I have practiced Kundalini yoga and breathing techniques for many years to reduce my body’s stress responses and to improve my overall vitality and well-being. Deep breathing reduces stress in several ways. It increases oxygen to help brain function and releases toxins and metabolic byproducts through the exhalation. Deep breathing triggers the nervous system to shift into relaxation mode and quiets the fight-or-flight response. Breathing is the cornerstone of many meditative practices such as yoga and Zen Buddhism.
This is what happens to us when we encounter a stressful situation: hormones including epinephrine (also called adrenaline) and cortisol increase blood pressure, raise blood sugar levels and suppress the immune system. These responses are helpful in “fight-or-flight” instances but constant stimulation of stress hormones contribute to poor physical and emotional health, especially weight gain and blood sugar control. When you are unable to eliminate the stressful situation, your next step is to make changes in how your body responds to it. There are many potential origins of stress.
Sensory – Pain, bright light, loud noise
Life events – Birth, death, marriage, divorce, graduation
Responsibilities – Lack of money, unemployment
Work and/or study – Exams, deadlines, group projects
Personal relationships – Communication problems, conflict, deception,
Lifestyle – Heavy drinking, poor diet, insufficient sleep or exercise
Environmental – Lack of control over circumstances, such as food, housing, health, freedom or mobility
Social – Struggles with specific individuals or groups, social defeat
Developmental – Prenatal exposure to toxins or other stressors, poor attachment histories, abuse, the aging process
I want to share several breathing techniques to quell your body’s negative response to stressors.
Basic Deep Breathing: First exhale completely through your mouth. Place your hands on your stomach. Breathe in slowly through your nose, pushing your hands out with your stomach. This ensures that you are breathing deeply. Imagine that you are filling your body with air from the bottom up.
Hold your breath to a count of two to five, or whatever you can handle. It is easier to hold your breath if you continue to hold out your stomach. Slowly and steadily breathe out through your mouth, feeling your hands move back in as you slowly contract your stomach, until most of the air is out. Exhalation is a little longer than inhalation.
Circular Breathing: This technique is particularly good for anxiety. Breathe in for 2, hold for 2, out for 2, hold for 2 (repeat). Focus on the smoothness of the breath. Notice how your body feels as you hold your breath at the top of the inhale and bottom of the exhale.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: This technique helps you breathe into different body regions to notice where you hold tension and to learn to use the breath to release tension. Close your eyes and visualize starting at your feet. On a slow inhalation, bring your awareness to your feet and notice any tightness, tension, or discomfort. On the exhale, relax and release the feet. It can be helpful to visualize them melting or softening. On the next inhalation, focus on your lower legs. Then exhale, releasing any tension in your lower legs. Repeat until you have relaxed your whole body.
Another way to do this is to Tense up a group of muscles – tense hard but don’t strain – and hold for about 5-10 seconds. Release the tension from the muscles all at once. Stay relaxed for 10 – 20 seconds. Some people prefer to count, for example: Tense for count of 5, Release all at once, Rest for count of 10.
Pay close attention to the feeling of relaxation when you release the contracted muscles. When going through the muscle groups, some people start with the hands, others with the feet. You may do one side of the body (hand, arm, leg, foot) at a time or do both sides at the same time. Don’t forget about body areas like your face, tongue, shoulder blades, and throat! This technique can take some practice to learn to isolate feelings in different body regions.
Yoga Nidra: This is a guided version of Progressive Muscle Relaxation. It is thought to reset the energy-body as well promoting physical relaxation. Audio recordings can be found online.
Breathing techniques are a key component of Kundalini Yoga. I really look forward to my weekly classes. If you are able to do so, I suggest that you search out local classes and try it for stress-reduction and improved vitality. There are also online classes for a gentle workout at home. For a wide range of additional techniques beyond breathing, see my post, “Stress Reduction.”
Dr. Mimi G