In today's fast-paced and demanding world, stress has become an all-too-common companion for many individuals. The constant pressure and responsibilities can take a toll on our mental and physical well-being. However, amidst the chaos, there is a simple yet powerful tool that can provide relief and restore balance: the breath. In this article, we will explore the profound connection between breathing and stress reduction, and delve into the various techniques that harness the healing power of breath.
Pranayama- What is it?
Pranayama is one of the eight limbs of yoga. Prana refers to our own life force. Ayama translates to ‘extend’. Essentially, pranayama is the controlled breath work within a yoga practise. There are different types of pranayama that we can practise, all having their own benefits. One of these benefits includes stress reduction and calming of the nervous energy. Ancient yogis have practised different ways of controlled breathing for thousands of years, benefiting from the effects. However, it is only recently that scientists have been able to corroborate yogic pranayama with scientific study and confirm the benefits. In fact, recently with the Covid-19 pandemic and many people suffering from the long-term breathing effects, doctors have started prescribing breathing classes as part of the patient’s recovery plans. If you head over to the NHS website you will find that it prescribes pranayama exercises such as Box Breathing, pursed lip breathing and Sama Vritti (Same breathing)
How does controlled breathing help with stress relief
Breathing deeply is a simple way to counteract your ‘fight or flight’ response, soothing the body systems to a more relaxed state. During stressful situations, the sympathetic nervous system releases stress hormones such as cortisol, leading to increased heart rate, heightened alertness, and muscle tension. This response, when prolonged, can have detrimental effects on our health, including weight gain in menopausal women. Fortunately, controlled breathing exercises can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and counteracts the stress response.
Deep breathing exercises serve as a foundation for stress reduction. By intentionally taking slow, deep breaths, we increase oxygen levels, slow down our heart rate, and activate the body's relaxation response.
1. Oxygenation: Deep breathing techniques involve taking slow, deep breaths, which increases the intake of oxygen into the body. This oxygenates the blood and promotes better functioning of the body's systems, including the brain. Sufficient oxygen supply is crucial for optimal brain function and can help reduce feelings of anxiety and tension.
2. Relaxation response: Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, often referred to as the "rest and digest" system. This activation promotes a sense of calm and relaxation, counteracting the "fight or flight" response associated with stress. By activating the relaxation response, breathing exercises can lower heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of stress hormones like cortisol.
3. Focused attention: Breathing exercises provide a focal point for your attention, diverting your mind from stressful thoughts or situations. By concentrating on the breath, you create a mental anchor that helps you stay present and mindful. This can interrupt the cycle of anxious or negative thinking, allowing you to shift your focus and reduce stress.
4. Mind-body connection: Breathing exercises enhance the mind-body connection, which is the link between your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. By intentionally regulating your breath, you send signals to your brain that you are safe and in control. This can positively influence your emotional state and reduce physical symptoms of stress, such as muscle tension or rapid heartbeat.
5. Relaxation and calming effect: Slow, deep breaths can have a soothing effect on the body and mind. They can create a sense of relaxation, promote feelings of serenity, and reduce muscle tension. By consciously slowing down your breathing and extending the exhale, you engage the body's natural relaxation mechanisms and promote a state of calmness.
Belly Breathing exercise
One effective technique is diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing. By expanding the diaphragm, we engage the parasympathetic nervous system, triggering a state of calm and relaxation.
Here's a simple technique to get started:
1. Find a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down.
2. Close your eyes and take a few natural breaths to settle into the practice.
3. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen, just below your ribcage.
4. Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, allowing your abdomen to rise and expand. Feel your diaphragm descending.
5. Exhale slowly through your mouth, letting the air escape gently. As you exhale, feel your abdomen falling inward.
6. Continue this pattern of deep inhalations and slow exhalations, focusing on the rise and fall of your abdomen. Try to make each breath deliberate and controlled.
7. Aim to inhale for a count of 4 seconds, hold for a second, and exhale for a count of 6 seconds. Adjust the timing based on your comfort level.
8. Practice this technique for a few minutes, gradually extending the duration as you become more comfortable.
Swaha- Adding a mantra to aid in controlling the breath
Sometimes adding the mantra Swaha (Let it be) can also aid in slowing the breath down and make it easier to control for the novice.
Begin by sitting comfortably, and inhale for a count of 3-4. As you inhale, think Swa.
Exhale for a similar count of 3-4, thinking ha as you do.
Repeat this for 10-15 rounds, or as long as you need.
If you would like to follow my instructions, you can listen to me here as I guide Jo through the process.