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How Can Breath Awareness Reduce Negative Stress?

Updated: Jan 27, 2021


Any yoga practice be it meditation, asana (movement) or pranayama (breath-work) teaches us that the body, breath, mind, wisdom and joy are deeply interconnected. A meditation that focuses on calming the mind helps access intuition, inner wisdom which in turn connects one to their natural state of joy.


A movement practice which honors the breath as a starting point becomes a moving meditation that eventually calms the mind. Yoga is expansive, versatile and accessible to all and at the core of it is the unification or 'yug' of mind, body and soul. This particular blog dives into the benefits of conscious breathing in yoga and how breathwork can relieve stress.


Let's first look at the qualities of our breath - We know that it is the only element in our body that can moves in and out involuntarily and can also be made voluntarily. Your breath is always connecting you to life - supporting everything that the body does and needs.

It is also part of your stress response

which is easiest to change.


What happens to your breath when you are stressed out?


If you haven't already noticed, begin to pay attention to your breath when you are stressed. Breath is the first place where stress shows up. It is almost always shallow, unrhythmic and rapid. Sometimes stress causes one to hold their breath. This is a classic emergency response as the body is grasping for energy that it think it needs to fight or flight a threat. Rapid or shallow breathing is an instinctive part of your bodily response to stress. However, instinctive does not mean healthy. The good news is that it doesn't have to be this way. It is well-within your control to regulate your respond to stressors - the answer lies in the way you breathe.


Breath is a powerful tool that breaks the cycle of stress response in your bodymind. When your breathing is relaxed your nervous system receives the message that you are safe and well. When your breathing supports feelings of comfort and safety you can actually choose these experiences over stress and suffering. The result is that you immediately feel better.

What's fascinating is that an extensive study done in 2002 (Philippot, Chapelle, and Blairy 2002) wonderfully demonstrated the relationship between how to breath and how you feel. They found that there were characteristic changes in breathing for each emotion. Joy was associated with steady, deep, smooth and relaxed breathing. Sadness, in contrast, was associated with irregular, shallow and tense breathing interrupted by signs and tremors. In the second study, researchers went on to find out what happens to participants when they are asked to breath in a certain intentional way? Turns out that just like an emotion unlocks a specific breathing pattern, visa versa is also true. Consciously changing the way we breath arises in us the emotion associated with that breathing pattern.


This is what breath awareness does to us. It can help us to stay centered and calm in the middle of a storm. It can bring us closer to our natural state of being and remind us that we are not the stress that is present right now. It can help us anchor our mind. An asana practice that has the body breathing and mind calm keeps one grounded and safe in a middle of uncertainty and chaos. It simply helps us to reconnect to your prana or life-force that is already present within us.


Next time you feel particularly stressed, try reconnecting with your breath either through 'pranayama' or breath-work practices or an asana class (movement). Eventually you will know the practice that grounds you the most.


Sources:

Yoga for Pain Relief by Kelly McGonigal, Ph. D.

Breath - The Science of Lost Art by James Nestor





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