How about if we all had a certain magical power within us? A magical power which can ease stress and tension, reduce anxiety and make many of life’s stresses feel manageable… Oh wait – we do! Our own breath is a hugely powerful resource which many of us can learn to tap into very simply and with incredible results.
As yogis have known for centuries—and, as medical science is beginning to discover—the breath has amazing recuperative powers. By controlling the breath (a practice called Pranayama), the yogis found, they could alter their state of mind.
Not all breaths are created equal. A great, simple breathing exercise for calming both the nervous system and the overworked mind is a timed breath where the exhale is longer than the inhale. When your exhale is even a few counts longer than your inhale, the vagus nerve (running from the neck down through the diaphragm) sends a signal to your brain to turn up your parasympathetic nervous system and turn down your sympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system commands your fight or flight response, and when that fires, your heart rate and breathing increases, and stress hormones like cortisol start pumping through your bloodstream, preparing your body to face the threat. If the threat is, “A lion is chasing me and I need to run for my life” this is helpful. If the threat is, “I am late for work” this is not a particularly valid threat, and in fact it can be damaging to the other systems of the body.
The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, controls your rest, relax, and digest responses. When the parasympathetic system is dominant, your breathing slows, your heart rate drops, your blood pressure lowers as the blood vessels relax, and your body is put into a state of calm and healing.
Here’s how to Ex-hale your way to Relaxation:
1* To begin, sit still and tall somewhere comfortable. Close your eyes and being breathing through your nose.
2* Inhale for a count of 1. Hold the breath in for a count of 1 and exhale gently, counting out for 4… and finish by holding the breath out for a count of 1. Keep your breathing even and smooth.
3* If the 2-4 count feels too short try increasing the breath lengths to 4 in and 6 out, or 6 in and 8 out, and so on. But if longer breaths create any anxiety there is no need to push yourself. The most important thing is that the exhale is longer than the inhale, not the absolute length of the breath.