It feels so good to be cared for.
As babies we are dependent on others for comfort, and a nourishing meal or a bath or a good nap is enough to turn any day around.
But, as adults, it’s a little harder to bounce back. We’re busy with responsibilities. We’re overwhelmed. And, when anxieties arise, a good meal or a bath or a nap isn’t always possible! But there is something that is always possible, something that we can do to calm ourselves, anytime, and anywhere. And it’s something that we’ve been doing since the day we were born.
Conscious breathing has the power to soothe. It reduces our anxiety in just moments. The breath has physiological effects on our bodies and brains, and, if we know how to use it, we can calm ourselves with care.
I first discovered the breath in yoga. It may sound silly to say that I discovered my breath when I’ve always had it, but it’s true. As part of the yoga practice, we’re not only instructed on how to move through the poses, but how to breathe as well.
After all, it’s not really yoga if there is no breath!
When I started yoga, I was unaware that the breath had so much importance. I was new to exercise, and it was all I could do to focus on where to put my arms and my legs, how to twist my torso, and where to place my gaze.
But soon I became more aware. In every practice, the instructor provides specific instructions on how and when to breathe. And it’s a special kind of breathing, too. It’s called Ujjayi, or Victorious Breath, and it’s done throughout the practice. One movement, one breath. That’s yoga.
To breathe like this, we’re supposed to constrict the backs of our throats and seal our lips, so the air goes in and out of our noses. This kind of breath makes the sound of the ocean, and, like the ocean itself, it’s meditative. The instructor tells us when to inhale and when to exhale and even reminds us to breathe when a difficult pose makes us hold our breath.
The breath is nature’s way of quelling anxiety. After a practice, regardless of what transpired earlier in the day, the day is no longer as it was! How is this possible? And how does it work for everyone in the practice, especially when none of us are exactly the same, and none of our days are exactly the same, either?
The Gut-Brain Connection
The breath works, no matter who we are, because it activates the vagus nerve, the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system. It runs from the brain, through the neck and chest, right down to the abdomen, literally linking our minds with our guts. This nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system, making it responsible for the body’s relaxation response, as opposed to its stress response. When the vagus nerve is activated, a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine is released, delivering calming messages throughout the body.
All this happens with just a few conscious inhales and exhales. And that’s good to know when we’re anxious or feeling out of control, for our breath is always at hand. It’s what lets us care for ourselves. And that’s why it’s works for everyone. It’s universal.
Breathing intentionally does more than just calm the mind. When the vagus nerve is activated, not only does it relax our brain waves, but it also helps our hearts beat at healthy rates, reduces pain and inflammation, and consolidates our memories. Directly connected to the gut, it also regulates chemical levels in our digestive systems, so that we can process food and derive the proper nutrients from our meals.
The Science of Breathing
In all of these ways, our breath is responsible for moving energy throughout our bodies. While science identifies this process via the vagus nerve, yoga identifies it through something called Prana.
Prana is another word for life force, or energy. It’s something that exists in all of us, and, like the breath, it’s universal, too. For those who believe, it’s the same energy as that which is found inside of everything, everywhere.
Pranayama is the science of breathing. It’s a way of accessing our life force. The breath is the tool that activates our Prana, making us capable of having a direct effect on our own energy levels. In difficult times, when our Prana gets stuck and our energy is low, we can breathe in certain ways to help our energy flow smoothly once again.
In this regard, we are never powerless, because each of us can care for ourselves with our own breath. With intentional breathing, we can enable ourselves to access something as great as our own life force, and maybe something even greater!
So do we have to be breathing on a yoga mat in order to stimulate the vagus nerve and reap the therapeutic powers of pranayama?
The answer is no. At any time, if we’re anxious or uncomfortable, we can just breathe deeply. We can do this at our desks, in our cars, at the dinner table, or even at night in bed. Anytime, and anywhere, we can activate our relaxation response and help modulate our nervous system, sending healing energy throughout our bodies.
Here are four breathing methods, all of which activate the vagus nerve and ignite our Prana. Each is done only through the nose, with the lips sealed, and the length of each exhale always matches the length of each inhale.
This method is practiced in sync with the yoga poses. The breath is powerful and audible and is often referred to as Oceanic Breath or Victorious Breath. To practice ujjayi breathing, seal the lips and constrict the back of the throat, while pushing air in and out through the nose. Inhale the lungs fully while in the rising or lengthening portion of a pose, and exhale the lungs fully while in the folding or twisting portions of the same pose. Continue for the duration of your yoga practice.
Breath of Fire
This method is usually practiced in a seated position with a straight spine. In this technique, the inhales and exhales are completed in rapid, rhythmic succession. It’s almost like panting with your lips sealed. On each exhale, press the navel inward and contract the abdomen for forceful, quick expulsions of air. Each exhale is intentional, but the inhale that follows is quick and automatic. Continue for up to one minute or more.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This method is practiced in a seated position with the eyes closed. Only one nostril at a time is used in this breathing technique. Press the right nostril closed with the right thumb and inhale slowly through the left nostril. Hold the breath at the top of the inhale and then release the right nostril and close the left one with the ring finger. Exhale slowly through the right nostril. The next inhale is repeated through the open right nostril, holding again at the top of the breath. The right nostril is then closed once more for an exhale through the left. Continue for several rounds of breath.
Long, Deep Breathing
This breathing method can be practiced lying down, standing up, or seated. Many people place one hand on the belly and the other on the heart when breathing like this. On the inhale, push the belly out to allow the diaphragm to lower, thereby making room for the air to reach all the way to the bottom of the lungs. Hold the breath at the top of the inhale, and, on the exhale, pull the belly in, allowing the diaphragm to move up and the air to be fully emptied out. Continue for several rounds of breath.