Modern life presents stressors and challenges on a daily basis. Our high-stress lives deliver time pressures; worries about families and jobs; concerns about health and wellbeing; uncertainties about the environment and our planet; fears about racism, hatred, and misogyny; apprehension about the direction and impact of local and national politics; alarm about pandemics and climate calamities; and even trauma related to events beyond our control. Humans evolved to be able to sustain situational stress and have a built-in system that readies us to fight for our own and our loved ones’ lives – or to flee if we can’t fight. However, we were not built for the kind of sustained and low-grade stressors we experience in the modern world. This type of ongoing challenge and low-grade anxiety or worry can wreak havoc on our nervous system. Instead of triggering a quick sympathetic nervous system response that readies the body for a fast escape from threat or fight back against it, it kindles a low-grade, almost never-ending fire that slowly burns us out. With ongoing minor stress or trauma, there is no concrete threat or against whom to fight or from whom to flee. Without a target against which to ready, the cascade of stress chemicals that is released in our body for action has no target and cannot be successfully discharged. This leaves us in a state of hyperarousal that is physically uncomfortable, even exhausting, and mentally dysregulating. It leaves us anxious and worried – often without clarity about why we feel so bad.
Why Do Breathing Practices Work?
Yogic breathing (called pranayama in sanskrit) can help bring our nervous system back into balance during moments of arousal (or even collapse – but that’s a story for another blog) when there is nothing we can do to change the outside trigger that caused it. The breath provides access to our autonomic nervous system, the bodily system that controls our fight-or-flight response as well as our rest-and-digest and our social connectedness responses. Through calming the breath, we can return our nervous system from fight-or-flight arousal to a more moderate, calm, and socially connected state of being. In fact, science has revealed that breath and physical or emotional experiences are reciprocal. For example, when we notice our breath becoming short or shallow, or when our breath is moving high into our chest, this is a signal that difficult emotions or challenging body states are present. Once we begin to notice how the breath moves within us, we can learn to change it. Through altering the breath, we gain access to changing our mind, our emotions, and our physical experience. If we alter our breath, we can change our sense of physical and mental wellbeing. For example, if we learn how to breathe deeply into the belly when we are anxious, we can nudge ourselves toward a greater sense of ease. If we can learn to take a long and deep inhalation and exhalation when we feel challenged, we can transform angry reactivity into thoughtful responsiveness.
How Can One Get Started with Breathing Practices?
Breathing practice is like physical exercise – you start slowly and work your way to more complicated exercises. Cultivating breath observation is the first step; it is simple and accessible to anyone. Mindful breathing then guides us to become increasingly attentive to our breathing during all moments of our life. Simple breathing exercises, such as lengthening the exhalation, then help us reregulate the breath and calm ourselves down during times of challenge. More complicated breathing exercises may be useful later – once some initial awareness of the breath has been gained. It is best not to jump into a breathing practice with advanced exercises – progress will come most easily from starting with what is manageable and auspicious.
Breathing practices are best started by cultivating the capacity simply to notice how the breath is flowing through the body. There are five ways to begin to access awareness of the breath. In a guided breath observation, you may be led to observe more than one aspect in a session. However, use these points of observation one at a time when you begin a breathing practice on your own, rather than trying to find all aspects of the breath in a single breathing session.
· Location of the breath – Explore where breath can be felt or noticed in the body; common ways to find the breath in the body include noticing:
rising of the belly with the inhalation and the falling of the belly with the exhalation – place your hands on your abdomen to notice this movement of the breath
expansion of the lower part of the rib cage with the inhalation and the contraction with the exhalation –tie a flexible theraband or a soft cotton strap or belt around the lower rib cage to feel how the ribs expand with the inhalation and contract back with the exhalation
expansion and contraction of the upper torso with inhalation and exhalation respectively – place your hands on the sides of your rib cage to feel the chest moving in 360 degrees
cool air traveling into the nose and/or throat with the inhalation and warm air traveling out with the exhalation
· Timing of the breath – Explore how long it takes to breathe and breathe out and whether there is balance between the length of the inhalation and exhalation; common ways to notice the length of the breath include:
counting how long it takes to breathe and how long it takes to breathe out
using a timer to time how many breaths you take per minute
simply estimating the length of the inhalation and comparing it to an estimate of the length of the exhalation
· Volume of the breath – Explore how deep or shallow the breath is to get a sense of how much air moves in and out in a given breath cycle; compare if there is a difference between the inhalation and exhalation – is one more shallow or deeper than the other?
· Texture of the breath – Explore the texture or smoothness of breath, noticing if it is choppy, jerky, noisy, interrupted, soft, smooth, or gentle; compare if there is a difference between the texture of the inhalation versus the texture of the exhalation – is one smoother or rougher than the other?
· Resting breaks in the breath – Explore if there is a gap or pause at the top (between inhalation and exhalation) and bottom (between exhalation and inhalation) of the breath; compare if the gap or pause is more noticeable at the top or bottom of the breath – is one pause is longer or shorter than the other?
Another accessible way of becoming familiar and intimate with the breath is to pay attention to how the breath unfolds in any given moment, without directing attention to a particular breath feature. In mindful breathing, you simply begin to notice the breath and its impact on your body, your energy, and your nervous system. You watch the breath with curiosity, without expecting anything in particular and without judging what you notice. You are continuously focusing your mindful attention on the breath, with an open mind and an open heart. There is no attempt to change the breath or to evaluate the breath in any way – you are simply breathing and you know that you are breathing. Often, we go through life not even aware that we are breathing. When we breath mindfully, we know that we are breathing and yet we do not try to change the breath. Mindful breathing is something you can do on your yoga mat, as a formal practice. It is also a practice that can be taken off the mat to help you notice and attend to your breath anytime, anywhere.
· Mindful breathing on the mat – In mindful breathing on the mat, you consciously draw attention to the breath to sense its impact on your body and your energy. You might trace the reverberations of the breath through your body, noticing where you feel it and how it moves through you. You might trace the energetic flow of the breath from head to toe, feelings the energy or sense of aliveness it brings to every cell in your body, every fiber of your being. You might begin to notice the energetic footprint of the breath – noticing its uplifting, energizing, calming, or other effects on the mind and body. You might even use mindful breathing to anchor the mind on the breath, noting “I am breathing in; I am breathing out” as the breath unfolds.
· Mindful breathing off the mat – This is a practice you can use anytime, anywhere. Simply bring your attention to the breath to notice how it flows through the body or affects the mind in a given moment. Bringing attention to the breath can give you feedback about what is going on in your body, giving you insights into your physical state of being. You might notice via breath attention that you are physically tired, exhausted, hyper, or agitated. Bringing attention to the breath can also give you feedback about the mind. It might help you notice when the mind needs to recenter or calm when you are upset or get energized when you are exhausted.
Accessible Breathing Exercises
A few accessible breathing practices can also be helpful in your home practice on the mat. These exercises are explorations of slightly altering the breath to create a new experience in how the energy of the breath pulses through body and mind. These gentle explorations and alterations of the breath may induce a sense of calming in the nervous system and mind. They may allow you to be gentler and more compassionate with your body, emotions, and thoughts as they invite you to move in the calming side of your nervous system (the ventral vagal space of the polyvagal system). A couple of practices are described below. Be sure to find a comfortable position in which to attempt these practice.
Additional accessible breathing practices can be accessed on the YogaX website and the YogaX Team YouTube channel. More challenging breathing practices are best attempted under the guidance of a teacher.
· Ocean-sounding breathing.
What Is It: This breathing approach slows the rate of the breath, making the breath longer. This leads to better gas exchange in the lungs, oxygenating regions of the lungs that are often neglected in faster, shallower breathing. This breath also massages the vagus nerve which has a calming function for the nervous system.
How Do You Do it: Make an ocean-like sound with the breath by constricting or toning the area around the glottis, the back of the throat (creating sensation in the same area of the throat that constricts when gargle or cough); you might pretend you are fogging a mirror to access this tiny bit of constriction in the back of throat – doing this out loud with an open mouth first, then replicating the sound but with the mouth closed. Some call this a Darth Vader breath – the sound is guttural like his breath but a bit softer. 😊
What Is Happening: Ocean-sounding breath (ujjayi in Sanskrit) utilizes the glottis to slow the breath by controlling the opening through which the air travels. This decreases the volume that can travel through the throat at any given moment (you can liken this to a balloon whose opening is being pinched to control the outflow of the air – as opposed to letting the opening go and the air escaping rapidly and uncontrolled…)
What Are the Cautions: Be careful not to constrict the breath too much or you might induce the opposite effects (e.g., anxiety or panic rather than calmness). If you have a breathing disorder (e.g., COPD, asthma), proceed with caution as you could trigger an asthma attack.
· Equal breathing.
What Is It: This breath tends to slow and deepen the breath. It works with the reality that the exhalation is calming for the nervous system and moves you into a space of being ready to rest, to connect, to be calm. This breath, like ocean-sounding breath, oxygenates and invites exchanges of gases and removal of toxins in regions of the lungs that are often not reached during rapid daily breathing.
How Do You Do it: Start by sensing the length of your inhalations and exhalations. Do this by consciously counting how long it takes you to inhale and how long it takes you to exhale. Count for a few rounds of breath and then calculating the average length of each inhalation and exhalation. Once you know how long each half of the breath is, you will likely notice that they are not the same length. Your next step is to equalize the two halves. You can do this by lengthening the shorted half or by shortening the longer half. Or you could change both halves a little bit until they are the same length. Keeping counting until this equal rhythm stays in place on its own. There is not set count – find what works best for you by noticing when you find a rhythm that is calming and comforting.
What Is Happening: Equal breathing utilizes the physical and mental feedback to slow and deepen the breath and to find balance between the inhalation and the exhalation. This way of breathing in stimulates receptors along your airway that signal the need for breathing out, inducing relaxation along the way. It also increases sensitivity to arterial pressure and can help regulate blood pressure.
What Are the Cautions: As long as you don’t over-effort (making the breath too long or too fast), this breath has no contraindications.
Where Can You Go From Here?
Breathing practices are most effective when they happen daily. Observing the breath, mindfulness of the breath, and simple breathing practices can be incorporated into almost every moment of your life and can be as short as a few seconds. The key is to learn to recognize when your breath has become dysregulated and then to take a few moments to breathe deeply and mindfully to reset the nervous system. Learning to tune into your breath and to set it free allows you take charge of your own wellness. You become able to transform your emotional and physical experience into one of wellness and self-efficacy. Fortified by the capacity to notice and influence your breath, you increase your resilience, your adaptability, your capacity to weather the daily storms of life. From a place of resilience and calm in the midst of life’s storms you can then take engaged action, work for the greater good, and help transform and heal your community and world.
Check out our YogaX breathing exercises – they are online and they are free. Access them from our website or check them out on our YouTube Channel at YogaX Team. You can also breathe with us in our free YogaX live-streamed classes. Chris
About the Author:
Christiane Brems, PhD, ABPP, E-RYT500, C-IAYT, is Director of YogaX, clinical psychologist, registered yoga teacher, and certified yoga therapist. She has practiced yoga for over 40 years. You can read more about her on the YogaX Team page.
PS For readers interested in learning more, also read my blog entitled What are the Physical Limbs of Yoga or check out some of the following books:
· Farhi, D. (1996). The breathing book: good health and vitality through essential breath work. New York: Holt.
· Iyengar, B.K.S. (2008). Light on pranayama. New York: Crossroads.
· Rosen, R. (2002). The yoga of breath: A step-by-step guide to pranayama. Boston: Shambala.