Updated: Nov 2, 2021
Do you sometimes experience short breaths?
Do you sometimes feel like you need more air but can't seem to take in enough?
Do you often feel anxious, restless, irritable, tensed, palpitated or trembling?
Whatever the cause is, you may be experiencing stress! Stress happens when your nervous system turns on the "fight or flight" mode. Like one morning when you step out of your comfortable home and suddenly face a growling angry bulldog ready to jump on you. What would you do? Either fight it or run away. Your stress level is through the roof.
On top of that, as a survival instinct, our human brain is, fortunately or unfortunately, wired to notice stressful things more than happy, relaxed existence around us. That same morning when you walk out of your home, before you even see the agitated bulldog, you notice the beautiful sun shining atop and birds singing among the fresh green leaves. But the moment the bulldog comes into the picture, your survival instinct kicked in, and the beautiful sun and birds are immediately forgotten, so that you are activated to solve the problem ahead. Fight or flight.
Although we do not often face life-threatening dangers in our daily lives, we are constantly stressed throughout our days by other security-threatening perils. Then to destress, we go and book a massage session, sign up for one yoga class, grab a bowl of ice cream, book a holiday trips to the beach, or whatever it is that makes you feel relaxed. But do they though? Or are they just acting like painkillers that relieve your pains for a moment but won't heal? And how about my work schedule, my kids, or money. I can't afford any of these! What do I do?
In this article, I will suggest we use what we already have to solve your stress management issue. One of the cheapest and most available tools you will always have is your breath!
With proper breathing exercises, we are not trying to solve your issues. Stress will always be there, life will keep coming at you with different kinds of big and small problems. It is not possible to suppress stress entirely. Instead, what we are trying to do is to make you stronger at dealing with stress. As my teacher says, when you breath better, you feel better and the problem becomes smaller.
Scientifically, what links the breath and stress management? Have you ever heard of the Vagus nerve? Nope, not Vegas, not losing money and becoming even more stressed!!! The Vagus nerve, also known as the pneumogastric nerve, extends from its origin in the brainstem through the neck and the thorax down to the abdomen. It is the nerve that gets stimulated when you breathe deeply and move your diaphragm (your main breathing muscle) in a diaphragm excursion. The stimulated Vagus nerve in return activates your brain's parasympathetic nervous system, as it interfaces with the control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. When you hear "parasympathetic", think "rest & recover". In contrast, the other side of the brain's autonomous nervous system - the sympathetic nervous system - wakes up as you switch on "fight or flight" mode during stress.
So how should we breath?
Yoga offers a variety of breathing techniques, a few of which I highlighted below, aiming at a variety of different results, such as heating up, cooling down, increasing awareness, harmonising the energy flows, detoxing, relieving cerebral tension, alleviating anger, anxiety and insomnia, or even activating the core muscles. Breathing in traditional yoga is called pranayama, which means the control of vital life force.
Fun fact: In yoga, we believe that that human's life span is not measured by the number of years we live, but the number of breaths we take. For example, let's assume that an average person lives to be 80 years old. This is modern day's statistics. In yoga, we'd say an average person lives to take about, say, 430 million breaths. So the longer time you take for a full cycle of breath, the longer you'll live in years (which is why animals that breathe fast such as dogs won't live more than 15 years, and slow-breathing bowhead whales potentially live to 200+ years)
1. Basic Breath Awareness
The first step in properly breathing is just to be aware of your breath. We are here just to observe. We try not to force anything in the breathing. Notice how your chest and belly move as you inhale, how they relax as you exhale. Call up the curious monkey in your mind to analyse your breath.
Can you feel the temperature of your inhalation through the inside of your nostrils?
Can you feel the heat of the exhalation through your upper lip?
Does the sound of your breath feel different today?
Are you just naturally exhaling through your mouth, or are you exhaling through the nostrils?
After a few moments of just observing your breath, do you observe any change in your body or in your state of mind?
2. The 2-to-1 Breath
The rule is simple: if you inhale for 3 counts, try to exhale for 6 counts, all through the nostrils. If you are new to breathing exercises and find yourself struggling with the 6-count exhalation, you can try to breathe out for 5 or 4 counts instead, and gradually adding more counts.
Notice if you gasp on the next inhalation: this means you have taken the exhalation too long, so reduce the counts and be patient. Control your exhalation to make it slow, calm, quiet, and set your mind to follow the breath all the way through to the end.
3. Yogic Breathing
Also called the "3-part breathing", the yogic breathing incorporates the abdominal breath, the thoracic breath and the clavicle breath into one full cycle of breath.
Abdominal breathing: breathing through the belly, or more exactly, the lower lungs. Your diaphragm moves significantly downward and your belly expands.
Thoracic breathing: breathing through the chest or the middle lungs. Your rib cage widens to make room for the lungs to inflate.
Clavicle breathing: your clavicle bones rise slightly as you fill up your upper lungs.
Yogic breathing is a very powerful practice requiring a great amount of focus and awareness. Let's assume you inhale for 6 counts. Use the first 2 counts for the abdominal breathing, the next 2 for the thoracic breathing and the last 2 for the clavicle breathing. When you exhale, relax these 3 parts in the reversed order. When you get to the end of the exhalation, you typically flatten your belly and pull it in towards the spine and also gentle up towards the chest, thereby emptying the lower lungs.
Yogic breathing improves the lymphatic drainage from the basal parts of the lungs, massages the organs lying beneath the lungs (liver, stomach, intestines and others), exerts a positive effect on the cardiac functions and coronary supply, and improves blood oxygenation and circulation.
4. Ocean Sound Breath (Ujjayi)
Create an ocean sound by constricting the muscles at the back of throat (your vocal chords) as you inhale and exhale. Sometimes, this breath also sounds like snake hisses. I usually guide my students to use this type of breathing during a Vinyasa practice - one breath, one movement. The breath helps building heat internally, its sound keeps you focused, slows down your heart rate, soothes your nervous systems and calms your mind.
Once your throat muscles get used to it, the ujjayi breath is a powerful, almost addictive practice. However, make sure you don't do it constantly for too long. That would overexert, irritate and make your vocal chords dry. Imagine yourself talking in whispering mode for an hour. That's how it feels to do ujjayi breath for that long.
5. Breath of Fire (Kapalabhati)
Imagine you're blowing one small birthday candle with your mouth (Happy First Birthday!!). That's kapalabhati (or forceful breathing). Except that we're gonna do that for 30-40 candles, one at a time, as fast as possible. Let's stop at 40 because nobody wants to be reminded how old they are anymore after that!!
Because the exhale is fast and forceful, the inhale is also quite short. In addition, as you blow out, you engage your core by pulling the belly in toward the spine. As you blow 40 candles one by one fast, the engagement of the core makes it flap like a bird's swings. I usually use kapalabhati at the beginning of a core yoga class to help activate the core and during a detox class. As the name "Breath of Fire" suggests, kapalabhati helps with heat building, oxygenates "dead space" in the lungs, strengthens and tones the lower transverse abdominis muscle, and improves your concentration.
Important: Kapalabhati is contraindicated if you have high or low blood pressure, heart disease, hernia, gastric ulcer, epilepsy, vertigo, migraine headaches, significant nosebleeds, detached retina, glaucoma, history of stroke, and or if you have undergone a recent abdominal surgery.
6. Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)
Use your right thumb to press gentle against the right nostril (therefore closing it) as you inhale through the left nostril. Then use your right ring finger to press gentle against the left nostril as you exhale through the right nostril. On the second round, inhale through the right and exhale through the left, and so on.
Nadi is the energy channel or energy flow within our body. Nadi Shodhana breathing purifies the psychic network and facilitate the energy flow. However, don't practice Nadi Shodhana if you are having a severe cold/flu, heart disease, high blood pressure or are not a later stage of pregnancy.
7. Breath Retention (Kumbhaka)
This technique could be used together with many other breathing techniques, such as the 2-to-1 breathing, the yogic breathing and the alternate nostril breathing. As the name suggests, hold your breath for a few counts after your inhalation (this is called antara kumbhaka) and/or after your exhalation (bahya kumbhaka). Try to hold the breath for as long as you inhaled/exhaled and notice how comfortable you are with it. Relax the shoulders and the chest as you hold your breath. Slowly increase the breath retention time only when you're comfortable with the previous amount of time, without any signs of suffocation or gasping.
In a traditional practice, breath retention is practiced in conjunction with two bandhas: the throat lock and the root lock (which is detailed in another article later so stay tuned!!!).
Avoid this breathing exercise if you have high blood pressure. Caution if you have asthma and other respiratory conditions.
8. Other Breathing Techniques
Brahmari, Sheetali, Sheetkari, Suryabhedana, Agnisara Dhauti. So many other techniques are out there for you to discover and try. Some you'll love, some you'll hate. But unless you try, you'll never know. If you really want to deepen your pranayama practice, drop me a note! We could either practice together, or I can also refer you to more lengthy readings on this!
Oh and, don't forget your body posture as you breath. If you choose to lie down comfortably flat on the floor, try not to fall asleep!!! If you sit, either on the floor or on a chair or a sofa, sit up straight with your spine in a neutral position ("flat back"), as if someone is pulling from the crown of your head, so that you have the space in your chest to take in all that nourishing air. Relax your shoulders and chest. Keep your hands where it feels comfortable to you, maybe on your knees or thigh. I usually fold my hands together in front of my belly, palms facing up, thumbs touched, wrists resting on my thighs.
Pranayama was really one of the top 3 focuses of my first 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training with Teacher Rajesh Raushan at Yoga Mala Singapore. We would start the day with a couple of hours of breathing, sitting on the floor. After my course, I noticed my lung capacity drastically increased (and so did my hip opening)! And more importantly, with the calming breathing, a conviction creeped into my mind that whatever happens, I'll deal with it and I'll be fine.
Hope this helps,