The BALANCE guide to using yogic breathing to stop stress and anxiety
Feeling stressed and anxious? Aren’t we all at times, however much we try to focus on our mental and physical wellness? But before you reach for the Pinot Grigio, comfort eat a large bag of prawn cocktail crisps and/or have bit of a meltdown – worse still, a panic attack – there’s a very simple thing you can do to control your mood and emotions. And it’s that most basic of human activities; breathing, the simplest, most natural way to calm both body and mind. Of course, we don’t mean your regular old day-to-day breathing, but the far more mindful sort called pranayama. For the uninitiated, this is the practice of yogic breathing (prana means “vital life force”, and yama means to gain control).
Through simple breathing exercises and understanding the science of pranayama we can learn how to balance the nervous system and be at our best every single day.
What happens to our breathing under stress?
Under a negative stress response, like fear or anger, we are in ‘fight or flight mode’. Imagine you are struggling to finish a project that has a looming deadline (don’t know about you, but we don’t have to imagine this). At times like this, when the body produces adrenaline and cortisol, breathing becomes more erratic and will contract – this is why anxiety can produce feelings of tightness in your chest and you tend to get burnt out more easily.
However, under a positive stress response, for example when doing something that we love and are passionate about, we produce adrenaline and more of the dilating and anti-ageing hormone DHEA. We are full of energy, courage and in a state of flow. When we’re in a positively charged state we also breathe smoothly and more rhythmically. This is why positive people tend to outlive pessimistic people.
The sympathetic nervous system – which is activated when we are in fight or flight mode – tends to have negative connotations attached to it but that is what’s at work when we are feeling passionate, energised or inspired about something. The sympathetic nervous system is at work whilst we are in a positively charged state.
Similarly, the parasympathetic nervous system tends to be looked on more favourably, while in actual fact it can also be associated with feelings like apathy or laziness, when we are in a negatively charged emotional state.
What happens to us when we breathe?
Here comes the science bit. When we inhale, we activate the sympathetic nervous system. When we exhale, we stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. So, here’s the thing – when we breathe in a smooth and consistent rhythm with equal length for inhales and exhales, we actually balance the nervous system.
We can also alter our breathing rate and the length of our inhale vs exhale to affect the nervous system in different ways through Savitri pranayama (which means rhythmic breathing in Sanskrit). Compared to simply slowing down the breathing, rhythmic breathing with a 1:2 ratio of inhale vs exhale, i.e breathing in for 4 and out for 8, has been shown in studies to produce a greater relaxation response, bringing about a reduction in stress, helping with mindfulness, and cultivating positive energy. This breathing pattern switches on the parasympathetic nervous system which brings us into rest and digest mode.
Slow breathing of 5-6 breaths per minute is also associated with optimum mood and well being. (Jerath et al., 2015) While fast breathing has been often mutually linked to anxiety and stress (Homma and Masaoka, 2008).
Dr Alan Watkins, a well respected physician and neuroscientist explains that how we feel is affected by our raw emotional state, and our raw emotional state is affected by our physiology.
He explains that the number one, most fundamental way to alter our physiology – our heart rate, blood pressure and hormonal levels – is through smooth, consistent, rhythmic breathing. This creates a state called coherence which results in a balanced and harmonious nervous system.
Let’s look at two examples of pranayama techniques from my SOMA Breath programme:
Mood Booster 1: Savitri Pranayama + Slow Rechaka
This technique has powerful relaxation effects for the body and mind.
- Sit comfortably with your back straight, in an upright position
- Inhale fully through the nose into your diaphragm for 4 seconds, filling your lungs with air. Place your hand on your abdomen to ensure that it rises before your chest
- Without using any force, exhale fully through the mouth for 8 seconds
- When you have exhaled, breathe in fully again, with no force. Create a continuous and smooth rhythm.
- Repeat this 20-30 times
- Then take a full inhale, purse your lips gently, allowing the air to escape from your mouth as slowly as if you were breathing out through a thin straw. Do a body scan to make sure that you are not tensing any of your muscles whilst exhaling
- During the exhalation, visualise an ocean wave of relaxation, cascading down the front of your body, from the crown of your head to the tips if your toes
- Continue breathing and visualising in this way for 5-10 minutes per day. The longer you continue, the more your blood pressure and heart rate will drop and the deeper into a state of relaxation you will plunge
Mood booster 2: Savitri Pranayama + Nisshesha rechaka kumbhaka
This method gives you a positive stress response that elevates your mood. It is the same as method 1, but when you have repeated 20-30 times, exhale all the air from your lungs and hold the exhalation for as long as possible. Then when you get a strong urge to breathe, take a full inhale and hold for 20-30 seconds, before going back to normal breathing.
The impact of this method can be heightened by focusing on feelings of love, gratitude and positivity throughout the practice.
Pranayama techniques can have powerful, mind altering and opening effects when implemented correctly. Often, a small but sustained improvement in mood is a catalyst for other more dramatic shifts in our lives. When we radiate positive emotion and raise our vibration, that positivity rubs off on others and alters the electromagnetic field around us, creating a domino effect and allowing one person to raise the vibration of the collective consciousness and the whole planet. Together, we can make a huge difference to the world – there is really no time like the present.
Niraj Naik, the Renegade Pharmacist, is a certified UK pharmacist turned holistic wellness, brain-training and breathwork expert. He is one of the world’s most sought-after spiritual ceremony facilitators and leads breathwork workshops around the world.
Today, Niraj runs a global breathwork community and trains hundreds of breathwork experts through his SOMA Breath framework, which is also taught at numerous wellness centers in the US, Europe and Asia.