Are these short, dark days starting to get to you? During the winter, it's natural for us to turn inwards. But too much cold and dark, combined with less socialization, less time spent outdoors and often, less exercise, can really start to bring us down. Never fear! Spring might still be a few months away, but here are some yoga postures that you can do right now to help lift your spirits.
Yoga lives in the deep and complex connections between our bodies and our minds. B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the founders of modern yoga, once famously said that open armpits fight depression. While this sounds kind of odd, it actually makes sense. Where ever you are right now, I dare you to lift your arms up proudly overhead, and open those armpits to the world! Notice what kind of subtle effect this might have on your energy.
The following postures act on the body in different ways. Some are intended to be grounding and introspective, while others encourage opening.
Because there are different ways to feel down, you may find different postures helpful at different times. For example, folks experiencing certain kinds of anxiety sometimes find it uncomfortable to close their eyes, or to open the front body (as in Supported Fish pose.) A more guarded shape like Child's pose may feel more secure. Similarly, if the mind is racing, forcing the body to be still in a static forward fold might be counterproductive. It may be more useful to first move through a few Sun Salutations to help burn off nervous energy before settling in to stillness.
If it's feelings of depression and apathy you're dealing with, Patricia Walden suggests focusing on the inhalation, as it draws prana (life force) into the body. However, if you're feeling more anxious, it may be helpful to focus on lengthening your exhalations, which can prompt relaxation by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Do what feels good and adapt your practice to suit you as you are today!
A final note before we get to the postures
There is an important difference between occasional sadness and sadness that won't go away. If you have been feeling miserable or empty most of the time for more than a few weeks, you might be experiencing depression, which means it's time to talk to someone. A loved one or your doctor are good places to start. Click here to learn more about the symptoms.
1. Child's Pose
This posture is intended to be deeply grounding. It is a humble gesture of bowing which brings you into close contact with the earth. The point of contact of the forehead with the floor stimulates the Ajna, or third-eye, chakra. This asana gently stimulates the digestive organs, and stretches out the back and shoulders. When we become overwhelmed, it helps us feel the ground beneath us - literally.
From kneeling, lower your upper body down, bringing your forehead to rest on the floor, or on a block. Arms can be extended straight out ahead of you, palms pressing in to the ground, or you can try bringing the arms along side your body, with the hands resting, palms-up, beside the feet. This pose can be done with knees together, or with the feet together and the knees apart. Try both variations and see which one feels better in the hips and low back.
Not feeling it? Try the following modifications. If there is too much pressure on the ankles, try rolling up a blanket or a towel and placing it beneath the ankles, right where they would bend. If you are having trouble lowering the hips down towards the feet, fill the gap by placing a rolled up blanket or pillow between the hips and the heels. You can also bring a pillow or bolster beneath the torso for more support all around, and turn your head to the side. Aaah!
2. Downward-Facing Dog
(Adho Mukha Svanasana)
This is a stronger, more active posture, great for burning off nervous energy. However, it can be made more restorative by bringing a block or other prop beneath the forehead. In Downward-Facing Dog, the head is below the heart, which means it is an inversion, with many of the same benefits as headstand. Inversions help bring fresh blood to the brain, move fluids through the body, and combat stagnation. Additionally, when the head comes below the heart, the nervous system gets a message to relax. Many people find inversions have a positive effect on mood.
From hands and knees, place the hands about shoulder width apart. Spread the fingers widely, and push down through the base of each finger. Tuck the toes under, and lift the knees up off the ground, sending the hips up and back, aiming to bring the body toward an upside-down V shape. Bend the knees a little and send the chest toward the thighs as you keep aiming the tailbone up and back. Keep pushing the floor away from you. Then, once the spine is long, you can begin to straighten the legs as far as the hamstrings will allow. Aim to stretch the spine rather than the hamstrings in this pose.
3. Seated Forward Fold
Many people find forward folds calming and helpful for relieving anxiety. These postures help us slow down and turn inwards, which can be a great relief when the world around us feels like too much. They bring the spine into its primary curve, the kyphotic shape we developed in the womb and were born with. Part of the reason forward folds can be soothing because they recreate the curvature of the spine we experienced in utero. Like in Child's Pose, we see a gesture of bowing, which can help us tap in to feelings of surrender and humility.
To come into this simple forward fold, begin seated with the legs straight out in front of you. It can be helpful to sit up on a folded blanket or a block to help tip the pelvis forward. Activate the legs, flexing the feet towards you and pushing out through the heels. Sit up nice and tall, pushing the ground away from you with your finger tips, and lengthening your spine as you inhale. As you exhale, begin to hinge at the hips, and reach your heart forward. Keep the spine long as you hinge forward towards the feet. If there is tension in the lower back, or the hamstrings feel really tight, freely bend your knees. If you have the mobility today, you can take hold of your feet with your hands. If the feet feel really far away, you can always loop a strap or a belt around the soles of the feet, and hold one end in each hand. Stay here in this active version for as long as feels good. When you are ready to relax, tuck the chin in toward the chest and allow the upper back to round. To deepen relaxation, experiment with resting the upper body and head on a prop, such as a pillow or a cushion. You can also make the posture more comfortable by placing a rolled up blanket below the knees, as pictured above.
4. Supported Fish
There have been few scientific studies of the effects of yoga on depression, but promisingly, an 8-week pilot study in San Francisco found yoga to be an effective means of combatting mild to moderate depression. The postures emphasized in the study were heart-opening postures, such as this one. We've chosen to feature this heart-opening posture because it is deliciously passive. However, any chest opener or back bend will do. You can try cobra, upward facing dog, bow, or camel pose, none of which require props. Heart openers help us take big breaths, and counteract the fallen shoulders and slumped backs that often plague us when we are feeling a bit 'meh.' This posture is also wonderful for those of us who sit hunched over computers most of the day.
To come in to this posture, begin seated with your legs out in front of you. Take one of your blocks and place it beneath the shoulder blades -about where a bra strap might sit- on its second highest height. Slowly lower yourself on to the block, adjusting its placement for comfort as necessary. Place the other block underneath your head to support it. The block that supports the head can either be at the same height as the block beneath your shoulder blades, or it can be at the block's tallest setting. See what feels best for you. Allow the arms to rest away from the body, palms facing up, shoulders rolling down. You might also like to bring the arms overhead, and grab opposite elbows, as pictured above. You may choose to keep the legs extended, or to bend the knees and rest the feet on the floor, or to bring the soles of the feet together and allow the knees to fall out to the sides. You may choose to do something altogether different with the feet. You're the boss.
5. Legs Up The Wall
(Sometimes AKA Viparita Karani)
This delicious, gentle inversion you can do anytime is beloved for its restorative effects. Bringing the legs up the wall can feel really calming and nourishing, perhaps because reversing our relationship with gravity gives the cardiac system a break, while bathing the upper body and head with fresh blood. Many people find this pose helpful when they're having trouble falling asleep, and it can also replenish you when you didn't get enough sleep. It boosts the immune system by directly supporting lymphatic flow. Elevating the legs like this is especially wonderful for people who stand all day. Because it promotes drainage -of blood, lymph, interstitial fluid - it can help us work through feelings of stagnation, both physical and subtle.
Bring your bum as close as you can to the wall while lying on your side, and then turn to swing your legs up the wall. This posture can be done with the tailbone right up against the wall, or, if there is tightness in the hamstrings, it may feel better to move away from the wall slightly and bend the knees. Make sure the whole spine is on the floor. You can also place a prop beneath the hips to enhance the effects of the inversion. Make yourself comfortable. Allow the arms to fall out to your sides, palms face up, or let them rest on your belly. If it feels okay, close your eyes. Stay here as long as you like.
Bonus: Lion's Breath!
Dispels negative energy, and stimulates the throat chakra, the centre of communication and self expression. Also, it will probably make you laugh!
Inhale deeply through the nose. Now for the fun part: exhale through the mouth, sticking the tongue out as far as you can and reaching it towards the chin. Open the eyes wide, and make a 'haaaaa!' sound as you exhale by contracting the throat. Make some noise! I try to cross my eyes and make claws with my hands when I do this - it somehow makes me feel less ridiculous. Repeat, repeat, repeat.