Breathing Exercises For When Things Feel Crazy

Photo taken from  here

Hello dear friends!

I’m sure we’ve heard these two words countless times; muttered in hospital rooms, yoga studios, doctor’s offices, even arguments with your partner:

“Just breathe.”

Often it comes across as trite, meaningless, and even condescending at times- we as a society have categorized and shelved these two words away in the cabinet of things that are easy, noncommittal, and socially acceptable in most situations. A seemingly kind and helpful phrase that has somehow gotten drained of its original intention, be it by overuse or misuse. Probably both.

But I want to pull it down off the shelf and really examine it. Turn it over in our hands and put it up to our ears and truly listen.

The word “just” is a powerful adverb when applied correctly. If you were to look it up in the dictionary, here’s what you would find:

  • and nothing more
  • but, merely, only, simply
  • indicating exactness or preciseness
  • very, absolutely, completely

My favorite one out of this list is the first. And nothing more. What a beautiful, almost poetic notion, right? The idea of just doing this and nothing more. It seems almost foreign in our world of chaos, pain, to-do lists, and incessantly racing minds. But it is a wonderful place to start any conscious and deliberate breathing exercise- setting an intention to do this and only this can help to clarify and distill your purpose and create a kind of ease and spaciousness around it.

But what about the second word? Breathe? It seems rather straightforward, but when you again refer to the dictionary, here is just a sampling of the entries there:

  • draw air into, and expel out of, the lungs
  • be alive
  • impart into being
  • utter or tell
  • manifest or evince

To breathe is far from the textbook physiological need for oxygen- it is the essence of life, the power to call something forth, the tingling undercurrent of our collective consciousness. And in addition to all these things, it is a powerful tool that we can mindfully manipulate to our healing advantage. Because our breath is so intricately linked to our other physiological functions and our mental state, when we focus on the breath and nothing more, we actually can influence a multitude of other bodily responses: heart rate, blood pressure, digestion rate, inflammation, and cognition to name just a few.

Enter the powerful yogic technique(s) of pranayama. This word is a combination of the two Sanskrit words, “prana” the universal life force/energy, and “yama” meaning to control. So in its very essence, pranayama is the way that we can control and manipulate our energy and life force with our breath. And when you think about real-life examples, it’s not hard to see that this idea is completely true.

If you’ve ever had a panic attack (*raises hand*), you may recall that conscious control of your breathing is the #1 way to regain your power and sanity in those situations. When you deliberately focus on slowing and deepening your breath, you’ll find that the rest of your body follows suit and things start softening around the edges, allowing you to relax some.

Alternately, when you start to look at our breathing patterns as a sort of mirror to our inner emotional states, it clarifies your understanding of them. Think of the sharp inhale that comes when we are shocked or scared, the deep sigh that comes when we are utterly in love, the staccato exhale that comes with a hearty laugh. You can read a person’s feelings just by tuning into their breathing, and naturally you can read your own feelings by doing the same with your own breath.

But just as our breath can reveal our emotions, we can also control the breath to shift our emotions. The two are inextricably linked. So next time you find yourself getting worked up, on the verge of panic, or feel the fingers of fear closing around your heart, give one of these a try. And remember, you’ve got thousands of years of yogic wisdom to back you up!

1. Alternate Nostril Breathing (nadi shodhana)

It’s called the channel-cleaning (nadi= channel, shodhana= cleaning, purifying) breath for good reason. By directing the breath through the nostrils in this pattern, it certainly feels like the paths are being cleared for easier oxygenation and peace of mind. This technique is very easy to do, and can lend tremendous benefits on a daily basis. For me, especially right after my major relapse, this was the go-to pranayama technique I used, every morning when I awoke and every evening before I went to sleep (and of course during my moments of panic throughout the day too).

So, find a comfortable seat somewhere. It doesn’t have to be perfect, nor do you need to be folded up like a pretzel for this to work.

Bring your hand up to your nose, using your thumb to gently close your right nostril.

Inhale fully through your left nostril, then use your ring and pinky finger to gently close the left nostril as you exhale through the right nostril.

Leave the right nostril open as you take another full, slow inhale. Then again use your thumb to close the right nostril as you exhale through the left.

You can repeat this for as long as you like, and if you find your arm gets tired, you can either switch hands or find a pillow or bolster to prop up your elbow.

2. Three-part breathing (deerga swasam)

The magic in this technique lies in the mindful direction of the breath into the different parts of the body. This is referred to as the complete breath (deerga= complete, full, swasam= breath) because it fills up all the available space in our bodies in a sequential manner. This is the perfect antidote for shallow or compartmentalized breathing (if you tend to only breathe into your chest or your belly, for example), because it teaches you to send your breath into three areas: belly, ribcage, and upper chest.

I’ve found that this technique is easier to do while laying flat on the floor, with a yoga mat or blanket underneath for comfort. It also helps to place your palms flat on your abdomen in order to really connect with where the air is going. From there, it’s really quite simple:

On your inhale, first send the air deep into your abdomen, filling up your belly first. Then continuing that same inhale, next fill your ribcage, feeling your sides expand into your hands, and finally fill your chest to make a full and complete breath. Just be careful not to pull in too much air or strain in any way- this is meant to be a comfortably full breath, not practicing to hold your breath under water for as long as you can!

On the exhale, simply reverse the process. Drain the air first from your chest, then your ribs, and lastly your belly, tightening it slightly to push out the air completely. Then start the cycle over again. If you’ve never done this before, it helps to start out slow and set a timer for 4-5 minutes. Gradually you can work up to more time, but right away you’ll notice you pay more attention to how you breath throughout the day- a double bonus!

Photo taken from  here

Photo taken from here

3. Squared/Four-part Breathing

While I’ve never heard a Sanskrit name for this technique, it is nevertheless a powerful and integral part of most pranayama practices. It was one of the first I ever learned, laying in Savasana during one of my first yoga classes over 8 years ago. This process can be kind of challenging at first, since we are so used to our uneven breathing patterns, but is great for slowing down the mind and simplifying our focus.

Basically, it is exactly what it sounds like: each section of the breath is even, meaning the inhale, the exhale, and the pauses between each are timed equally. You can practice this one anywhere- at your desk, in bed, in the waiting room, standing in line- because it can be done totally stealth!

So wherever you happen to be, count slowly with your breath like this:

Inhale, 2, 3, 4

Hold, 2, 3, 4

Exhale, 2, 3, 4

Hold 2, 3, 4

And repeat for several minutes. As you become more proficient over time, you can increase the count to 6 or 8 if you can tolerate it comfortably.

This is also an awesome exercise to bring in a visual aid (yay academic references!) that represents the “shape” you’re trying to achieve with your breath. If you have a square picture frame to look at, or a cube paperweight, or even just a square piece of cardstock, these are great references to use. Corresponding to each of the four parts of breath, run your eyes or fingers over the four sides of your object and complete several cycles. You may find yourself in a calm trance after a few minutes! This can be incredibly meditative and is wonderful when you’re trying to break a negative train of thought or sheer boredom.

These three examples are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to pranayama, but I think they’re some of the easiest and safest ones to master for anyone struggling with chronic fatigue, pain, or stress. Give them all a try and hopefully you’ll find one (or all) of them to be helpful in your times of need!

And remember, our breath is our way to control our life force/energy and you can make a conscious choice to create the way you want to feel right here, right now.

So, how would you like to feel right now? And how can you play with your breath to bring you to that place?

~ Hoping you feel as well as possible ~