Yoga, meditation, and relaxation techniques coming from Academic Psychology, they all have one important thing in common – breathing techniques.
It’s not a coincidence that such diverse traditions all focus on breathing and accentuate its connection with relaxation, stress-management, and serenity.
Long ago, probably since the dawn of mankind, people have noticed that the way we breathe reflects the state of our soul.
Fast, shallow breathing is the sign of stress and excitation, it’s the exact opposite of tranquility. People have also noticed that there is an interaction between the way we breathe and our psychological state- just as our inner world influences the speed and depth of our breath, so does our breath affect our emotional reaction.
This simply means that, by controlling our breath, it is possible to control our psychological reactions.
To show you just how intertwined are traditional and modern stress management breathing techniques, we’ll explain them in-depth and show you how much they overlap.
We’ll first lay out some traditional techniques coming from Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and then pass on to modern stress-management techniques involving breathing exercises. Let’s learn more how to get relaxed and manage your daily stress better.
Equal Breathing: Sama Vritti Pranayama
Pranayama is the Sanskrit word denoting various breathing techniques, while Sama Vritti means something like “equal” or “same”. While there are many pranayama exercises like single nostril breathing or “breath of fire”, Sama Vritti focuses on the length of your breaths. More specifically, the crucial thing here is that inhalation and exhalation take equal amounts of time.
Sama Vritti Pranayama is a fairly simple breathing exercise for stress management, while some of the next ones we’ll mention are fairly advanced and necessitate a lot of practice.
How to do Sama Vritti?
- Find a comfortable position. We’ve talked about this in some other texts- the exact pose shouldn’t important, at least not in the first period while you’re still getting the hang of these exercises. This is the first step of all exercises mentioned in this list, so we won’t mention it in the text that follows.
- Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Simply become conscious of it, as opposed to it being in the so-called automatic mode.
- Start counting and measure your in-breaths and out-breaths. At first, it might be hard to get them to be equal, but not long after, you’ll get the hang of it.
Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
This is the so-called alternate nostril breathing. Once again, Nadi Shodhana is a Sanskrit term for “channeling purification”. The philosophy behind this meditative practice is quite complex and only the most astute yogis are initiated into the secrets of Nadi Shodhana.
However, it is possible to delineate its most important aspects, so you can learn this effective breathing technique.
- You first have to form a Vishnu mudra. If this seems too hard for you or simply unnecessary, choose any other method to close one of your nostrils.
- Close the right nostril first. If you use Vishnu mudra, you will close your right nostril with the thumb, and the left nostril with your pinky and ring fingers. Then exhale very gently through your left nostril. Deeply inhale through your left nostril.
- Do the same, now with left nostril closed.
- Keep the left nostril closed and exhale and inhale deeply once again.
- Then close the right nostril once again and do the same breathing pattern with the left nostril open.
In other words, you both begin and end this stress-relieving exercise by inhaling and exhaling through the left nostril.
Don’t be too rigid, it doesn’t matter how do you start and finish, the main thing is to alternate the breathing pattern (which nostril), and keep on practising it. Benefits will come with longer sessions, it is proven to be one of the most effective breathing techniques used in many medical centres and retreats.
Skull-Shining Breath or Kapalbhati
A better translation of Kapalbhati is probably “the shining forehead”- and there are many websites that slightly exaggerate its benefits. Some people even state that it helps with weight loss and that Kapalbhati helps you get rid of 80% toxins in your body.
This is, to say the least, not proved scientifically, and websites stating these “facts” often support their claims by quoting some “experts”, many of them are yogic gurus and yoga teachers, so there should be some credibility there, mostly derived from their experience.
We don’t want to say that Kapalbhati is inefficient altogether- but it’s important to note that it probably cannot do everything that yogis claim it does. Though if is does the mentioned cleansing effect for you, it would be great!
That being said, let’s see how Kapalbhati works:
- While exhaling, pull your stomach in. The trick is to pull it as much as you can.
- Then, while inhaling, let your belly relax and go back to the initial position. Actually, as you relax your stomach muscles, the air should enter your lungs kind of automatically.
- The exhalation has to be quite forceful and fast.
- Complete 20 or so of these cycles.
- If you have time, do one or two more rounds of Kapalbhati.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
With this exercise, we’ve started to describe the modern relaxation techniques that come from Academic Psychology.
This stress-management exercise integrates breathing techniques within the wider framework that also focuses on muscles and tension in the body. Progressive muscle relaxation is marked by successive contraction and relaxation of muscles, and as this cycle progresses you become more and more relaxed.
Edmund Jacobson based this method on the presumption that psychological tension is reflected in the physiological tension, and that by relaxing our muscles we can calm down psychologically.
Here’s a good set of instructions for PMR:
- Grit your fists strong, then relax.
- Bend your elbows and contract your biceps, then relax slowly.
- Stretch your arms and then clench your triceps, relax.
- Pull the shoulders as close to your ears as possible, relax.
- Pull your jaws together, then relax.
You can relax your whole body with the help of PMR- of course, if there’s no time, you can just focus on the most critical parts of the body. PMR will also help you detect tension once it appears- some of us will grit our fists when frustrated, others might get stomach cramps- whatever the case, PMR will help you detect physiological tension and eliminate it.
This stress-management breathing exercise can be regarded as a part of the Mindfulness movement, that has practically overtaken the CBT therapy.
The essence of visualisation breathing is that you learn to link the inhale/exhale pattern with your inner emotional and cognitive states. For instance, you may imagine how with each exhale, you are clearing your headspace, eliminating the bad thoughts in the process of doing so.
It is also possible to imagine a balloon that inflates and deflates as you are breathing. It is simple, especially for beginners and people who are more visual rather than audible or tactile.
Further on, you can add-on a few more techniques to your visualisation. In example, you can do affirmations – positive statements about yourself, your strengths, successes and the beauty of this world. Daily practice like this will significantly improve your confidence levels and also make you kinder and more open to others and the world.
How To Find The Best Breathing Exercise For You
We’ve only mentioned the most popular breathing techniques. Nadi Shodana is perhaps the most demanding breathing exercise for stress management in our list, which is why beginners should first try to do other ones mentioned here.
Moreover, some people might not like seemingly religious background of the first three exercises, which is why we’ve also decided to include practices that are unrelated to Hindu/Buddhist teachings. If you strongly feel against exercises that fall more into Eastern tradition, Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Visualisation Breathing will be the ways to manage stress for you.
People with the so-called visual cognitive styles will most likely love Visualisation Breathing as it resonates with their cognitive style.
Moreover, PMR suits athletes and also effectively calms public speakers, though it is the most time-consuming practice on our list, so if you’re not ready to spend about 15-20 minutes on it, try to find some other practice. All of these breathing exercises are effective as stress management techniques, but, as breathing comes so naturally to all of us, they are also routines that enhance general well-being as well.