Breathe Your Way to Stress Relief – The Practice of Pranayama

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Think back on your day for a moment – when was the last time you took a deep, slow, belly breath? When you woke up? Before sitting down for that beautiful and nourishing lunch of yours? With your afternoon coffee or tea? Was there space at all for a deep breath in your day? Join the author here and pause – place your hand on your belly and breathe into it, letting your exhale be long, slow, and smooth. How do you feel now?

A disconnection from the breath can be a cause of anxiety – it is a disconnection from self that can occur when we’re consuming too much information, distracted by thinking many thoughts at one time, or too focused on doing, often trying to multitask.

Working with the breath is a way to pull our energy, our awareness, and our attention back within ourselves, rather than resting it upon the external world – all the things we feel we need to do and all the things around us. Put simply, the breath pulls us back into now and serves as our connection to the present moment, the here and now. Consider the moments where you’ve stopped to smell a flower or the aroma of a hearty soup or stew coming together in the kitchen – how did you feel in those moments?

Deep breathing does more than just help us feel good – it brings the body from sympathetic activation, the fight or flight stress response, to parasympathetic activation, the rest and digest state of being. When we are stressed, the body produces the hormone cortisol, amongst others, that elevate the heart rate, increase blood pressure, and cause us to feel more alert and ‘on edge.’ This is the space we need to shift out of to reduce and relieve stress. With so many sources of stimulation and information, we can easily slip into this response even though we are in no physical danger nor facing any threats. So, how do we actually utilize the breath to move away from that stress response?

Your breath is your connection to your life force, mana, prana, chi, or vital energy – the driving force that animates life and manifests as form. The 3rd limb of Ashtanga yoga – the royal or 8-limbed Yogic path – outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, is pranayama. Pranaymana loosely translates to ‘breath control.’ Or, more simply, working with and becoming aware of the breath, as a means to practice present moment awareness.

Yogic breathing – some of the practices we’ll explore shortly, strengthen the vagus nerve. This nerve is one of the longest in the human body, and is responsible for blood pressure, circulation, heart rate, digestion, and our ability to feel at ease, in healthy relationships with one another, and comfortable in sharing our voice. It’s a complex and powerful player in our physiology and wellbeing. The following are a few breathing exercises, or breath patterns to practice to strengthen this nerve, reset your energetic field, and come back into the present moment. 

Pranayama Practices:

  • Nadhi Shodana: This breath helps equalize the right and left hemispheres of the brain and can support you in slowing down when your mind is feeling very busy or fast.
    • Place your thumb on your right nostril, your middle finger in between your eyebrows, and your ring finger on your left nostril. Close off your right nostril with your thumb breathe fully in through your left nostril, then close off your left nostril with your ring finger open your right nostril and breathe out. Breathe in through your right nostril, close off the right nostril, open the left and breathe out. This is one breath cycle. Repeat for 1 to 5 minutes.
  • Kapalabhati: this breath can help drive you into action when you feel overwhelmed or apathetic, and desire to take some action and boost your motivation. 
    • Make a sharp exhale through the nose as you draw the belly in quickly. Repeat 30 times take two breaths in between and take two more rounds. 
  • Shitali: This breath can help you cool down if you feel agitated or angry. 
    • Take a deep breath in through the nose and exhale out through a rolled tongue. Repeat at least 10 times and notice any shifts that you feel. 
  • Cleansing Breath: this is a simple energizing and clearing breath that can be done anywhere. 
    • Simply take a deep breath in through the nose and exhale through the nose all at once like you were releasing a big load or weight. In this breath, the inhale is actually longer than the exhale. Simply repeat this three or four times and notice an immediate lightness and clearing.
  • So-hum breath meditation : if you connect more to mantra or words you can use this breath meditation. 
    • Inhale and silently repeat to yourself so, exhale and silently repeat yourself hum. Hum means ‘I’ or the individual ego and so means the divine. When you are inhaling, you’re inhaling life or the divine, and when you’re exhaling you are releasing limitation that comes from the ego.

These breath practices are seemingly simple yet extremely powerful and can produce immediate shifts in your mood, your physiology, and your state of presence. What’s more, you can practice them literally anywhere! On your lunch break at the office, in your car, even waiting in line at the grocery store or coffee shop for some. Try practicing one of these every day – morning and evening, for at least 2 weeks, and notice the shifts that occur. This is a free resource that is always available to you.

 

AUTHOR – ALEXANDRA KAZIMIR (YOUVEDA WELLNESS CONTRIBUTOR) 

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