Fitness Magazine

Balancing Your Emotions with Your Breath

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina

Balancing Your Emotions with Your Breath

Close-Up of the Falls by Melina Meza

As I wrote in Your Breath: The Key to Your Nervous System, while you cannot tell your nervous system directly to slow your heart beat, digest your food more quickly or to start relaxing right this minute, you can control your breath. And because your heart rate tends to speed up on your inhalation and your heart rate tends to slow on your exhalation, this enables you to consciously access your nervous system. By intentionally taking in more air (either by speeding up your breath or by lengthening your inhalation) you can stimulate your nervous system. And by taking in less air (by slowing your breath or lengthening your exhalation), you can calm yourself down.
Last week, I wrote about emotional counter-poses that you can use to balance your emotions. You can use various yogic breath practices in the same way. You can use breath practices when nothing serious is wrong but you’re just feeling slightly hyper (see anxiety or stress) or slightly down (see clinical depression). And you can also use them as a supplement to other treatments if you are suffering from anxiety, agitated depression, clinical depression or chronic stress.
(Note that yogic breath practices have evolved over thousands of years as yogis experimented on themselves and passed on discoveries their students. And while some schools of yoga teach yogic breath practices (pranayama) to beginners, the type of yoga that I’m trained in, Iyengar style, considers breath practices to be so powerful that pranayama is introduced very gradually. So if you start experimenting with breath practices to balance your emotional condition, do take it easy.)

Anxiety and agitated depression.
Because anxiety and agitated depression—which is anxiety based—are so often related to an overactive sympathetic nervous system, for these two conditions it’s best to focus on your exhalation. You can simply work on exhaling completely or lengthen your exhalation a beat or two (by pausing after your exhalation is complete). Or, you can try a more formal practice that focuses on lengthening the exhalation, such as Viloma with interrupted exhalation, where you actually pause twice during your exhalation and once at the end. This is the practice that Iyengar himself recommends in Light on Life in his “Asanas for Emotional Stability” practice.
If manipulating your exhalation causes you to feel any agitation whatsoever, stop the practice. In addition, practices that lengthen your inhalation or even that bring your awareness to the inhalation (which can cause you to unintentionally lengthen or deepen your inhalation) may aggravate your condition, so you may want to avoid them.
If you’ve noticed that you are a chest breather—a type of breathing that seems to be associated with anxiety—and it doesn’t make you feel more anxious to work with your inhalation as well as your exhalation, you could practice abdominal breathing. In abdominal breathing, you focus on slowly inhaling into and exhaling from your belly rather than your chest, as you intentionally keep your abdominal area relaxed. You could lie on your back, and place a block or other light weight, such as a 1 pound bag of rice, on your belly to bring awareness to your abdomen, and keep your abdomen relaxed as you slowly inhale and exhale. Or, if lying on your back makes you anxious, you could lie in Crocodile pose (on your belly with your arms out to the sides, elbows bent, and forehead resting on stacked hands) so you can feel your abdomen moving toward and away from the floor as you slowly inhale and exhale.
You can also use any of these techniques if you're just feeling mildly hyper and want to calm down.

Clinical depression.
For clinical depression, which tends to make people feel heavy and lifeless, focusing on your inhalation or breathing more quickly can stimulate your nervous system and bring you out of your lethargy. This is one reason why an active vinyasa practice, such as the Ashtanga series or Sun Salutations, can be helpful to those with clinical depression because when you move with your breath, you tend to breathe more quickly and take in more oxygen. So for you, it may be helpful to focus on your inhalation. You can simply work with inhaling more completely or lengthen your inhalation by holding it for a beat or two. Or, you can try a more formal practice that focuses on lengthening the inhalation, such as Viloma with interrupted inhalation, where you actually pause twice during your inhalation and once after. In Yoga As Medicine, Timothy McCall recommends Ujjayi breathing, which tends to lengthen both the inhalation and exhalation, as well as the version of Viloma with interrupted inhalation
Some people who are depressed tend to have a slumped posture, with a collapsed chest, so focusing on opening your chest and inhaling into that area can be beneficial. In Yoga As Medicine, Timothy quotes Patricia Walden, who herself has suffered from clinical depression, saying:
“When you start focusing on your breath, and taking the breath into your chest and breathing deeply, you begin to feel the presence of your breath. What comes with that is a feeling of life returning, a feeling of warm that percolates throughout your chest at the beginning, but then throughout your entire body.”
You can also use any of these techniques if you're just feeling mildly depressed or blue.
Because stress is often a trigger for clinical depression, it’s possible that working with your exhalation as described for anxiety rather than your inhalation, could be helpful for you. So don’t hesitate to give it a try if you feel so inclined. As I said in my post Anxiety, Yoga and the Front Body, when it comes to emotional balance, anything that makes you feel better is working.
Stress. Because chronic stress is the result of an overactive sympathetic nervous system, it makes sense to focus on pacifying your nervous system by working with your exhalation as I described for anxiety. However, from my observations of people doing pranayama, some people find any kind of pranayama relaxing (I, myself, do not, by the way). If you do find all breath work relaxing, go ahead and do whichever breath practice quiets your mind and relaxes you. Simply slowing your breath in general, with long, slow inhalations as well as exhalations, could be helpful in reducing stress. Practices where you speed up your breath will no doubt stimulate your nervous system. So if you are doing an active vinyasa practice to burn off your excess energy, end your yoga practice with a calming breath practice or an emotional counter-pose (see Balancing Your Emotional Body With Counter-Poses) that triggers the relaxation response.

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