your knees as wide as your mat with your toes touching as you extend your arms forward, bringing your forehead to the floor. Engage a gentle ujjayi breath. Notice how the sound of your breath bounces off the make-shift cavern of this pose. Allow your breath to carry away any remaining tension. Stay 2 minutes.
Our final pose before Savasana (Corpse Pose) is one that alleviates nervous exhaustion by nourishing the nervous system. Continue with a mindful, gentle ujjayi breath.
Come onto your back with your feet hip-width distance apart and your knees you’re your ankles. On an inhalation, lift your hips one vertebra at a time. On an exhalation, lengthen your tailbone toward your knees. Your arms can be at your sides, or you can clasp your hands together for a deeper chest opener. Stay here for 5 cycles of breath.
Our final resting pose gives us a chance to allow all the energy we just generated to nourish every cell in the body. Support your body however you need to fully surrender in this posture, permitting your arms and legs to be open and relaxed and letting all tension melt away. Release your breath, allowing it to be natural. Notice the lightness in your body and mind. Stay here for 2 minutes, or as long as desired.
About our author
Teresa Biggs, AP, DOM is a board-certified Doctor of Oriental Medicine and Yoga Medicine Instructor and founder of Biggs Acupuncture & Wellness Center in Naples, Florida. Support the Yoga Medicine Seva Foundation and Purchase-with-Purpose the Yoga Medicine Seva Tank & Pants. Learn more about Teresa at biggsacupuncture.com