The symptoms of stress are uncomfortable and sometimes unbearable, but stress is the body’s natural reaction against fear or potential danger. Physically, our cortisol levels spike in an attempt to protect us, but in today’s high-stress world, we’re generally reacting to non-life threatening stimuli like deadlines and social media comments, and we’re left feeling edgy and untethered throughout our days.
This is an innate part of being human, meaning we are born with this subconscious, instinctual defense. It’s what scientists call the “fight or flight” mechanism, and animals experience this, too. What you need is a moment in “rest and digest” mode. For this, breathing is your best line of defence.
Breathing exercises are a big part of yoga practice and meditation, and these techniques come in handy during life’s stressful moments. Breathwork can slow your heart rate, which escalates when stress gets the better of you. There is a learning curve to an extent, but the more you practice, the better you become at controlling how slow your heart beats when you feel like it’s about to pound out of your chest.
These breathing techniques can be practiced anywhere, even midway down the grocery store aisle, but learning them in a seated position and in a quiet place is going to help you in the long run. The more you practice breathwork, the more it will come to you naturally.
Depending on the form of yoga or an individual’s preference, there are at least a dozen different kinds of breathwork. As a yoga instructor, I rely on these techniques regularly and teach them to my students. Here are three of my favorites for easing stress.
Remember to stop and breathe when life is hectic. Breath is vital. Breath is life.
When you practice ocean breathing, you emulate the same breathwork people use during faster-paced yoga forms, such as Vinyasa flow. Much like anxiety and stress, physical activity causes your heart to beat faster than its normal resting rate.
Start in a cross legged siting position with your spine straight. Relax your face (the spot between your eyebrows, your jaw, unclench your teeth, calm your cheeks and roll your shoulders backward,) and light a candle. Turn on an essential oil diffuser or burn some sage. This last part is optional but it helps set the mood.
Now, it is breathwork time.
- Close your eyes, if that feels comfortable for you, while resting your palms on your thighs or knees.
- Inhale through your nostrils for four seconds, but make sure you’re breathing both slowly and deeply. You want to fill your diaphragm (let’s just say stomach) with air first and then your chest.
- Hold for one second.
- Exhale slowly for four seconds through your nostrils while you tighten the back of your throat to restrict airflow a bit.
- By the end, your belly should be completely empty with no air left. During this part, you can hear a gentle sound almost like the ocean waves due to the way you’re exhaling.
- Repeat as many times as needed.
Ocean breathing allows your breath to come out slower, but it’s also the part that generally takes more practice. When you’re restricting your airflow just enough to allow for a four second exhalation to empty your diaphragm all the way, it’s a technique in and of itself, but trust that after a dozen times, give or take, you’ll have it down like a pro.
You can choose whether or not you want to breathe slowly yet deeply through your nostrils or mouth for this form of breathwork. This is one of the simpler exercises for alleviating stress.
- Inhale for three seconds into your diaphragm (AKA abdominal breathing) for three seconds. You’re making the first side of the triangle, hence the name.
- Hold your breath for three seconds. Now you’re making the second triangle line.
- Exhale at the same pace that you had inhaled for three seconds, completing all three sides of the triangle.
- Repeat these three steps until you feel a sense of calm or stress reduction.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is a yogic breath control practice. In addition to helping with stress, benefits include body and mind relaxation, a sharpened focus, enhanced mindfulness and overall well-being.
Remember, focus on maintaining slow, smooth and continuous breathing.
- Lift your right hand up toward your nose while exhaling entirely and then use your right thumb to close your right nostril.
- Inhale through your left nostril. When your inhalation reaches its peak, close the left nostril with your fingers.
- Open the right nostril and exhale through the right side.
- Inhale through the right nostril and then close this nostril.
- Open the left nostril and exhale through the left side.
This is only one cycle and you can continue for one minute, five minutes or even an hour during bouts of severe stress and anxiety. To practice correctly, complete by exhaling on the left side.
Give each of these techniques a try to discover your favorite. Like many things in life, there is some trial and error involved. Find what connects best with you and go for it. Perhaps cliché, but practice makes perfect. The way you breathe can control your level of stress, and yes, you can do this!