Breath of Fresh Air
Most of us in today’s world feel varying degrees of stress in our lives. We face pressures from various directions and at times it can be overwhelming. Yoga is this fabulous tool that works small miracles in terms of calming our minds and lowering our stress levels.
Yoga is like a breath of fresh air. When we breathe, many of us take very shallow breaths using only a fraction of our diaphragm. How many of us even notice our breaths, or pay any attention to them? As soon as you step into your first yoga class, you will take a note of your breathing. You will be directed to focus your mind, your movements, your energy on your inhale and exhale. Even just a few minutes a day of deep, concentrated breathing can calm your mind and make you feel remarkably more relaxed.
The good news is that every breath is a new start. With each inhale and exhale we are rewarded with the opportunity to move forward, to try a new approach, take a new step, a new direction, or adopt a new point of view. Isn’t that amazing? It’s like having a totally clean slate with each new breath.
Mood & Energy
You can’t help but notice how upbeat, energized and generally chilled out and happy people walking both in and out of a yoga studio are. Even a one-hour practice works wonders on your mood, and you will inevitably learn something, some new pose, technique, skill, or mantra that you can take off your mat and carry into your daily life.
Yoga is famous for its ability to heal and bring peace of mind.
Power of Breath
Pranayama is a Sanskrit word that translates to the extension of life force or vital energy, referring to the breath. Prana means ‘life force’ and ayama means ‘to extend’ or ‘draw out’. When practicing pranayama, the yogi is working to calm the fluctuations of the mind. This is a beautiful practice when done properly, and plays a large part in spreading those wonderfully happy endorphins throughout our mind and bodies!
Try this little exercise: take a break from reading this article and spend the next five minutes concentrating on the breath and nothing else.
Did you find that your mind tends to wander? Your mind focuses on just about everything but the breath? Yep, that happens. Our minds have a tendency to wander, to disconnect from our bodies, to look backwards and daydream, to worry about the future. By focusing your attention on your breath, you will be forced to focus on the present moment. Focus on what is happening right here, right now. Focusing on your breath prevents your conscious mind from drifting away, and in doing so helps to keep your mind and body connected in the here and now.
Have you ever paid attention to your breath before? I mean really, really sat still and paid close attention to your breath. The quality of the breath reflects the quality of the mind. There is a connection between our mental, emotional and psychological states and the speed and depth of our breath. When we are worried or nervous, our breath will be shorter, shallower and quicker. When we are in a super chilled out space we take more relaxed, slower, longer and deeper breaths.
See where I am heading with this one? We need to focus our minds on our breath to control those moments of panic, to keep a clear mind. We need to learn to ‘just breathe’ when the world starts to close in around us and trust that everything will be ok. The good news is that we can choose to change our breathing patterns, and in return change our mental state. When we relax and slow the breath, the mind also automatically slows down and quiets. Perfect! Even better news is that over time you will begin to act and think from a state of peace. The more time you spend in this state, the more likely you are to act from a place of patience and calmness.
- Lie down on your back, bring the souls of your feet together, bending the knees and letting them drop down towards the mat. Close your eyes.
- Place one hand on your heart, and one hand on your belly.
- Breathe deeply, feel the belly and chest rise and fall with each inhale and exhale.
- As you breathe in, feel the belly rise, feel the ribcage expand, and then open up through the chest. Pause briefly at the top of the breath.
- Exhale, slowly release the air from your chest, from your ribcage, from your belly.
- Repeat for 10 to 15 breaths, then slowly return to your normal breath.
This is perfect for the yogi that prefers to have something visual to work with. This is also a great exercise for equaling the length of inhale and exhale, and slowing down the breath.
- Sit in a comfortable seated position, or come to reclined cobbler as in the practice above.
- Imagine a square shape in your mind. Bring your attention to the top left corner of the square. As you breathe in, mentally take your breath across the square to the top right corner, exhale across to the bottom right corner, then inhale across to the bottom left corner. Complete the square by exhaling to the top left corner.
- Repeat this pattern 15-20 times, trying to slow down the movement around the square with each pattern.
Alternative Nostril Breathing
- Bring your right thumb to cover the right nostril, leaving the left nostril open and take a big inhale. Then close the left nostril with your third finger and open the right, and take an exhale through the right nostril.
- Inhale through the right nostril, then close the right nostril and open the left, and exhale. Continue this same pattern on each side for eight more breaths.
Benefits: Your nose is directly linked to your brain and nervous system. As a result, alternative nostril breathing almost immediately calms down the nervous system. In times of emotional distress and upset, a few rounds of alternative nostril breathing will soften the intensity of over reactive emotional states. The longer you practice, the more stable your thinking will become, and the calmer your emotions will become. It also provides your body with a much needed dose of extra energy.
Yoga Poses to create the Zen
There are also a number of fantastically calming yoga asana poses or practices, that can be regularly practiced during times of stress to instantly create that wonderful feeling of zen we all crave when faced with tough times. Either work through these as a sequence or pick one and focus on that whenever you need a calm fix!
- Sit back onto the back of your heels. Separate your knees to the width of your mat.
- Slowly lower your forehead to the floor. Bring the hands either to the side of your body, or gently stretched out in front of you.
- Stay here for 10-20 breaths.
Benefits: Child's pose is great for slowing down the thoughts that come racing through our minds. This restful pose restores balance and harmony to the body and puts the mind into an open and receptive state. Coupled with deep breathing, the nervous system slows down in no time at all.
- Bend your knee and bring your right shin parallel to the top of your mat.
- Stack your left shin on top of the right, bringing the left foot on top of the right knee, and the left knee on top of the right ankle.
- Gently hinge forward from the hips, resting your arms onto the shins or the floor ahead of you.
- Take 10 breaths, then release and move to the other side.
Benefits: Double pigeon is great for stress relief for a number of reasons. First of all, it is an extremely deep hip opener and we hold a lot of emotions in our hips. While it may seem a little odd to choose a yoga pose that will potentially get the emotions flowing, eventually suppressed emotions will bubble over and in a controlled environment this can be a great release of negative energy. At the same time folding forward calms down the nervous system and provides a sense of inner calm. So while emotions may come up during this pose, you will be calm and ready to face whatever comes up to meet you.
If you don't have the opportunity to sit in silence meditating, it's possible to get some relief just walking around. Take a walk outside and as you walk count to four on the inhale and eight on the exhale.
Benefits: Not only does this make you mindful of what you're doing, it calms you down from the inside out. When your exhale is longer than the inhale it instinctively slows down the nervous system. As you walk if you loose your mindfulness simply make your way back to the breath and start where you left off.
- Begin by lying on your back. Draw your knees into your chest, and slowly raise your feet towards the sky.
- Use your hands to protect your back, keeping your elbows in alignment with your shoulders.
- Straighten your legs in the air and stretch through all of your toes.
- Hold for 10-20 breaths. To release use your hands to protect your back.
Benefits: Inverted poses, like shoulderstand, refresh the glandular systems keeping you rational and avoiding any mood swings. Shoulderstand also serves to sedate the nervous system so instantly calming your mood.
- Lie comfortably on back.
- Rest your arms alongside your body, with palms facing upwards.
- Rest legs as wide apart as feels comfortable, letting feet relax and roll to either side of mat.
- Rest here for 5 minutes, allowing the body to be completely still.
Benefits: How often do you sit still? Realistically? I am going to guess the answer is “not often”. Some people say that savasana is the hardest pose to perfect. Most people are so inside their heads that they can’t get into their bodies. Take a moment, and try this pose. Anything that helps you to simply be present in the moment is going to help you feel a sense of peace and calmness.
Feeling the Zen approaching now?
Whenever the world gets a little bit crazy, and you feel as though you have no control, remember to breathe deeply. Take a moment to just be. Sit with yourself. Sit within yourself. Find balance. Find your centre. Stay strong. Stay grounded. Stay focused. Take a moment to practice yoga mindfully. Be kind to your body and your mind. xox
Caroline Layzell is a certified 500-hour yoga instructor, based on the paradise island of Nusa Lembongan, just off Bali, where she is lucky enough to be teaching yoga full time at the Yoga Shack Lembongan. When she is not doing yoga she can be found underwater diving with the beautiful manta rays in Lembongan. Diving is her moving meditation! Caroline came to yoga after a lifetime of marathon training, cross country running, triathlons and short distance races. It helped her to put her body back together after numerous injuries, and it is here that her passion for yoga began. Now she is a self-confessed yoga addict! Join Caroline on Facebook, Instagram or on her website
Images via: @yoga_mhc