Cultivating Resilience: The Breath Effect
Breath and Emotions
When we take shallow breaths, we over-breathe, taking in excessive oxygen and breathing out too much carbon dioxide. This signals our nervous system to be on red alert, known as the “fight-or-flight” response. In contrast, by breathing more slowly, we activate the recovery part of our nervous system, referred to as “rest-and-digest.” Slow breathing involves both lengthening the duration of our exhales as well as reducing the number of breaths we take a minute. Studies of slow breathing have shown that a rate of about five breaths per minute can reduce stress, increase alertness and boost the immune system.
When the breath wanders, the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed, the mind too will be still and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.
~from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Automatic vs. Behavioral Breath Control
Fortunately, most of the time our breath occurs as if on auto pilot. We engage in daily activities, such as sleeping and working, without much thought to breathing. This is because our breathing is controlled by the brain stem and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). But the breath can also be brought under conscious control, referred to as “behavioral control.” We do this routinely when talking, singing, whistling, eating or playing a musical instrument.
This mechanism is useful for managing emotions. For example, when stressed, we can consciously slow down our breath to calm our nervous system. Emotions such as contentment, peacefulness and joy are typically associated with slower, smoother breathing and parasympathetic nervous system activation. By contrast, challenging emotions, such as anger, anxiety or frustration, tend to be associated with shorter, more erratic breathing patterns. The same is true energetically. If we are feeling sluggish, we can invigorate ourselves by taking a few full, deep breaths.
The breath is our primary way of interacting with the universe. When we are born we inhale and draw the world into our lungs. When we die we exhale our energy back into the universe. The ancient yogis said that we were allotted a certain number of breaths and when we used them up, we used up all of our life energy and we would die. Pranayama is a way of harnessing that life force energy.
The word pranayama consists of two components: prana which means energy and ayama which means stretch, extension, expansion, regulation, restraint and control. Through the practice of pranayama, we learn to control the breath, slowing it down and lengthening it to help us turn inward. But the practice of pranayama must be done carefully to not upset the nervous system.
Guidelines for Pranayama
According to Kristine Kaoverii Weber, founder of Subtle Yoga, the first rule of pranayama is never force your breath. Allow the breath to be smooth, subtle, easeful and natural. If you feel short of breath, agitated, lightheaded or anxious, stop and breath naturally.
Next, never hold your breath. Pausing your breath, as with retention practices, is not the same as holding it in or out. Even when the breath is paused and no air is moving, it should remain smooth and natural, as if you were still breathing in gently at the end of your inhale or out at the end of your exhale. This is particularly important for pregnant women, those with high blood pressure or other heart conditions, or those with breathing problems such as asthma or emphysema. If you are unsure, check with your physician before engaging in breath retention practices.
When practicing breath retention, the pause after the inhalation should not exceed the length of the exhale. In fact, I generally recommend a retention of only one to two counts, especially when first exploring pranayama practices.
The final guideline is to keep your inhale shorter than your exhale. This is particularly important in cases of cardiac arrhythmia and high blood pressure. Remember– longer exhales tend to be calming which is often the effect we are seeking.
Here are two breath practices to help you build resilience. Use the first one, called Chandra Bedhana or “moon breathing,” is for when you need calming or centering. The second practice, called Breath of Joy, is more uplifting and energizing for those times when your energy is low. Be well!