We live in a world where masks are a day-to-day part of our existence, and whether we are aware of this or not, we often hold our breath around others, particularly around strangers. So how can we address this? Breathing can help unlock a state of calm, which in turn allows us more choice in our own actions. When we lose this sense of calm we can often make hasty and impulsive decisions that can come back to haunt us. With a sense of calm we can act with more kindness, more consideration, and with more love, not only towards others but towards ourselves.
Here’s the science bit, and it comes from basic Darwinian theory, but I’ll try and make this brief! All humans have an autonomic nervous system. This system has two branches – the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The SNS keeps us alert and ready for ‘fight or flight’ by raising the heart rate and pumping blood to the muscles. When we are stressed the SNS activates and triggers the adrenaline glands. Take a few sharp and deep breaths in and you’ll be aware of how this system operates. The PNS exists for resting, digesting and healing, when we don’t need adrenaline to escape the threat. The PNS releases acetylcholine and slows the heart rate, placing us in a calmer and more considered state where we are able to act from a solid ground and not from a state of fear or anxiety. Take a few long slow exhales and you’ll notice the difference.
So that’s the science behind it, but how can we turn that into something practical and useful? Many of us exist in a state of stress, through constant work pressures, family worries, money problems, the day-to-day stuff we are all living through. One way to counter this constant stress is to try out these simple breathing techniques. I’d suggest using a timer and beginning at five minutes for your selected technique, building up to ten minutes if you can. Don’t judge yourself here though – simply taking half a dozen breaths with one of these techniques is better than nothing at all.
1. Sama Vritti (Equal Breathing)
Find a comfortable sitting or resting place to lie down and close your eyes. If sitting, think about keeping the spine long, but the shoulders dropped and relaxed. Take a few long inhales and exhales through the nose to bring yourself into preparation for the breath, and then count as you inhale slowly. Then, slowly exhale for the same count. With both the inhale and the exhale try and fill up with the breath, and then empty completely. If you are in bed, this can also be used to take yourself off to sleep – keep the focus on the breath and use that focus to calm you and block intrusive thoughts. When those thoughts do come up (and they will), acknowledge their existence, and return to focussing on the pattern of breathing – having intrusive thoughts shouldn’t be treated as a failure, more an acceptance of being alive.
2. Dirga (Three Part Breathing)
Again come to seated or lie down somewhere comfortable. Begin by breathing slowly through the nose to prepare your body and mind for this exercise. Then take a slow inhale through the nose to fill the belly, and pause briefly. Continue the inhale to fill to the chest, and again pause very briefly before taking the final breath to fill to the throat, and again pause briefly. Then, take a long slow exhale to release all of the air (and stress) from the body, see also if you can let the shoulders drop as you do. If this feels too much at first, then you can work into it by starting simply with an inhale into the belly then an exhale for a few breaths, followed by belly and chest for a few breaths, followed by adding the final breath. The more you use this technique, the easier it gets, but to begin with be kind to yourself and take it easy with this one.
3. Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
Find that comfortable seating position, and begin by simply relaxing into a slow breathing pattern. When you feel ready, take your dominant hand and bring it up towards your nose. Take a slow full exhale through the nose.
- Use either a finger or thumb to close the right nostril. Take a long inhale through the left nostril, and pause.
- Release the right nostril and close the left nostril (with thumb or finger) and exhale through the right nostril.
- Now take a long inhale through the right nostril.
- Release the left nostril and close the right, and exhale through the left.
Keep repeating this pattern, for your desired amount of time, and finish with the final step – an exhale through the left nostril, as to ensure you complete a balanced cycle (but again, don’t worry if you forget to do this). If you forget where you are, that's ok, just pick it up from wherever feels right and carry on.
Most importantly go easy on yourself, and find what works for you. This is something to be enjoyed, not mastered, and if it doesn't feel good then stop, and try a different breath. We are all different, and we all respond differently, but that's ok.