Only one month into the semester and students are being slammed with homework, stressing about studying for tests, and sharing sicknesses. As hectic as college life can be, there are physical exercises that can benefit mental limitations by alleviating stress and allowing the brain to work efficiently and economically. A good way to start the day is by awakening the vertebrae in the neck and spine by gently tilting the head from left to right and stretching it up and down. These few motions get blood moving through and around the brain stem, which sets the body up for a productive day. Every nerve signal, may that be physical or emotional, is sent and received by way of the brainstem. Thus, priming the brainstem by moving and igniting blood flow allows the nerves in the body to communicate cohesively.
All activities influence the body and how it functions. When movements are combined thoughtfully, the body can be coursed into functioning at an optimal level, mentally and physically. Here are six yoga poses that target mental function, specifically in regards to school-based anxiety and stress –
1. Nadi Shodhana Pranayama or Channel-Cleansing Breath
This is a breathing exercise that lowers the heart rate and reduces anxiety – perfect for fighting the stress of a new semester. Because this pose emphasizes the left and right sides, it is known to synchronize the two hemispheres of the brain.
In a seated position, with legs folded and palms placed on the knees facing up, start by exhaling. Take the right thumb to the right nostril and inhale deeply through the left nostril. Release the right nostril and cover the left with ring finger (supported by the pinky), then gently exhale through the right nostril. Keeping the same hand placement, inhale though the right nostril to start the progression over. Repeat this process for 10-15 breaths.
2. Ardha Pincha Mayurasana or Dolphin Pose
Flunk the first test of the semester? The dolphin pose is great for calming the brain and fighting depression such that the body can release excess pressure from failure and the brain can prepare to intake and comprehend more information. The shoulder, hamstrings, calves, and feet are elongated and stretched, which combats stress held as tension in the muscles. This pose can also help to lower blood pressure.
Starting in an elbow plank, adjust the hips forward and up. Pressing the head through the shoulders to make a triangle shape with the body. Make sure that the heels are continuing to press into the floor, rather than raising up to a tippy-toed position.
3. Padangusthasana or Big Toe Pose
Sitting in class all day can take its toll on the body: the spine can become stiff, the muscles can become tight, and the brain can feel foggy. Big toe pose calms the brain by rushing blood to that area. The spine is lengthened and stretched so that the spinal cord can be receptive to new information and the muscles holding the vertebrae feel suppler.
Standing with the feet shoulder width apart, release the torso over the legs. Bend the elbow, holding each arm with the opposite hand. Place the weight into the heels and breath into the stretch. Let the weight of the head and upper body pull the torso closer to the legs. Take hold of the big toes and assist the stretch by gently pulling the torso closer to the floor, aiming to press the face into the shins.
4. Halasana or Plow Pose
This pose in known to reduce stress, relieve headaches, and diminish the feeling of fatigue. The first month of classes is usually the hardest for me; adjusting to a new schedule, adapting to new responsibilities, and trying to be successful at all the things. I find that I feel most fatigued right around the end of the first month of classes. Plow pose is an agent to eliminate that feeling by calming the brain and stretching the spine.
Start lying on the back with the arms on either side of the body. Take the legs overhead and press the triceps, located on the backside of the arms, into the floor to ground the position. If the feet can rest easily on the floor, try bending the knees closer to the ground for a deeper stretch.
5. Janu Sirsasana or Head to Knee Pose
Head to knee pose is a great exercise for a stressed-out body because it stimulates the liver and kidneys while also stretching the spine, shoulders, groin, and hamstrings. The liver and kidneys are both used to excrete toxins from the body. Because tension and toxins can be held or become fixed in these areas, the body may feel sluggish and adverse. Head to knee pose opens the prana, flow of energy, to these organs so that they can work proficiently. This pose is also known to relieve depression, improve digestion, and reduce blood pressure.
Starting in a seated position, bend one knee so that the foot is resting against the inside of the opposite knee. While focusing on breath, relax the torso over the legs, grabbing hold of the foot of the straight leg. Visualize the spine lengthening from the tailbone through the neck and allow the forehead to rest on the straightened knee.
6. Savasana or Corpse Pose
Accumulation of assignments, quizzes, and tests always seems to take over the first month of the semester; which isn't very assuring based on the definition of accumulation. My shoulders feel lifted to my ears out of sheer stress and tension when I feel overwhelmed but I know that there is only more work to be done. The corpse pose is perfect for combating that tremendous feeling of stress. This pose calms the brain, relaxes the body, lowers blood pressure, and fights insomnia. By relaxing all the muscles in the body, letting the body fall into the floor, energy can flow freely through the chakras and the mind can unwind.
Laying on the back, with the legs out straight and arms dropped to either side, focus on releasing all muscles tension. I try to locate a place in my body that is holding tension and work to send my breath to that area. By oxygenating the area, the energy can be flushed out and that region can fully relax. Visualizing positive energy flowing into the body with the oxygen and confronting the area tension, then the tension being released in the exhale. I take about five deep breathes, repeating this visual, with this intention in mind, before moving to the next area.