Breathe and Heal
Yogic breathwork helps your body absorb more oxygen while shedding stress.
by Linda Melone
As the owner of a financial consulting firm, Jon Farber considers stress part of the job. “Even when business is good, it’s still stressful,” says the 44-year old New Yorker. A self-proclaimed “tightly wound” person, he began taking yoga classes a year ago that included conscious breathing techniques.
A lifelong runner and swimmer, Farber didn’t feel he needed instructions on how to breathe. However, he learned that he was breathing too shallowly, resulting in an oxygen deficit that added to his stress. Ten minutes of yogic breathing at the end of each class left him feeling relaxed and focused. “Yogic breathing helps me reframe myself for the week,” says Farber. “It takes a lot of concentration for me, but I feel completely different afterward; even my heart rate slows down.”
Farber attends a weekly class and practices yogic breathing four nights a week on his own before going to sleep. “Yogic breathing has made a big difference in my everyday balance and temperament,” he says.
Few of us pay much attention to our breathing, despite it being a bodily function we can control consciously. Yet yogic breathing can have profound effects on mind, body and spirit, proponents say.
Breathe For What Ails You
Yogic breathing comprises a branch of yoga called Pranayama, a Sanskrit word that means lengthening of the prana, or breath. Pranayama in yoga is used before performing asanas (yoga postures) to cleanse the mind and body.
“Yogic breathing decreases pain for chronic pain sufferers, decreases stress and helps people with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” says Stephanie Mihalas, PhD, NCSP, founder of The Center for Well-Being in Los Angeles. Stress often triggers shallow breathing, which leads to more stressful feelings, creating a feedback loop. “When people are stressed or in a state of panic, they stop breathing,” says Mihalas. “Although you may think you’re breathing, you’re actually panting, taking in short bursts of air.” As a result, less oxygen is in circulation, which adds to a fight-or-flight feeling.
Conscious, diaphragmatic breathing lowers levels of cortisol (a hormone released during stress), produces a sense of calm. Studies show that athletes who practice diaphragmatic breathing increase their antioxidant defenses after strenuous exercise. This may protect them from the long-term adverse effects of free-radical damage from vigorous exertion (Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 10/29/09 online).
Why does it seem so natural to breathe shallowly? It’s simply become part of our fast-paced lifestyle. “It’s easier and faster to breathe shallowly from our upper lungs. It takes time to practice slow, deep breathing,” says Mihalas.
Air In, Stress Out
Mihalas suggests the following healing breath practice for quick relief of stress and anxiety. She uses it in her practice to calm children as young as four who suffer from nightmares. Avoid yogic breathing if you’ve just eaten a big meal, as it may interfere with digestion.
1. Drop your shoulders down
2. Open your chest center and roll shoulders backward
3. Place your hands on your abdomen so you can notice breath moving in and out
4. Inhale for a count of six, feeling the air fill your abdomen (this may take practice). Pause briefly and then exhale for a count of eight to 10; advanced yogic breathers can increase the pause to three, six or nine seconds
5. Repeat four times; this may be done any time you feel stressed or anxious
Lying down can make it easier to get the hang of diaphragmatic breathing if you’re a beginner, advises Jane Foody, a New York-based registered yoga teacher. “Lie on your back and place your hands on your ribcage,” Foody suggests. “Feel it expand sideways as you inhale.” Work towards making your exhalation twice as long as your inhalation.
Foody credits yogic breathing with helping her heal herself of chronic bronchitis. “I started practicing yoga 12 years ago. It took about a year of practice, but after that year I was completely free of coughing,” she says.
Once you’re comfortable with the basic technique, try these other exercises to find which one works best for you.
Daily Mindfulness Breathing (for general relaxation and stress relief):
1. Sit comfortably with your back straight and close your eyes
2. Focus on your breathing by simply observing it. When outside thoughts occur, acknowledge them and let them go, returning attention to your breath
3. Continue for 10 minutes, working your way up to 30 minutes
The Smiling Breath (for pain and stress reduction):
1. Sit comfortably on a chair or cushion and smile, even if it feels forced at first
2. Imagine directing this smile inwardly throughout your whole body
3. As you inhale, sense yourself inhaling through your smile, allowing the energy of the smile to combine with the energy of your breath, and direct this energy down to the painful area
4. Exhale through pursed but relaxed lips, as if gently blowing on a candle without blowing it out. Do this for a minimum of five minutes
You have a lot of stresses in your life, but poor breath control doesn’t have to be one of them. Yogic breathing can help you reach the calm center within.