We’ve all heard the saying ‘take a deep breath’, perhaps you have even said it yourself to someone who seemed stressed, but have you ever stopped to think why this is such good advice?
There are many different breathing techniques, and in yoga we actively practice breath control, or pranayama, to harness the power of the breath and help us. The term ‘pranayama’ is a Sanksrit term derived from, ‘prana’ meaning ‘life force’, and ‘ayama’, meaning ‘to extend’. Hopefully by working with the breath during our yoga practice, that will enable us to have better control and call on it off our mats during the stresses of day-to-day life.
Practicing deep, diaphragmatic breaths stimulates the vagus nerve, engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which helps to activate our ‘rest and digest’ mode, lowering our ‘fight or flight’ response perpetuated by an over-active sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Not only does our respiratory rate decrease and come back under our control, but with a bit of time, our heart rate also responds and starts to slow down.
Think of the GDV patient (try not to stress whilst doing so!): they present bradycardic and in respiratory compromise, though can be huffing because of the pain. This is because, amongst other reasons, their stomach full of gas is pressing on their vagus nerve and activating the PNS in an inappropriate manner. We want to harness the power that vagal stimulation has over the PNS without the emergency and stress!
If you’re interested in experiencing this for yourself, take a few moments out, and use our handy guide below:
Guide to Belly Breathing:
1). From a comfortable lying position find a straight spine, keeping your chin slightly tucked towards the chest, and relax down into the mat. Take a moment to notice your natural breathing. Is it fast or slow? Shallow or deep? Ragged or smooth? Don’t judge it or change it, just observe it.
2). When you are ready, begin the inhalation through the nose with the mouth closed, and as you do gently breathe into the abdomen,so that the belly begins to inflate like a balloon. It can help to place the hands on the abdomen so that you can feel this happening and connect to it.
3). Release the exhalation through the nose, keeping the mouth closed. Do not force it, it will happen naturally and passively.
4). Repeat for several rounds of breath, or for as long as you need to, or have time for.
5). Return to your natural breathing and notice how you feel. Are you calmer or more relaxed? Have you released some tension? Has your breath changed in relation to before you began?
- Belly breathing can be done as part of breath awareness when starting a yoga or meditation practice. As you become more familiar with it, try holding the breath for a moment at the top of your inhalations and exhalations.
- If you’re having trouble sleeping, try a few belly breaths when you go to bed to help prepare your body and mind for sleep.
- If you are feeling anxious and don’t have time to lay down, you can practice belly breathing whilst sitting down, or standing up. Find Samasthiti, a balanced standing posture, and breathe into the belly.
- Belly breath can also be practiced in child’s pose (Balasana), which can allow you to fully release any tension in the belly, whilst feeling safe and less anxious.