Breathe to Combat Everyday Stress
Our body breathes on autopilot mode anyway so a lot of us wonder what the whole fuss and brouhaha around how to inhale and exhale, is all about!
Well, for one thing, the technique of controlled breathing (or pranayama) is an important aspect of yoga. For another, scientific research is exploding at the moment which demonstrates one unified conclusion. And that is: mindful breathing (i.e., paying attention to our breathing and learning how to smartly play with it) is one of the most effective ways to lower everyday stress levels and address a variety of health issues ranging from mood to metabolism. Contemplative practices like yoga and meditation work at the mind-body-sprit level, whilst staying within the realm of science and is definitely worth a try!
Simple techniques like controlled and mindful breathing can reap huge benefits for the mind and body. Just as we practice and exercise to train our body, we ought to inculcate and practice meditation to train our brain. Practicing yoga and meditation over a period of time can change a person’s physiology, neurology, psychology; it can practically change anything inside the brain for the better. That’s called brain plasticity or neuroplasticity.
As we go about the daily annoyances that life throws at us, we don’t help our cause with our autopilot, subconscious, shallow breathing pattern. On an average, we take about 15 to 20 breaths per minute, which is dramatically higher compared to the 3 – 4 breaths cycles we should be taking per minute.
There is a magical ‘One Minute’ breathing technique that I am about to share with you that can dramatically alter the paradigm for each one of us! Whilst practicing the One Minute breathing technique, we inhale gently for 20 seconds, we hold our breath gently for another 20 seconds and then we exhale nice and deep and gently taking 20 seconds. This is, of course, the pinnacle of the practice.
In order to achieve the One Minute breathing, we need to work towards it with small but significant steps detailed herein below:
- We sit comfortably with our spine straight. (This is the only other most important aspect whilst we engage in the practice of meditation or mindful breathing, other than focusing on the breath, of course!);
- We close our eyes nice and gently to eliminate distraction and start to focus on our breathing. Remember, we do this very nice and gentle.
- Over the next few seconds, we simply observe our breath. We do not judge it, we do not try to alter it or manipulate it or force it in any way. We just observe the breath gently and try and draw our mind and attention towards it.
- Our mind will wander. That’s inevitable and very natural. Our mind is wired to run amok, think and over think, analyze and over analyze (often times, mostly nonsense and irrelevant stuff, but analyze nonetheless!). We shouldn’t get frustrated with this very normal phenomenon, therefore. The thing is that our monkey mind needs constant stimulation and ‘tasks’ to keep it engaged. So, we gently draw and direct our mind towards our breathing and assign it the task of observing our breath consciously. This may take a little practice, but just know that you will accomplish it sooner than you think.
- Now, after a nice and gently few inhale and exhale, we gently start to ‘harness’ our breathing – we gently inhale for 5 seconds, we hold our breath nice and gentle for 5 seconds and then we exhale nice and gentle for the same duration.
- In the course of doing this practice, it is very likely that our mind would have already wandered off to in lala land. Again, this should not frustrate us. As soon as the realization dawns on us that the mind has (yet again) wandered off, we should gently draw its attention towards our breathing, towards this current moment that we are in, to this current location we are in and to this current ‘here and now’. This (the wandering away of the mind) will happen several times. Do not give up or get frustrated and simply draw your mind and attention to your breathing and to this very moment in time. This may be disconcerting at first, but know that you are on the path to addressing it and are doing a great job of it already! Notwithstanding this wrestle with the ‘monkey mind’, just know that the mere intention of us sitting with our eyes closed and focusing on our breath (including the efforts made towards it!) will go a long way is strengthening our bond with our meditation practice and the mind.
The scientific logic behind why we inhale – hold our breath – and exhale for considerably prolonged longer periods of time and their effect on our body and brain is that by drawing in our inhale over a count of let’s say, 5, we are making ourselves slowly and consciously take in more oxygen. Deep inhales infuse oxygen more deeply into our body. Then, by holding our breath for a count of 5, we allow as much of that oxygen to saturate into our bloodstream as possible, cleansing and energizing each of our cells, tissues, and organs and finally, by exhaling for a count of 5, we make sure we have expelled as much carbon dioxide (and toxins) from your lungs and body as possible.
As we do this practice, we need to promise ourselves a few things:
- We will sit comfortably with an erect spine for the entire duration of the practice; If we subconsciously tend to slouch a bit, that’s perfectly normal and we should just course – correct our posture as soon as we realize it.
- The body should be relaxed from toe to head at all times. So, we keep doing constant mental scan of our body to ensure the forehead and eyebrows are unclenched (check), the shoulders comfortably are tucked back (check), the muscles are relaxed and not tense (check) and we wear a gentle smile for the entire duration of the practice (check).
- We pace ourselves through the practice nice and gently. No pushing the breath hard, no wrestling with it, no breathing with force, no struggle whatsoever. We breathe nice and easy and gently. In fact, the entire cycle of inhale – hold- exhale happens so gently and so smoothly, that we ourselves struggle to hear the sound of our own breath. This again is no rocket science and will come with gentle practice over a short period of time.
We are aware that there is a direct relationship between our breath and our emotions. Between our breath and our body. Between our breath and our heart. Between our breath and our blood pressure and so on. When we panic and get anxious, our breath becomes shallow and rapid, our blood pressure shoots up, our pupils dilate, our muscles tighten up and our heart starts to beat faster. This is because our emotions are governed by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). ANS consist of 2 parts – the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic (rest-and-restore) nervous system (PNS). Whilst our SNS cautions us and requires us to combat a ‘situation’ in hand, our PNS (which is the antidote to SNS), encourages us to calm down, relax and deal with the situation with ease and clarity of thought.
With each breath that we inhale, there are millions of sensory receptors in our respiratory system which send signals to the brain. When we are anxious and consequently breathe fast, our brain gets the message at a higher rate, thereby triggering it to activate the SNS, which leads to the stress hormones shooting up, as also the blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, sweat production etc. On the other hand, when we slow down our breathing, we send the signal to the brain to induce the parasympathetic response, thereby toning down all of the above (BP, pulse, muscle tension etc.) as it turns up relaxation, calm and consequent cognitive clarity.
So ultimately, as oblivious as we are to the fact that our breath is the most important tool that each one of us has within our reach to control our response to stress. And harnessing our breath is as simple has taking fewer breaths within a period of time by following the techniques enumerated in this article.
Have a great practice. Namaste!
Read More from the Author: Meditation 101: Debunking the Myths
About the Author
Namrata Singh is a corporate lawyer by profession based in Delhi and a mother of two footballers aged 9 and 12. She is absolutely fascinated with understanding how stress works on the brain. Namrata runs marathons and practices contemplative practices like yoga and meditation, which she strongly believes has the power of dramatically altering an individual’s entire paradigm with its subtle but significant approach. Namrata can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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