Four Breathing Practices for Less Stress and More Focus
Just breathe... Seems to be the most common advice when someone is freaking out, upset, or facing something important. Is it just another inspirational fad found on every piece of art at your local Ross? Perhaps not. Turns out, research shows that deep breathing (using the diaphragm) helps to reduce cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is also known as the stress hormone, which means that deep breaths actually does reduce stress.
Scientific studies continue to showcase the amazing benefits of practicing controlled breath. In addition to stress, studies by the Psychiatric Clinics of North America show that paced breathing has appears to reduce anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, attention deficit disorder, and even schizophrenia. Therefore, telling someone to "take deep breaths" in order to relax is actually pretty solid advice.
"The mind is the king of the senses, but the breath is the king of the mind." - Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Today, I am walking you through four different yogic breath practices I teach my students to help find calm and focus. Read through these quick descriptions of each breath or check out the video for extra guidance.
This style of breathing is great for beginners and is one of my favorites for finding focus. It is not too obvious, so you can practice this one anywhere - at your desk, stuck in traffic, or before a meditation practice. I use this breath specifically when I am feeling anxiety creeping into my day and I want to stop it in it's tracks.
It is called square breathing because the breath sequence makes the pattern of a square. Choose a count for the practice; I suggest counting to a number between three and ten depending on your lunge capacity. Let's say you choose four counts. Simply, inhale for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, exhale for four counts, and hold your breath again for four counts. Continue the pattern for as long as you would like, but I would try at least ten rounds.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is a common practice in yoga because it requires the practitioner to fully focus and get engaged with their breath practice. It is a great technique for calming down and balancing the right and left side of the brain. Additionally, studies show that alternate nostril breathing can hold control blood pressure. However, I would skip this practice if you are dealing with sinus problems.
To practice, sit comfortably and relax the shoulders. I use my right hand, but you are welcome to switch to left (simply reverse the instructions). Bring your right hand to your nose, placing the thumb on the right side of the nose and the smallest two fingers on the left side. Place the index and middle finger in at your third eye, between the eyebrows.
To inhale, use your fingers to close the left side of the nose, breathing in through the right. Hold the breath at the top of the inhale for one or two seconds. To exhale, close the right side of the nose and exhale through the left. Inhale back through the left side, holding at the top, and exhaling through the right. Continue to repeat this pattern for 10-30 rounds.
Breath of Fire
Breath of Fire, also called Skull Luster, is a common practice in Kundalini Yoga. It is an intense breath, but has amazing benefits. Not only does it increase focus, but it also helps with detoxing the body and building strength in the core. It is also called fire breathing because it quickly builds heat in the body, which is great when you want to do a quicker warm up to begin your yoga practice or work out. This breath is not suggested if you are practice or regularly experience vertigo.
To practice, sit comfortably in a chair, on the floor with the legs crossed, or on your knees (sitting on the heels). Take a deep breath in, moving the air into the belly and allowing it to expand outwards like a balloon. To exhale, use the abdominal muscles to press the belly button into the spine and push the air out. As you begin to feel comfortable with the movement, begin shortening the breath more and more. Try to make the inhale and exhale the same length.
Ready for something a little goofy? Lion's Breath is probably one of the silliest looking poses that we teach yoga students. It's a little crazy looking - tongues out, eyes crossed, roaring. However, it is a great breath practice to remind yourself to stop taking things so seriously. In Lion's pose, we stretch out the face and help clear out the throat. Blow off some steam and enjoy this goofy practice.
How to do it? I suggest Iyengar's method of kneeling for this practice, with the knees spread wide, big toes together, and seated on the heels. Straighten the spine and lift the chest open. On the inhale, hands rest on the top of the thighs, near the hips. On the exhale, slide the hands down towards the knees, arching the back forwards and lifting the chin. Open the mouth, stick the tongue out as far as you can, looking up at the third eye (place in between the eyebrows), and make a loud "ha" noise as you exhale. Inhaling, return to a neutral face and the original position. Repeat four to eight times.
While the four breathing practices mentioned above all have amazing benefits, simply taking long, deep breaths can be just as powerful. When you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or stressed, slow down and count your breath. Try to make each breath longer than the one before it. Use your breath to control your mind.
Let's keep the conversation going. Comment below and let me know what your favorite breathing technique is. Do you have any questions about these techniques?
Share this article and let's spread the power of breathing practices!
Namaste, Taryn xoxo