Take a deep breath. Inhale steadily through the nose and expand the chest in all directions. Exhale fully through the nose until the chest feels empty.
There! Simple, right? Well, unfortunately this apparently simple action can be far from easy when we are stressed, anxious, and finding ourselves in ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode. If something happens to trigger our stress response (as can often happen in the world of veterinary practice), we are suddenly at the mercy of our sympathetic nervous system with elevated heart rates, spikes in blood pressure, and increased respiratory rates, to name but a few effects. During times of stress, taking mindful control of our breathing can be one of the easiest ways to hack our parasympathetic nervous system and stimulate it to our benefit, promoting a ‘rest and digest’ mode.
Yoga and pranayama have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety by also ‘down-regulating the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis that triggers as a response to a physical or psychological demand’ (1). It can have both short-term and long-term benefits physiologically.
Bringing your awareness to your breathing when you feel panicked or frantic can be quite difficult, especially if you are new to meditation and breath work. It can be helpful to have a few tricks up your sleeve to help you to take back control over your body and your breath, and feel calmer and less anxious if you’re having a difficult time/day/week.
Here’s a technique I like to call ‘Building Blocks Breath’ (though there are different names for it), as you use the breath to give you a grounding foundation, and build it up over a short period of time. It’s a very simple technique so accessible to everyone regardless of previous yoga/meditation experience, and can be repeated as many times as you need.
- Find a comfortable seat (e.g. in Sukhasana) or find stillness standing if you prefer (e.g. in Samasthiti).
- Begin by inhaling deeply through the nose for the count of 1, and exhaling fully through the nose for the count of 1.
- Repeat the inhalation and exhalation, but this time for a count of 2 each.
- Continue to build the breath so that each time you are inhaling and exhaling for 1 count longer than the previous breath, working up to inhaling for a count of 10, and fully exhaling for a count of 10. Note that on the longer breaths there will likely be some passive abdominal engagement and movement, focus on breathing into the centre of the chest.
- Once you have reached the count of 10 for an inhalation and an exhalation, begin to work your way back down with the breath, inhaling/exhaling for a count of 9, 8, 7….1.
- Repeat for as many rounds as you like/need.
- Try to keep the breaths smooth and steady.
- If you are really struggling with the longer breaths then try only going up to 5-8, or wherever you can, and coming back down from there. Do a couple of rounds and over time you may find you can extend your counts.
- Some people prefer to start at 10 and work their way down to 1, and then back up to 10. This is also great, though if you are new to it then counting up from 1 is often easier than launching straight into longer breaths, especially if you feel stressed.
- To work on this as a breathing technique once you are comfortable with 10, you can try extending the breath and inhaling/exhaling for longer counts (e.g. going up to 15, etc).
- Another way to work on breath progression is by consciously taking a pause at the end of the inhalations, and at the end of the exhalations. You can experiment with the length of time you pause, perhaps initially for a count of 1 each, and then possibly matching the count of your inhalations/exhalations (i.e. if you are inhaling and exhaling for a count of 7, hold the pause with your chest full/empty for a count of 7 also).
1). Sengupta, Pallav. (2012). Health Impacts of Yoga and Pranayama: A State-of-the-Art Review. International journal of preventive medicine. 3. 444-58.