The stress dis-easeStress is a huge issue for millions of people around the world. Health professionals now know that elevated levels of stress have a huge physiological impact on the body as well as the mind. If the stress is not relieved, the body engages in a "fight or flight" response, drawing energy away from other vital functions. After only a few days or weeks of elevated stress a person will start to experience notable side effects: body aches from clenched muscles, headaches, insomnia, digestive problems. Over time, the immune system is weakened and we become prone to illnesses, have increased or decreased appetite and our basic bodily functions like the bowels, hormone production and menstruation can be affected.
And of course, stress also affects our relationships, as we are prone to mood swings, irritability, depression, outbursts of anger, anxiety and uncharacteristic behaviour. Stress has also been linked to serious and chronic conditions like heart disorders and ulcers.
The good news is that there are some simple techniques (including movement, meditation and breath work) that anyone can use to help reduce the physiological condition of stress.
Breathing away StressThe following pranayamas - techniques for working with the breath - can be practiced by anyone and are effective at calming the mind and the body (although if you feel any strange side effects or/and have a medical condition, caution is of course the best way forward!). They can be practiced one by one, or in the sequence suggested here. I also recommend you get a timer - use a function on your watch or phone, or download a free app - so you're not spending energy thinking about the duration of the exercises. Also, please note that the effects of each breath, given in parentheses, are generally accepted but not universal - the results will be different from person to person. In addition, these are results of a regular practice - a one-off attempt may not lead to noticeable improvement although you should be able to feel some calming effects even after only once.
These can be practiced together or individually, any time, anywhere! On the train, on a plane, in a long line, with the kids, at your desk, even in your car (with the eyes open of course)! But for absolute best results, find yourself a nice quiet space, maybe light a candle or two, play some relaxing music, and get some comfy blankets and pillows so you can sit and lie down comfortably.
1. Belly breathing (3-5 mins)
(Calming, relieves anxiety, reduces anger, stabilises mood swings)
[Once you've practiced this technique for a bit, belly breathing can be done sitting or standing and is super-effective if you need a quick calm-down breath, because you can do it anywhere, even mid-meeting or conversation, without anyone else really noticing. But to begin with, try it lying down. The first few times, it can also be helpful to place both hands on the belly, although eventually you may not need them anymore.]
Begin lying down with both hands on the belly, eyes closed. Take a few moments to become aware of your breathing. Then as you inhale, try to channel as much of your breath as possible into the belly, feeling the hands rise as the belly expands. As you exhale, feel the hands fall back towards the body. Once you are comfortable, make the breaths slower and deeper.
When you practice this breath, your chest and shoulders should remain fairly still, since you are channeling the breath into the belly. To check this, try doing belly breathing with one hand on the belly and one hand on your upper chest. If you are belly breathing correctly, the hand on the belly should rise and fall, while the hand on the chest should stay relatively still.
2. Chandra Bhedana Pranayama - moon breath (5-8 mins)
(Calming, cooling, improves sleep, reduxes anxiety or panic)
Begin this pranayama kneeling on the floor, with your hips resting on your heels. Put cushions underneath your feet and knees, and between your heels and buttocks if that's more comfortable. If you're not comfortable on the floor, sit on a chair with both feet on the ground, about hip width apart. Take a few deep breaths here.
Once you are comfortable, raise your right hand and place your index and middle finger on the forehead. Your right elbow should be hanging loose in front of your body. Use the right thumb to close the right nostril. Breathe deeply and slowly in through the left nostril. At the end of your inhalation, release your thumb and use your ring finger to close your left nostril. Exhale a long deep breath through the right nostril. Continue breathing in through the left, out through the right. For best effects, keep the spine straight and the belly completely relaxed.
When you are done (Try about 3 minutes to begin with, working to 8 minutes which is considered a good time for the breath to be effective), sit quietly and breathe normally, and observe the effects. This is a good one to practice about 20 minutes before you go to bed - or even in bed if you can't sleep!
3. Bastrika - the bellows breath (3-6 repetitions)
(Reduces stress, depression, anxiety, headaches, and boosts the immune system. This is an energising breath so best not performed at night - try it first thing in the morning, or use it in the office during a break!)
If you can, sit in a kneeling position to perform this breathing technique, with your buttocks resting gently on your heels. If that's not comfortable for you, sit on a chair with both feet flat on the ground, about hip distance apart.
I've given you two variations here to try. For both, begin by taking a long full breath in through the nose, filling the belly and chest as much as possible.
Variation 1 (classic variation): Raise your arms all the way above your head as you inhale, taking a deep, full breath. Exhale rapidly in one go, "blasting" air out through the mouth and bringing the arms down rapidly as you do. As you inhale again, raise the arms all the way up. Repeat 10 times initially, building to 3 sets of 10 with resting breaths in between.
Variation 2: Bring your hands to your hips. Take a deep, full breath in, and as you exhale, "blast" the breath out through the mouth in short bursts. As you do so, begin to bend forward at the waist. It may take a few tries to get the rhythm that is right for you, but when you do, you should end up "blasting" the breath out in 6-9 short bursts, with the last of the air leaving your lungs as you reach the lowest point (lying on your knees, with the head resting on the floor or a pillow). Repeat 3-6 times.
After the last repetition of either variation, remain folded forward with your head resting on a pillow or the floor. Breathe normally and observe the effects for a minute or so.
How it works
The breath is the body's most critical function, so it's no great surprise that the way we breathe can have an impact on our state of mind, emotions and well-being. Our breathing is controlled by a great big dome-shaped muscle called the diaphragm that sits underneath the rib cage. The diaphragm is attached - yes, physically attached - to the layers of tissue that surround the heart muscle. So when we breathe, it affects our heart as well: rapid, shallow breathing puts stress on the heart, causing it to beat faster, while slow, deep reduces tension on the heart muscle, causing it to beat a bit more slowly.
When we are stressed, we unconsciously tend to breathe shallowly and quickly, and the body pumps more oxygen to the heart in case it needs to engage a "fight or flight response". This automatically puts other, "secondary" bodily functions on hold, especially "nourishing" processes, such as digestion, sleep, and restoration of the cells (which is why we get sick so much when we're stressed!). The breathing techniques here emphasise deep, regular breaths and activate areas of the nervous system (the parasympathetic system) which tell the body to relax and engage in healing and nourishing processes.
Stress and Yoga Asana - a postscriptMany health professionals nowadays recommend yoga for people who are overly stressed. However, your average yoga class today may not actually be a stress-reducing experience. Dynamic forms of yoga, especially if there is not a lot of time for relaxation at the end of the class (10 minutes should be the minimum, but I've been to many classes where only 5 mins, or 3 minutes are left for relaxation!) may not bring your body and mind out of stress. Some of the most dynamic forms also seem to bring out in us a competitive and self-critical edge as we are challenged by the postures - not exactly a way to let go of anxiety!
If you are seeking a yoga class for the explicit purpose of reducing your stress, give yourself the gift of really doing it right! Find a class that is relaxing and breath focused. Yin Yoga and restorative yoga are especially good for stress relief because the long, supported stretches activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is concerned with rest, nurture and healing.
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