One of the reasons yoga is so valuable for stress relief is that it incorporates dynamic, or moving, stretches. Moving stretches activate your range of motion, circulating blood and oxygen and delivering nutrients to tissues. This powerful combination is incredible for melting away muscle tension. What's more, Harvard University research has found that activities like yoga that combine deep breathing and active stretching can help reduce stress, tension, and inflammation in the body.
Here are six basic yoga poses that specifically target tense muscles in the neck, upper and lower back, and hips, which tend to get tight and strained during times of extreme stress (or even after sitting at a desk all day). And bonus: You can do these stretches for free at home, no fancy yoga studio or equipment required. They're low-impact and beginner-friendly, so you can work them easily into a daily fitness or stretching routine. "These poses will help relieve and release muscle tension and the stresses and pressure of daily life, while you become stronger and more mind-body connected," says Laura McDonald, ACE certified personal trainer and. McDonald recommends holding each yoga pose for four to six deep breaths to soothe your muscle tension.
“Cat/cow stretch massages the muscles of the back, improves spinal flexibility, relieves lower back tension, calms the nervous system, and improves circulation,” McDonald says. She adds that it's important not to rush or force this pose—just flow easily and naturally with the breath.
How to do it: Start on your hands and knees. Inhale, tuck your chin in toward your chest, tuck your tailbone under, and round your back up. Exhale, lift your head and flatten or slightly arch your back. That’s one breath cycle—repeat four to six times.
This is an extremely calming pose that's “a gentle stretch for the back, hips, thighs, ankles, and feet,” says McDonald.
How to do it: Start on your hands and knees. Gently sit back on your heels. Walk your hands forward, lower your chest. Tuck your chin in and lower your head to the floor. Breathe deeply for a few breaths.
Rag Doll Pose (Standing Forward Fold)
McDonald says the rag doll posture is a simple stretch to ease lower back tension and loosen the hamstrings. You’ll also feel a nice release in the neck and shoulders when you let your head relax and be hang.
How to do it: Stand with your feet hip width apart and knees slightly bent (don’t lock your knees during this stretch). Keep your arms relaxed along the side of your body and then slowly bend forward at the hips as far as is comfortable—no need to force your fingers to the floor. For an extra stretch, hold elbows with the opposite hand, let your head be heavy, and very gently sway your upper body from side to side.
Downward Facing Dog
“[Downward facing dog] is a great position to lengthen the entire backside of the body, from the calves and hamstrings to the lower back and shoulders,” says Jesse Dietrick, CSCS, a sports performance coach at Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, Calif.
How to do it: Start on your hands and knees. Tuck your toes under and lift your knees up off the floor, extending both arms and both legs (you should be making an upside-down triangle shape with the floor as the base). If you can, let your heels drop toward the floor, push your shoulders away from your ears, and let your head hang down.
Modified Standing Back Bend
“This is a great pose to work on spinal extension (posture that keeps you upright), which can help offset the spinal flexion (forward hunch posture) a lot of people fall into whether from sitting at a desk, constant driving, or just bad posture,” Dietrick says.
How to do it: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Inhale and raise both arms straight up overhead. Exhale and bend and lower your elbows out and down toward the floor while arching back slightly to feel a stretch in the front body and hip flexors. (You can also keep arms straight up while holding the slight backward bend.)
Sleeping Pigeon Pose
If you’re looking to stretch your hips and glutes, pigeon pose does both, and therefore also helps relieve tightness in the lower back, Dietrick explains. Don’t worry if you’re too tight to do it perfectly yet—there are several ways to modify the one-leg pigeon pose so it’s effective but gentle on your body.
How to do it: Start on your hands and knees. Bring your right leg forward and place your right knee, shin, and foot on the floor at a right angle in front of your body. Straighten your left leg out behind you, with your left knee and top of your left foot facing down. Adjust to make sure both hips are facing forward and as flat to the floor as possible. To intensify the stretch, next curl your upper body forward and down, supporting yourself with either both elbows and forearms, or both hands flat on the floor in front of you. Release after several breath cycles and repeat with the left leg forward.