By Megan Patiry of PaleoHacks
It’s no coincidence that when you’re under stress, you’ll often hear people encouraging you to “take a breather.” Ancient yogis who practiced pranayama (literally translated as “control of the life force”—which was believed to be the breath) knew the power of deep-breathing exercises. Aside from helping its students attain higher states of consciousness, pranayama is now known for being one of the best ways to calm the mind by easing stress and tension.(1)
Why Are Breathing Techniques So Effective?
When you’re stressed, the sympathetic nervous system—or the “fight or flight” system—takes over. In dire situations, this ancient defense system instantly spurs you into action to escape potential dangers. Though today wild predators are infrequent, stresses like tight deadlines and arguments with your spouse will also trigger this system.
Think back to one such traumatic situation and try to remember what happened with your breath. It usually becomes shallow and erratic—you could even find yourself holding your breath, which further stimulates your fight-or-flight response.
Pranayama breathing techniques do just the opposite—expanding your diaphragm (the large muscle responsible for pushing air in and out of your lungs) and relaxing your vagus nerve, which runs from the top of your spine down through your stomach. Both actions stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which initiates relaxation and brings a sense of calm.
And the best aspect of pranayama is that its calming effect is almost immediate, with many techniques needing only 5 to 10 minutes for stress levels to drop.
Below are five of the most effective techniques for everyday better breathing—calming your mind fast while also strengthening your diaphragm and lungs.
Basic Abdominal Breathing
Abdominal breathing (also called diaphragmatic breathing) involves deepening the breath to expand through the abdomen and diaphragm. The expanding-and-contracting action of breathing helps relax the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The result is a calming and stilling of the mind—very effective at eliminating the feeling of “butterflies” we get in our bellies when anxious or nervous.
Instructions: Begin by sitting tall somewhere comfortable. Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath. On your next inhale, focus on fully expanding your belly with your breath, feeling the fresh air reaching deep into the bottom of your lungs. (You can rest your hand on your abdomen to make sure it’s expanding outward.)
On your exhale, draw in your belly and breathe out until your lungs are completely empty. Continue this cycle for 5 minutes.
Best time to practice: Anytime you feel stressed, angry, or anxious. You can also make it a daily habit to help you wind down at the end of the day, or even use it during meditation.
The long exhale aims for a 1-to-2 ratio of inhaling to exhaling—the goal being to extend your exhale until it’s twice as long as your inhale. This action deeply relaxes the nervous system and body while also teaching your lungs to empty fully with every breath to avoid the tight-chest feeling caused by shallow breathing.
Instructions: Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Rest one of your hands on your abdomen so you can be sure you’re breathing fully into your belly. It should expand upward during your inhale and contract fully during your exhale.
As you start your inhales and exhales, begin to count the length of each action. (You’ll probably notice your inhales are longer than your exhales, so work first to make them the same length.) Gradually increase the length of your exhales by 1 to 2 seconds longer than your inhales.
Don’t strain during your exhale, and don’t make it longer than needed. For example, if your inhale is 4 seconds, try not to exceed an 8-second exhale.
Best time to practice: Since this exercise has such a relaxing effect on the body and mind, you might want to save it for before bedtime, or for when you’re struggling with midnight insomnia.
Nadi Shodhana (Alternate-Nostril Breathing)
Alternate-nostril breathing is a common yogic breathing technique used to bring clarity, calm, and focus to the mind. It’s also used to achieve mental and emotional stability by balancing the left and right hemispheres of the brain—an excellent breathing technique for achieving a calm, clear state while working or during meditation.
Instructions: Begin by sitting tall in a comfortable chair or on the floor, keeping your spine straight. Leaving your left palm resting on your lap, bring your right hand in front of your nose. Rest your pointer and middle finger between your eyebrows (your actor point).
Now take a deep breath, in and out. At the end of your exhale, use your right thumb to close your right nostril. Inhale steadily through your left nostril.
Close your left nostril with your ring finger so that both are closed, and pause your breath for 1 to 2 seconds. Release and exhale through your right nostril, pause briefly, then inhale through your right nostril.
Hold both nostrils closed again, then exhale through the left nostril. Pause briefly, then repeat. Go through this cycle 5 to 10 times.
Best time to practice: Any time you feel frazzled or panicked, or when you are having trouble focusing on a specific task.
Sitali Pranayama (Cooling Breath)
Sitali pranayama is used to “cool” hot, angry mental states and emotions by moving the breath across the wet surface of your tongue. It is also commonly used during the summer months to cool your system by bringing moisture back inside.
Instructions: Begin by comfortably sitting tall with your spine straight. Bring yourself into the moment with a few rounds of abdominal breathing.
Now open your mouth, forming an “O.” Curl your tongue into a straw-like shape and protrude it a little less than an inch out of your mouth. Take a deep inhale through and across your tongue (notice how cold this air feels as it hits your mouth).
Once you’ve inhaled fully, close your mouth and draw in your tongue, then exhale through your nostrils. Continue for 2 to 3 minutes.
Best time to practice: When you’re feeling angry or agitated, or when you need to focus. You can also use this technique to offset hot flashes.
Breath journeying, or breath “moving” as it’s sometimes called, blends breath and visualization into one powerful, anti-anxiety exercise. Breathing awareness into specific points in your body eases tension while calming and re-centering your mind.
Instructions: The following breath journey comes from Drs. Richard Brown and Patricia Gerbarg in their book, The Healing Power of the Breath.
Begin by sitting comfortably with your spine straight. As you inhale (be sure you’re practicing abdominal breathing), imagine moving your breath to the top of your head. You can imagine it any way you like—as a gust of air or even as a colored mist.
As you exhale, move your breath down your spine to the base of your hips. Inhale again to the top of your head, repeating this cycle 10 times through.
Best time to practice: During moments you feel overwhelmed and need to release excess tension and stress.
The next time you’re anxious and in desperate need of calm, remember that “taking a breath” is literally the best thing you can do. And even if you’re not overly stressed on a daily basis, practicing these breathing techniques will teach your body automatic proper breathing, so you can reap the benefits even during your day-to-day activities.
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- Brown, R.P., et al. “Sudarshan Kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression.” J Altern Complement Med 11.2 (2005): 383-4. Web: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15750381.