• Angela Oberholzer

Techniques to support you through challenging times: Pranayama to reduce stress and anxiety

Updated: Apr 1


The Coronavirus pandemic has impacted our lives, communities and livelihoods heavily and we are all trying to navigate these uncharted waters as best we can. In these turbulent times, many of us may be feeling anxiety, fear and/or panic. In the next few blogs, I would like to support you with yoga sequences, breathing techniques and meditations to encourage you to connect with your breath and body, reduce the mental chatter, stress and anxiety and instil a sense of calm. These techniques will also help to boost the immune system, making you more resilient in this challenging time.


Breath is the link between the body and mind. If the mind is a kite the breath is the thread. The longer the thread, the higher the kite can go.” – Sri Sri Ravi Shankar


Prana: The Breath Of Life

The ancient Indian system of yoga identified the power of breath and strove to maximize its efficiency by developing special breathing techniques. The ancient yogis discovered prana as the universal life force or energy, which distinguishes the living from the dead. We get prana from food, rest, breath and by being in a calm, happy frame of mind. However, the most important source of prana is the breath – when our breath stops, we die.

It was discovered that the quantity and quality of prana and the way it flows through the nadis (subtle energy channels in the body) determines one’s state of mind.

Due to lack of attention, the energy channels in the average person may be partially blocked, making the flow of prana broken and jerky. This leads to increased worry, fear, uncertainty, conflict, tension and other negative qualities. When the prana level is high and its flow is continuous, smooth and steady, then the mind is calm, positive and enthusiastic.

From my own personal experience, I have found that the practice of Pranayama (breathing techniques) has had a profoundly positive effect on my life; emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically. In 2006, after 3-armed men hijacked me at gunpoint, I signed up to do my first Happiness Programme (then known as Part I course) with the Art of Living. I was feeling extremely stressed and traumatized by the incident and I was looking for something to help me to find a new direction in life. What I learnt on that course has changed my life forever. Not only did I learn a number of different pranayama techniques that I can now practice every day and which give me clarity, focus, energy and serenity, but I also began a new spiritual journey with a beautiful family of friends spanning the entire world.

I would like to share some of these simple techniques with the hope that they too will bring you a sense of calm, focus and clarity.



WHAT IS PRANAYAMA:

Definition of Pranayama in Yogic Terms:

Pranayama comes from the Sanskrit words ‘prana’ meaning energy or life force, ‘ayama’, meaning expansion, and ‘yama’, meaning control. Pranayama, including ujjayi breathing, is a technique through which the quantity of energy in the body is increased and controlled in order to go beyond ones normal boundaries or limitations and to attain a higher state of vibratory energy.

Four Aspects of Pranayama

In Pranayama there are four main important aspects of breathing. These are:

  • Inhalation or Pooraka

  • Exhalation or Rechaka

  • Internal breath retention or Antar kumbhaka

  • External breath retention or Bahir kumbhaka

The different aspects of pranayama involve various techniques, which utilize these four aspects of breathing.


Kumbhaka or breath retention is the most important part of pranayama, however, in order to perform this successfully, there must be a gradual development of control over the function of breathing. Therefore, more emphasis is given to the inhalation and exhalation in order to strengthen the breath and balance the nervous and pranic systems in preparation for the breath retention. These practices influence the flow of prana in the nadis, purifying, regulating and activating them, thereby inducing physical and mental stability.

THE BENEFITS OF PRANAYAMA IN PHYSICAL TERMS:

The breath is the most vital function of the body. If the breath is full and deep, it can positively influence the functioning of every cell. The breath is also closely connected with the healthy functioning of the brain. Correct breathing allows the body to relax and open into postures/asanas during a yoga practice. Without full, deep breathing, people can practice yoga for years but the body will not change and open. Also, people are more likely to injure themselves when they are not breathing properly. Other specific physical areas of benefit include:

1. Nervous System (NS): Pranayama activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, calms and relaxes the mind and encourages a feeling of connection.

2. Circulation of Blood and Lymphatic Fluid:

Pranayama draws air into the lungs more quickly and effectively than normal breathing. This supplies oxygen to the body more efficiently and stimulates the flow of blood and lymph. Stimulation of the blood circulation creates heat in the body, which is desirable during a yoga practice because warm muscles will bend and stretch more easily and are less likely to be injured.


3. Breath and the Nervous System:

The Autonomic Nervous System has 3 parts:

a. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) – This regulates the Fight or Flight Response, which prepares the body for anticipated danger or conflict. When stimulated it causes heart rate and blood pressure to increase.

b. The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) – This is the Relaxation – Recovery System.

When stimulated it causes the heart rate and blood pressure to decrease.

c. The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) – This system is the link between the Gut and the Brain and it is also often called the “Gut Brain”. There is more nervous tissue in the intestinal region to do with the enteric nervous system than in the spinal cord. The enteric nervous system regulates digestive activity. It is located in the sheaths of tissue lining the oesophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon. It is considered a single entity, as it is a network of neurons, neurotransmitters, and proteins.

In Yoga, the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic system are said to correspond to the pingala and ida nadis. These nadis are lines of energy that start at the base of the spine and end in the nose. Pingala ends at the right nostril and relates to the SNS, and Ida ends at the left nostril and relates to the PNS. There is therefore a two-way relationship between the breath and the nervous system: they affect each other. Slow deep breathing signals to the Nervous System that there is no danger and the body/mind can relax, while a relaxed body/mind will cause the breathing to become slow and deep. This means that if you deliberately deepen and slow down your breath you directly affect your body and mind through the Nervous System.

4. Muscle tension:

The NS is a part of the body’s mechanism for dealing with dangerous situations. If danger is perceived, the NS will gear the body up for action by:

· Increasing the heart rate

· Stimulating adrenalin production

· Decreasing normal functions such as digestion

· Causing the breath to become short and shallow

· Tensing muscles ready for action

Because of the 2-way relationship, shallow fast breathing can stimulate the fight-or-flight response. This means that the external muscles and internal muscles around the organs will become tense. So when the breath is short and shallow during an asana practice or during times of stress, muscles will tense and the body will not only fail to open but could actually end up tighter than it was to begin with.

5. Stress:

In an ideal situation, the SNS reacts in the event of danger or stress. Once the stress is resolved, the PNS takes over and takes the body/mind back to a normal relaxed state. However, the pressures and stresses of modern living often mean that we are constantly in a state of mild awareness towards danger and rarely have a chance to relax. In other words, we get stuck in SNS response mode: we feel “stressed”.

In yoga, the focus on the breath, and the fact that the breath is slow and deep, can take us to the parasympathetic stage: a feeling of relaxation and well-being. This is one of the mechanisms by which practicing asana makes us feel better in body and mind.


With these benefits in mind, and whilst considering the current situation we are all in with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is obvious that a yoga and pranayama (breathing practice) is now more important than ever before. It will help to shift you from being in a constant state of stress with an activated fight-or-flight nervous system, into a calmer, more focused parasympathetic nervous system, in which the body and mind can function more effectively.


3 BREATHING EXERCISES TO DEAL WITH STRESS:


The following exercises have been created to bring you a greater awareness of your breath.

Become familair with these simple breathing techniques, which help integrate your body, mind and breath. Choose the exercises which feel right for you and practice them for 10 to 15 minutes every day.


3.1 Ujjayi Pranayama - Ocean Breath

The name “Ujjayi Pranayama” comes from the Sanskrit word Ujjayi, which means “victory” or “one who is victorious”. In this pranayama, the process of inhalation and exhalation are both done through the nostrils. During the inhalation, moving the glottis as air passes in and out forms the “ocean like sound”. This is caused by the friction of air within the throat and as the throat passage is narrowed, so too is the airway. This pranayama is also known as “Sound Breath” or “Ocean sound breath”.

The length and speed of the breath is controlled by the diaphragm, which is strengthened by the practice of Ujjayi Pranayama. The inhalations and exhalations are equal in length and force and distress should not be felt. Ujjayi Pranayama helps to equalize and calm the breath, increase oxygenation of the blood and build internal body heat.

Ujjayi breathing also creates a link between the body and the mind: focusing on the sound of the breath helps to keep the practitioner in the present moment. This is important for the spiritual aspects of a yoga practice.


Simple Breathing Exercises to learn Ujjayi Breathing :

STAGE 1: Conscious Control of the Breath

This is a simple technique to help you to become aware of your respiratory system and breathing patterns. It is very relaxing and may be practiced at anytime. Awareness of the breathing process is itself sufficient to slow down the respiratory rate and establish a more relaxed rhythm.

1. Sit in sukhasana (easy cross legged position) or lie in savasana (corpse pose) and relax the whole body.

2. Become aware of the breath. Don’t change it, just become aware.

Learning points:

· Feel the breath flowing in and out of the nose.

· Do not control the breath in any way.

· Notice how the breath is cool when breathing in and warmer when breathing out.

· Observe your breath with the attitude of a detached witness.

· Feel the breath flowing in and out at the back of the mouth above the throat.

· Is the breath fast or slow?

· Is it shallow or deep?

· There is no right or wrong – you are just tuning in to what is there.

STAGE 2: Slowing and Deepening the Breath

1. Sit in sukhasana (easy cross legged position) or lie in savasana (corpse pose) and relax the whole body.

2. Focus on the breath without changing it.

3. Begin to lengthen and deepen the breath. Start with the exhalation (because it creates a vacuum that automatically draws the inhalation into the body).

Learning Points:

· Keep the length of the inhalation equal to that of the exhalation.

· Keep the intensity of the inhalation equal to that of the exhalation.

· I usually add a count of 4 on the inhale and exhale

· Breathe like this for a few minutes, then go back to normal breath.

STAGE 3: Directing the Breath into the Upper Body

1. Sit or lie down and go through stages 1 & 2, becoming aware of the breath and slowing it down.

2. Place the hands on the side of the ribcage. Breathe into the hands so that the hands move in and out as the ribcage expands and contracts.

3. Place the hands on the chest, and breathe into them so that they move up and down as the chest rises and falls with the breath.

Learning Points:

· Feel how the hands move out as you breathe in.

· Keep a sense of expansion as you breathe out.

· Keep the breath relaxed.

· Keep the face, shoulders and jaw relaxed.

· Breathe like this for a few minutes, then go back to normal breath.


STAGE 4: Adding the Ujjayi Sound

1. Breathing out through your mouth, make a ‘HAaaa’ sound as if you are breathing on your sunglasses to create a mist on the lens before wiping them.

2. Then try to make the same sound while breathing in with your mouth open. Focus on the feeling in your throat as you do this.

3. Now make the ‘HAaaa’ sound while breathing out and closing your mouth halfway though: this is ujjayi breathing.

4. Finally breath in trying to make the same sound with your mouth closed.

5. Keep in mind the sound of the ocean that you are trying to create by constricting the back of the throat.


3.2 Yogic Breathing:

Yogic breathing combines abdominal breathing, thoracic breathing and clavicular breathing and is used to maximize the inhalation and exhalation. Its purpose is to gain control of the breath, correct poor breathing habits and increase oxygen intake. It may be practiced at any time and is especially useful in situations of high stress or anger for calming the nerves.

Technique 1:

1. Sit in a sukhasana or lie in savasana and relax the whole body.

2. Place the right hand on the abdomen and the left hand on the chest.

3. Inhale slowly and deeply, allowing the abdomen to expand fully.

4. At the end of abdominal expansion, start to expand the chest outward and upward.

5. When the ribs are fully expanded, inhale a little more until expansion is felt in the upper portion of the lungs beneath the collarbones. The shoulders and collarbones should move up slightly while the rest of the body remains relaxed.

6. Exhale slowly, first releasing the collarbones and shoulders, then the chest and then the abdomen (draws towards the spine).

7. Hold the breath for a few seconds after exhalation. This completes one round of yogic breathing – do 5-10 rounds and slowly increase it to 10 minutes daily.

8. Once the technique has been mastered in savasana, practice in the sitting position.


Learning Points:

· Feel how the hands rise as you breathe in and then fall as you breath out.

· Keep a sense of expansion as you breathe out

· Count the time it takes to complete 1 inhalation. Then exhale for the same duration as the inhalation. I usually add a count of 4-6 on the inhale and on the exhale.

· Try to breathe so slowly that little or no sound of the breath can be heard.

· Each phase of the breath should merge into the next like the swell of the sea.

· Do not constrict the throat like you do in Ujjayi breathing.

· Allow the breath to flow naturally and without force.


Try to do these practices every morning for 10 -15 minutes (or longer) to set the tone for the day.

You can also do these practices at any time of the day when you are feeling anxious, stressed or tired. After practicing these techniques, rest for a few minutes and notice how you feel. Notice the sensations in your body. Notice the sense of calm in your mind. Enjoy this sense of relaxation.

Now you are ready to begin or continue your day with a calm, centred and balanced body and mind.


Please reach out to me if you have any queries about the practices or if you just want to get in touch. Although we are not physically in touch, I am just a call, text or email away.


Sending you all Love, Light & Blessings

Angela xxx




"Silence and solitude are a potent means for personal growth and self-renewal. Many great works of the world have emerged out of solitude" ~ Gurudev Sri Sri Ravishankar


REFERENCES:

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati. Prana and Pranayama. Bihar School of Yoga. Mungar, Bihar 2016.

Swami Satyananda Saraswati. Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. Bihar Yoga Bharati. Munger, Bihar 1997.

Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati. Breathing Practices in Pranayama. www.swamiJ.com

Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati. Diaphragmatic Breathing. www.swamiJ.com

The Art of Living. The Science of Breath. www.aolresearch.com

BKS Iyengar. Light on Pranayama. BKS Iyengar, 2013.

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