The latest few years have been stress-inducing years, to say the least, so it’s more important now than ever that we are able to calm our stress and anxiety with simple, natural techniques. This is where the breath comes in as breathwork is a tool that is free and available to everyone whenever we need it most.
Pranayama is the Sanskrit word that combines breath or life force, prana, and yama, referring to the control, suspension and extension of the breath. It is a collection of different techniques that we can use whenever we feel necessary to tap into a more conscious, calm state. Pranayama is the yogic art of breathing that allows the practitioner to gain control of their emotions as well as bridge the gap between the physical and the spiritual.
So why is pranayama good for us, and what techniques can we use to help with stress and anxiety? Read on to find out.
Why Is Breathing Well Good For Our Health?
Breathing is what keeps you alive, simple as that. Yet many of us don’t even think about how we breathe or why deeper breaths may be good for us. Breathing is key to our overall wellbeing in that it oxygenates the blood, moving fresh energy around the body. Deep breaths, therefore, allow more oxygen to flow through the body, flushing the system of toxins with each conscious inhale and exhale. Shallow breathing, on the other hand, not only keeps us in fight or flight mode, but also allows things to stagnate, leading to your blood and organs becoming filled with unnecessary and sometimes harmful toxins. It’s therefore no wonder that short, shallow breathing leaves us feeling sluggish or stressed.
James Nestor, author of ‘Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art‘ highlights the importance of breathing through our nostrils as opposed to our mouths for our overall health and wellbeing as well as finding that the optimum calming, healing breath length is around 5.5 seconds on both the inhale and exhale, much longer than the average 3.2 seconds that most of us use on a day-to-day basis.
How Breathing Can Help Reduce Stress and Anxiety
There has been various research on the benefits of breathing exercises in relation to stress and anxiety, with one study showing that anxiety levels dropped for students practicing pranayama over a six-week period compared to a control group, and another showing lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in the saliva of those participants taking part in deep diaphragmatic breathing.
These studies, and others, show that heart rate variability (HRV) also increases when pranayama techniques are used, allowing the oxygen to flow faster round the body when we need it and for the heart to beat slower, in a resting rhythm, when we’re not practising. This allows the body to become resilient and for the practitioner to gain control over their reactions to outside stimuli.
Top Pranayama Techniques
So now you know why breathwork is important, you might be wondering what are some of the top techniques you can use when you feel stress or anxiety coming on. Here we’ll detail some of our favourite breathing techniques that you can use at home, in the workplace or even on aeroplanes or public transport.
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)
Alternate Nostril Breathing really is as simple as it sounds but it’s one of the best ways to slow down your breathing and connect up your mind, body and soul. The practice involves using your right hand to close each nostril individually, breathing in through one nostril, pausing at the top, and exhaling through the other. The easiest way to do this is to take your index and middle fingers and place them in the middle of your forehead and then use your ring finger and thumb to alternately open and close each nostril. In order to concentrate fully on the breath, it’s also a good idea to close your eyes while you practice. You can continue this type of breathing for around 1-3 minutes, or as long as you feel comfortable; feeling the heart rate and anxiety levels decrease.
Humming Bee Breath (Bhramari)
The Bhramari pranayama technique is sometimes referred to as bee breath and is a quick way to get you out of your thoughts and into the feelings and vibrations of your body. To practise Bhramari, close your eyes, block of your ears with your thumbs and cover your eyes with your fingers, take a deep inhalation through the nose then, as you exhale through your nose, make a humming ‘om’ sound with your mouth and throat. This practice is believed to concentrate the mind on positive energy, lower stress and have a natural calming effect.
Box breathing is a great technique to use if you feel stress bubbling up inside of you as the slow, conscious inhales and exhales allow you to move from your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight mode) into the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest mode), instantly calming you down and clearing your mind. To practice, close your eyes and imagine the four sides of a square, taking each side as a different part of the process. First, you’ll inhale through your nose for a count of four, filling your lungs completely, next, you’ll hold for four, then exhale for four, and finally hold the breath outside of the body for a further count of four.
You may find that a count of four is too long or too short, so you can change this to suit you, but remember that you are trying to elongate your breath so the practice should become easier as you slow down your stressed mind.
Even if you don’t have time or don’t feel comfortable completing a full pranayama practice, simply taking a few full, conscious, deep breaths all the way into your lower belly will help cool and calm the body. This is best done in and out of your nose, as you can slow down your breath and heart rate in a more controlled manner.
We really hope these techniques help you move from being in a place of stress and discomfort to a state of calm and rejuvenation, so that you feel in control of your emotions, your reactions and your consciousness.
Which breathwork techniques do you find help with your stress and anxiety? Let us know in the comments below.