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

Updated: Apr 1, 2020


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