Breathing through Stress
Upon hearing “downward facing dog” most people nowadays would know that the topic of discussion is yoga. Yoga is done for many different reasons but the common denominator is often to relax and reduce stress. When practicing yoga we take a moment to stop with our daily tasks and enjoy a mini retreat from the outside world. In doing so we consciously invite our body to relax and let go of tension- a skill that can also be mastered throughout our daily lives.
If yoga is practiced on a regular basis, it can help us increase the body’s ability to deal with stress and even prevent stress-related diseases. That means switching quicker away from a heightened adrenaline fast-paced world to a slower relaxed wind down state. When this transition is being made, our nervous system switches off our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight mode) and activates our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest system).
More yoga research sheds light on how yoga can help with stress-related disease such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and even epilepsy. A team of researchers published an article in 2012 that yoga regulates the nervous system by stimulating the vagus nerve. This essential nerve is the largest nerve in our body which is in charge of many bodily functions. It is a cranial nerve that runs all the way from the base of the skull through the rest of the body. It is responsible for tasks such as digesting our food, breathing air in and out and our heart rate variability (a marker for how stress-resilient we are) just to name a few. The research has demonstrated that we can increase vagal tone through yoga to let the body and mind function optimally. Essentially, the higher the vagal tone, the better stress-resistant we are.
Through yoga we can gradually develop a higher vagal tone. When this becomes the case, we feel energized because digestion improves, our heart rate variability is higher and we are able to approach life’s challenges with much more ease. When someone has low vagal tone the opposite happens and we tend to get more anxious, more susceptible to pain and our digestive system feels sluggish. People who suffer from depression, have chronic pain or are diagnosed with a life-threatening disease show significant improvement with yoga.
When I teach private yoga sessions to clients, the first thing I do is to breathe with them. Sounds simple, right? Well it is, we just have to take the time to do it. What I often notice is how quick and superficial the breath is initially. As soon as the attention is drawn to a deeper and more conscious breath, clients access this more relaxed (parasympathetic) state. Besides improved digestion, this rest and digest system aids in decreasing heart rate and blood pressure. More oxygen will reach the tissues on the inhale and more waste is being removed from the body on the exhale. Conscious breathing thus increases oxygen exchange and stimulates circulation and lymphatic drainage. Through deeper breathing we also learn how to use the full capacity of our lungs, giving our chest and muscles between the ribs a gentle stretch.
So instead of taking on too many New Year resolutions which are often forgotten by the end of January, you might consider deeper breathing for a chance to be more at ease with and face daily stressors. Here are two simple breathing exercises which can be practiced anywhere anytime and might give you that stress-resilient boost for 2015.
- Yogic Breath: Lie, sit or stand in a stable and comfortable position. Whichever option you choose, make sure that the head, neck and spine are aligned. Begin to inhale through the nose and let the belly rise outward. Then begin to expand the rib cage and bring the air up to the chest area. Exhale, relax the chest and belly button moves in to expel the last air. Follow your inhale all the way from the belly to ribcage to chest and on the exhale follow it down from chest to ribcage to belly. Let the inhalation flow into the exhalation and vice versa. Repeat 5 rounds.
- Dirgha Rechak (long exhale breath): Inhale using a yogic breath, then focus on a nice, smooth, long exhale. On the inhale you can count to 2, exhale on the count of 4. If there is any shortness of breath, strain or discomfort, return to a yogic breath. If you wish to lengthen the exhale more, aim for 4 counts on the inbreath and 8 counts on the outbreath. Dirgha Rechak is very calming to the nervous system as the long exhale emphasizes letting go of aspects you no longer need in your life. Practice 5 rounds.