One of the pillars of health is learning how to breathe to relax. The fourth of the 8 limbs of ashtanga yoga is pranayama which translates as extension of the breath. Yogis view the breath or prana as your life force energy. Therefore, when your breath is restricted, your life force energy is also restricted.
When we are stressed, we tend to alter our breath in such a way that sends further stress signals to the brain. this creates a vicious cycle where stress causes stressful breathing which in turn causes further stress. Living in a chronically stressed state causes all sorts of problems including high blood pressure, insomnia and fatigue, poor digestion and mismanaged blood sugar.
In this article, I will dive into some of the common breathing mistakes and introduce you to how to breathe to relax and reduce stress. Starting on Tuesday 9th November at 5.30pm UK/7.30pm Greece I am also offering monthly Introduction to Breathwork online workshops where we will dive into this topic and I will guide you through these powerful techniques. Click HERE to reserve your place!
Before I explain how to breathe to relax and reduce stress, I will describe four common breathing mistakes that most of the population make. These are mistakes that are often triggered by a stressful lifestyle or situations. They also cause a stress response in your body which prevents that stress response from completing. This means that your nervous system remains in that stressed state chronically, which is how your wellbeing can be affected over time.
Mistake #1 Breathing too shallow
One of the most common breathing mistakes is breathing too shallow. By this I mean breathing high up in the chest around the collar bones. A natural, relaxed breath should be controlled by your diaphragm. This is a dome shaped muscle that sits at the top of your abdomen that moves up and down to draw in and release air from your lungs.
However, many people instead use the muscles of their chest and shoulders to breathe, especially when chronically stressed. Breathing in this way can cause tension in these muscles as well as fatigue and further stress throughout your body. This is not how to breathe to relax and reduce stress!
You can easily check if you are making this mistake. Place a hand on your chest and one hand on your belly and breathe naturally, observing the movement of your hands. If the hand on your chest is rising and falling with your breath rather than the hand on your belly, then you are breathing too shallow.
This means you are only using a small fraction of the capacity of your lungs as you breathe. It is important for you to learn how to breathe to relax and reduce stress. You need to learn how to breathe using your diaphragm instead so that the hand on your belly moves while the hand on your chest is fairly steady.
Mistake #2 Breathing too quickly
If you are making the first mistake of breathing too shallow, you are probably making the second mistake too. That is breathing too quickly aka hyperventilating. You might associate this with asthma or panic attacks which is an extreme version of hyperventilation. However, most of us are constantly breathing too quickly in a mild hyperventilation.
Breathing in this way sends a major red flag to your nervous system that you are in danger. Fast breathing is reserved for extreme states when it is important to activate your fight or flight response. A normal breathing rate is around 10-15 breaths per minute, any more than this and you are over-breathing. In yoga we encourage an even slower breath, sometimes as little as 6 breaths per minute.
This rate of breathing activates the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system state. Slow breathing also slows heart rate and can reduce blood pressure. You might think that breathing more quickly will get more oxygen into your body but this is not the case. For optimal oxygenation and energy, you want to breathe better not harder.
Mistake #3 Breathing through your mouth
Another extremely common breathing mistake is mouth breathing. Remember in Stranger Things, Mike explaining to Eleven that a mouthbreather was a “dumb person, a knucklehead”?
Ok so maybe this is kind of mean but there is an element of truth in it. Breathing through your mouth leads to lower quality air reaching your lungs and reduced oxygenation of your cells. This means higher stress and lower energy and vitality. B.K.S. Iyengar, a world-famous yogi once said “the nose is for breathing, the mouth is for eating”. He was absolutely right!
Your nose is designed to heat and filter the air you breathe. It is there as your primary breathing apparatus. Breathing through your mouth is there as a back up and should not be your primary way of breathing. Mouth breathing is the opposite of how to breathe to relax and reduce stress. If you observe that you breathe through your mouth on a regular basis, it is important to learn how to breathe through your nose.
It might be difficult at first as you build a new habit. Even more so because “if you don’t use it you lose it” meaning that chronic mouth breathing can lead to clogged up nasal passages making it harder to breathe through your nose. But with time and practice, nose breathing will become easy and natural for you. Once you are consistently breathing through your nose, you will see your stress levels decrease and your energy levels soar!
Mistake #4 Holding your breath
The final common breathing mistake is actually to not breathe at all. Holding the breath is something that we instinctively do during a stressful situation or when we are anxiously waiting for something (“don’t hold your breath!”). Unconsciously holding the breath is also something that many people do whilst concentrating. It can also be caused by tension in the abdomen as a result of chronic stress.
There is a phenomenon known as email apnea which affects many screen users i.e. most people today! Email apnea is when you unconsciously hold your breath whilst reading something on a screen or focusing on your work. I previously wrote about another phenomenon called continuous partial attention which can cause stress. These two habits go along with each other – holding your breath whilst flitting between different tasks.
Another scenario in which breath holding occurs is in sleep apnea. This is when your airway becomes blocked during the night causing you to temporarily stop breathing. Sleep apnea cause cause daytime fatigue, mood swings, difficulty concentrating and headaches. Therefore, it is important to also learn how to breathe to relax during the night to improve your sleep. I will also cover this is the upcoming workshop.
How to breathe to relax and reduce stress
The trick to relaxed breathing is to avoid the four mistakes above. In fact, it is to do the opposite! This means your breath should be:
- Deep and diaphragmatic
- Slow and steady
- Through the nose
- Consistent and smooth
To learn how to breathe to relax and reduce stress, join me for a Introduction to Breathwork online workshop. I will be hosting these workshops once a month on the second Tuesday, starting with the 9th November at 5.30pm UK time. For the bargain price of €15 you will learn techniques to de-stress and boost your energy levels, all from the comfort and privacy of your own home.
Perhaps you are wondering whether you can simply research these techniques and practice them yourself? Yes, you can do that. But how many times have you tried to incorporate something like this into your lifestyle and lost interest or motivation before you even saw the benefits? Whether you join me for a single session or monthly, you will receive guidance but also accountability to show up for your practice and for yourself.
What will happen in the Introduction to Breathwork online workshop?
First, we will take time to settle into the practice and you will observe your natural breath. I will teach you the yogic mindset it is important to maintain throughout this practice. Then, I will guide you through yoga poses and stretches to open up your chest and shoulders and release your diaphragm. Next, we will practice a series of breathwork techniques together.
These will be perfectly accessible techniques, suitable for all levels. If you have any specific conditions, I advise you to email me beforehand at firstname.lastname@example.org so that I can offer you any personalised advice you need. during and after the workshop, you can expect to feel extremely calm and relaxed, both in mind and body. Once you learn the techniques, you will be able to practice them yourself daily to continue reaping the benefits.
Regular practice of these breathwork techniques can help you to decrease your blood pressure, improve your digestion and blood sugar regulation and give you an overall sense of calm and wellbeing. Lowering your stress and finding a sense of inner peace has a knock on effect on the other areas of your life. You can expect to improve your sleep, boost your productivity and creativity and maybe even improve your relationships.
I hope you enjoyed this article, to find out more, join me for the first workshop next week! If you are attending the workshop, click attending on the Facebook event to be updated about any changes or requirements for the class. If you don’t use Facebook, let e know so that I can email you any information directly.
Over to you…
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