Reducing Stress One Breath at a Time

Reducing stress can at times feel impossible. The reality of deadlines, curve balls and obligations can often feel like there is an endless list of demands. It is common to power through, sometimes at the expense of our health, occasionally burning out before we realize how far beyond our capacity we were living. In the western world, being "stressed" or "busy" can even, in a warped way, be a badge of honour or importance. It's almost as if we aren't stressed out or have too little time to kick back and enjoy some leisure time, we aren't working hard enough or serious enough about the next goal or accomplishment. 

When something is common among the people around you, it can be easy to equate that with "normal". Being tired, decreased memory, brain fog, muscle tension, are all common but I assure you these symptoms are not "normal" or inevitable. Ideally, we are taking steps proactively before burn-out occurs. We are active regularly, connecting socially, eating healthy foods, and hydrating. We are sleeping, meditating, laughing and getting adjusted. Right? Of course we are all on top of this (ha!). Let's get real though, sometimes in the thick of it, we need a pattern interrupt that can calm us in an instant. Someone may have just cut us off in traffic, or the coworker next to your desk is on your last nerve. It happens. Whether as part of your regular regime, or in a stressful pinch, one effective strategy is to breathe.

Mmmmkay...that's almost annoying advice. Really though, when we are stressed, our breathing becomes more shallow. Less oxygen means more physiological stress. Shallow breathing increases tension in the neck - it becomes its own vicious cycle. On-purpose breathing exercises (with intent) on the other hand, can slow things down anywhere in a short amount of time. 

In yoga, breathing is referred to as "pranayama". There are many exercises that can be effective, some more complicated and involved than others. Alternate nostril breathing (Nadi shodhana) is one strategy that can help to clear the mind and reset your physiology. 

(Note: for explanation purposes I will use the Right hand. Either hand can be used so if you are left dominant just mirror the instructions)

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  1. Sit in a comfortable seated position. Feel free to sit in a chair or against a wall to support your back.
  2. Close your eyes and intend to keep an open mind without judgement. 
  3. Breathe normally, avoid feeling the need to change anything.
  4. Take your right hand and fold your ring finger and little fingers toward the palm, with your left hand resting on your left knee.
  5. Place the index and middle fingers of your right hand in the middle of your forehead, between your eyebrows. 
  6. Exhale slowly through your nose, allowing your lungs to empty completely.
  7. Gently close your right nostril with your right thumb.
  8. Inhale gently and slowly through your left nostril for 5 counts.
  9. Press and close your left nostril with your ring and little fingers. Hold for 2 counts.
  10. Lift your thumb to release your right nostril, and exhale slowly for 5 counts. Stay empty for 2 counts.
  11. Inhale gently and slowly through your right nostril for 5 counts.
  12. Press and close your right nostril with your thumb. Hold for 2 counts.
  13. Release your left nostril, and exhale through your left nostril for 5 counts. Stay empty for 2 counts.
  14. Start another cycle by inhaling through your left nostril. Continue to this pattern for 10 cycles. After you exhale from one nostril, remember to breathe in from that same nostril before switching.*

* Instructions have been adapted from Harvard Health Blog "Yoga could slow the harmful effects of stress and inflammation" by Marlynn Wei, MD, JD (2017)