“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath” ~Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga Pradipika
You know that scene in that movie with that dramatic delivery room scene? Come on, you know…the one where the pregnant lady goes into labor and a doctor and doting husband are coaching her to breathe? “Hee Hee hoooo Hee Hee hooo,” and so forth? I’ve never given birth myself but if the movies have it right, all you have to do is breathe deeply and voila! Out comes baby. Ok, maybe that’s not all there is to it but breath control is clearly important.
Labor is an extreme example, but imagine the last time you had a friend freaking out over something their boyfriend did or boss said? You might have told them to “just take a deep breath” which is an extremely common and somewhat less offensive way of telling someone to chill the F out. Of course in yoga, we focus on our breath and allow it to carry us in and out of challenging postures. We know that the breath has immense power so why don’t more of us actively try to harness and use it to our advantage? If breath control can help get us through childbirth, stage fright and panic attacks then how could it help us in less frantic moments?
We all know about the Stress Response or “fight or flight” instinct, but the Relaxation Response is a far less talked about and yet immensely powerful healing tool that lives within all of us. Usually when we are stressed, we feel it more in our minds and yet the physical symptoms are countless: our pupils dilate, our muscles and teeth clench, our breath and heartbeat become rapid or erratic. When you’re in that state, someone telling you to “calm down” will be more quickly met with the back of your hand than a smile on your face. CALM DOWN?? You want me to CALM DOWN?? You may think to yourself, how am I supposed to calm down when I’ve got all these thoughts racing in my head or this deadline to meet or this boyfriend who I think but am not positive but am pretty sure is cheating on me?
We’ve all been there and react differently. I’m usually more of a crier, but there’s also times when stress makes me want to punch a wall or an innocent bystander. But what if instead of letting ourselves get carried away in an anxious fit, we literally just took a deep breath. Then another. Then another. Inhale for four counts…exhale for four counts. Don’t even think about calming down. Just think about your breath. Inhale two-three-four, exhale two-three-four. Inhale, exhale.
Wow. I feel calmer already. It’s only natural and I have our dear friend and neglected biological reflex Ms. Relaxation Response to thank for it. This isn’t rocket science. We all know how good we feel after an asana class or being led through a few minutes of pranayama. It’s not that our problems/boss/cheating scumbag boyfriend/etc. went away; it’s just that we used breath control to counteract the physical symptoms of the stress response. We used our breath to trick our frenzied selves into chilling out just a bit. Without getting too sciencey on you, deep breathing activates the Vagus nerve, which is located in the brain and controls our parasympathetic nervous system or PNS. The PNS does all kinds of great things for us like promoting relaxation, rest, and sleep by slowing our heart rate, slowing our breathing and bringing those dilated pupils back from bug-eye status. So breathing is like an all- natural and FREE version of klonopin, xanax or whatever other anti-anxiety pills doctors are prescribing these days.
After being diagnosed with ARVD, it’s only natural that I began thinking about my pulse rate, breathing, and stress levels a little more seriously but just because you don’t have a heart condition doesn’t mean you shouldn’t as well. Coming to yoga for an hour a day is a great way to experience the transformative effects of conscious breathing, but you don’t need to relegate this practice just to the mat. Stress is always lurking just below the surface of our being ready to pounce. We need to be ready with our counter attack in the form of calm, steady, and conscious breathing. And the more you do it, the more effective it becomes.
Whether you have a daily pranayama practice, or can’t even pronounce pranayama, you can start to experience your breath as a calming force that is with you always.
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation