Did you know the way we breathe affects our body's stress response? According to a study in the Journal of Neurophysiology, our choices about how we breathe can have significant impacts on our physical bodies as well as our minds. Rapid breathing triggers our stress response by activating the amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for triggering fear in our bodies. It essentially triggers our fight or flight response causing both physical and mental strain on our bodies. Deliberately paced breathing, on the other hand, activates the insula, a part of the brain responsible for body awareness, pain perception, and our basic emotions.
This research on the importance of regulated and controlled breathwork isn't new. Back in 1975, Herbert Benson, a Harvard researcher, published the book The Relaxation Response. In it, he explained how deliberate breathing exercises could help us relax, feel happier, and even lower blood pressure. What Benson was advocating was essentially breathwork and meditation.
And the fact is we all intuitively know this about breathing. Any parent or teacher will soothe a wailing or irate child by encouraging them to take a few deep breaths to calm down. We give a brown paper bag to breathe into for people having panic attacks. In other words, we tell people in distress to consciously take control of their breathing and self-regulate it. That’s because we know breathing works! And yet, we so often forget to stop and do just that in our own hectic lives.
So how does this relate to yoga you ask? Well, if you have been to any yoga class, you have probably heard the terms pranayama and savasana. Pranayama is a collection of breathwork exercises that assist yoga practitioners in learning to control their breath. In Sanskrit, prana can be broken into two parts pra meaning moving, and na meaning always. Yama, the second part of pranayama, means to control or to restrain in Sanskrit. Pranayama is often done near the end of class, just before savasana or the final resting pose.
There are numerous pranayama techniques that yoga teachers can pull from, from simple belly breathing to far more intense techniques that mimic hyperventilating in order to excite the nervous system. The practice is in learning to control our breathing so that we can better regulate our energy levels and emotions. Through regular breathwork practice, we can calm our nervous system and lower our stress levels, almost instantly improving our quality of life by improving our outlook on life. And breathwork goes hand-in-hand with another stress reducing practice - meditation.
Most yoga practices end with a quiet, meditative pose called savasana. Savasana, creepily enough, means corpse pose in Sanskrit, but that's descriptive of our body’s position during the pose rather than any dark undertones to yoga. In savasana, we lay flat on our backs and try to relax the physical body completel. Meanwhile, we learn to keep the mind still and in the present moment - essentially achieving a meditative state. According to B.K.S. Iyengar in his seminal yogic text Light on Yoga, "to tame prana depends on the nerves. Steady, smooth, fine and deep breathing without any jerky movements of the body soothes the nerves and calms the mind. The stresses of modern civilization are a strain on the nerves for which Savasana is the best antidote." Essentially, our pranayama practice combined with savasana are key components of that restored and relaxed feeling achieved during yoga.
And that is one of the true benefits of yoga - lowering stress and improving our mood. By doing these things, not only do we feel better, but we become more enjoyable to be around as well. What a gift to offer the world, a fully present, relaxed, and happy human being!
So take a moment, right now, close your eyes and take a deep breath in, pause and feel the fullness of your lungs for a moment, then exhale. Feel your chest and shoulder relaxing with your exhalation. Inhale again, let the air move through your lungs down into your belly. Pause again to notice the fullness of your lungs. Relish that feeling. Then exhale slowly, allowing your belly, chest, and shoulder to relax even further. Doesn't that feel good? Take a few more breaths, deep, restorative breaths. Allow yourself this moment to relax and heal your body, to be fully present, and to restore your happiness.
Oh, and also, feel free to sign up for one of my yoga classes (yup, shameless plug) and make breathwork and meditation a regular part of your life.