Stress is part of life. We all face it on a regular basis at work, in our relationships, and running around doing our day-to-day tasks. While stress has a bad reputation in the health industry, modern research is finally catching up to what ancient Eastern traditions have known for centuries: changing our breathing pattern relieves stress and leads to a healthier state of being.
There are many ways to relieve stress that you have probably tried. Exercise, a hot bath, or calling a friend to tell them about your day. These are all great tools, but conscious breathing is an even quicker way to change the stress response in your body.
Simple breathwork techniques effectively train the body to better handle stressful situations. It’s very difficult to get rid of the stress in our lives, but rather than view stress as the enemy (or something we need to get rid of), let’s look at it as the signal we need to change something about our approach. After all, it’s our reaction to what happens in our life that shapes our experiences, not the things themselves.
When was the last time you took a breath with awareness? Conscious breathing is a term that refers to breathing that is done with mindfulness. We are breathing all of the time without even thinking about it. How amazing is it that our bodies do this automatically, without the need to pay attention to every single inhalation?
Learning to breathe consciously is as simple as placing your attention on your breath. Try noticing how you are breathing right now. Does your breath feel smooth and full or tight and shallow?
When we’re stressed our lungs take in less oxygen. This causes the body to tighten. When we’re anxious or worried the breathing pattern is usually pretty fast which turns on the sympathetic nervous system, our fight or flight response that turns on our stress hormones. Over time this excess hormone production is taxing on the body and can lead to fatigue and other health issues.
The opposite is true in a relaxed state where our breathing patterns are slower and deeper. Breathing with awareness engages the parasympathetic nervous system, the one that is in charge of calming us down. This has a positive impact on our health by keeping our stress hormones in check and quieting busy minds.
The beauty of conscious breathing is that it is free, can be practiced anywhere, and is one of the most direct tools for creating a different relationship to stress and optimizing well being. In as little as a couple of minutes, you can bring your mind and body into alignment and empower yourself to stay present with whatever you are going through. Choose one of the techniques and try it for a few minutes every day for the next week. Over time and with practice you will know how long you need to do a particular breathwork technique to feel centered and calm.
Have you ever been to a yoga class where the teacher instructed you to breathe deeply in and out through your nose? This ujjayi breath is the foundational breathing technique taught in Hatha yoga. It translates as ‘victorious breath’. It is also often referred to as ‘ocean breath’ for the subtle sound it makes when you slightly constrict your throat muscles on the inhale and exhale. The small amount of muscle tension helps calm the mind as your breathe eventually brings you into a deep state of relaxation. Ujjayi breath balances the entire body and helps release anxiety, tension and worry which are all associated with stress.
Sit up tall in a chair on on the floor. Rest your hands on your knees. Gently close your eyes. Begin breathing deeply in and out through the nose. With each inhale and exhale lightly constrict your throat, more specifically the epiglottis. Keep this contraction engaged the entire time. Bring your awareness to the sound of the breath and and focus on making it deeper and smoother as you continue to breathe. Start with 3 minutes in the morning or evening.
Making your exhalation a few counts longer than your inhale is a quick way to calm yourself down. The slower you breathe the more your mind will relax. This is an excellent technique for balancing emotions, quieting the mind, and regulating anxiety. If you ever have issues falling asleep, this is a great practice to try in bed.
Sit up tall in a chair or on the floor. You can also practice this lying down. Close your eyes to take the focus inward. Breathe in and out through the nose for a few rounds to settle in. When you are ready, make each exhale 2-3 counts longer than the inhale. Continue in this pattern until you are completely relaxed and calm. Start with 2 minutes any time you need some restoration.
Left Nostril Breathing
If you feel agitated, angry, stressed out, frantic or just overloaded with emotions this is a fast acting exercise. Breathing in and out through the left nostril brings in cooling energy to help soothe a frayed nervous system and harmonize emotions. Consciously breathing through the left nostril recalibrates the body and restores peaceful feelings that helps us ground into the present moment.
Sit up tall in a chair or on the floor. Close your eyes and cover your right nostril with your right index finger. Don’t press too hard, just enough so that the air flows freely through the left side. Begin taking slow breaths in and out through the left nostril for one minute.
Taking the time to make conscious breathing part of our lives changes how we live in each moment everything. When we’re not in a constant state of stress it is much easier to make decisions, take care of ourselves, and deal with whatever situations needs our attention. When we’re in high alert mode we’re not firing properly on all cylinders. Commit to making one of these conscious breathwork practices part of your tool kit and improve your stress response, emotional state, metabolism, and well being.
And if you would like to dive deeper into breathwork and its incredible power to shift your relationship to yourself, stress, and beyond I would love to support you in a session.
Photos x Lani Trock