Today, I had a brief conversation with a friend who told me that he recently had an anxiety attack. He said it was triggered by a combination of a crowded room he was in, and not being able to slow down his mind (being that he’s a singer/dancer, his mind is creating a thousand ideas a minute on top of all the day-to-day thoughts he sorts through within that same 60 seconds… If you’re an artist, you understand). When I mentioned to him that I can teach him some breathing techniques that have helped my clients who struggle with anxiety, he jokingly said, “People pay to learn how to breathe? I can do that all by myself!” (He was joking, as he was very appreciative of my offer)
Not that I was offended by his joke in any way, but his statement got me thinking about how so many people believe that they’re breathing simply because they haven’t passed out from turning blue… but I stand by my belief that at least once a day, you must make your breathing intentional.
You may have heard the word, Pranayama in your last Yoga class. In Sanskrit, Prana is “fundamental life force” (aka breath), and Ayama is “control”… so Pranayama translates to “breath control”, more specifically, controlling the breath to intentionally create a specific energetic effect.
Throughout the day, most people take unintentional, shallow breaths through the chest. This shallow chest-breathing manually activates the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), which is the “fight or flight” response to stress. When this this activated, the shoulders start coming up towards the ears, digestion slows down, and the immune system weakens. Our bodies are wired with the ability to activate the SNS to protect ourselves from dangerous situations and environments. But if SNS is active for too long, it becomes a chronic condition. Studies have shown that chronic stress is linked to many ailments such as anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain and impaired memory.
All this sounds terrible, doesn’t it? There’s great news though! Just as I mentioned to my friend earlier, you can manually activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which is the “rest and digest” response toward optimal health. Activating the PNS allows your entire body (including your vital organs) to relax, heal and restore.
To activate the PNS, try this simple Pranayama:
Sit comfortably, and begin to breathe through the nose, inhaling for 4 counts and exhaling for 4 counts.
After about 5 breaths, start increasing your exhalation by 1 count until you reach a 1:2 ratio (inhaling for 4 counts, exhaling for 8 counts):
Inhale 4 counts; Exhale 4 counts.
Inhale 4 counts; Exhale 5 counts.
Inhale 4 counts; Exhale 6 counts.
Inhale 4 counts; Exhale 7 counts.
Inhale 4 counts; Exhale 8 counts.
Close your eyes and continue the 1:2 breathing for several minutes until you begin to feel calm and relaxed.
The 1:2 breathing above is also excellent to practice right before going to bed… In fact, this is the pranayama that I practice every night.
There are many different types of pranayama for different effects, such as to energize, to help focus, to clear the head, to increase digestion and to increase focus.
And to answer my friend’s question: Yes, people do pay to learn how to breathe.