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5 simple, stress-busting yoga poses

Olivia Marley

~ This blog post originally appeared in an edited form on Selfridges.com ~

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It can sometimes feel almost impossible for stressed out city dwellers to lie down and instantly relax. So if you’re reading this because you’re feeling stressed you probably need to burn off some nervous energy before you even try chilling out! If that sounds like you, my first recommendation for you is:

Warrior 2

Stand with your feet wide apart. Turn your right toes out so now your feet are at 90 degrees to each other. Reach your arms out wide at shoulder height and bend your right knee until it’s stacked over your right ankle. Look past your right fingertips. Hold here as you inhale and exhale slowly five times, then repeat on your left side.

Tip: Keep an eye on your front knee (the one that’s bending). Don’t lend it bend past the level of your ankle, and don’t let it turn in.

Locust pose

It’s really common when you’re under pressure to feel like your shoulders are hunching up round your ears. That can also mean your head drops forwards and down, which will make your neck and upper back unnecessarily tense. Locust pose will strengthen the muscles that help undo those postural habits! Lie down on your front, with your arms by your side and palms facing down. As you inhale, lift your chest, arms and legs away from the floor so you’re just resting on your belly. Lower down as you exhale. Repeat five times.

Tip: You want to feel the muscles in your back working - try drawing your shoulderblades towards each other and then away from your ears.

Child’s pose

We’ve worked your legs and your back muscles in the last two postures, so now let’s start to slow it down a bit. Come to hands and knees with the tops of your feet flat on the floor. Sit your bum back on to/ towards your heels and let your torso rest on your thighs. Hold here while you inhale and exhale slowly 10 times.

Tip: If this is uncomfortable on your knees or the tops of your feet you can always rest them on a rolled up blanket to give yourself a bit more cushioning.

Legs up the wall

Lie on the floor with your bum near the skirting board and your legs up the wall. If this is too much of a stretch on the backs of your legs either bend your knees a little or shuffle your bum a bit further away from the wall. Hold here while you inhale and exhale slowly at 10 times (or stay for as long as you like).

Tip: If you find your feet start to tingle try bending your knees and walking your feet down the wall, so you end up resting with your knees bend and drawn into your chest.

Corpse pose

You’ve earned it: time to make like a corpse and lie still! Lie flat on your back with your arms a little way out from the sides of your body. Experiment with whether you prefer your palms facing up or down, and let your feet fall out to the side. You may also want a blanket over you or under your head as a pillow. Take a couple of slow deep breaths, and then just lie still. Stay for at least three minutes, or as long as you can.

Tip: You might want to set a timer on your phone for however long you want to stay in this pose, so you don’t lie there wondering how much time has passed. Make sure you put your phone on silent though so you don’t get disturbed!

Breathing in backbends

Olivia Marley

We’ve started 2019 by focusing on breath, and in particular on the breathing technique called Ujjayi (slow and steady rhythm, with a slight sound in the back of your throat). As my students become more proficient in maintaining that breath, I’ve started to test them by bringing in poses that can be hard to breath in. Among those: backbends.

When you bend backwards, the back side of your body contracts to bring you into that shape (in the same way as when the front side of body contracts it makes you bend forward). There are three main reasons why I think I - and the people I observe in my classes - can find it hard to breathe in these types of postures.

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  1. Imagine yourself lying on your front and then doing locust pose/ shalabasana or cobra pose/ bhujangasana. The back side of your body contracts to bring you into that shape, but the front side of your body is pressed against the floor. So it can feel like there isn’t much room for your breath to expand in your body

  2. In some other backbends you’re not pressed against the floor but the posture itself is a bigger, more demanding shape. So imagine yourself in perhaps camel pose/ ustrasana or upward facing bow pose/ urdhva dhanurasana. The backside of your body is contracting to bring you into the shape, but the front side might be being so stretched that again it may feel like there’s not any available space for your body to expand when you want to inhale

  3. And lastly, consider the backbends in that short sequence we do over and over again in vinyasa yoga (plank -> lower down -> upward dog, locust, cobra or sphinx -> downward dog). It’s really common to take that backbend too fast, rather than making it last the entire length of a slow inhale.

So out of these, the third has the most obvious solution. Even though it takes way less strength to rush through that sequence quickly, slowing everything down will give you time to breathe in an unhurried way.

The first reason - feeling squashed against the floor - for most people just takes a bit of attention to solve. Even though your belly stays on the floor in those face down backbends your chest lifts. And your breath doesn’t just expand into the front and back of your body, but also the sides. So intentionally directing your breath into your chest and the sides of your ribs (while also moving slowly enough to give yourself time to take a full inhale) should help solve that issue.

So that brings us to the remaining problem of being in such a demanding shape that you can’t help holding your breath. In a discipline that sometimes mistakenly prioritises range of motion over integrity of motion and breath this might seem unsolvable. When in fact it’s super simple. Don’t go so far!

If you’ve practised yoga for a while you’ve more than likely done it: wanted to make a shape with your body so you’ve pushed beyond where you should have. But one of the key features that differentiates this practice from other movement disciplines is mindfulness and breath. If you find yourself in a backbend (or any other posture) and you can’t breathe steadily, try easing out a little. So in the photo above I could go a bit further into the shape but I’d start to find it hard to breathe. Someone else would hit that point in a different place to me, but the same rules still apply no matter what the shape... if you can’t breathe you’ve gone a bit far 🤷🏻‍♀️



shoulder mobility and the shape of your handstand

Olivia Marley

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We’ve been practising our handstands in class over the past couple of weeks and a few different students have asked me a similar question: "why can’t I get my body in a straight line?".

Sometimes people that make a slightly curved shape in their lower back in handstand (like that you see me making here) are told it's because they need to engage their core more. It's true that if I switched on my abdominal muscles more here it'd move my legs towards the left hand side of this photo. But then I'd probably lose my balance, because my whole body from chest to feet would be tilting to the left. For me (and for many of my students) this body shape in handstand is caused by limited range of motion in the shoulders.

You can see that my chest doesn't go straight up above my arms here - it tilts a little to the left of the photo. That's because my shoulders don't have quite enough range of motion to let me reach my arms straight over my head without also curving a bit in my lower back. They reach almost all the way, run out of mobility in the shoulders and then the last little bit of reach has to come from movement in the rest of my spine. For a lot of people it's actually that curve in the lower back that creates a banana-shaped handstand 🍌 So of course your core muscles are important. They help to make your upper and lower body move as one congruent unit. But shoulder mobility plays a role for lots of people too 🙌🏼