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How Can Yoga Help You Today?

 by Nina Zolotow

Untitled Question Marks by Saul Steinberg

We’re all going through this pandemic together, but, if you think about it, our individual circumstances still vary widely. Some of us are sheltering in place while others are working hard at essential jobs. And among those sheltering in place, some of us are alone, some are with just one person, and some are in a busy household with multiple people. So how yoga can help you right now is going to depend on the current circumstances of your life. For example, do you need a moment of quiet? Or are you feeling discouraged and sluggish from being alone all the time? Maybe you’re sitting all day and feel like you need to move. Or maybe part of your body aches from the work you’re doing, whether out in the world or at home.

And while it’s safe to say we’re all stressed out, how we experience stress also varies from person to person. Some people feel anxious, some feel angry, and some feel depressed. Others experience stress in very physical ways, such as digestive problems, headaches, insomnia, or even breaking out in hives. So how yoga can help you right now is also going to depend on the way you are personally experiencing stress right now.

There was a time in my life, back—in the nineties—when I was super stressed out. (I was working full-time at a computer software startup company that was trying to finish the Beta version of the product while co-parenting two children with my husband, who also had a high-stress full-time job.) I was actually doing yoga at the time—two days a week in a class in my office building. And when I was feeling the most stressed out and had terrible insomnia, I did try practicing some yoga at home because I heard that “yoga can help.” But the problem was—I can see that now in retrospect—I was just doing things we did in my classes, such as standing poses and Sun Salutations, without understanding how they were affecting me. Since these are energizing practices, they definitely weren’t helping to calm me down!

Since then I’ve learned so much about how different yoga poses and practices affect me, and when I’m feeling stressed or having some kind of physical problem, rather than just doing any old yoga sequence as I did back then, I start by asking myself: How can yoga help me today? Then, when I identify the kind of help from yoga that I need, I’m able to come up with a practice that will provide that help.

So, when you’re ready to do some yoga, even just a pose or two, I suggest that you start with the same basic question: How can yoga help me today? 

Here are few things you might consider:
  1. Do I need to escape from the family/housemates for some quiet time?
  2. Do I need energizing and/or uplifting?
  3. Do I need cooling down?
  4. Do I feel scattered, distracted, or unfocused?
  5. Do I need to reduce stress with quieting practices?
  6. Do I need to move my body and release some energy?
  7. Is there a physical ache, such as back pain, neck pain, leg pain from standing, that yoga might be able to help with?
Then, after identifying what’s going on with you on a given day, try to figure out, which poses, sequences, or practices have helped you in the past with these types of issues. Without being prescriptive about it (you need to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t—see If It's Not Working For You, It's Not Working For You), here are some ideas:
  1. Escaping from the family/housemates for quiet time: Try going somewhere by yourself, shut the door (and ask someone to watch the kids for a bit if needed), and do a favorite calming yoga pose or two, meditate, or do a calming breath practices—or combine those.
  2. Energizing and/or uplifting: Try practicing back-bending poses, either passive or active, and/or moving in and out of poses with your breath (Sun Salutations and other vinyasas). End with a relaxing pose or practice so you don’t over-stimulate yourself.
  3. Cooling down: Try practice forward-bending poses and/or supported inverted poses. 
  4. Focusing: Try practice balancing pose or any kind (wide-legged standing poses count), chair yoga poses where your legs are active and feet are pressing into the ground, a concentration meditation (yogic style meditation where you focus on your breath, an image, a mantra, etc.), or a concentration breath practice, such as Alternate Nostril Breath, that takes a lot of mental focus. End with a relaxing pose or practice.
  5. Reducing stress with quieting practices: Try practicing classic stress management techniques of your choice (see Stress Management for When You're Stressed for a large selection).
  6. Moving your body and releasing some energy: Try practicing standing poses, moving with your breath (Sun Salutations), and/or twisting poses. End with a relaxing pose or practice so you don’t over-stimulate yourself.
  7. Physical aches, such as back pain from sitting, neck pain, leg pain from standing: Try gentle movement and/or gentle stretches in the area where you’re experiencing the discomfort. For back pain in particular, some people find backbends help but others find twists or forward bends helpful, so you’ll need to experiment to find what works for you if you don’t already know. End with a relaxing pose or practice because relaxation can also help with pain.

The ability to identify how yoga can help you and then practice what’s right for you on a given day is one of the great gifts of home practice! And many say that this process of taking time to study yourself and exploring how various practices effect you—and help you—provides a deeper way to experience yoga than just taking classes. As Timothy McCall wrote in his book Yoga As Medicine:

"If you are taking yoga classes but not practicing at home, you may be missing the best—and potentially most therapeutic—part of yoga. Your personal practice is where the deepest work happens, when you go inward and go at your own pace."

Of course, if you’re feeling lonely, isolated, or disconnected and taking a class (in whatever form) feels like the best option for you today, then that’s the best option for you today!

This article originally appeared on the Accessible Yoga blog.

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