For centuries, we have known about the powerful connection between our breath and our mental state. While the yogis and healers of ancient days didn’t have any peer-reviewed research to back up their claims, they consistently used the breath, and mindful breathing practices, to center themselves. Through conscious breath, we can shift ourselves into a state of calm, clarity, and focus.
To breathe is far more than the physiological need for oxygen—it is the essence of life, the power to call something forth, the tingling undercurrent of our collective consciousness. And in addition to all these things, it is a powerful tool that we can mindfully manipulate to our healing advantage. Because our breath is so intricately linked to our other physiological functions and our mental state, when we focus on the breath, we can influence a multitude of other bodily responses: heart rate, blood pressure, digestion rate, inflammation, and cognition to name just a few.
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Enter the powerful yogic technique(s) of pranayama. This word is a combination of the two Sanskrit words, “prana” the universal life force/energy, and “yama” meaning to control. So in its very essence, pranayama is the way that we can control and manipulate our energy and life force with our breath. It’s been said that emotion = energy in motion, so it’s easy to see that our emotions and our breath are entwined.
Next time you find yourself getting worked up, or on the verge of panic, give one of these exercises a try!
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)
This is called the channel-clearing (nadi= channel, shodhana= cleaning, purifying) breath. It’s said to balance the left and right sides of the brain, promote blood oxygenation, and calm the emotions.
Bring your hand up to your nose, using your thumb to gently close your right nostril.
Inhale fully through your left nostril, then use your ring and/or pinky finger to gently close the left nostril as you exhale through the right nostril.
Leave the right nostril open as you take another full, slow inhale. Then again use your thumb to close the right nostril as you exhale through the left.
You can repeat this for as long as you like, and if you find your arm gets tired, you can either switch hands or find a pillow or bolster to prop up your elbow.
Three-Part Breathing (Deerga Swasam)
This technique is referred to as the complete breath (deerga= complete, full, swasam= breath) because it fills up all the available space in our bodies in a sequential manner. It is an antidote to shallow or scattered breathing.
I’ve found that this technique is easier to do while lying flat on the floor or on a bed. It also helps to place your palms flat on your abdomen to really connect with where the air is going.
From there, it’s really quite simple:
On your inhale, first send the air deep into your abdomen, filling up your belly first. Then continuing that same inhale, next fill your ribcage, feeling your sides expand into your hands, and finally fill your chest to make a full and complete breath. Just be careful not to pull in too much air or strain in any way- this is meant to be a comfortably full breath.
On the exhale, simply reverse the process. Drain the air first from your chest, then your ribs, and lastly your belly, tightening it slightly to push out the air completely. Then start the cycle over again.
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This technique was the first pranayama practice I’d ever encountered, and I’ve used it countless times over the years. It can be kind of challenging at first, but is great for slowing down the mind giving an anxious brain something to focus on.
Basically, it is exactly what it sounds like: each section of the breath is even, meaning the inhale, the exhale, and the pauses between each, are timed equally.
To begin, count slowly with your breath like this:
Inhale, 2, 3, 4
Hold the inhale (top of the breath), 2, 3, 4
Exhale, 2, 3, 4
Hold the exhale (bottom of the breath) 2, 3, 4
And repeat for several minutes. As you become more proficient over time, you can increase the count to 6 or 8 if you can tolerate it comfortably. You may also use a visual aid with this practice—hold or look at something square and trace the edges with each part of the breath.
These three examples are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to pranayama, but they are some of the easiest ones to master, and can offer relief from acute anxiety, stress, and fatigue.
Remember, our breath is our way to control our life force/energy and you can make a conscious choice to create the way you want to feel right here, right now.
Pal, G. K., & Velkumary, S. (2004). Effect of short-term practice of breathing exercises on autonomic functions in normal human volunteers. Indian Journal of Medical Research, 120(2), 115.
Sengupta, P. (2012). Health impacts of yoga and pranayama: A state-of-the-art review. International journal of preventive medicine, 3(7), 444.
Kinabalu, K. (2005). Immediate effect of ‘nadi-shodhana pranayama’on some selected parameters of cardiovascular, pulmonary, and higher functions of brain. Thai journal of physiological sciences, 18(2), 10-16.
Ankad, R. B., Herur, A., Patil, S., Shashikala, G. V., & Chinagudi, S. (2011). Effect of short-term pranayama and meditation on cardiovascular functions in healthy individuals. Heart views: the official journal of the Gulf Heart Association, 12(2), 58.
Nemati, A. (2013). The effect of pranayama on test anxiety and test performance. International journal of yoga, 6(1), 55.
Melani Schweder is a Certified Health Coach and Reiki Master/Teacher based in Denver, Colorado. She’s dedicated to helping people heal their lives through natural medicine, holistic nutrition, and mindful self-care. You can connect with her and get started on your own healing adventure at A Brighter Wild.