As bright and beautiful as it may be, life is full of little (and big) stressors, whether it’s traffic during your morning commute, impending deadlines, or too many holiday parties. Thankfully, finding peace of mind can be as simple as performing yoga. Researchers have touted yoga’s calming benefits, and one recent study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine showed that yoga can increase GABA activity in the brain. GABA—or gamma-aminobutyric acid—is one of the brain’s main inhibitory chemicals and neurotransmitters, responsible for slowing brain activity and generally calming the mind.
Here, San Francisco-based yoga teacher Patsy Leung shares three poses with calming benefits, perfect for your busiest days. Bonus: You can stand while doing them, and strike a pose anywhere.
“Bending forward allows more blood to flow into your head and calms the mind,” Leung says. This pose also allows your neck and shoulders to release, creating gentle traction by way of gravity. “To top it off, forward folds are said to be soothing to the abdominal organs, and we tend to feel stress in our gut,” Leung says.
To Do It: Stand with feet hip-distance apart, and—keeping knees slightly bent (or more, if you need), bend forward and down from your hips. Hold each elbow with the opposite arm, and allow your upper body to hang toward the floor. Hold for at least five breaths.
For starters, this standing pose feels good: You’ll stretch your hamstrings, hips, and the sides of your body—releasing muscles that get sore from sitting and traveling. It’s also a great core strengthening move, because you engage your obliques to lift your body as high as possible.
“One thing about Triangle that makes it especially appropriate for the holidays is that it’s a twist,” Leung says. “The yogic thought is it’s like twisting a rag—squeezing fresh blood to your organs, aiding digestion. The twist is also good for your spine, lubricating your vertebrae—which can help with back aches.”
To Do It: Stand with feet facing the same direction, about three feet apart, and your arms extended out at your sides, palms facing down. Turn your right foot to the side, so that it faces forward and is perpendicular to your back foot. Shift your hips back toward you left, and reach forward with your right hand. Bend sideways from your hips, stretching over your right leg and down toward the floor, while tick-tocking your arms so that they reach to 6- and 12-o’clock positions. Gaze either ahead or up at your left hand. Reach your left hand and the left side of your body up toward the ceiling, using your obliques to support and deepen the stretch. You should have very little to no weight in your right hand. Hold for three to five breaths, and switch sides.
This balance pose requires focus, and putting your mind on one thing can be calming, Leung says. “It’s also extremely grounding, not just because you’re pressing your standing foot firmly into the mat, but also because it allows for steady breathing. You can breathe into this pose to help stabilize your body, and any time you deepen your breath, you’re calming your nervous system,” Leung says. “It’s a mindful pose.”
To Do It: Stand with feet hip-distance apart, and root your left foot firmly into the floor. Place your right foot against your left inner thigh or your left calf muscle, and bring your palms together at your chest, in prayer position. Gaze ahead to maintain your balance, and hold for three to five breaths. Return to start and switch sides.
Bonus: Child’s Pose
This is the go-to pose in yoga, any time you need a break or a moment to simply rest. It also allows you to stretch your spine and release your shoulders and neck—places where we hold tension. Finally, when you rest your forehead on the mat, it’s thought that you’re stimulating your third eye, the center of intuition, which can be grounding when life swirls around you. If you’re traveling, or simply on-the-go, perform Child’s Pose in the morning when you wake, or at night on your bed.
“Child’s Pose is extremely calming, and there are ways to customize it to make it even more relaxing,” Leung says. “You can rest your forehead on a block, to bring the ground up to you, or roll a towel and place it behind your knees, for comfort. You can also bend your elbows, which puts your arms in Cactus Pose—which can be easier on your shoulders. The idea is to not make any effort, and to let it all go.”
To Do It: Get onto your hands and knees, and open your knees so that they’re just wider than hip distance. Reach your hips back and down, and lower your body until your forehead reaches the mat, allowing your arms and upper back to stretch. Hold for three or more breaths.