Understanding stress – Deal with stress: Train your mind – Breath

We take a lot of things for granted, especially our breathing. You probably don’t even give your breath a second thought. When you need oxygen, your nose and lungs take care of it. You don’t like to get involved. But guess what? It’s time you did since your breath plays a very crucial role in stress management.

When stressed, some people have a tendency to hold their breath. Others take shallow breaths. As a result, less oxygen enters the body and the bloodstream and an even lesser amount gets sent to the brain. Stress causes shallow breathing, and shallow breathing in turn, aggravates stress. It is a vicious cycle.

Because of this, only the upper parts of your lungs are used, less oxygen gets in and carbon dioxide builds up. The result? You get panic attacks or feel tired, lethargic, sluggish, and in no shape to deal with impending stress.

The yogic breathing technique of Pranayama is the art of channelling this energy or life force in a positive way. According to yoga, ‘prana’ or life force is absorbed from the atmosphere and then stored in the chakras or energy centres of the body. Stress can block these chakras. ‘Yama’, on the other hand, is the art of mastering or controlling your ‘prana’.

Are you breathing correctly?

Slow, deep, and gentle breathing can be the deciding factor between a calm, collected mind and one that’s standing on a narrow window ledge.

Look at it this way: you may be exercising once a day and eating five small meals, but you breathe every minute of every day. If you’re doing it wrong, the chances of you living an unhealthy, stressful life are greater. But if you can learn to breathe right and master breath control, you can handle stress effectively. However, before you learn different breathing techniques, it might be wise to first practise regular breathing. You might think you know how, but you might be surprised:

•   Hold a hand to your chest and another one to your belly.
•   Count to three as you breathe in slowly. Count to four as you breathe out.
•   Your stomach should rise up as you take in air, but your chest should stay steady or only rise up marginally. You can do this sitting, standing or lying down.
•   You can remove your hands once you’re aware of your breathing. When you breathe out, do it with a ‘whoosh’ sound though your mouth.

If your hand on the chest moves too fast, or in too many directions, or in uneven rhythmic movements, you’re not doing it right. No need to panic. Just keep in mind that breathing is not about how much air you can hold in your lungs or for how long. Let it be natural, slow, and steady.

YAWNING IS GOOD FOR YOU

A yawn is nothing more than your body demanding more oxygen. So next time you feel your mouth widening, take a huge gulp of air to satisfy your lungs.

Get acquainted with your diaphragm

The diaphragm, placed under the lungs, is a muscle. It separates the abdominal cavity from the chest cavity and supports the lungs. Once you inhale, the diaphragm flattens as the lungs put pressure on it so there’s maximum space and the chest cavity expands. Lungs fill up with oxygen, and on exhaling the diaphragm returns to its normal shape. Since the diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle, it is very important to learn diaphragmic breathing. It’s the most effective way to get oxygen in and carbon dioxide out and increase your lung capacity. All this helps to tide over stressful situations in our lives.

People think forceful breathing or deep breathing is enough. It isn’t. Your diaphragm needs to be strengthened. Your heart rate and BP go up when you breathe incorrectly. Sometimes, you feel light-headed or giddy and then stressed because your body isn’t getting enough air.

We take a lot of things for granted, especially our breathing. You probably don’t even give your breath a second thought. When you need oxygen, your nose and lungs take care of it. You don’t like to get involved. But guess what? It’s time you did since your breath plays a very crucial role in stress management. When stressed, some people have a tendency to hold their breath. Others take shallow breaths. As a result, less oxygen enters the body and the bloodstream and an even lesser amount gets sent to the brain. Stress causes shallow breathing, and shallow breathing in turn, aggravates stress. It is a vicious cycle. Because of this, only the upper parts of your lungs are used, less oxygen gets in and carbon dioxide builds up. The result? You get panic attacks or feel tired, lethargic, sluggish, and in no shape to deal with impending stress. The yogic breathing technique of Pranayama is the art of channelling this energy or life force in a positive way. According to yoga, ‘prana’ or life force is absorbed from the atmosphere and then stored in the chakras or energy centres of the body. Stress can block these chakras. ‘Yama’, on the other hand, is the art of mastering or controlling your ‘prana’.

Here’s how you can exercise your diaphragm.

•   Sit in a comfortable position, maybe cross legged (lotus pose) on the floor or on your chair at ease, if that works for you. Inhale slowly till your lungs are full of air.
•   Hold for five to six seconds, and then slowly exhale through slightly parted lips till every last bit of air is out.
•   Take a few normal breaths, and then repeat. Note that only your upper abdomen should move, while the lower abdomen and upper chest should remain still.
•   Start with two to six repetitions, and as time goes by, do it as often as you can.

Practise it regularly and at least for one day before you start on the breathing exercises. Diaphragmic breathing is simple and is a useful skill for life. We just need to train our bodies and practise it regularly. In my experience, diaphragmic breathing enhances the experience of meditation. I find it extremely useful to do it for three to five minutes before meditation as it relaxes the mind instantly.

Now that you have learnt the right way to breathe, you’re ready for these simple yet effective breathing exercises that’ll help you cut through those stressful moments. Stressed people do not breathe correctly. They tend to breathe with their chest, in which case, chances are the air gets trapped in the lower part of their lungs. Diaphragmic breathing, on the other hand, helps to eliminate the trapped air and, as a result, carbon dioxide and other toxins get eliminated from the body.

At first, it’s difficult to master. But with time and practice, you’ll find deep breathing to be a wonderful stress buster. All you need is fifteen minutes in a quiet place. Your bedroom, office terrace, and, in desperate cases, even a non-smelly bathroom will do. Remember, breath is often underrated but in reality it is the simplest and quickest way to destress. And it should always be effortless and not forced.

PaulM says

When I caught up with Art of Living teacher and tennis ace Leander Paes’ wife Rhea Pillai recently, she had a beautiful glow on her face. With years of deep breathing behind her, Rhea’s stress levels are minimal. She’s calm and patient and while she’s subjected to occasional pressure, she’s well equipped to deal with it.

‘Stress for me is mental clutter. It’s when everything is physically, emotionally, and mentally knotted up,’ Rhea says. ‘Breathing techniques open up those knots and let your energy flow naturally. I remember how in school, I was the kid who wouldn’t raise my hand even if I knew the answer,’ Rhea explains. ‘But now if I have to give an impromptu speech to a crowd of thousands, I just talk to them naturally. There’s no effort required.’
Like Rhea, you, too, can breathe right and make the stress of an interview, test, or performance melt away.

We take a lot of things for granted, especially our breathing. You probably don’t even give your breath a second thought. When you need oxygen, your nose and lungs take care of it. You don’t like to get involved. But guess what? It’s time you did since your breath plays a very crucial role in stress management. When stressed, some people have a tendency to hold their breath. Others take shallow breaths. As a result, less oxygen enters the body and the bloodstream and an even lesser amount gets sent to the brain. Stress causes shallow breathing, and shallow breathing in turn, aggravates stress. It is a vicious cycle. Because of this, only the upper parts of your lungs are used, less oxygen gets in and carbon dioxide builds up. The result? You get panic attacks or feel tired, lethargic, sluggish, and in no shape to deal with impending stress. The yogic breathing technique of Pranayama is the art of channelling this energy or life force in a positive way. According to yoga, ‘prana’ or life force is absorbed from the atmosphere and then stored in the chakras or energy centres of the body. Stress can block these chakras. ‘Yama’, on the other hand, is the art of mastering or controlling your ‘prana’.

Breathing exercises

When to do it: Before or after yoga.Accessories required: Mat/rug/carpet

1) KAPALBHATI PRANAYAMA OR PULSE RATE BREATH

Benefits: Improves respiration, lung capacity, and blood circulation. It also boosts liver function and enhances energy. This pranayama is also known to purge the system of accumulated emotional stress like anger, hurt, jealousy, and hatred. If you’re suffering from high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke or epilepsy, stay clear of this exercise.
•   You can do this anywhere, but it is best done on the floor sitting in a comfortable position in the padamasana or the lotus pose. Relax the stomach muscles and inhale, filling the belly up.
•   Draw the chin to the chest.
•   Close your eyes.
•   Exhale through the nose in sharp breaths, snapping the belly in.
•   Start with 10 and move your way up to 30.

2) NADI SHODHAN PRANAYAMA

Benefits: Clears energy blocks, releases stress, and balances the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

Step 1

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•   Sit in the padmasana or the lotus pose.
•   Touch the base of the left thumb with the tip of your left index finger.
•   Place the left hand on your left knee, with the palm facing upwards.
•   Place the middle finger of your right hand on your forehead, between the eyebrows.
•   Close your right nostril with the thumb.
•   Breathe in and out 10 times from your left nostril.
•   Open the right nostril and close the left one with your ring finger.
•   Breathe in and out 10 times from your right nostril.

Step 2

•   Inhale from your left nostril.
•   Close the left nostril with your ring finger.
•   Open the right nostril and exhale.
•   Close the right nostril.
•   Open the left nostril and inhale.
Repeat 10 times for both nostrils.

Step 3

•   Alternate the nostrils.
•   Inhale from left and exhale from the right.
•   Inhale from the right nostril, and exhale from the left.
Repeat 10 times.

Step 4

•   Inhale from your left nostril.
•   Close both nostrils. Hold breath.
•   Open right nostril and exhale.
•   Inhale from right nostril. Hold breath.
•   Close both nostrils.
•   Open left nostril and exhale.
Repeat 10 times.

3) ANULOMA VILOMA OR ALTERNATE NOSTRIL BREATHING

Benefits: Helps to balance the left and right brain hemispheres. It also calms the mind and nervous system.
•   This is step 3 of nadi shodhan pranayama.
•   Use thumb to gently plug your left nostril.
•   Inhale gently through the right nostril, all the way to the top.
•   Then use your thumb to plug the right nostril and exhale through the left nostril.
•   Inhale through left nostril and exhale through right.
Repeat 10 to 15 times.

4) BHRAMARI PRANAYAMA OR THE BUMBLEBEE BREATH

Benefits: Helps cure migraines, clears and destresses the mind. This is especially effective before bedtime.
•   Use your thumbs to gently close the flaps in your ears.
•   Place the two middle fingers over the eyelids.
•   Breathe in through the nose.
•   Hum as you exhale. (Hum out ‘Om’, if you like.)
Repeat 10 times.

5) DIRGA PRANAYAMA OR THE THREE PART BREATH

Benefits: Calms and grounds the mind.
•   Inhale deeply through the nose. Fill the belly up with your breath.
•   Exhale by expelling all the air out from the belly through your nose.
•   draw the navel back towards your spine to make sure that the belly is empty of air.
Repeat for 5 breaths.

•   Inhale and fill the belly with air as described.
•   When the belly is full, draw in a little more breath and expand your ribcage.
•   Exhale by letting the air go first from the ribcage, then from the belly.
Repeat for 5 breaths.
•   Inhale and fill the belly and ribcage with air as described.
•   Then draw in just a bit more air and fill the upper chest.
•   Exhale by letting the breath go first from the upper chest, then from the ribcage, and finally from the belly.
Repeat for 5 breaths.

6) UJJAI PRANAYAMA OR OCEAN BREATH

Benefits: Strengthens the nervous and digestive system, and gets rid of excess phlegm. (This consists of drawing air in through both nostrils with the glottis held partially closed.)
•   Take a long and slow breath.
•   Fill your belly from the bottom up.
•   Then, fill your ribcage in the same manner.
•   Don’t push your belly outward, the motion should be upwards.
•   Exhale by emptying the upper ribcage, and work gradually downwards, emptying and contracting. Continue all the way down to the lower reaches of your belly and lower back. Empty and contract in one long, slow exhale.
•   Then, inhale again, filling slowly from the bottom up.
•   Inhale and exhale through the nose and the back of your throat.
Repeat 10 times.

The breathing sounds like waves crashing on the beach. It’s like a throaty breath that you inhale and exhale through the nose.

7) SIMHASANA OR LION’S BREATH

Benefits: Relieves tension in your jaw and removes bad air from your lungs.
•   Sit in the vajrasana pose.
•   Move your knees apart.
•   Place your hands on your knees, chin to your chest.
•   Inhale through the nose.
•   Open your mouth wide and exhale, making a ‘ha’ sound. Stick your tongue as far out as possible.
Repeat 10 to 15 times.

PaulM says
We take a lot of things for granted, especially our breathing. You probably don’t even give your breath a second thought. When you need oxygen, your nose and lungs take care of it. You don’t like to get involved. But guess what? It’s time you did since your breath plays a very crucial role in stress management. When stressed, some people have a tendency to hold their breath. Others take shallow breaths. As a result, less oxygen enters the body and the bloodstream and an even lesser amount gets sent to the brain. Stress causes shallow breathing, and shallow breathing in turn, aggravates stress. It is a vicious cycle. Because of this, only the upper parts of your lungs are used, less oxygen gets in and carbon dioxide builds up. The result? You get panic attacks or feel tired, lethargic, sluggish, and in no shape to deal with impending stress. The yogic breathing technique of Pranayama is the art of channelling this energy or life force in a positive way. According to yoga, ‘prana’ or life force is absorbed from the atmosphere and then stored in the chakras or energy centres of the body. Stress can block these chakras. ‘Yama’, on the other hand, is the art of mastering or controlling your ‘prana’.It’s important to be aware of your posture at all times. Slouching, bending, or leaning forward isn’t good for breathing. If you keep your shoulders back and your spine straight, there’s more room for your lungs to expand, your ribcage suddenly discovers all this new found space and deep breathing doesn’t appear quite so difficult any more. I’m constantly aware of how I’m sitting or standing. The minute I feel my back starting to slouch or my shoulders rising up, I immediately get into proper position. It makes it so much easier to breathe.

HAD AN ARGUMENT WITH YOUR BOSS, SPOUSE, OR FRIEND? HUM YOUR WAY OUT OF THE BLUES

Close your eyes. Think of your favourite song. Softly hum it to yourself. As you hum, take deeper breaths. Stretch each hum when you exhale. Do it for at least two or three minutes. Open your eyes.

It’s so simple, really. But there’s so much power in your own voice. There’s so much rhythm in your body, whether it’s your brainwaves, heartbeat, or breath. Humming is just another vibration that resonates with every cell in your being. Singing does it too, but not all of us have Susan Boyle’s abilities. Humming clears up mental cobwebs and negative thoughts. It also relaxes your neck, face, head, and shoulder muscles that have tightened due to stress. The more you hum, the less you think about the stressful problems at hand.

Your breath is everything. Everything lives and breathes. When you take time, and realize your breath, it changes everything. A lot of people breathe really fast. There’s a great fact about turtles and rabbits. In a ten minute span, turtles breathe about two or three times, and that’s why they live for centuries. Rabbits take short, rapid breaths. And they don’t live very long, do they?

STUCK IN A TRAFFIC JAM AND DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO? OR AT THE AIRPORT AND THE FLIGHT IS DELAYED?

When you’re anxious, agitated, or about to snap, take five deep breaths, four counts inhale, and eight counts exhale. If you can’t do four, do as much as you can. Even three counts will do. But the idea is to release more air than you take in. So you’re inhaling and exhaling in the 1:2 ratio.

If it gets difficult to take deeper, slower breaths, think of a happy image. The memory of my kids laughing and giggling always puts me in a better mood and that enables better breathing. So think of whatever makes you smile, your pet trying to fetch your shoes, your recent holiday, or your newly bought six-inch stiletto heels.

About the author

Many tips are based on recent research, while others were known in ancient times. But they have all been proven to be effective. So keep this website close at hand and make the advice it offers a part of your daily life.