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Santa Rosa yoga teacher shares poses to help alleviate holiday stress

“Yoga” means “unite” or “join together,” its ultimate goal a union with the infinite. But for those of us with busy lives, that union may seem less pressing than it was 5,000 years ago when the practice was formulated. Today, many of us use yoga as a way to enhance our well-being. At this time of year, it can be especially useful as a way to manage stress.

Researchers at the University of London found that muscles contract when we are stressed, which can contribute to increased levels of anxious and/or negative thoughts. Stress also raise the body’s cortisol levels, weakening the immune system, muscles and bones over time while also slowing metabolism rates, decreasing mental function and the body’s ability to heal and regenerate normal cells.

Relaxing those muscles, particularly the facial muscles, pushes the brain into a more positive, relaxed state. And because breathing rate increases when we are under stress, slowing down our breathing pushes the brain away from the stress response and toward more relaxed thinking.

Yoga helps accomplish both. Lisa Ellisen, owner of Soul Yoga and Wellness in Santa Rosa, recommends the following 10 poses as a quick, restful way to reduce stress. She has practiced yoga for 20 years and has been teaching it for 15.

1. Child’s Pose quiets the mind and stretches the back of the body. It also calms the nervous system while letting stress roll off the back.

On your hands and knees, stretch your arms out in front and bring your forehead to the floor. Move your hips toward your heels with big toes touching and belly relaxed. Hold the pose for 5 or more deep breaths.

2. & 3. Cat/Cow lubricates the spine and spinal muscles. These complimentary poses also help transition the mind from the outside world in.

Start on your hands and knees. For cow, inhale while looking up and lifting your sitting bones. Arch your back and draw shoulders down. For cat, exhale while looking down towards navel, drawing belly in. Round the back, point tailbone towards the floor and bring your shoulders down, keeping arms straight. Repeat sequence three times.

4. Dolphin stretches the shoulders, neck and spine, and can help quiet the mind.

Come down onto your forearms (either forearms parallel, palms flat, or hands interlaced). Curl toes under, lift hips and begin to walk feet forward until you feel a stretch in hamstrings, keeping your head off the floor without lifting or straining neck. Hold for 3-5 breaths.

5. Forward Bend shifts your perspective and stretches tight hamstrings, hips and lower back. This pose is thought to relieve stress and fatigue.

Feet are parallel and hip-width apart; knees are slightly bent with your weight over toes. Roll forward, holding your elbows with opposite hands, relaxing your head and neck. Sway slightly back and forth. Hold for 5 breaths.

6. Eagle is an empowering pose that releases tension in shoulders, legs and upper back. It also improves balance, focus and concentration.

Standing evenly with bent knees, wrap right arm under the left, placing fingers of right hand into palm of left (or backs of hands together). Wrap your right leg over left, placing your right big toe on floor or pressing the pinkie toe into outer left calf. Lift elbows to shoulder height and draw shoulders down your back. Gaze to horizon, through your forearms. Switch sides. (Left arm under, left leg over). Hold for 3-5 breaths on each side.

7. Mountain Pose improves postural awareness though equal standing. Place feet together with big toes touching and heels one inch apart.

Your knees are soft not locked and hips are level. Lift and open your chest as you draw your naval towards your spine. Keep arms by your sides with palms forward, head stacked on spine, and gaze to the horizon. Feel balanced, grounded and steady. Hold for 3 breaths.

8. Triangle improves stability, flexibility and digestion while reducing anxiety.

Step your left foot back 3 to 4 feet. That back foot should be parallel to back edge of mat. Hips are square to the left wall, legs straight, reaching your right arm towards floor on the outside of your right shin, left arm straight up. Shoulders are away from your ears. Gaze towards left hand or the floor. Take up space. Switch sides, with left foot forward, right arm up. Hold for 5 breaths on each side.

9. Legs Up the Wall is a relaxing and calming pose said to “renew” blood and lymph drainage back into the heart. Lie on your back. Place a block, book or hands under hips to elevate them slightly and lift legs straight up. Can also be done at the wall. Hold for 10 breaths.

10. Savasana is the most important of all poses. It places the body in stillness, which allows the mind to follow. Hold it for a minimum of 5 minutes.

Ah, sweet rest. Lie comfortably on your back with your legs and arms relaxed. Turn your palms up and soften the shoulders away from your ears. Close your eyes and let your breath flow in and out, easily and effortlessly. Allow your thoughts to drift by with no attachment to them, like clouds in a blue sky. Reap the rewards of your yoga practice. Nothing to do and nowhere to go but to be right here, right now.

Namaste. (The divine light in me sees and recognizes the divine light in you.)

Cat Senet is fitness director at Powerhouse Gym in Santa Rosa. Contact her at catsenet.powerhousegym@gmail.com.

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