As a yoga teacher, I guide my students into a lot of stretches. We also use muscular energy which helps to build strength and endurance.
When I see my students release tension, it’s almost always during a deep stretch.
Here are 7 stretches that will help you relax and reduce the tension that forms excessive stress:
1. Side stretch: Lying on back, lift arms overhead behind you. Take a deep breath in, then on the exhale reach your right hand toward the back wall and the right leg toward the wall in front of you. Come back to center. Take another deep breath and on your exhale, extend through the left side this time – left arm behind you, left leg moves forward. This is a nice, simple side stretch – a great beginning to releasing tension in the body.
2. Hip stretch: Still on your back, with your hands, draw your right leg in towards your chest/right shoulder. As you inhale, move the knee forward and away from you slightly; as you exhale, draw the knee back in. Repeat this 3-5 times or until you feel more open in the right hip. Then, switch legs.
3. Spinal twist: Lying on your back, draw your right knee in towards your chest/right shoulder. Grab the outside of your right knee with your left hand and extend your right arm out to the side. Guide the right knee across your abdomen as you take a full spinal twist to the left. Keep both shoulders on the floor as you twist. On your exhales, you can gently press down on the right knee to deepen your twist. When you’ve had enough on the right side, switch to your left side.
4. Thigh stretch: You’ll need a strap for this one. If you don’t have a strap, you can use a karate belt, a man’s tie or belt. Lying on your back, draw your right knee in towards your chest/right shoulder. Place the strap around the ball of your right foot. Lift your right leg up towards the sky. Extend your left leg onto the floor. Grabbing the strap with your right hand, take a deep breath in; as you exhale, guide your leg to the right keeping it straight if you can. Take several breaths here and explore your body a little here. You can engage the leg muscles, wiggle your toes or move the leg around until you get the right opening for you. After several breaths, bring your right leg back up towards the sky and release the strap. Switch sides.
5. Standing forward fold: Standing with your back to a wall, bring your feet hips width apart and gently lower your whole upper body towards the floor. It’s okay to bend the knees if you need to. Hang in forward fold for 5-10 breaths. To come up, bend your knees more; take your hands at your hips; lift your shoulders up and back and then slowly lift to standing. This forward fold can also be done on a chair. Just sit and bow forward towards the floor. Forward folds are mini inversions and allow the blood to move towards your head. They are just the right tonic for a tired body and mind.
6. Neck stretch: Take a comfortable seat. You can do this at your desk. Simply lean your head to one side. Slowly begin to lift and lower your chin up towards the shoulder and then down towards the chest. Continue three or four times. Notice the ribbons of muscle you are stretching. Gently lift your head back to center and switch sides.
7. Shoulder stretch: You can do this sitting or standing. Bring your arms behind your back, interlace your fingers and let your hands rest on the low back with elbows bent. Lift your shoulders up and back. Take a deep breath in and on the exhale, straighten your arms and lift them away from the back. Repeat this one or two more times, then relax.
There are many stretches a person can do, but these are really easy and don’t require anything special. Bring balance into your life by adding a few stretches every day – especially if you are a runner or lift weights. Keep in mind that some bodies are naturally (genetics) more organic or stretchy while others are more muscular and less flexible. Learn to honor your body type.
While stretching, hug your muscles into the bones (contract them) so the muscle fibers are protected from tearing. It’s important not to overdo stretching. Just move towards your “edge” or the place of slight discomfort – but never to a pain point. Lengthening the muscles should be done carefully so as not to injure. As you expand your body and use your breath, notice how your mind begins to relax. This is one of the great benefits of yoga and stretching – a more relaxed mind.
Stretching brings strength – the ability to handle life – because you’ve taken the time to grant your body the internal space it needs to function well. Give yourself this gift for better health, optimal living and a renewed sense of well-being.