You have a built-in stress reliever, always free and always available: your breath. Fortunately most of the time you don’t need to think about breathing. With no conscious effort, your body keeps the oxygen, carbon dioxide, and pH levels of your blood in balance by varying your breathing rate. However, you have the power to consciously control your breath when you want to, and learning to do so can be an incredible tool for health and wellbeing.
For thousands of years, people have learned to control breathing for health and spiritual reasons. In the Indian yogic tradition, breath control is called pranayama, and it’s practiced to facilitate meditation, enhance physical yoga practices, and change mood. Scientific research affirms pranayama can help people feel better. The practice of Sudarshan Kriya yoga, a series of breathing exercises, has been shown to reduce anxiety, relieve insomnia, and dramatically reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans and disaster survivors. Keep reading to learn why breathing can be so powerful, and discover how to harness the power of your breath to feel calmer and more alert.
Emotions and the Breath
Breathing is closely connected to emotions. You’ve probably noticed your breath becomes quick and shallow when you’re fearful or panicked. Some people even breathe so quickly they hyperventilate, which decreases levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. Fast, deep breathing is associated with anger or intense joy. Slow, shallow breathing is linked with depression or calm happiness. And slow, deep breathing is correlated with relaxation.
Laboratory research supports what yogis have known for thousands of years: Changing your breathing can change your mood. In one study, researchers told participants to breathe in certain patterns and then asked how subjects felt. The participants’ emotions began to correspond to their breathing patterns.
Unfortunately, many people perpetually breathe in a way that makes them feel tense and agitated. Because our culture places a high value on a flat stomach, it’s common for people to wear tight clothing and hold in the stomach muscles, both of which can interfere with the functioning of the diaphragm, the muscle that contracts to inflate the lungs. To encourage your diaphragm to work optimally, wear loose clothing, sit with a straight spine, and allow your abdomen to relax. Those simple changes can help you breathe more deeply and feel calmer throughout the day.
Breathing for Relaxation
Here’s the good news: Even when you’re upset, relaxation is usually only a few breaths away. Consciously breathing in a slow and deep way stimulates a parasympathetic relaxation response, which causes beneficial and healing physical changes in the body: The heart rate slows, blood pressure decreases, sweat production slows down, digestion improves, and blood sugar levels return or stay at normal.
But let’s face it: Breathing is the last thing most people think about when they’re angry or panicked. That’s why regularly practicing breathing exercises is powerful. It brings all the physical benefits of regular relaxation listed above. Furthermore, it helps you become more aware of your breath, so you remember to use it to feel better when you need it most.
Take a Deep Breath
Nothing comes more naturally than breathing, but you can benefit from consciously inhaling and exhaling for a few minutes every day. Breathing exercises are empowering because they give you a free and readily available tool for improving your health and wellbeing.