by Sarah Maurer
Within the last few decades, ancient wellness techniques have been brought to mainstream Western audiences at an accelerating rate. We saw a similar time in the late sixties when the Beatles traveled to India and helped to popularize meditation in the West. This has been reflected in yoga over the last century, and more recently with Covid-19, people in the medical community are paying attention to the potency of breathwork (also known as pranayama) in yoga.
Doctors have an understanding regarding the regulation of the breath and how it can help to lower blood pressure and cortisol levels. Statistics from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America state, "Generalized Anxiety Disorder affects [more than] forty million Americans... [and of] those who are diagnosed with GAD, only thirty-six percent seek treatment." Based on these statistics, we could assume the issues are systemic or an issue to the entire body and not just one particular area. Perhaps consistent breathwork and mindfulness practices could be implemented as effective supplementary practices, which in conjunction with Western medical care, may be the secret sauce to alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression over time.
With studying a personal practice of yoga, my only exposure to belly and diaphragmatic breathing was in my therapist’s office. He was trained in using somatic techniques in his cognitive behavioral therapy practice. Somatics describes any practice which uses the mind-body connection to help you survey your internal-self and listens to signals your body sends about areas of pain, discomfort, or imbalance. This type of practice can be beneficial in situations where someone has faced minor or even acute trauma. Part of how they utilized this work was having me breathe through moments of anxiety and emotional discomfort. Initially, I appreciated the sentiment, and noticed there was something to this practice, but did not quite believe it wholeheartedly until realizing how the use my breath could take me out of or lessen the severity of a panic attack. This is when I had a realization surrounding the breath as a powerful tool which should be treasured and understood so it can be useful in a multitudes of ways in life.
Three Easy Breathing Techniques to Manage Stress
The quality of your breath fluctuates throughout the day based on the various stimuli you encounter in your environment. I invite you to observe your breath throughout the day with curiosity. You may find that there are patterns that reappear or circumstances that change the quality of your breath. For example, I am a nervous driver, some people I know feel a sense of freedom behind the wheel, but that is not my experience. When I drive, I almost hold my breath completely at times, or my breath is shallow and only in my chest. My body’s stress response just takes over, my shoulders curl forward, and I lose any space or buoyancy in my posture. If and when I am able to be mindful in these moments, I may begin to consciously breathe from my lower abdomen to move through the stress response in my body.
Belly or Diaphragmatic Breathing
This is called belly or diaphragmatic breathing, in which you are breathing in through your nose, allowing your lower and mid-abdomen to expand, and then exhaling through pursed lips, almost as if you are trying to whistle. It can be helpful to rest your hands on your lower rib cage to connect to the cadence of your breath and the expansion of your abdomen. Yoga utilizes this type of pranayama, in order to counter the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system. I recently discovered it being used as a tool in mobility training, and its purpose in this type of movement therapy is to relax the body in order to unlock the fascia, and in turn new ranges of motion. Technically, this technique should be performed lying down. However, I enjoy utilizing belly-breathing, because it is relatively easy to do anywhere, and it really does not need to take place lying down to be an effective tool in times of stress or overwhelm. It is also very discreet, so if you are in a public place, no one will know that you are doing it.
Box-Breathing is another accessible approach to breathwork, and similarly to other techniques, it can help to regulate the autonomic functions of the body, like our heart rate. If you are new to this breathing exercise, it is probably best to start with a count of four. So, imagine that your breath is tracing the edges of a square, and you will inhale for four counts, hold the inhale for four counts, exhale for four counts, and hold the exhale for four counts. Now, if suspending your breath for four counts increases feelings of anxiety, you can reduce this to one or two counts, and build up your stamina over time.
Finally, we have Alternate Nostril Breathing, or Nadi Shodhana. This breathing technique is a great tool before job interviews, exams, or to shift your energy before meditation. You will want to begin with the left side to promote calming sensations. Before starting this type of pranayama, it is best to take one deep cleansing breath. With your left hand resting on your lap, fold your pointer and middle fingers towards the middle of your palm, and leave your ring finger, pinky finger, and thumb extended. Keep your right nostril closed with your thumb and inhale through your left nostril. Then, close both nostrils before releasing your exhale out of your right nostril. This is one cycle, and you can repeat this for as long as you would like, but nine or ten rounds is a good place to start. You can also use the four counts of breath to help with timing, just like box-breathing. So, you would inhale for four counts, close the nostrils and suspend the breath for four counts, and exhale for four counts. This is a highly beneficial practice, and relatively easy to start practicing.
For those who are new to these types of practices, these breathing techniques may feel intimidating at first. It is also important to note that these are fairly effective in the moment, but their true efficacy builds up overtime and is revealed after consistent practice. Hopefully, one or all of these types of pranayama or breathwork speak to you, as they each can give you a sense of agency in dealing with stress and anxiety. It is always good to have a diverse toolkit in daily life, so you are prepared in times of crisis.