To understand stress, it’s important to also understand how stress impacts our bodies. Our bodies have the naturally occurring hormone cortisol. And when we think about cortisol we typically associate it with something bad, because we think of stress. However, cortisol is a necessary hormone that is released in our bodies to keep our muscles working regularly. Essentially we need cortisol to function. However, when we become highly stressed (think sick kid, financial problems, unrealistic work deadline, traffic, juggling too many to-do’s at once…the list goes on and on) the body reacts by dumping more cortisol into our system. Excess cortisol is necessary in stressful situations, but only in emergency stressful situations (think getting seriously injured) as it helps our bodies continue to function even if we’re dealing with an excessive amount of pain, or if our life is in serious danger. The body, however, cannot differentiate between an emergency stressful situation and a day-to-day life stressor. Excess cortisol when not necessary can wreak havoc on our bodies causing high blood pressure, digestive issues, ulcers, and immune system issues. It can also cause us to gain weight or make it harder to lose weight as the body stores extra fat when excess cortisol is released as a reaction to ensure there is enough fat to help you survive. Having excess cortisol at the right time can save your life, but having excess cortisol in your body when you don’t need it can really cause some serious problems.
So it’s really easy to just say, “Starting today, I will not be stressed”, right? Right? Okay, well maybe it’s not that easy. So then how do you actually de-stress in a healthy way? How can you get your body to avoid the “Flight or Fight” state when it’s not necessary? That’s the million dollar question… and yoga has the answer. You don’t even have to step onto a yoga mat, or do a single yoga pose to realize the de-stressing, anti-anxiety benefits of this amazing practice. All you have to do is BREATHE. So you may be thinking, well I do that already so why am I wasting my time reading this. Let me elaborate… You just have to breathe mindfully.
Our breath reacts to our state of mind, or our emotional situation. We breathe differently when we are angry, nervous, excited, calm, bored, etc. But what most of us don’t think about is that we can help change our emotional state through breathing as well. We already know that our emotional state impacts our breathing, so doesn’t it make sense that we can impact our emotional state through our breathing? I’m not saying breathing mindfully will change your life, but if you don’t give it a try, you’ll never know what benefits it can have.
Through a yoga practice we are taught how to link our breathing to our movements. We set an intention to clear our mind and instead of focusing on our thoughts, we focus on our breathing. The act of practicing breathing patterns is referred to as Pranayama. Pranayama is a Sanskrit word that translates to, “extension of the breath” or “extension of the life force”, but ultimately it is breath awareness and exercises. While there are different types of Pranayama, below I have outlined one which is used most commonly in yoga practices, as well as a meditative or deep relaxation breath. When we practice mindful breathing we are able to access the parasympathetic state of our minds and bodies, which is the restful state. If you are having trouble sleeping, this is a great breathing exercise to do to help calm the mind and allow you to sleep more restfully.
Begin lying down on the floor or your bed. You can also choose to sit in a comfortable seated position. Either way, close your eyes.
Take a slow, deep inhale through your nose. You want to really engage your diaphragm here, so as you inhale you want to feel the air expand in your stomach first.
Then as you continue to inhale you will next feel your ribcage expand on each side.
Lastly you should feel a rise in your chest, or a lifting of the collarbone.
Pause at the top of the breath and hold the breath for 1 count.
Then slowly begin to exhale through your nose, releasing the air out the opposite way you started.
So first you’ll begin to feel your chest fall.
Then you will release the air in your lungs.
Lastly, you will release the expansion of your diaphragm, contracting the abdominal muscles.
If you are having trouble controlling where your breath goes, place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach to feel the movement of your body with the breath.
This breathing exercise is not something that is readily easy to do as we are not typically accustomed to placing so much focus on the breath. It may take practice and you may have to start with shorter breaths and slowly extend your inhales and exhales. As you come to master the exercise, work towards making your exhales slightly longer than your inhales. Count the length of your inhales (1-2-3-4-5) pause (1-2) and then exhale (1-2-3-4-5-6). Find a count that works for you. Try this breathing exercise for several minutes. Aim for at least three minutes and gradually work up. If at anytime you feel dizzy or out of breath, return to normal breathing and then come back when you feel ready to try it again.
I use this breathing exercise frequently and have found that it has made a huge difference in my ability to manage stress, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping. I hope you find this beneficial. Let me know if you have any questions!