Have you noticed what it feels like after you sigh?
Or if you are worked up and someone tells you, take a deep breath… what happens?
If you look at any given state of being, we have a corresponding breathing pattern (and breathing space) which mirrors whats going on inside. If you are happy, you have a unique breathing pattern, if you're stressed or anxious you have a certain pattern, watching a movie or cooking food...each state of being reflects a breathing pattern that is unique to you.
So the breath is literally showing us what is going on with us every single moment.
From a physiological point of view - breathing is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary processes like heart rate, blood pressure, digestion and so forth. Our breathing process is special in the way that it is automatic and voluntary, so we can just let go… we will breathe, or we can place our attention on breath and change it. Once we are aware of that, we can start to change our responses to any given situation!
The autonomic nervous system has two main divisions, sympathetic (fight or flight) and para-sympathetic (rest & digest), and the activation of these two fluctuate with your breathing patterns (and outside stimuli that causes you to breathe in this manner).
When we are stressed, our body activates the Sympathetic nervous system and gets ready for a high energy demand situation (fight or flight or freeze) - mostly associated with mouth breathing or breathing in the upper chest. This adrenalised energy is useful in the short run (helps us to operate and move) but toxic in the long run as it goes out of balance, or locked into stress. The body is not designed for long term stress so when the stress response is chronically activated, we are headed for burnout and disease.
When we are relaxed we activate the para-sympathetic nervous system, rest and digest response - associated with nose breathing and a belly/diaphragmatic breath. Consciously relaxing is a skill that can be done by simply tuning into your breath and consciously or voluntarily activating the relaxation response.
Through Breath Regulation (Pranayama) we learn how to control our nervous system with breathing techniques. We can energise, balance, relax, cool down or warm up with a variety of breath regulation techniques. Let's continue with this article by focussing on winding down techniques to activate the relaxation response at the end of your day.
Breath Awareness Practice
A fundamental part of breathwork, to observe and become aware of your breath.
-Inhale...Exhale with a sigh…Bring awareness to your breath and start to observe the flow of it, just moving in and out. Checking in where your breath is at.
-Lower space, middle space, upper space.
-Hands on belly and chest.
-Feel your connection with your body and with life force energy.
-You can even visualise what colour comes to you as you breathe.
-How does the sensation of breathing feel to you?
-Have a sense that you are being breathed.
We will now go over a few techniques which ties in with each other and will help with winding down when you need to, techniques which will activate the relaxation response.
Since we are speaking of sighing a lot:
Is a recovery loop which gives your body a break and activates the relaxation response. Feel a shift happening when you sigh, right now! Same goes for a yawn, so remember to sigh and yawn when your body needs to!
Ocean Breath (Ujjayi Breath)
Sanskrit words means “to be victorious”, and ocean, because of the sound it makes. A simple technique which can be applied to other breathing techniques. It has a calming effect with the feeling and sound it produces and it can help to extend or lengthen inhales and exhales.
-Close mouth, inhale through nose, exhale slowly through nose and constrict the muscles in the back of throat.
-A way to practice it, make the sound Haaaah (as if blowing fog on a window), open mouth, close it and let air go through nose. The sound you hear is the Ujjayi breath.
-Now try inhaling and exhaling like this, producing this sound in your throat.
-You will soon feel that you can extend the inhales and exhales.
When agitated: try it out when stressed or aggravated - notice a calming, soothing effect.
When exercising: running or cycling, try it out with rhythms of steps or pedals with a bike. See if it works for you.
Anxiety and stress - since we are slowing down the breath, we will activate the relaxation response and it will calm your nerves.
Extended exhales (1:2 ratio)
As a general rule, when your exhales are longer than inhales, you will become more relaxed. When inhales are longer than exhales, you will become more energised
-Deepen your inhale, filling up all the breathing spaces, see how many counts to breathe in fully.
-Now exhale with the same count as the inhale. Exhale through nose or pursed lips. Right now your breath is balanced.
-Now lengthen the exhalation to twice the length of the inhale. If exhaling through the nose, you can use Ujjayi breath.
Example: 3 seconds on inhale, 6 seconds on exhale. Let’s do for 4 rounds and see how you feel.
As we build on the techniques we cover today, we come to 4,7,8 breath. It seems to be a very popular breathing technique worldwide in its application for sleeping problems.
This is an ideal wind down technique especially in the evenings when you start to detach from stressors, getting ready for bed and want to relax after a hectic day. Not only for bed, but also to release stress, manage cravings and controlling anger.
Essentially this technique is about the ratio -4,7,8. This ratio can also be adjusted to half the length if that’s easier.
-As you get yourself comfortable in bed, stretch and move into place. Give a little sigh of relief
-Feeling your connection with life force as you breathe in, belly and chest rising. Feeling your connection to your body as it softens. Exhale gently through the nose or pursed lips.
-Inhale filling belly and chest, for a slow count of 4 seconds. Retain the breath in for a count of 7. Retain the breath without tension or discomfort, relax the body as you retain. Exhale for a count of 8, through nose or pursed lips. You can apply Ujjayi breath on inhale and exhale if you find it helps with lengthening the breath.
-As we can see, the focus is on extending the exhale - stimulating the vagus nerve and activating the rest and digest response as you start to dose off. You can try this for 5-10 rounds. There’s no contra-indications, you only become more relaxed.
-The physiology behind the hold after the inhale is that it allows more time for the stretch receptors in the alveoli to be activated, and calming messages are sent to the brain that all is ok. It can also be very soothing to relax into the pause after the exhale.
A little summary for activating the Relaxation response:
Breathe low and slow (into the belly with a slow rhythm)
Breathe through the nose
Extend the exhales so that it’s longer than the inhale
You can apply Ujjayi breath when you need to slow down
Remember to express a yawn and a sigh!