Shape Studio: Yoga Flow for a Happy, Calm Mind

This snack-sized yoga flow is like a reset button for your mood.

Yoga has a special effect on your brain chemistry beyond the general exercise high. “Yoga is more than physical," says Chris C. Streeter, M.D., a psychiatry and neurology professor at Boston University School of Medicine. "There’s a contemplated aspect to it, as opposed to when you’re running and your mind can be chatting away."

In fact, in a study conducted by Dr. Streeter, healthy people who did yoga showed better improvements in mood and anxiety than those who walked at an equivalent intensity. “The neurotransmitter GABA is increased after a yoga class — in both healthy individuals and those with depression,” she says. That’s important because when GABA is low, so is mood.

The key to keeping up your GABA levels may be doing yoga twice a week: In a subsequent study of people with depression, Dr. Streeter found that GABA remained increased even four days after a class but not by day eight. (Here's more on the mental health benefits of yoga.)

Whether you’re in it for the stretch or the sweat — or the mood boost — to get the most out of your mat time, “do each move to your breath,” says vinyasa instructor and alignment pro Keisha Courtney, the founder of the The Driven Yogi in Oakland, California. “Count two or three breaths in each pose, and hold a pose a little longer until you feel your muscles wake up.”

In Courtney’s classes, there is no “flowing through movement just because.” She curated the moves in this mini-flow to push all the right feel-good buttons, including a gentle inversion. “Science tells us that going upside down energizes the mind and body,” says Courtney, who shows beginner-friendly variations to meet anyone’s level. (Although, if you want to master a handstand, here's your guide to learning in just a few weeks.)

Also, expect chest openers, neck-release poses, and twists. “All of these are important because people are mostly sitting at home right now, and these areas of the body are tight and could use some extra love,” she says. Don’t feel as if you need to om to get in the zone. “Simply touching the mat with your feet may put you into the right headspace.”

Yoga Flow for a Happy, Calm Mind

Deep Breaths to Seated Cat-Cow: Sit cross-legged on the mat, propping a blanket or block underneath hips if desired. Ground through sit bones and draw crown of head toward the ceiling. Take three deep breaths. Inhale to pull heart forward to form a seating cat spine, then exhale to draw heart toward the back of the room for a seated cow spine. Repeat twice more.

Seated Twist: From seated cat-cow, return to a neutral spine, then inhale to lift hands overhead to touch in prayer. Exhale and rotate chest to the right, lowering hands so left hand is on the right knee and right hand is on the floor behind the hip. Inhale to return to center, lifting hands overhead, then exhale to repeat on the left side. Inhale to lift hands overhead and return to a neutral spine.

Rocking Table Top to Child's Pose: Move into a tabletop position on hands and knees, shoulders directly over wrists and hips over knees. Walk hands forward about an inch. Inhale to shift forward, drop hips toward the floor, and lift feet off the ground to form a slight backbend. Exhale to drop feet, shift hips back over heels, and drop chest into child's pose. Repeat twice more.

Child's Pose with Side Stretch: From child's pose, walk hands over to the left side of the mat to feel a stretch across the right side of the body. Hold for one or two breaths, then repeat on the opposite side.

Rolling Downward Dog: From child's pose, tuck toes, lift knees, and shift hips up and back to for an upside-down "V" shape for downward dog. Pedal out the feet stretch calves. Inhale to lift heels off the floor and shift forward to high plank pose. Exhale to shift hips up and back into downward dog. (To modify, drop knees to the floor during plank.)

Forward Fold: From downward dog, take baby steps forward with feet to reach the front of the mat. Pause here in a forward fold for two breaths. Slowly roll up one vertebra at a time to stand. Inhale to lift arms overhead, then exhale, throwing arms to the ground, folding torso over thighs, keeping knees softly bent. Repeat for three breaths, then return to a resting forward fold.

Vinyasa: From forward fold, inhale to lift halfway up, extending spine straight forward, then exhale to fold forward over legs. Step back into a downward-facing dog, then inhale to shift forward to plank pose. Exhale to slowly lower body to the floor, keeping palms by sides and elbows squeezed in. Inhale to lift chest off the floor, then exhale to lower chest to the mat. Inhale to lift hips and push up to tabletop, then exhale to lift knees and shift hips up and back to downward-facing dog.

Downward Dog Twist: From downward dog, walk hands back about 6 inches. Push left hand into the floor and lift right hand, reaching for the outside of the left angle, rotating shoulders but keeping hips square. (To modify, grab the outside of the calf or thigh.) Take one or two deep breaths, then switch sides and repeat.

Bound Locust Pose: From downward dog, shift forward to plank pose then slowly lower body to the floor. Reach hands behind hips to interlace hands with straight arms. (To modify, hold onto a strap or towel with both hands.) Inhale to lift chest off the floor, then exhale to slowly lower forehead to the mat. Repeat three times; on the last rep, lift feet off the floor, too.

Warrior I to Humble Warrior: From locust, press up into plank pose and then shift hips up and back into downward-facing dog. Lift the right foot toward the ceiling, then sweep it through to step between hands. Drop the left heel to the ground, making sure there's some horizontal space between the right and left food (as if on railroad tracks). Lift arms and chest up into warrior I, arms overhead and chest and hips facing forward over front knee. Hold for two breaths. Keeping legs in the same position, interlace hands behind hack (or use a strap or towel if needed), inhale to open chest, then exhale to fold chest forward in line with front thigh and come into humble warrior, reaching knuckles toward the back of the room. Inhale to lift back up into warrior I, then exhale to return to humble warrior. Repeat one more time. Place hands on the floor on either side of the right foot, step the right foot back to plank pose, shift hips back to downward dog, and repeat on the left side.

Shoulder Release Stretch: From warrior I, place hands on the floor on either side of the right foot, step the right foot back to plank pose, and then lower body onto the floor. Extend the left arm out to the side in a goal post position (elbow in line with shoulder and forearm parallel to torso; to modify, keep arm fully extended out to the side), press right palm into the floor next to right shoulder, and bend the right knee to reach right foot across torso to the floor on the left side of the body. Hold for two to three breaths. Return to center then repeat on the opposite side.

Alternate Nostril Breath: Come to sit in a cross-legged position, sitting on a blanket or block if desired. Using the right hand, place the right thumb on the right nostril, the middle and index finger onto the forehead, and the ring finger onto the left nostril. Close off the right nostril with the thumb, and inhale through the left nostril. Close off the left nostril, then release the right nostril, and exhale through the right nostril. Close the right nostril and inhale to repeat. Continue for three total rounds or for 30 seconds.

Seated Stretch: Place the left hand on the left thigh and drop the right ear toward the right shoulder. Place the right hand on the left side of the head to gently stretch neck on the left side. Hold for two to three breaths, then repeat on the opposite side. Inhale to return to center and reach arms overhead, then lower hands to prayer at heart's center.

Legs Up the Wall: Move over to a wall and lay face-up with hips a few inches away from the wall and both legs extended up the wall. Extend arms out to the sides. Hold for as many breaths as desired.

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