4 breathing techniques to improve your mood and mental health today.
Guest blog written by Sunil Kalsi
Senior Yoga teacher and Centre Manager at The Secret Space, a Hertford based yoga charity.
The primary role of breathing is to provide the body with oxygen it needs to function properly, and to remove carbon dioxide as a waste product. Because breathing is controlled by our autonomic nervous system (meaning automatic), we usually don’t pay too much attention to it.
However, what most of us don’t know is, how the way we breathe affects not only our physical health but also has a great impact on our mental health and overall well-being.
Why is proper breathing so important for our health?
When we experience stress, our body automatically activates the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response in our bodies. This means that the body shifts its energy resources toward fighting off a life threat or fleeing from an enemy. The sympathetic nervous system signals the adrenal glands to release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These and other hormones cause the heart to beat faster, respiration rate to increase, blood vessels in the arms and legs to dilate, digestive process to change and glucose levels (sugar energy) in the bloodstream to increase to deal with the emergency.
During a stress response, our breathing has a tendency to become shallow. This shallow breathing, known as chest breathing, can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and make it harder to cope with stress.
How breathing affects our body?
Shallow breathing can further reduce the amount of oxygen available to the body’s cells, which can weaken the immune system. Over time, chronic stress and shallow breathing can contribute to a range of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and anxiety disorders.
On the other hand, when we breathe deeply and we slow our breath, we send signal to the brain that we are “safe”, which then activates the parasympathetic nervous system through stimulation of the Vagus nerve. The parasympathetic nervous system counteracts the stress response and helps the body to return into a relaxed state to recover and restore itself after periods of stress or exertion. It’s sometimes called the “rest and digest” state. The parasympathetic nervous system also stimulates the release of “feel good” hormones such as endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin which are natural mood-boosting neurotransmitters that help ease the symptoms of stress and anxiety or even pain. When we feel relaxed, we can respond to stress in a more skilful way and make better choices. Moreover, by activating the parasympathetic nervous system through practices such as controlled breathing, we can promote overall health and well-being.
In yoga practices where the breath is controlled are called “pranayama”. “Prana” is a Sanskrit term that means ‘life force’ within us that sustains the body, and “pranayama” is the practice of controlling and regulating this energy through the breath. The reason is straightforward – breath brings us into life and carries us all the way through it.
Controlled breathing techniques used in yoga are seen as a bridge between the body and the mind. They are helpful tools to quiet the mind, deepen relaxation to help the practitioner come to a single point of focus.
Try these 4 practices right now
Below are few simple yogic breathing techniques to help cope with stress and anxiety and to improve overall mental health. Try the different breathing techniques and see which are the best fit for you.
The 4-8-2 breathing technique can help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and promote relaxation. With regular practice, the 4-2-8 breathing technique can be a helpful tool for managing stress and anxiety in daily life. Here are the steps:
- Find a comfortable seated position with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed.
- Take a few deep breaths through your nose, filling your lungs with air and exhaling slowly.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose for a count of 4 seconds, feeling your lungs fill with air.
- Exhale slowly through your nose for a count of 8 seconds, feeling your body relax and release tension.
- Hold your breath for 2 seconds.
- Repeat the process for several rounds, trying to make the breaths and counts as smooth and even as possible.
Deep Belly Breathing (Puraka Rechaka Kumbhaka)
This is a fundamental yoga breathing technique to calm your mind and reduce anxiety. Here’s how to do it:
- Find a comfortable position (sit or lie down or do this exercise while standing if you prefer).
- Place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly, just below your ribcage.
- Slowly inhale through your nose, and feel your belly expand with air. Focus on breathing deeply into your belly, rather than your chest.
- Slowly exhale through your nose, and feel your abdomen contract as you breath out. Make sure to fully empty your lungs of air.
- Continue to inhale deeply through your nose and exhale slowly through your nose for several breaths, focusing on the sensation of your belly rising and falling.
- Practise deep belly breathing for a few minutes each day, or whenever you feel stressed or anxious. Over time, you may find that it becomes easier and more natural to breathe deeply in this way.
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)
Alternate nostril breathing technique balances the energy flow in the body and calm the mind. It reduces stress and anxiety, improves respiratory function, increases mental clarity and focus. Follow these steps:
- Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position or in a chair with your spine erect and your head in a neutral position.
- Place your left hand on your left knee, palm facing up, and bring your right hand to your nose.
- Use your right thumb to gently close your right nostril.
- Inhale deeply through your left nostril, filling your lungs completely.
- Once you’ve reached your maximum inhale, use your right ring finger to close your left nostril and release your right nostril.
- Exhale completely through your right nostril.
- Inhale deeply through your right nostril.
- Once you’ve reached your maximum inhale, use your right thumb to close your right nostril and release your left nostril.
- Exhale completely through your left nostril.
- This completes one cycle of alternate nostril breathing. Repeat for 5-10 cycles or as long as feels comfortable.
- Finish with exhaling completely through your left nostril.
Humming Bee Breathing (Bhramari Pranayama)
The humming sound produced during this practice helps to calm the nervous system, brings clarity to our internal processes. To practise Bhramari Pranayama, follow these steps:
- Find a comfortable seated position with your spine straight and your eyes closed.
- Raise both hands to the face and the elbows to the level of the shoulders. Place the thumb-tips on the tragus and fold that into the ear. It is important that you don’t stick your fingers or thumbs into the ear canal.
- The index fingers point to the space between the eyebrows, the next 3 fingers rest on the bridge of the nose with the eyes closed.
- Inhale deeply through your nose and close your mouth
- Place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth.
- Exhale slowly and hum the syllable Aum. Keep your lips gently closed, and the humming sound should come from deep in the pelvis.
- Repeat the process for 3 rounds.
Interested to learn more about yoga?
In the modern Western world, yoga is often seen as a fancy form of exercise. While the physical postures of yoga surely provide many health benefits, the practice is much more than just an exercise.
At its core, yoga is about cultivating a sense of awareness and inner peace through physical postures (asanas), breath techniques (pranayama), and meditation. It is a holistic approach to health and well-being that can help increase flexibility and strength, improve posture, balance, and promote overall physical and mental health.
If you have any further questions regarding the breathing techniques described in this article, or if you would simply like to learn more about the philosophy of yoga and how it can be helpful to improve your mental health and the overall quality of your life, please contact Sunil at The Secret Space Yoga Studio in Hertford https://www.thesecretspace.org.uk/
Swami Ambikananda Saraswati. Principles of Breathwork: The Only Practical Introduction You’ll Ever Need. Thorsons (5 July 1999).
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