Earlier this year, after I lost my temper and began arguing with my partner, he took a moment of pause and said, “Take a deep breath.”
Even in my anger, I knew he wasn’t trying to be patronizing, he simply knew I was irritated and wanted to help me relax. This is his thing; he spends 15 minutes every morning meditating. But I don’t. I suffer from an all-too-common condition. Anxiety, depression, PTSD, ADHD, whatever the doctors have offered to diagnosis it as, I know it simply as: I can’t quiet my mind. Meditation has always felt like something that just wasn’t for me. You contorted yourself into uncomfortable positions, you had a mantra, you sat still for long periods of time. I couldn’t imagine making that a part of my life. And yet, in the midst of that fight, I decided to try. I took a deep breath. And then another. And then, a space opened up.
I realized that you didn’t need to repeat some secret mantra or contort yourself into full lotus. You just needed to breathe.
Just inhale, and exhale
What works for me and many other beginners is called “coherent breathing”. It is a simple practice of inhaling for a count of six, and then exhaling for a count of six. For those just beginning the practice, it can be helpful to start at a count of three, working up with each new breath. You can be sitting upright or lying down, whatever is most comfortable; there’s no particular posture you need to assume to make it effective. To help narrow your focus on your breathing, you can place one or both hands atop your belly as you breath, feeling your abdomen rise and fall with each breath.
When you take a moment to sit down and breathe, you may start worrying about things you have to get done that day, people you have to call, emails you have to respond to. Just come back to the awareness of your breathing. The longer you are able to keep your focus on that and nothing else, the more effective it will be at calming you down and relieving the stress of the day. Focus on your breath and the heavy stuff slips away.
It sounds so simple, but there’s a complex biological process at work when you breathe deeply. During times of stress, we tend to breath in rapid, short breaths. Under duress, the oxygen levels in our bloodstream increase, carbon dioxide levels decrease and your blood’s pH comes out of balance.
How breathing calms us down
“Consciously changing the way you breathe appears to send a signal to the brain to adjust the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system,” says New York Times reporter Lesly Alderman, from her article Breathe. Exhale. Repeat. The Benefits of Controlled Breathing.
“[Coherent Breathing] can slow the heart rate and digestion and promote feelings of calm and activate the sympathetic system, which controls the release of stress hormones like cortisol.” As the parasympathetic nervous system reacts to your controlled breaths, the blood’s pH level comes back into balance, and the body readjusts in a variety of ways, including the release of a acetylcholine, which lowers the heart rate, and gamma-aminobutyric acid, a brain chemical closely correlated with calmness and anti-anxiety.
The idea of coherent breathing seems almost too simple to be true, and integrating it into your life can seem easy when things are easy, but the moment they derail, you immediately lose sight of everything you’ve learned and fall back into your old habits. Believe me, I’ve been there.
In a recent work meeting, I burst into tears. I was overwhelmed with my workload and for whatever reason, this meeting was the moment it chose to all come rushing out. I walked outside to just let myself cry. Slowly, it dawned on me: I was having a panic attack. But with that realization came another one, I have something that can work for this. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath of fresh air, and slowly released it out. I repeated this a few times, each for a count of six, and suddenly, it clicked. I felt calm. At peace. In control of my emotions and my body. Crying felt good. But coherent breathing brought me back to myself.
By taking my focus off the outside world and focusing on the calming effect of my deep breaths, I was able to connect inward and feel a sense of inner peace. When I emerged from that internal focus, I was able to look at my present situation and say, “Hey. I’m okay.” I walked back into the meeting and sat down, unembarrassed (I happen to have an amazingly supportive work environment) and ready to continue with the day.
Breathwork + Yoga = Calm
Breathwork, also known as Pranayama, and Yoga are two practices that go hand-in-hand. The practice of Yoga always begins with a focus on the breath, integrating the cycle of deep breaths in and out with the movements and postures of Yoga. We first become aware of our breath, then we synchronize it with our movements, and together this awareness allows for the many benefits of these practices to change our body chemistry and bring about inner peace.
Dr. Chris Streeter, an associate professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at Boston University, conducted a 12-week study with people diagnosed with major depressive disorders. When daily yoga and coherent breathing were combined, the symptoms of depression were shown to significantly decrease. In the Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice International Journal, scientists studying the biochemical effects of yoga and meditation on the brain have suggested that these practices “may represent a new method in the mindfulness-based therapeutic application and the treatment of anxiety and depression.”
Whether you choose breathwork, yoga, or a combination of the two, you are opening up new pathways in the mind and body that can alleviate the stress of your everyday life, allowing you to think more clearly and act more consciously. In an environment domination by the overprescription of pharmaceutical drugs, Yoga and Coherent Breathing serve as a simple, scientific and drug-free solution to the stress and anxiety that many of us experience daily. Breathe in deeper, breathe out longer and give your body a good stretch. Your body and your mind will thank you for it.