We’ve all heard that both yoga & mindfulness are wonderful ways to reduce stress. And yet, if we’re already feeling overwhelmed, it can be daunting to start a practice — especially if it means lengthy study or a class where we feel out of place. But there’s good news: if you’ve wanted to try them but have felt unsure where to begin, there are three important facts you’ll be glad to know:
Both yoga & meditation don’t have to be complex to be effective — in fact, the simplest tend to be the most powerful….
Taking care of body & mind doesn’t have to take much time — in fact, as little as 10-15 minutes a day can have a major impact on both health & outlook.
Finally, and best of all, the newer we are & the more stressed we feel, the more we can benefit from even a basic routine.
I’d like to share a simple & effective practice for both body & mind — one you can do in just a few minutes & no matter how inflexible your body or how restless your mind. But first, I’d like to reinforce the three points above, as well as why the combination of simple yoga & mindfulness offers such powerful relief from chronic stress.
#1 An Effective Routine Really Can Be Simple
It might be hard to believe that simple works, but an example should make it clear: We all know that at a gym we’ll see people doing all kinds of exercises with a variety of equipment. But if you ask trainers, they’ll tell you you really only need a small number of simple exercises to build basic fitness & health.
Well, yoga & mindfulness are exactly the same — in fact, it’s the simplest, most-basic movements & techniques that confer the greatest benefits. And, just like the most effective exercises tend to be the easiest to learn & do, the same goes with yoga & meditation. Sure, there are plenty of complex poses & contemplative practices, but you don’t need to know them, let alone master them, to experience the many benefits of yoga & meditation.
#2 Even a Few Minutes Can Have Day-Long (and Life-Long) Benefits
Continuing the analogy, most of us assume we need an hour or two of exercise to improve our health. And yet, studies show even brief activity can have powerful results, especially when done regularly. In fact, research shows as little as 10-20 minutes of exercises daily is more beneficial than a longer trip to the gym just once or twice a week. And again, both yoga & mindfulness are the same — even just 5-10 minutes each morning can dramatically improve your health, your comfort in your body, your peace & your presence.
On top of that, just like a little exercise, the first thing can significantly shift how you feel, both physically & mentally, throughout the day, the same goes for yoga & meditation. You’ll walk & sit a little straighter, accumulate less stiffness, and, even more important, breathe a bit better & digest a bit better the entire rest of your day. Likewise, your mind will stay more centered & you’ll have less of a tendency to fall into unconscious patterns that generate much of our daily stress.
#3 The Newer We Are to Yoga & the More Stressed We Are, the Quicker the Benefits
Finally, to extend the example one last step, we all know the more sedentary we are, the more we’ll benefit from even the most modest activity, and the same goes for yoga & meditation. Or, to use a slightly different analogy, imagine someone who eats nothing but processed foods. Now imagine how they’d feel if they added even a little fresh fruit & salad on a daily basis — obviously, they are going to notice a significant difference.
Well, the same goes for basic stretching & basic mindfulness cultivation — simply being even a bit more comfortable in your body is going to significantly reduce both physical & emotional stress, and similarly, being just a bit more mindful is going to help you make slightly better choices, in turn, resulting in finishing each day a little less anxiousness & a lot more peaceful.
A Simple, Daily Practice for Body & Mind
So now that we’ve covered the “why,” let’s take a look at “what.” The following might seem simple, but by now you understand that it not only doesn’t have to be complex to be effective, but that, in fact, when we’re already feeling overwhelmed, simple is far more effective.
You’ll notice there are three basic elements to the practice — a simple routine for gently stretching & strengthening, an easy breathing practice to calm the mind & nervous system, and finally a simple technique for centering the mind & building gentle focus. While the three are designed to form a complete routine, they can also be done separately over the course of the day. All together, the three take less than 15 minutes, making it an easy but powerful way to start each morning or to relax after a long day.
Five Simple Stretches for Waking Up or Calming Down
The following is perfect both for gently waking in the morning or unwinding later in the day. It will also safely strengthen the muscles that improve posture throughout the day, deepen respiration & even support healthy digestion & elimination.
All poses should involve gentle effort — that is, you should feel either a healthy engagement of muscles or a healthy stretch, depending on the nature of the pose, but you should always feel relatively relaxed & free of discomfort. Note that active poses (ones where you are strengthening, marked “A”) should be held for 3-4 slow, deep breaths & repeated twice, while passive stretches (relaxing, marked “P”) should be done just once, but held for 5-8 slow, full breaths.
Low Cobra (A)
Strengthens postural muscles of the upper back & neck. Lie on stomach, forehead on floor, palms on floor beside shoulders, elbows at sides and shoulders back toward waist.
Extend head and neck forward and up using just the muscles of the back — try to keep face toward floor rather than tilting head back & compressing back of neck.
Breathe deeply and soften the belly.
Slowly release down. Relax before repeating a second time.
Strengthens lower back & improves leg-circulation.
Lie on stomach, chin on floor., tuck arms underneath the body, palms on thighs. Try to bring elbows together.
Lengthen right leg, then lift slowly. Keep leg straight & try to keep left leg relaxed. Breathe deeply.
Slowly release down, then repeat with left leg & then again on both sides….
Lying Hip & Hamstring Cycle (P)
Stretches hamstrings & hips, improving posture, respiration & digestion.
Lie on back, sole of left foot on floor.
Extend right leg toward ceiling & take hold where comfortable.
Maintaining a slight bend in knee, draw thigh toward belly, holding for a few deep breaths.
If comfortable, slowly lower left leg flat on ground, continuing to hold the stretch of right leg.
After a few breaths, bend right knee & draw knee gently to chest.
Extend left arm to side & gently open right hip to the right, using right arm to guide knee out to the side.
After a few breaths, bring the right knee back to center, extend right arm to side & use left arm to gently guide the right knee across the body to the left.
After a few breaths, return to center, hug both knees & then repeat the above cycle with left leg.
Strengthens lower back & improves leg-circulation.
Lie on back with soles of feet on floor & slide shoulders toward feet/waist.
Press pelvis toward ceiling.
If comfortable here, bring hands together behind back, interlacing fingers & extending arms toward feet, drawing shoulders together.
Use breath to open chest, expanding abdomen toward the ceiling.
Release down & relax before repeating.
Expands rib-cage, supports spinal health, enhances digestion & elimination.
Lie on right side, legs bent as if sitting in a chair, arms extended in front of you, palm on palm, like the covers of a book.
Arch back slightly, belly forward, shoulders back.
With the inhalation, lift left arm as if opening the book, letting the arm lead head around to left.
Breathe deeply for 10-30 seconds, then slowly close book.
Relax a few seconds before switching sides & repeating in opposite direction.
A Simple Breathing Practice to Calm the Nervous System
The following can be done any time you need to recenter & calm your body & nervous system, but again is especially helpful at both the start & end of your day. Once more, like the postures, you should feel gentle effort on both inhale & exhale, while staying free of strain — that is, you should feel that you are mindfully trying to make both portions of the breath a bit more full while avoiding any sense of struggle or “forcing” the breath.
Sit comfortably on the edge of bed or chair — you want to be relatively upright so your abdomen & torso can move freely.
Breathing through your nose, inhale slowly & deeply to a count of four — try to feel your abdomen expanding first, followed by your rib-cage & finally your upper chest.
Breathing through your mouth, lips gently pursed, exhale slowly & fully to a slow count of eight — try to feel upper chest descending first, then rib-cage gently contracting & finally abdomen.
Repeat five to ten times, as you prefer.
Five-Minute Mindfulness & Centering
As above, start by sitting comfortably on the edge of bed or chair — again, you want to be upright & alert.
Set the timer for five minutes & begin.
Close your eyes & bring your awareness to your breath — without trying to control it, simply watch its natural flow.
Each breath, observe the inhale, then exhale, counting each exhalation (i.e., “Inhale … exhale … one .. inhale … exhale … two,” etc.).
When you reach 10, start again at 1 & continue; if you lose count or the mind begins to wander, simply smile & start back at 1. Continue until the timer rings.
Give these three practices a try — my experience is that you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how effective they can be, especially if done regularly. And once you develop a regular habit, you might find you want to deepen one or all three.