How to use the breath to calm feelings of anxiety and stress
Living in a busy city, always rushing around, it is so hard to find time to slow down and recharge our batteries. I notice myself how easy it is for me to get carried away with thoughts and worries, maybe thinking of things to do, maybe rushing through town only to arrive home exhausted at the end of the day.
If it is true for me that it might be easier to fully relax when away on holiday or on retreat, I have found some simple ways of working with the breath to be very beneficial to manage feelings of stress and anxiety and I would like to share these with you in this post. This was inspired by a book I have recently read called ‘Yoga skills for therapist’ by Amy Weintraub that I would recommend to anyone interested in using yoga skills to manage their mood.
I notice a clear difference in my mood and internal state when I manage to set aside even just ten minutes a day to do some breathing, the tightening in my chest softens, my shoulders drop, my breath becomes deeper and everything seems to work just a little bit better. I have tested some of the breathing practices in Weintraub’s book and this is how it went.
Yogic Three-part breath
A basic practice but a good one.
You sit in a comfortable position with your spine erect. Then you inhale down into the bottom of the lungs until you see the belly expand. You can put a hand on the belly to help to see this movement. After practicing this three times, you then proceed to inhale a third of the breath into the belly, then a second third into the midsection of the lungs so that the rib-cage expands.
Again, you do this three times, belly, then rib-cage, just to get used to it. Then you add the third part. Belly, rib-cage and the last third of the breath into the upper chest and the top of the lungs. You can put a hand there to follow the movement.
You then exhale slowly, tucking in the belly up at the end so that the lungs are fully empty at the end and practice breathing in this way for three to five minutes.
Ocean-sounding victory breath or Ujjayi breath
You can combine this type of breathing with the three part breath for added deliciousness or do it on its own. This practice is also calming for the nervous system.
To do this you need to breath through your nostrils with a slight constriction at the back of the throat, like a snoring or a Darth Vader sound. Some people find it helpful to make the sound by imagining the sound you would make by fogging a window, breathing in and out from the mouth, then closing the mouth and practising the same breathing through the nostrils.
Some of the suggestions I have tried in Amy Weintraub’s book are to visualise an image of waves rolling across pebbles on a pebbly beach or, my personal favourite, putting a hand on the heart imagining the sound is like a lullaby soothing any younger parts of the self that might need comforting.
The winner for me, however, has to be the bee breath in its ability to really calm any tension and feelings of anxiety for me. After practising this, I got that lovely relaxed feeling that you get after a good meditation, like a feeling of everything slowing down and flowing a little better. A little trippy even!
Instructions for this is plug your ears with your fingers. If you want you can try the Shanmukhi Mudra, as in the picture below.
You then constrict your glottis at the back of the throat by drawing the base of the tongue back with your lips closed and then produce a humming, buzzing sound. Like a bee, hence the name.
You practice this buzzing sound no more than six times. If the mudra with the fingers on the face, blocking the senses, is too triggering or produces discomfort you can just as well do this breath by just plugging the ears or just with the humming.
There are so many other types of breathing! These are only some basic practices that got my attention and that help me when my nervous system is revved up, if I am stressed or anxious and when I am looking for something to slow things down a little.
What about you? What kind of breathing exercises have you tried and which one is your favourite?
Weintraub, A. (2012) Yoga Skills for therapists. Effective practices for mood management. New York: W.W.Norton & Company.