The benefits of yoga include everything from increased flexibility to improved body image and confidence to reduced feelings of depression. Yoga, which means “union” in Sanskrit, helps strengthen the mind-body connection, and research shows that it is a powerful tool for fighting stress and supporting well-being.
When you think of yoga, you might think about physical poses, but breath work – a major part of yoga practice – is just as important. Pranayama, the practice of breath control, has been shown to have a range of benefits through its effect on the nervous system.
There are two parts of the nervous system related to stress that serve opposite functions.
The sympathetic nervous system governs the “fight or flight” response and kicks in when a threat is perceived. It creates a chain of reactions affecting everything from mental outlook to hormones to prepare for and deal with the threat. When we’re stressed out, this is the state we’re in.
The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is responsible for the “rest and digest” response. When activated, we typically feel at ease, and the body is able to prioritize maintenance and repair, which can support long-term health.
Pranayama helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which can help lower blood pressure, decrease stress, support digestion, reduce anxiety, and enhance immunity. With busy schedules and hectic lives, many of us are almost constantly in that state of fight or flight, which may take a toll on the body and leave us feeling exhausted. Simply taking a few moments to breathe mindfully can have a major impact on both our mental and physical health.
Here are a few techniques to help you connect with your breath.
1. Ujjayi (Victorious Breath) This practice is sometimes referred to as an oceanic-sounding breath because if done correctly, it almost sounds like ocean waves. To practice, inhale through the nose and close off the throat to exhale (similar to if you were trying to steam up a mirror with your breath – but with the lips closed). Allow the belly to expand. As you exhale through the nose, contract the belly toward the spine.
2. Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing) This technique is thought to help unite the masculine and feminine energies in the body. To practice, sit in a comfortable position. Using your right hand, place your ring finger on your left nostril and gently touch your thumb to your right nostril. Inhale through the right nostril, using your ring finger to close the left nostril. Then use your thumb to close the right nostril and exhale through the left side. Next, inhale from your left nostril, closing the right side with your thumb, and exhale through the right side. Continue switching sides with each breath.
3. Sama Vritti (Even, or Square, Breath) This practice can be a very calming form of breath work. To begin, start with the ujjayi breath. Once you’ve developed a good rhythm, begin to pause at the top of each inhale and again at the bottom of each exhale. Eventually, you may find that you settle into a breath that is equal in its four parts – inhaling, holding, exhaling, and holding. (Can you picture the “square”?)
Although pranayama is generally a safe and beneficial practice, there are times, such as during pregnancy, when some forms of breath control aren’t recommended. If you’re unsure, ask your healthcare practitioner.
Each of these techniques is a great tool for when you’re feeling stressed and could use a bit of grounding, but start with shorter sessions and work your way up to continue to feel the benefits.