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Pranayama: 3 Simple Breathing Exercises

Pranayama is a yoga practice involving different breathing exercises. Here, we outline how breath focus can help to reduce stress and calm the body, giving you 3 simple techniques you can try at home.

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The Breath

As discussed in our Introducing Yoga article, yoga is so much more than the postures you practice. An essential part of yoga is pranayama which is all about the breath. Prana is known as our vital life force energy and pranayama describes breathing exercises that enhance the flow of this life force energy.

Take a deep full breath now. How does it feel to breathe? Can you notice the belly and chest fill up with air as you inhale and release again as you breathe out? Breathing is something we all do every single day and it is closely linked to our emotional state. It can be interesting to notice how the breath feels when you’re stressed in comparison to when you’re calm and at ease.

Many people have been fascinated with the breath throughout the ages. Some have taken their curiosity to the next level, for example Wim Hof who is known as the ‘iceman’ because he can stay emerged in ice for 1 hour 13 minutes and run marathons in the snow! He uses a particular breathing exercise that he says affects change in the autonomic nervous system allowing him to endure extreme cold temperatures. If this interests you, sign up for free to our online email content where you can get a video tutorial on the Wim Hof breathing technique.

How stress impacts the body

When we’re stressed, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and adrenaline is released into the bloodstream leaving the body ready to fight or run for its life which also makes the mind hyper alert. This fight or flight response is a very useful mechanism that can be activated to protect us in situations where there is a real threat to our lives, for example meeting a grizzly bear in the woods. However for some of us, this stress response doesn’t switch off properly and instead is overused leading to adrenal fatigue from the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline being secreted into the body on a regular basis.

We might not be physically threatened by a life or death situation such as a bear in our path, but when the mind feels in real danger as a response to worry, fear and anxieties about the future, or from past trauma (e.g. PTSD flashbacks), it can all lead to this feeling of being stressed which triggers our innate survival response.

Many aspects of yoga practice such as pranayama breathing exercises, meditation and asana (posture) practice all help the body to relax into the parasympathetic nervous system response which is known as rest and digest mode, inviting calm into the mind. This can be truly life changing.

Given the growing scientific evidence of the damaging impact of stress, which can lead to life-threatening diseases, the importance of relaxation and stress-reducing practices are becoming more and more apparent in today’s modern world. Simply taking a deep full breath can activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The more we can learn to tap into this “rest and digest” mode, the less stress our bodies will have to deal with on a day to day basis leading to overall health benefits.

3 breathing exercises you can do at home

The following breathing exercises can be done at any time of day. You can be lying down on your back, standing or in a comfortable seated position with the spine long.

-Place one hand on the belly and one hand on the heart. Simply feel the breath. Notice the subtle movements that the breath creates between the belly and the chest.
-Inhale fully and at the peak of your inhale pause the breath to hold. Hold for as long as feels interesting then gently exhale slowly.
-Count the breath cycles as the same number for each inhale, pause, exhale, pause. This could be to a count of 4 for each part or maybe a different number depending on what comes most naturally to you. E.g. inhale 2, 3, 4. Pause 2, 3, 4. Exhale 2, 3, 4. Pause 2, 3, 4.

These are 3 really simple breathing techniques that you can do at work, home or anywhere you like! Remember, simply taking a moment to pause and breathe can help to calm the nervous system and bring the body into its natural state of rest and relaxation.

If you’d like to learn more about introducing mindfulness into your everyday life then sign up to our 7 day mindfulness course for free.

Another free online program we run through email is 7 days of optimal living where you can receive the Wim Hof breath tutorial alongside other resources such as a mindfulness meditation audio and ayurvedic recipe ebook.

Written by Jasmine Sara
Photography by Bruna Brandão

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