So often in life when experiencing fear, stress, anxiety or panic, a sympathetic soul will say to us ´"just breathe", but rarely do we fully comprehend the weight of wisdom behind these kindly words. It is easy to dismiss something so simple and miss out on the magic. In yogic terms breath is the very source of Prana, our vital life force or energy, and yogic tradition advocates the practice of pranayama – ´´mastery of breath´´ or more accurately ´´mastery of life force´´
To understand why the breath is such a powerful tool to both prevent and relieve anxiety and stress, we need to understand a little about our nervous system. The autonomic nervous system influences our digestive system, heart rate, immune function, and respiratory system. This system then branches out in to our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
It is our sympathetic nervous system that creates our instinctive ´´flight or fight´´ reactions through hormal surges such as adrenaline and cortisol. These are invaluable as they create our ability to energize, mobilize and complete tasks, but when they are sent in to overdrive, the continued elevation and state of arousal can cause multiple problems - including general anxiety and stress.
The parasympathetic nervous system is often referred to as our ´´rest and digest´´ mechanism and works to slow the mind and body. These sympathetic and parasympathetic branches are intended to work in union and equilibrium with each other, but too often our busy modern lifestyles cause the sympathetic nervous system to over function, poking us closer and closer towards what I call ´´the panic zone´´.
One of the secrets to feeling balanced and stress free… is to keep our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems working in balance with each other.
Our respiration - breath - is the only autonomic function that we have any external influence over. When we make the breath conscious rather than unconscious, we are engaging our brain, and in turn talking to and influencing our nervous system. To slow the breath is to slow the pace of your entire nervous system. Work with the breath, ,with regularity and commitment, even if only for a few minutes each day, and you will be able to bring your base line so far down from ´´the panic zone´´ that even the greatest of stressors will struggle to push you there.
Yoga means ´´union´´, and the simple act of focusing on the breath, unites body and mind in a unique way, soothing not only the nervous system but also gently beginning to train the mind to focus, and slow rather than incessantly spin.
To experience the calming, centering and empowering practice of pranayama, here are a few simple techniques:
Conscious Breathing / Long Deep Breathing
To breathe consciously is to simply to become aware of your own breathing at first, allowing the mind to focus in this alone, gently drawing it away from other stressors and distractions. The mind will drift, but just keep drawing it back without frustration or irritation. When people are anxious or stressed, they tend to take shallow breaths, breathing from their shoulders. Many of us only ever breathe this way, keeping us suspended closer to an experience of stress.
As such, sit in a comfortable position, with the spine reasonably straight without straining and place one hand on your belly and the other on your heart centre/chest. Close your eyes and breathe normally at first. Pay attention to your breathing rate, the rise and fall of the breath in the body, and how the air feels coming in and letting go. Then draw the breath a little deeper, down to your diaphragm so it causes your belly to softly expand like a balloon. Allow it to fill all the way up, expanding your ribcage and then your chest whilst keeping your shoulders relaxed, low and slightly back. The breath should never over expand so it becomes a strain. It simply needs to be fluid and full; soft soothing and a little deeper than usual. If you find your chest is rising in an exaggerated way to breathe deeper this is a sign that you are not breathing all the way down and using the full lung capacity. Visualise the air being drawn down as if in to the belly. Bring a little extra focus to the exhale, making sure to empty the lungs without over exaggerating. The exhale is the mechanism that switches on the parasympathetic nervous system, the one that brings you down.
Sit and focus on your breath for 3 minutes (with a timer) centering your mind with the simple mantra (tool of the mind) ´´I am breathing in…I am breathing out´´. With every inhale feel revitalized. With every exhale feel a gentle release, softening and surrender.
Left Nostril Breathing
For an extra boost in stress reduction left nostril breathing is highly effective but the simple long and conscious breath is advisable to master first.
Breathing through the left nostril for only a few minutes is shown to reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system lowering your blood pressure and creating a calming effect. It activates the ´´Ida´´ nerve ending in the left nostril, which relates to the qualities of calmness and relaxation. Left nostril breathing is also associated with the moon energy, which is changeable, feminine, yin, soothing and cool.
Sit comfortably and close your right nostril with your right thumb, your other fingers are stretched straight up like antennas. Your left hand can remain relaxed on your left knee. Close your eyes and begin to breathe long and deep, without over stretching, filling your lower lungs first and then up and in to the ribs and chest. Exhale slowly and completely. Continue to breathe only through your left nostril for three minutes.
Remember that pranayama can be highly effective to relieve already present anxiety, but to receive the most benefit, implement these simple practices daily to create and maintain a generally more neutral, calm and steady state of being. Build the times as you become more comfortable with the practice, remembering that 3 minutes a day is far more powerful than 11 or 22 minutes once or twice a week!
Science aside, when we focus on our breath, we draw deeply in to our innermost self and practice yoga in its purest form. We unite our body and mind so that we can unite with the moment. We get so caught up in the never ending torrent of life and in the fears and fretting of yesterday and tomorrow, that we lose touch with the reality that all we ever have is a continuous stream of ´´now´´. The moment, the now, is the peace and the stillness that resides within the very core of our being, regardless of what external stimuli may appear to be causing us ´´stress´´.
Feel in to this endless space by using the breath. Find your quiet center. Then feel the space in between each breath. There you will find, on the turn of the breath, a flash of the infinite, the stillness and silence, that exists in between the noise of our mind and of everyday life, that which is expansive, vibrant, joyous and always at ease; that which we could call God, but is nameless and formless. God is in the gap and your breath can journey you in to this sacred space of perpetual and uninterruptable peace. Just breathe.
Indra Aimee Rai
Transformational Life Coach, Kundalini Yogi
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