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Breathing Exercises to Relieve Stress

Breathing exercises are one of the most powerful tools in managing stress. Controlling your breath helps you control your stress.

A saying in yoga goes, “When the breath is steady, the mind gives this reflection. When the breath is unsteady, the mind gives this reflection. Therefore, the breath should be controlled”.

Pranayama or the yogic science of breath control has many techniques. Advanced exercises are best learned from an experienced yoga teacher. Here are simple variations that are easy to learn and apply to your daily life.

Belly breathing
Shallow chest breathing stimulates a "fight or flight" reaction. It makes you tense and releases stress hormones. Deep belly or diaphragmatic breathing calms down your nervous system. Use belly breathing to gently ease you into a relaxed state before sleeping.

1. Lie down and place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen.

2. Expand both chest and abdomen as you inhale through the nose. You may have to make a conscious effort to expand the belly if you are used to breathing only with the chest. Eventually, your abdomen will move by itself.

3. As you exhale through your nose, feel your chest and abdomen deflating. You should also feel your navel or bellybutton gently being pulled toward your spine.

4. Work toward inhaling for three counts and exhaling for five to six counts. Practice for a few minutes.

5. Use visualization to make your experience even more satisfying. Visualize your body rising gently with your inhalation and sinking or floating down with your exhalation. Imagine your breath like a wave that gently laps the seashore as you inhale and goes back out to sea when you exhale. When thoughts intrude, visualize them as clouds that are lazily crossing the sky.

Ujjayi breathing
Ujjayi (pronounced ooh-ja-yee) means “victorious” breath and it can help you to be victorious over tension and anxiety. The distinctive feature of ujjayi breathing is a rasping noise made during the exhalation.

It sounds like Darth Vader of Star Wars breathing through his mask. It is more romantic to call it the “ocean sounding breath”.

This gives you a rhythmical sound to concentrate and focus on. Your breath becomes your “mantra”. Use ujjayi breathing when you need to calm down quickly from a stressful encounter or situation.

One of the most practical ways to learn this type of yogic breathing is from the manual "Yoga Fundamentals: A Fitness Approach" written by good friend and colleague Lawrence Biscontini.

1. Sit on a chair or cross-legged on the floor.

2. Place the palm of one hand about two inches in front of your mouth.

3. Inhale deeply through the nose, and exhale through the mouth, imagining that your palm is a mirror you are trying to fog. Notice the sound that comes from the back of the throat.

4. Repeat this inhalation-exhalation cycle until you are familiar with the "Darth Vader" sound on exhalation.

5. Close your mouth, inhale and exhale exclusively through the nose. Make the exhalation sound that begins in the back of the throat, still imagining that you are fogging up the mirror. The mouth remains closed.

Alternate nostril breathing
This is my favorite. It really helps me to relax. Yogis believe this is the best technique to calm the mind and nerves. They say that healthy people breathe more easily through one nostril for about two hours, then the body switches to the other nostril. They also believe that the right nostril generates heat while the left nostril dissipates heat and the practice of alternate nostril breathing balances things out.

What does science say? Research has found there really is such a thing as the nasal cycle (two to eight hours long) and that there is a connection between the predominant nostril and the opposite brain hemisphere.

A 1988 study found that right nostril breathing significantly increases blood glucose levels while left nostril breathing lowers it. Interestingly, yogis believe that diabetes is caused by a nasal cycle abnormality of predominantly breathing through the right nostril for many years.

A 1993 study found that forced right nostril breathing (four times a day for one month) significantly increased oxygen consumption compared to breathing through the left nostril.

A 1994 study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology found that alternate nostril breathing appears to have a balancing effect on the functional activity of the left and right hemisphere of the brain. Your left brain is the logical structured side while your right brain is the creative imaginative side.

The simplest version of alternate nostril breathing is to close your right nostril with your right thumb and take three breaths with your left nostril (an inhale and an exhale equals one breath), then switch by closing your left nostril with your right pinky finger. Breathe slowly, deeply, and evenly. Do three to five cycles.

Here’s another easy version:
1. Sit with your head tilted slightly forward. Close your eyes.
2. Use the right thumb for the right nostril and the pinky finger of the same hand for the left nostril. Open and close your nostrils like valves. (If you are left-handed, reverse the instructions)
3. Set a pattern of right inhale, left exhale, left inhale, right exhale. That makes one cycle.
4. Do ten to twenty cycles.

Do not do alternate nostril breathing when you have a cold and never force a blocked nostril.

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