When a gazelle gets chased by a cheetah, its body gets into the fight or flight mode; an avalanche of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released into its bloodstream. But if the gazelle luckily escapes and the chase is over, guess what happens? Almost immediately, all the stress hormones get cleared and the gazelle’s body returns back to homeostasis. Its body now starts to repair all the damage it took during the ordeal.
Though, in us “humans”, something weird happens. Irrespective of if or not a threat is physically present, the mere thought of it can unleash the hormones of stress in our bloodstream. And during that, our immune system goes down, restorative processes decline and the body starts performing below par. As you would imagine, it’s definitely not a prudent state to be in for prolonged periods.
This is why it becomes crucial for us to cultivate a mind and body that is better able to handle the stress of day-to-day living instead of succumbing to it.
Yogic techniques such as pranayama, asanas, meditation and others can be extremely beneficial in this regard as they help you reduce your level of stress and anxiety, increase feelings of peace and serenity, and improve the overall quality of life.
Here are 5 powerful yogic techniques you can practice on a daily basis that will help strengthen your mind-body and keep stress at bay.
1. Surya Namaskar
Yoga asanas are designed to relax and rejuvenate the body while promoting the free flow of energy, especially when performed consistently over time. And the best way to bring consistency to your practice is to follow a yoga sequence.
Yoga sequences are easy to remember and can also be repeated multiple times to get maximum benefits.
A simple yoga sequence that anyone can master is the Surya Namaskar or sun salutations. This is a fourteen part sequence (synced with the breath) that is designed to energize, activate and balance all the seven chakras in the body.
There are many variations to Surya Namaskar, but generally speaking, it consists of 7 poses that include the prayer pose, raising hands pose, toe touch, horse pose, mountain pose, eight angle pose and cobra pose. Once you complete all 7 poses, you do the poses in reverse order to complete the sequence. Once completed, the entire sequence is repeated 2 to 10 times depending on your stamina and comfort level.
The best time to do Surya Namaskar is during the early hours of the morning and if possible while facing the rising sun.
It is always a good idea to end the sequence with savasana, as it is the relaxation pose.
Benefits of Surya Namaskar
You can reap amazing health benefits if you practice these poses every morning. In addition to revitalizing your body, practicing Surya Namaskar also helps strengthen muscles and joints, reduce excess weight, balance blood sugar levels, improve circulation, improve brain functioning, reduce stress and anxiety while promoting the free flow of energy throughout your body.
2. Pranayama Breathing Exercises
Once you have completed the asanas, you can continue with a pranayama breathing exercise.
Pranayama is control of life force energy, usually by manipulating the breath in some way. There are various types of pranayama, but the one that I find the most beneficial for regulating stress and anxiety is “anuloma viloma” or alternating nostril breathing.
This practice is said to reduce stress and anxiety by purifying the body through balancing the ida (feminine) and Pingala (masculine) energy “nadis” or channels.
To do this, sit comfortably (preferably cross-legged as in sukhasana) and using the hand in a Vishnu mudra, block the right nostril while inhaling with the left nostril. Retain the breath for a few seconds before exhaling through the right nostril while blocking the left nostril. Now start to inhale via the right nostril and continue the sequence this way.
Another pranayama which is my personal favourite is the Bhramari pranayama also known as the bee breathing technique. This is a simple breathing technique that involves making a humming sound while breathing.
To do this, block your ears with your index fingers, keep your mouth and eyes closed as you inhale and make a humming sound as you exhale. This is akin to creating an OM sound through your nose. The vibrations produced by this type of breathing can feel deeply relaxing. Consciously feel the vibrations as you breathe out.
Benefits of Pranayama Breathing Exercises
Anuloma viloma is helpful in curing depression, anxiety and stress. It also helps alleviate breathing related issues like bronchitis, asthma etc and strengthens your lungs.
Bhramari Pranayama produces deep relaxing vibrations. These vibrations help reduce stress and anxiety issues and help to create a feeling of well being.
Another great benefit to these breathing practices is that they facilitate simply becoming present and aware of the breath, which could lead you into a state of meditation.
Here’s a short video on the 3 most effective Pranayamas:
3. Chant Mantras
Just as using breath awareness and pranayama can silence the mind and create a state of meditation, so can repeating mantras. ‘Mantra’ is actually a Sanskrit word that means
“to be free from the mind”
Many mantras, spoken in Sanskrit, have very important meanings. For example, “So Hum,” which simply means “I am That.” This mantra illustrates our unity with everything in the Universe and eliminates the illusion of my separateness.
It is our ego and ideas of separateness that cause our minds to stress about the details of our life. By coming back to the absolute truth, that we are one with all, the stress falls away and we can enter a state of meditation and finally let go and relax!
You can silently repeat a mantra in your mind or chant the mantra out loud (E.g., AUM, HUMSHA, SO HUM etc.). As you chant the mantras, bring your full attention to the sound that each chant products. This helps you get into a meditative state and also helps you get the full benefits of the chanting.
You can also chant mantras using mala beads to bring more discipline to your practice. Overall, chanting mantras can help you gain control of your mind-body.
Benefits of Chanting Mantras
According to yogic philosophy, chanting mantras create certain sacred vibrations that can allow our minds to release old traumas and let go of beliefs that no longer serve us. By fixing your focus on a single mantra, you can often concentrate and find yourself in a state of free-flowing meditation, without thought.
4. Meditate in Silence
All of the techniques mentioned above are meditative in their own right but nothing can calm down the mind-body and help you become more conscious than a formal meditation practice.
There are two types of meditation that you can practice: “focused meditation” and “open focus meditation” or “mindfulness meditation”.
The Focused Meditation Technique
In focused meditation (also known as Samatha meditation), you sit comfortably with your eyes closed and try to focus all your attention on a single object or sensation. For example, the sensation of breathing. Feel the cool air caressing the tip of your nostrils as you inhale and the warm air as you exhale. Keep consciously focusing on each sensation this way. If thoughts arise, let them arise without engaging with them. If you find yourself engaging with a thought, gently acknowledge that and bring your attention back to your breath. Keep doing this and the thoughts will eventually subside.
The Mindfulness Meditation Technique
In mindfulness meditation (also known as Open Focus Meditation), you sit with your eyes closed but don’t focus on anything. Instead, you stay as open awareness, simply being a witness to everything that arises. Let the thoughts arise but do not engage with the thought. Feel the sensations but again, do not interpret or engage with the sensation. Let your attention roam freely anywhere it wants to go but don’t lose your attention to anything. Just say mindful and alert.
One thing that is common to both these types of meditation is to stay alert and aware of your attention. If you are not conscious of your attention, it won’t be long before your attention gets pulled in by the thoughts.
Benefits of the Focused Meditation & Mindfulness Meditation Technique
Both these meditative techniques can help calm down your mind-body and can be done alternatively right before going to bed (to get deep restorative sleep) or early in the morning to get a clear state of mind. Meditation also helps you gain better control over your mind-body and helps you attain higher levels of consciousness.
5. Practice Sungazing
Sungazing is an ancient practice that involves looking directly at the sun for a set period of time ranging from 15 seconds to 5 minutes. Even though this practice is gaining popularity now, many cultures around the world have been practicing “sun gazing” for ages. For example, there is a practice in India known as Arghya. “Arghya” includes water that is poured from a container and the sun is looked at through the water.
Similarly, there is the yogic tradition of ‘Surya Namaskar’ (that we discussed above) which means offering prayers to the sun. Surya in Sanskrit translates to the Sun and namaskar is a traditional Indian greeting (or way of praying), made by bringing the palms together before the face and bowing the head.
The Sungazing Technique
The best time to Sun gaze is during the safe hours (first few minutes during sunrise and sunset). During this time, the UV rays are at their lowest and hence it is safe to look directly at the Sun. For beginners, around 15 to 30 seconds should suffice. You can slowly increase the duration to 5 minutes as you continue your practice.
To get maximum benefits, it is a good idea to ground yourself as you sun gaze. Grounding involves standing barefoot so the soles of your feet touch the earth’s surface. You can also turn this into a meditative practice by focusing your attention on the sun.
Make sure that you do your research before you begin to sun gaze. You might also want to buy a Sun Meter UV Card or UV Wristband. These will help you monitor the UV rays so you know when to sun gaze safely.
Benefits of the Sungazing Technique
The sun is the source of all energy and sun gazing is a great way to tap into this energy. Sungazing can stimulate the pineal gland. This helps the pineal gland release serotonin (the daytime neurotransmitter as known as the happiness hormone) during the day. It also helps the gland release melatonin (the sleep hormone) during the night. Ultimately facilitating a good night’s sleep.
There are various studies which suggest that grounding not only reduces stress levels, it also helps reduce inflammation and autoimmune diseases while strengthening the immune system. A study conducted at the University of California suggests that grounding for an hour can significantly increase mood and reduce stress levels.
When practiced on a daily basis, these yogic techniques have the power to transform your mind-body. Therefore, they can ultimately help you to enhance the quality of your life.