Pranayama and Stress Relief

Pranayama and Stress Relief
Breath can arguably be considered the single most important function of the human body. If we don?t breathe, we die, simple as that. Fortunately, respiration is also much more nuanced, and pranayama practices developed over the centuries to take advantage of breathing?s myriad effects. For those of us who live in the stress-ridden twenty-first century, it?s important to learn about the relationship of breathing to relaxation and panic control.

A condition called hypercapnia occurs when carbon dioxide builds up in the blood. Its symptoms include increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweating, dizziness, confusion, and shortness of breath. Sounds like the physical indicators of a panic attack, right? In extreme situations, hypercapnia can be fatal, but for most of us, it?s the mild experience that affects us badly. When we are upset or fearful, we tend to breath faster, which shortens the exhalation. As carbon dioxide builds up in the body, we begin to feel these symptoms, and we begin to panic. This causes us to breathe faster, and an unfortunate spinning wheel starts. How do we stop the cycle?

Finding a comfortable seated pose, we might begin by focusing on the cycle of the breath, noting where the air goes in at the tip of the nose and how it courses through the back of the throat and into the lungs. We might note if we are breathing from the chest only (a sign of hyperventilation) or from the diaphragm as well; we might even investigate if we are using our intercostal muscles (the ones at the sides of the rib cage) as well. Finally, we might begin to count the lengths of our inhalations and exhalations. Before making any changes, we assume the role of observer, and just note where our bodies are and what they do.

This in itself is a great pranayama practice in and of itself. Being able to observe without judgment is the first step towards making positive changes in our lives. For some of us, the focus on the breath is enough to calm the body. Imagine the difference in our lives if, after noticing the beginnings of a panic attack, we can retreat to a private place and simply allow ourselves to breath quietly. Practicing this in concert with other relaxation exercises regularly can do wonders for our health.

When learning pranayama, it?s important to work with a qualified yoga teacher. With that said, beginners should learn and practice Equal Breathing in order to ?get to know? their own bodies. Beyond this, we can work to slightly extend the exhalation, which will induce relaxation in the body. Perhaps the inhale occurs to a count of three. We might inhale (1-2-3) and then exhale (1-2-3) for a few rounds, and then extend the exhalation to a count of four (1-2-3-4). We might stay with this cycle for a while, taking the time to note its effect on our bodies and minds. If we like what?s happening, we might then look for further instruction on extending the exhale.

If we practice at home, we will be more able to respond to a stressful event
Let?s go back to our time in that private place, as we notice what?s going on in our bodies as we breathe. How about taking a breath and then following it with a deep exhale before going back to observing the body? Or, in the midst of a tense conversation, taking the time to inhale and exhale before responding, knowing that we can affect the gaseous composition of the blood and perhaps return our physical being to a balanced state?

Our lives off the mat are influenced by our time on the mat. In the end, a yoga practice is important because of how it changes the way we interact with the world. Learn pranayama to help with stress control, and take the time to observe what it does for the body. Whether we realize it or not, for many of us this is our first successful meditation ? and, even after we develop a regular meditation practice, one of the best ways to unite our bodies and minds.

You Should Also Read:
Equal Breathing, or Sama Vritti
Following the Breath
Learning Pranayama Safely

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