Mental and physical tension is something that affects most people in their everyday life. What many people don’t understand is that through the practice of yoga, you are able to release these tensions and in return, live a happier, healthier, longer and more productive life. I personally have found the benefits of yoga and the release of mental and physical tension these past two years after using yoga as a way to help overcome anxiety that I struggled with in the past.
For me personally, my anxiety stemmed (and sometimes still does) around time. I found myself becoming so worried about being on time, having enough time to accomplish activities, and always worried about the time I have in my life or the life of the people I love (anxiety around death). With this anxiety I experienced many moments where I could barely breath, or move because I was so worried about the unknown. This was counter-effective because I was missing out on life events altogether, fell ill often and developed physical tensions in my lower back, wrists, and random/various body parts because of the built up stress. It was about two years ago when I discovered yoga through a new friend and with practice and time, I am able to watch as I gain control over my emotions while becoming stronger physically and mentally. According to Pentanjali, yoga is, “Yogash Chittavrittinirodhah”. This means that yoga is controlling the mind-stuff from taking various forms (Vrittis), (Vivekanadan 13). The mind-stuff” is your thoughts that create a ripple like effects throughout your mind and once they are there, it can be hard to see your true self. In the book “Yoga Sutra Pentanjali” by Swami Vivekanand, the example of a pond is used to help visualize how your emotions can distort your reality: When the air is still and there is no movement occurring in the water, it is crystal clear and you will see your reflection for what it truly is. If you were to drop a pebble into the pond and look at your reflection, your face would be misconstructed and the truth about your appearance is hindered.
This example is a perfect representation of how mental and physical tensions arise due to emotions because your negative beliefs about life and how you see the world, create a distorted reality. When you allow these thoughts to take control, your body and mind continuously build up unwanted tension through distraction and suppression, therefore, limiting your ability to be satisfied with life. Through yoga, the practice of controlling the chitta allows you to follow a journey of intelligence (discovering your true self), and learn what it means to live in the present moment by following your breath. By following your breath through your physical practice, you are able to focus. You prepare your body for meditation and manifest your chitta in understanding and clarity to see the importance of being content with what you have. Once you have calmed the chitta, you see your own nature and remain your own self. In conclusion, you have the ability to see the reality of life, because you know the reality of yourself, therefore, releasing tensions because you know how to control the mind from bringing unwanted emotions.
As a beginner in yoga, it can be difficult to focus on your breath, or breath evenly through your inhales and exhales. Pranayama and meditation are a great way to start your day (beginner or long time yogi), build lung strength and release mental/physical tensions by balancing the mind and body. It is important to note that pranayama, meditation and physical practice should be done on an empty stomach with little to no water to allow your body to be relaxed and less prone to cramping or injury. If you have eaten, wait 3-4 hours after a meal before practicing.
One pranayama technique that is great for releasing tensions is Kapalbhati Pranayama. This technique is done by sitting cross legged to lock blood flow to the upper body. Your spine and head should be straight with your hands resting on your knees. Close your eyes and focus on relaxing your whole body and face muscles. To begin, inhale through your nose and forcefully contract your abdominals to exhale the air back out through your nose. Inhale once again naturally and repeat this flow of breath 10-20 times. Allow the breath to return to normal and complete up to 5 more rounds. You will be able to increase your repetitions as you continue your practice.
This pranayama technique should be avoided for those with stomach problems like ulcers or recent surgery and if dizziness or pain occur, stop the practice and sit quietly for some time. Along with this, avoid this exercise if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, vertigo, epilepsy, stroke, hernia, or during pregnancy.
Following pranayama, it is important to meditate and pranayama helps prepare the body for meditation as well. While sitting in a comfortable position (simple cross leg, lotus, half lotus, etc), keep your spine straight, chin parallel to the floor and your eyes closed. Bringing your hands to your thighs, inhale deeply and exhale to bring yourself into center. Once you are centered, focus on your awareness to your breath and practice diaphoretic breathing. This meditation technique is beneficial in balancing the mind and body, while bringing fresh air into your internal organs. To practice diaphoretic breath, focus your awareness to your abdomen, and watch as it expands and contracts. Allow your mind and body to relax and allow your thoughts to pass.
Through physical practice, by opening channels throughout your body, you can help release these tensions and build strength to prevent further tensions or injuries. Doing some specific asanas alongside your breathing is a state of meditation which also releases mental tension: Ashwa Sanchalanasana (equestrian pose), is a beneficial pose to help release tension by toning the abdominal organs, giving a good stretch to the lower back, strengthening the hips, legs, ankles, feet, and helps induce balance to the overall nervous system. This pose is important because it will help build a healthy body from the inside-out, which is key for maintaining your health and continuing your practice.
To do this pose correctly you will want to sit in vajarasana (thunderbolt pose), standing on your knees with your ankles slightly apart and your arms by your sides. To begin, start with your right side and place your right foot on the floor out in front. Make sure to keep you leg in a 90° angle, with your ankle in line with your knee, and your thigh parallel to the floor. Following this, take a deep inhale and bring yourself into center. When you exhale, lunge forward slowly and steadily so you have the ability to safely transfer your weight onto the right foot and allow your left leg to stretch back fully with your chest coming forward and your knee placed on the ground. It is important to keep your abdomen tucked in and your back straight, as curving your back can result in pain/injury. To maintain your balance and comfortability, place your fingertips or palms on the floor and bend forward slightly if you do not have the current flexibility to do so. As the end result, your right foot, hands, left knee and toes will support the body. A natural arch in the back is okay to experience and you should be facing forward with your chest open and dristi on your third eye. To release this posture, inhale and roll your body weight back evenly to the starting point (it’s important to note that by the end of your breath, you should be finished with the movement). Continue these lunges on the same side for ten rounds and when you have finished return to vajrasana to relax before repeating on the left side.
As mentioned earlier, awareness and breath work are a very important aspect of yoga. Throughout your breath, bring awareness to your engaged muscles, joints and ligaments, while focusing on your swadhisthana chakra. With injuries in the knees or ankles you should avoid this pose.
Another beneficial pose to help release mental and emotional tension is, simhagarjanasana (roaring lion pose). This pose benefits the throat, nose, ears, eyes and mouth, while releasing frustration and emotional tensions. It is great for those with anxiety or nervousness and I personally find this pose very beneficial to do before I start the day;
To begin this pose, sit in simhasana (lions pose) and open the eyes, gazing at the eyebrow center. Your whole body should be relaxed and your mouth should be closed while you inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. When you are at the end of your inhalation, open your mouth, stick your tongue out towards the chin and slowly exhale while making and “aaaa” sound. The sound should come out easily and steadily with no strain while you bring your awareness to your chest, eyes and tongue. Exhale with the intention of feeling the emotional release through your sound. When you have finished exhaling, close your mouth and breath in for another round (complete 5-10 rounds). If you have a sore throat, problems in the throat, or possible knee problems, then this pose should be avoided. With throat problems, there is the option to sit in simhasana (lion pose) without the sound and focus on your physical and mental Stability.
Kashyapasana (sage kahyapa’s pose) is an asana that it also great for the body as it strengthens the shoulders, arms, legs and opens the chest. It activates the anahata and manipura chakras, along with samana vayu, which brings a sense of balance and concentration. I find this beneficial to release tensions physically by strengthening, and mentally because you have to concentrate to holding the pose correctly and narrow your concentration altogether with the breath.
Start in santolasana (balancing pose), variation one, and bend the left knee, placing the foot on the right thigh. Next, take the left arm behind the back, wrapping it around to hold onto your left foot, or big toe with the left hand. Your right arm should be straight and your chest extended while pushing the inner arch of your right foot towards the floor. Once you have held this pose for as long as you’re comfortable, return the left foot back to santolanasana and repeat on the other side. Once you have practiced once on each side, relax in child’s pose. Throughout this pose, bring your awareness to your alignment of your torso (engaging abdominals), engaging your limbs, maintaining your balance and on your manipura chakra. Avoid this pose if you have shoulder injuries and if you are having a hard time balancing, keep the left foot down while wrapping the left arm behind the back.
While practicing yoga, meditation and pranayama are important factors in maintaining your overall health and well-being, living a healthy lifestyle alongside your practice is just as important. Incorporating a healthy diet and learning about your body type (dosha) through the practice of Ayurveda, is key in preventing injury, understanding the best foods, asanas, and signs of balance throughout your body and lifestyle.