Moving along with our April theme of stress reduction for Stress Awareness Month this post will show how to reduce your stress levels and cortisol levels (the stress hormone) by simply taking a few deep breaths and letting go of tension. Deep breathing increases the oxygen levels going to the brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous systems which results in a state of calmness. In yoga, we call this practice of controlling the breath “pranayama” which literally means control of the life force. Pranayama consists of a number of different breathing techniques that involve inhale, breath retention and exhale. I will introduce two different methods today that are quite simple to grasp and are known to help decrease levels of stress and anxiety.

1. Nadi Shodana or alternate nostril breathing is the first breath technique which involves inhaling through one nostril and then exhaling through the other and vice versa. It helps to keep the mind calm and peaceful and only needs to be practiced for a few minutes to receive the full benefits of the practice. It can also be used right after stressful situations or after stress and tension have built up in the body to release the tension and clear the energy channels in the body. Here is how to do it:

a. Sit comfortably either cross-legged or kneeling with buttocks on the heals and lengthen the spine, reaching the crown of the head to the ceiling. Gently close the eyes.

b. Place your left hand in your lap and take the right hand up towards the face. Place the right index finger and middle finger in the middle of the forehead right between the eyebrows, take the right ring finger to the left nostril and the right thumb to the right nostril. You will use the right ring finger to open and close the left nostril and the right thumb to open and close the right nostril. The index finger and middle finger will stay placed on the forehead.

c. Press your right thumb down to close the right nostril and breathe out through the left nostril. Then breathe in through the left nostril, close the left nostril with the right ring finger, then open the right nostril with by releasing the right thumb and exhale through the right nostril.

d. Breathe in from the right nostril then breathe out through the left. This completes one round of Nadi Shodana breath.

e. Continue this same pattern inhaling and exhaling from alternate nostrils. Complete 10 total rounds. After every exhalation remember to breathe in through the same nostril and then exhale out the opposite nostril. Keep your eyes closed throughout the practice and try to keep the breath smooth and without forced effort.

2. Ujjayi Breath is one of the most common breath techniques used in yoga practice. It is often taught at the beginning of a yoga flow class and is always taught and encouraged in all of the Find Your Zen yoga classes. It helps you connect your breath with your movement, calms the mind and encourages focus. Ujjayi breath requires long, slow inhales and exhales through the nose with the generation of a slight constriction at the back of the throat on the exhale. This is great for stress reduction as nostril breathing signals to the body that it is in homeostasis whereas mouth breathing alerts the body that it is in a state of stress. Here is how to perform ujjayi breath:

1. Either sit comfortably with the spine lengthened, the chest open and the crown of the head reaching up toward the ceiling or lie down on your back with the feet extended and the arms down by your sides. Gently close the eyes.

2. Start to inhale through the nose for a count of 3-5 seconds.

3. Gently seal the lips and exhale through the nose for one second longer than your inhale (i.e. if your inhale lasted 4 seconds then your exhale should last 5 seconds). As you exhale, create a slight constriction at the back of your throat so that as the air flows out of your lungs you create the sound of an ocean wave, a “haaaaaaa” sound but with the mouth closed.

4. After all air is expressed from the lungs, begin your next inhale again through the nose and counting for 3-5 seconds.

5. Then let all the air out through the nose making the “haaaaaa” sound on the exhale.

6. Go through 10 rounds of this breath. Keep the breath slow and fluid. If at any time it becomes jerky or inconsistent take a break from the breath, come back to normal inhale and exhale and then try again. By the end of 10 rounds you should feel much more calm and relaxed. Blink the eyes open and slowly come up out of your lying or seated position.

There are several more complex versions of pranayama that can also be used for stress relief as you progress your practice. If you are interested in learning more or would like to work on a one-on-one basis to get individual coaching on breath control and stress relief please send me an email to info@findyourzenwellness.com. I would be more than happy to help you expand your practice and enjoy the benefits of such a simple yet extremely effective and natural way to reduce stress. Namaste!