10 of the best yoga poses for stress relief
You’re busy, you’re late, you’re tired, you’re sore. In a word, stressed. And you know it will only build up if you don’t find an outlet. In those moments you need to stretch, slow down or just take a moment to breathe, yoga is the perfect solution – and we’ll help you get started here with some of our favorite yoga poses for stress relief.
When it comes to your mental and physical health, yoga has a wealth of benefits and a range of poses targeting different stressors and pain points.
To introduce you to the relaxation benefits of yoga, we’ve lined up some poses known for their stress-relief properties. These poses are great if you’re short on time or simply want to give yoga a go, but the big benefits come from regular practice. If you’d like to build a yoga habit, a free trial with Centr will give you access to all of Tahl’s guided Dynamic Yoga workouts. Looking for a guided video session of yoga for relaxation? Try this routine to relieve stress at home.
Focusing on your breath during these movements is key to maximizing yoga’s stress release benefits. While doing the poses, aim to inhale and exhale for the same count, e.g. in, 2, 3, 4, out, 2, 3, 4. Studies increasingly show that breathing exercises – including following or focusing on breath – can reduce anxiety and bring about relaxation.
1. Forward fold
How it relieves stress: When done correctly, the forward fold is one of the best yoga poses to relieve stress. Inversions (poses where your head is below your heart and hips) cause the brain to be gently flooded with oxygen, which can result in feelings of calm and clarity. A forward fold will also relax the back of your body, including your neck and head, which can help to alleviate headaches. It also opens up your hamstrings, calves and glutes for an awesome stretch.
How to do a forward fold: Standing tall with your feet together, raise your arms above your head, breathe in, then as you breathe out fold forward from the hips and, if you can, rest your palms on the floor in line with your feet. Keep a slight bend in your knees and focus on engaging your quadriceps, which will encourage your hamstrings to further open up, and let your head hang down. When you’re ready to rise up, inhale and engage your core as you stand up tall.
Tips for beginners: If you don’t have enough mobility to reach the floor, use yoga blocks or books under your hands – do not strain. (You do not need to touch your toes or the floor for this fold to be effective.) You can also keep quite a deep bend in your knees until your mobility improves.
Remember that your body will release deeper tension over a longer hold time. It’s okay to build up to a longer hold as you get better at each pose.
2. Forward fold with shoulder opener
How it relieves stress: Your shoulders carry a lot of tension. This pose will help you release it by opening up your shoulders. You may find that tightness builds up in your shoulders (and into your neck) after long periods of sitting in front of a computer, too – so stepping away from your desk to do this shoulder opener at regular intervals will help you reset.
How to do a forward fold with shoulder opener: Standing tall, interlace your fingers behind your back, then push your chest forward and arms back as you breathe in. When you breathe out, bend your knees and fold forward from the hips, lowering your chest toward your legs. You will feel this stretch in your legs and glutes too, so only lean forward as far as you can hold without strain or pain.
Tips for beginners: If you aren’t able to clasp your hands behind your back, you can grab a t-shirt or towel and hold it behind you. Just like with a regular forward fold pose, it is acceptable to keep a deep bend in your knees so that your chest reaches your thighs.
3. Low lunge
Why it is good for stress: A low lunge stretches out your hips, hip flexors and groin, which can carry a lot of tension, especially if you work a desk job.
How to do a low lunge: From standing upright, step one foot back then drop that knee to the floor. (You can place the top of your back foot on the floor, or remain on your toes like Luke.) Lift your arms up overhead, and push forward from your hips, putting your weight into your front heel. Try to lift up your pelvis as you push forward, and keep your legs steady and strong. Stop and reset if you are wobbling. Switch sides by stepping the opposing foot back and repeat.
Tips for beginners: Don’t try to force your hips forward. Instead, focus on lengthening and lifting through your pelvis. If you can’t stay upright, try making your stance wider.
4. Low lunge with chest opener
How it relieves stress: Adding a twist to a low lunge will help to release tension from, and open up, your chest, back and shoulders. In yoga, poses that open up the chest are sometimes called “heart openers”, and they’re really useful after long periods of sitting or if you notice your posture slumping. Heart openers will also open up your ribs and shoulders, which can help to relieve the tension produced by hunching and make it easier to breathe deeply.
How to do a low lunge with chest opener: Begin in the low lunge position (feeling the stretch in your hips), then place both of your hands on the mat in line with your front foot. As you inhale, raise the hand on the same side as your front leg up toward the sky, twisting from your torso. Keep your head up by gazing toward your outstretched hand. As you hold the pose, think about lengthening your spine as you inhale, then twisting your torso a little further up with each exhale. To progress the move, lift your back knee off the floor as Tahl is demonstrating in the photo above. Switch sides by stepping the opposing foot back, and repeat.
Tips for beginners: Feel free to keep your back knee resting on the earth as Luke is demonstrating in the picture above. If you feel any strain in your neck, turn your gaze back down to the floor.
5. Intense side stretch
How it relieves stress: This intense stretch is good for allowing the upper half of your body to relax and release, while your hamstrings stretch out.
How to do an intense side stretch: Begin standing upright, then take a big step back with one foot. Think of your feet being on train tracks, or roughly 3–4ft (1–1.2m) apart. Fold forward from the hips down towards your front leg, keeping your hips square and your legs straight and strong. Place your hands on the floor and continue breathing, further extending your muscles as you inhale, and going deeper into the fold as you inhale. Switch sides by stepping the opposing foot back, and repeat.
Tips for beginners: If you can’t reach the ground, try placing your hands on blocks or books (as demonstrated by Sylvia in the photo above). You can also lift your back heel if you cannot get both your feet flat on the ground.
6. Butterfly pose
How it relieves stress: The butterfly pose is very calming, as it allows your body to sink into the earth while your hips glutes get a stretch at the same time. Hold it for as long as you like, steadily breathing in and out, letting yourself sink down further with each exhale.
How to do butterfly pose: Sitting on the floor, bring the soles of your feet together in front of you, pulling them in toward your butt, so your knees fall out to the sides creating a diamond shape. Holding onto the sides of your feet, breathe in and lengthen your spine, then as you breathe out, fold forward at the hips toward your feet. Don’t hunch down – aim to keep your spine long. Keep your breath steady, sinking further into the fold with each exhale.
Tips for beginners: If you are struggling to fold forward, try sticking a cushion or block under your butt.
7. Pigeon pose
Why it is good for stress: Pigeon pose delivers another forward fold and hip opener movement, this time bringing a stretch to your outer thigh, groin, and glutes as you relax forward into the floor. Because this move can be challenging, it’s also a great way to get your mind focused on the moment, not the endless to-do list you need to get through.
How to do pigeon pose:Starting from the low lunge position, place your hands on the mat in front of you, then shuffle your front foot toward the opposite hand and bend at the knee – lowering both legs so that your front shin is parallel to the top of the mat, and your rear knee and foot are on the mat behind you. (You can hop your rear leg back an inch or two as you lower down if it makes the stretch more achievable.) Once you are in this position, bend forward from the hips over your front leg, lowering yourself down onto your forearms and facing your forehead toward the floor. Your hips should remain square and your torso facing forward. Breathe steadily, folding further forward as you exhale. Switch sides and repeat.
Tips for beginners: If you find pigeon pose difficult to achieve with your rear leg extended, try the 90-90 modification demonstrated by Sylvia in the photo above. Instead of fully extending your rear leg behind you, it should mimic the shape of your front leg – with the top of your thigh pointing to the top of the mat, and your shin pointing to the side of the mat. This will place your upper body at an angle, so walk your hands out to the side of your front knee until your hips and torso feel square, then lower your torso down to feel the stretch.
8. Child’s pose
How it relieves stress: This restful post will help you to feel grounded and relaxed while you lightly stretch your back, hips, thighs and ankles. It will help to release tension in your lower back, hamstrings, chest and shoulders.
How to do child's pose: Kneel on your mat, with your butt sitting back against your heels. Breathe in and out, then as you exhale lower your torso down between your thighs and reach your arms out in front of you, resting your palms on the mat. Keep your face looking down at the mat, breathe steadily and deeply, allowing your muscles to loosen and relax. Stay relaxed in child’s pose as long as you like.
Tips for beginners: If you find it easier on your knees, keep your toes up on the mat as Luke is demonstrating here. If you experience shoulder pain in this pose, keep your arms at your side. You can also prop a pillow or blanket under your chest to really relax into it.
9. Reclined figure 4
How it relieves stress: Tight glutes (often caused by sitting all day) can transfer pain to your lower back, hamstrings and even down to your knees. This pose will give your glute muscles some space before the tension spreads.
How to do reclined figure 4: Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor, then cross your right ankle over your left knee. Raise your left knee toward your chest, gripping just below the knee with both hands to pull it closer until you feel a satisfying stretch through your glute and hip. Breathe steadily and hold the stretch, then switch and repeat on the other side.
Tips for beginners: You don’t need to pull the whole shape towards you to get a good stretch. You can also keep your foot on the ground and place a hand on your crossed knee as Sylvia is demonstrating here. Flexing your lifted foot will increase the stretch you feel.
10. Reclined twist
How it relieves stress: The chest stretch provided by this twist makes it another ‘heart opener’ – a pose that brings relaxation and good vibes. As well as stretching your glutes, chest and obliques, the twist improves spinal mobility.
How to do a reclined twist:Lie on your back with your feet on to the floor, and arms extended to the side. Shift your hips slightly to the left, then tip your knees over to the right. This should feel gentle, no pulling or straining. Keep both shoulders on the ground as you hold the twist. Switch and stretch to the left side.
Tips for beginners: If your lower back feels unstable when twisting, you can place a pillow or block under your knees on the side they are folding towards.
Following a short-term program is a great way to build a consistent yoga habit. That’s why we created Centr Align, 4-week yoga and Pilates program designed to boost your confidence in both practices, and align body and mind.
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