Your breath directly affects your mind.
And the quality of your breathing impacts not only your mood, but influences the words you say and the actions you bring about in the world.
Despite these big health and societal ramifications, breathing is something so few of us think about, despite the fact that we take about 20,000 breaths a day.
And here’s the thing. Most of us are breathing all wrong. And that takes a toll.
Chronic stress triggers your body to release abnormal surges of stress hormones. Over time, the nervous system becomes completely imbalanced, and that translates into an unhealthy, shallow chest breathing pattern that brings about more stress and tension. It’s a devastating snowball effect that many of us experience without even knowing.
“Think about what happens to your breath when you get frightened: maybe you hold it, maybe it gets shallow as it moves into the upper portion of the chest, maybe it speeds up,” said Cristina Kuhn, instructor at Yoga Medicine. “This is the response of the sympathetic nervous system that is preparing you to fight, run or freeze.”
So how can we “hack” the nervous system to better our breathing?
Yoga! Not the stand-on-your-head, turn-yourself-into-a-pretzel-type, but yoga that unites the breath and the mind in a gentle way to cool down our overrun, agitated nervous system.
(Psst. If you’re thinking you’re not a “yoga person,” you probably need it twice as much!)
Relearning How to Breathe
By teaching your body how to diaphragmatically breath again, you open the door to better focus, strengthened lungs, a healthier digestive system, less pain, lower blood pressure, reduced anger and frustration, better confidence and more.
When I teach a yoga class, we always start out in “crocodile,” a belly-down posture that many people crave.
It naturally aligns your body for diaphragmatic breathing and eases your body into “rest and digest” mode.
“It helps to restore balance in our nervous system as we breathe, letting each inhale be nourishing and each exhale soften the grip of anxiety, fear and reaction,” said Shari Friedrichsen, senior teacher at the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale. “It’s kind and necessary, especially when the world seems turned upside down with so much anger and violence.”
Directions for Crocodile
- Lie face down on a firm surface, like the floor.
- Stack your forearms on top of one another, with each hand on the opposite elbow.
- Draw the forearms in so that the chest is slightly off the floor, with the forehead resting on crossed arms.
- If this creates tension in your shoulders, you can slide your elbows out a little wider or place a rolled up blanket under your collarbones.
- Slightly separate the legs a comfortable distance with the toes turned in, back or out
- Close your eyes. Relax the legs, abdomen and shoulders. Soften the eyes and jaw. Turn your attention to the breath and feel the resistance of your belly against the floor with each inhale.
- Notice the breath, without trying to control it in any way. Is it jerky? Choppy? Are you holding it?
- Observe with curiosity, knowing with practice, the breath will start becoming smoother, quieter and deep without effort.
- Center here for two to five minutes before moving on with your day.
Yoga is for Everyone
“If you are breathing, you can practice yoga,” Kuhn said, noting that practicing for five minutes most days is more beneficial than doing just one long, weekly session.
Even if crocodile pose isn’t comfortable, you can still practice yoga.
Simply sitting in your chair and placing your hands on your belly and breathing deeply into this area will help reset vagal tone, which reduces anxiety and fear, Friedrichsen noted.
“If we can balance here with the breath; inhale, nourishing; exhale, releasing what you’ve eaten visually, emotionally or mentally that isn’t good for you, we can start healing ourselves and bring that healing into the world,” she said.