Just for a moment, consider yourself stuck in an anxious thought. Can you recall a past experience? If you can, try to remember… What was your breath like? Are you aware that your thoughts have an effect on your breath? Have you considered that this connection works both ways?
Most usually, through the experience of stressful thoughts, the body’s sympathetic nervous system triggers the body’s ancient fight-or-flight response, allowing the breath to become shallow and quick. As we breathe into the sympathetic nervous system, our shallow breath creates stress in the upper chest and neck. Simultaneously, as the body makes the shift into the sympathetic nervous system, it begins to produce a surge of hormones (commonly known as adrenaline) which increase blood pressure and heart rate allowing our bodies to become alert and defensive.
The sympathetic nervous system can be helpful and necessary in times where we need to think or move fast, most usually in times of immediate danger. Unfortunately, however, without taking much needed moments to connect with our breath, mind, and body, we can begin to live in a sympathetic overdrive, even when we are not experiencing immediate danger, which can often become detrimental to our mental and physical health.
Through the practice of Pranayama (deep-breathing), we can begin to work on reversing the effects that an over-driven sympathetic nervous system has on our bodies. Deep breathing stimulates the nervous system, working to slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure, and ultimately calm the body and mind. In addition, with deep breathing, our bodies engage the abdominal muscles and diaphragm instead of the muscles in the upper chest and neck, resulting in improved efficiency of oxygen exchange with every breath. Ultimately, by allowing more air exchange to occur in the lower lungs, higher volumes of oxygen are able to reach the body’s cells and tissues, making deep breathing a much more relaxing and efficient way to breathe. Additionally, deep breathing can help to calm and slow the emotional turbulence in the mind, having an immediate effect on diffusing emotional energy so there is less reactivity and power given to our emotions.
Just as our breath becomes quick and shallow with the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, we can work to shift our bodies into a parasympathetic state by simply focusing on our breath.
Here are three of my favourite deep breathing techniques:
Complete Belly Breath:
When to practice: Anytime/All the time
How to practice: With one hand on your belly, relax your abdominal muscles as you slowly inhale through the nose, allowing air to fill into the bottom of your lungs. Continue to inhale as your abdomen begins to rise and the lower part of your rib cage begins to expand outwards. At the peak of the inhalation, pause for a moment, then gently exhale from the top of your lungs to the bottom. At the end of your exhalation, contract your abdominal muscles slightly to push residual air out of the bottom of your lungs.
How long to practice for: No limit
Ocean’s Breath (Ujjayi Breath):
When to practice: When you feel angry, irritated or frustrated to soothe and settle your mind
How to practice: Start with an inhalation that is slightly deeper than normal. With your mouth closed, exhale through your nose while constricting your throat muscles so that your breath begins to sound similar to the crashing waves of the ocean. Continue to breathe with a restricted throat as you inhale and exhale for the entirety of this breath practice.
How long to practice for: Until your mind is calm
Energizing Breath (Bhastrika):
When to practice: When you are feeling blue or sluggish to enhance your energy and invigorate your mind
How to practice: Begin by relaxing your shoulders and take a few deep, feel breaths (inhales and exhales) from your abdomen. When you are ready, keeping your shoulders, chest, head and neck stable, begin to exhale forcefully from your nose, followed by forceful but deep inhalations until your breath becomes equivalent to the rate of one second per cycle (one inhale and one exhale = one cycle). Continue in rounds of 10 cycles, with breaks of regular deep breathing for approximately 15-30 seconds between each cycle.
How long to practice for: 3 cycles for beginners, up to 10 cycles for more advanced practitioners
*This breath is not advisable for pregnant women