Breathing Exercises for Stress,Anxiety,Insomnia, with Immediate Relief
Ever since I started teaching yoga in London ON, I’ve been big on breathing exercises in all my yoga classes. I realized, surprisingly, the lack of awareness about Pranayama and other steps of Yoga. Almost three decades of my career as a physician and yoga therapist have taught me a lot about Pranayama or breathing exercises, and fortunately, I’ve been able to use all I learnt for the good of everyone, in India and here, in Canada.
Bringing your nervous system back into balance
Stress is necessary for life. Like finely-tuned strings of a guitar, you need stress for creativity, learning, and your very survival. Stress is only harmful when it becomes overwhelming and interrupts the healthy state of equilibrium that your nervous system needs to remain in balance. Unfortunately, overwhelming stress has become an increasingly common characteristic of contemporary life.
When stress overwhelms your nervous system your body is flooded with chemicals that prepare you for “fight or flight.” While the stress response can be lifesaving in emergency situations where you need to act quickly, it wears your body down when constantly activated by the stresses of everyday life. Stress and trauma can play havoc with every aspect of health.
The relaxation response puts the brakes on this heightened state of readiness and brings your body and mind back into a state of equilibrium. When stress throws your nervous system out of balance, relaxation techniques can bring it back into a balanced state by producing the relaxation response, a state of deep calmness that is the polar opposite of the stress response.
Very often I come across stress and anxiety related problems in my practice as Yoga Therapist. When trying to sleep, I am told, “I am disturbed by a bombardment of thoughts!” As dictated by my past experience with Pranayama, I usually suggest that the client try some very simple breathing exercises while lying in bed at night to help her relax and fall asleep. The practice is simple: a few minutes of deep, diaphragmatic breathing followed by a few minutes of consciously and gently extending each exhalation. The feedback for this very simple breathing manoeuvre has been overwhelmingly superlative!
Some of my clients/ students who learnt these breathing exercises from me three years ago, are still doing them. In India, some of my patients who learnt these exercises more than twenty years back, continue doing them and are hale and hearty! Pranayama, the fourth amongst Ashtanga, or the eight limbs, does not essentially have to be complicated.
Relaxation technique that’s best for you
There is no single relaxation technique that is best for everyone, but practically, I’ve seen Pranayama being helpful in all situations, esp. in the long run. When choosing a relaxation technique, consider your specific needs, preferences, fitness level, and the way you tend to react to stress. The right relaxation technique is the one that resonates with you, fits your lifestyle, and is able to focus your mind and interrupt your everyday thoughts in order to elicit the relaxation response. In many cases, you may find that alternating or combining different techniques will keep you motivated and provide you with the best results.
Pranayama literally means ‘prana‘ and ‘ayam‘; ‘prana’ means the life force or energy, and ‘ayam’ means to extend, so pranayama means “to extend the vital life force,”. The physician of gods is ‘Ashwin’, Vedas say, which literally means the breath. It is an incredibly rich practice made up of many breathing techniques that vary in complexity from ones simple enough for a child to do to those appropriate only for advanced yogi. Breathing is one involuntary process which can be very easily controlled voluntarily, and pranayama teaches us how to do that exactly.
The best way to practice pranayama is ALWAYS under the guidance of an experienced teacher, though there are simple techniques—such as gentle diaphragmatic breathing and comfortably lengthening the exhalation—that can be used at any time to transform not only your breath but also your state of mind.
I try to exploit the technique to its full potential in my practice. In my work as a yoga therapist, I treat people struggling with a large variety of issues, including stress, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, high cholesterol, heart diseases, chronic pain, and even life-threatening illnesses. Time and time again, I’ve seen simple pranayama practices reduce stress and anxiety; promote restful sleep; ease pain; increase attention and focus; and, on a more subtle, deeper level, help people connect to a calm and quiet space within so that they experience greater clarity and well-being on every level.
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali describes pranayama as a process by which you can break your unconscious breathing pattern and make the breath long, easy, and smooth. Most people’s unconscious breathing patterns are anything but easy and smooth; they tend to be shallow, tense and erratic. When we are afraid or hear bad news, we often gasp— inhaling sharply, holding the breath and then breathing fast and shallow. These breathing patterns can activate the sympathetic nervous system, referred to as the “fight or flight response, or may be a sign of it.
One of the primary reasons that pranayama techniques that include a long, smooth exhale are so beneficial is because, when applied optimally and correctly, they can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and evoke the “relaxation response,” countering stress and anxiety and its effects on your body and mind. When your focus stays on the breath, the muscles also tend to relax. As a result, with a calmer, more focused and still mind, your resilience in the face of challenge or adversity increases.
Recently, based on and encouraged by my past clinical experience, I have launched a routine of breathing exercises by the name of Dr Sahdev’s ‘Breathe and Heal’ Program. The breathing exercises included in the program have shown to be very effective in the past and I expect this program to really work. This will be the core of Yoga Therapy programs at SAVY and we are working on introducing programs for serious diseases one by one. We have already launched Fight Cancer’ Program for cancer care.
A Calm and Quiet Mind
The eight limbs of yoga outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are a path to help you reach an unperturbed state of mind, or focus. But this focus is not the end goal. As Patanjali says, as a result of reaching this state of attention, you experience clearer perception and a heightened connection with your true inner Self.
When you’re better connected with your true Self, it becomes easier to see what exactly is not your true Self and this discernment allows you to act with detachment and greater efficiency.
Pranayama is an important tool to get you to this state of more focus, leading you on to clearer perception, a greater connection with Self, and ultimately a more fulfilled life. Patanjali’s ‘Yoga Darshana’, sutra 2.52 says, ”Tataah ksheeyte prakashavaranam.”, “As a result [of pranayama], the sheath that blocks our own inner light, disappears.” And then our inner light shows the path. In other words, through the practice of pranayama, you can reduce all the disturbance, agitation, distractions, and self-doubt that prevents you from connecting with your own inner light- your true Self. In this way, pranayama can have a profoundly positive influence on your life.
Though practice of pranayama is safest and most effective only when guided by an experienced teacher who knows your needs and limitations, there are some simple techniques you can try yourself as long as you’re in good health and don’t push yourself to limits!
The three breathing practices:
- relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing;
- Sitali (or Sitkari) Pranayama; and
- gentle “extended exhale” breathing,
are a good introduction to pranayama. Each exercise supports the parasympathetic nervous system, quietens the mind, and helps to bring about a state of more focused attention. As you become more aware of your breath, you may start to notice when you are unintentionally holding your breath or breathing shallow. You also may begin to associate patterns of the breath with your moods or states of mind. This self-awareness is the starting point towards using Pranayama to help change your patterns and, through regular practice, bring more positivity in your life. Pranayama is a very deep, effective and profound science, but this can be a good introduction to the potential of your breath.
You can do them at just about any time of day, 5 hours after a large meal. Try these exercises and feel the difference!
Basic Breath Awareness
This introductory diaphragmatic or deep breathing exercise teaches you how to breathe more fully and consciously.
Benefits: Deep breathing stimulates parasympathetic nervous system, reducing stress and anxiety and hence calming you down.
How often: At least once a day, at any time, preferably on empty stomach in the morning.
- Sit down or lie down comfortably on your back, knees slightly bent and feet flat on the floor almost hip-distance apart.
- Keep your spine – back and neck, naturally straight.
- Place a palm on your abdomen and breathe comfortably, noticing the quality of your breath.
- Simply observe your breath.
- Then gradually make your breathing increasingly relaxed and smoother, and deeper.
- Once the breath feels relaxed and comfortable, notice the movement of your abdomen. As you inhale, feel the abdomen expand under your hand; as you exhale, feel the subtle contraction of the abdomen.
- Gently, try to actively expand the abdomen on the inhale and contract the abdomen on the exhale to support the natural movement of diaphragm and experience a full, relaxed breath.
- Repeat it for 8 to 10 breaths.
Sheetali – The Cooling Breath
Sheetali means “one which cools” because the act of drawing the air across the tongue and into the mouth is said to have a cooling and calming effect. To practice it, you need to be able to curl the sides of your tongue up and in so that it looks like a tube. This ability to curl the tongue is a genetic trait. If you can’t curl your tongue, just protrude your tongue a little over your lips and roll it into a tube as much as you can.
Benefits: Improves focus; reduces agitation, anger, and anxiety; and pacifies excess heat in the system.
How often: Do not repeat it more than 10 times once a day.
- Sit comfortably, either in a chair or on the floor, shoulders relaxed and spine – back and neck, naturally erect.
- Slightly lower the chin, curl the tongue on its sides, and protrude it out of your mouth.
- Inhale gently through the “tube” thus formed by your curled tongue as you slowly lift your chin toward the ceiling, only as far as the neck comfortably permits.
- At the end of the inhalation, with your chin comfortably raised, retract your tongue and close the mouth.
- Exhale slowly through nostrils as you gently lower your chin back to a neutral position.
- Repeat for 8 to 10 breaths.
The Long Exhale
This breathing practice which involves gradually increasing your exhalation until it is twice the length of your inhalation, has an immediate and immense relaxing effect.
Benefits: Helps in insomnia, sleep disturbances, stress and anxiety.
How often: At bedtime to induce sleep, in the middle of the night if you’re struggling with sleeplessness, or at any time of the day to calm down.
- Begin by lying on your back with bent knees and flat feet, hip wide on the floor.
- Place a hand on the abdomen and take a few relaxed breaths, feeling the abdomen expand and contract under your hand.
- With your hand on your abdomen, mentally count the length of each inhalation and exhalation for several more breaths.
- If the duration of inhalation is longer than that of exhalation, you can begin to make it the same length as exhalation over the next few breaths.
- When your inhalation and exhalation are equal, gradually start working on the length of your exhalation.
- Continue breathing in a smooth and relaxed manner, and keep increasing the exhalation by 1-2 counts once every few breaths.
- Make sure you experience no strain as the exhalation time increases and continue until your exhalation is up to twice the length of the inhalation. For example, if your inhalation is 5 seconds, do not increase the length of your exhalation beyond 10 seconds.
- Keep in mind that even an exhalation that is only slightly longer than the inhalation can induce relaxation, so take care that you don’t push yourself beyond your capacity; doing so will only be counter-productive. Keep it comfortable and easy. Breathe like this for 8 to 10 breaths.
- Then finish your practice with 4 to 5 natural, deep, relaxed breaths.
Follow this routine for a few days and experience the difference these simple breathing techniques can make for stress, anxiety and sleep related problems.
For more serious problems, any queries, or qualified guidance for breathing exercises, please do not hesitate to contact us.
For more detailed instruction in specifically targeted, specialized breathing exercise routines, upcoming workshops, please contact Studio or check the workshop details by clicking on the image below.
Stress and Anxiety Care Workshop
To delve deeper into this important topic in Yoga, please check different courses/ workshops at SAVY.
Dr Jitender K Sahdev
President and Director of Teaching
Please contact us to learn more about Yoga. We would love to hear any suggestions or comments that you might have. Space is limited in courses and participation will be on a first-come-first-served basis. So, respond early to participate in this exciting, life-transforming Yoga experience.
Note : SAVY Studio is not an emergency medical facility nor does it include medical diagnosis or medical treatment and is not a substitute for medical care. Yoga and Ayurveda are currently considered a form of complementary and alternative medicine in Canada. These are not licensed in Ontario as a medical discipline or practice. All services and treatments provided are complementary or alternative to health care services provided by licensed health care practitioners. Yoga and Ayurveda are complementary to and supportive of traditional western medicine as practiced in Canada.
The advice, or any of its component levels have not been evaluated by Health Canada, US Food & Drug Administration or the American Medical Association. This technology does not claim to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Medical advice must only be obtained from a physician or qualified health practitioner. Results may vary between individuals. There are no guarantees, expressed, or implied.
You should check with your health care professional before starting this or any new therapy or exercise program or breathing routine. This is especially important if you have any pre-existing health conditions, such as high blood pressure, migraines or heart or lung ailments. Women who are pregnant or think they might be pregnant should consult their physician before performing any of the breathing or physical exercises or undertaking any therapy program.
p style=”text-align: justify;”>The information contained in the program is not intended to serve as a replacement for professional medical advice. Any use of the information in these programs/ workshops is at the reader’s discretion, risk and responsibility. The studio, author and the publisher specifically disclaim any and all liability arising directly or indirectly from the use or application of any information contained herein. A health care professional should be consulted regarding your specific situation.