Breath to the Rescue

I'm in a crowded yoga studio with 30 other people, but we're not doing Sun Salutes, Tree pose, or Child's pose. In fact, we aren't doing much of anything. We're instructed to stand still and breathe loudly through our noses -- for 10 minutes. It takes every ounce of concentration and a healthy dose of physical exertion to stick with it for the entire time. But when we finally finish, I feel an electric current running through my body. The colors in the room seem brighter, my chest feels light and open. I'm completely energized.

Our instructor, renowned yoga teacher Max Strom, cofounder of Sacred Movement yoga studio (now Exhale Center for Sacred Movement) in Venice, California, tells us this is perfectly normal. In fact, he says, it's not at all uncommon for a breathing exercise to call up a range of emotions, from tears to exhilaration. "The body is the storehouse of emotions -- the lungs in particular store grief and inspiration," he explains. When you breathe more deeply, he says, you loosen the knots you're carrying around, particularly in your belly and chest. This can flush the body of old, unprocessed emotions and leave you feeling renewed and refreshed.

Although Strom uses the following exercises to help target and release specific emotions, they can also change the way you respond to events. "You can learn to use your breath to become less reactive to stressful situations as they're happening," he says. If you think that sounds good, consider this ripple effect: "As you become less reactive and your behavior changes, so will the nature of your relationships. You may even find people responding to you in a kinder way."

Of course, breathwork alone won't magically resolve your issues. But it can bring you into greater awareness of your emotions before they sabotage your mood or behavior. And that alone may be worth it.

Let Go of the Past: Ocean Breath (five to 10 minutes)

What You'll Need
An area with enough space to allow you to extend both arms.

What It Does
Known as ujjayi, this deep yogic breath helps flush out stale air, letting fresh air and vital energy, or prana, rush in. It can also help release old hurts: Strom reports that some of his students experience deep emotional release -- sometimes in the form of tears -- after practicing this breath. "If that happens to you, invite it in as a healing experience," he advises. "Don't resist it. If you give yourself the time to feel whatever comes up, it will pass. And you'll feel refreshed and wonderful afterward."

How to Do It
Stand with feet 3 to 4 feet apart, knees slightly bent, palms touching in front of your chest in prayer position. Straighten your spine by lifting the crown of your head toward the ceiling.

-Inhale through your nose as you open your arms out to the side.
-Then bring your hands back to prayer position, exhaling loudly through your mouth while partially constricting the passage of air (as if you're fogging a mirror).
-After a few rounds, close your mouth and breathe only through your nose while continuing to partially constrict the passage of air (your breath will sound loud as it passes in and out of your nose); this is called ujjayi breathing.
-Keep breathing this way for at least five minutes or up to 10 minutes.

Calm Down: Slow Breath (three minutes)

What You'll Need
A timer or stopwatch; a folded blanket or firm cushion.

What It Does
This practice calms the mind and the central nervous system, helping put the brakes on a frenzied pace. "When you slow your breathing down, you slow your life down," says Strom. Plus, it can spark your creativity. "I've had students stop in the middle of class and grab a pen. When the mind chatter stops, the ideas fly in."

How to Do It
Set the timer for three minutes so you don't have to keep track. Be sure to keep your spine erect. (Slouching can inhibit deep breathing.)

-Begin to lengthen the inhalation and exhalation (breathing slowly through your nose). First try inhaling for a count of four and exhaling for a count of four, then lengthen (aim for a count of seven on the in breath and seven on the out breath).
-Be careful not to hold your breath. You want to slow it down, not stop it.
-When the timer goes off, return to a normal breathing pace.

Dispel Anger: Belly Breath (five minutes)

What You'll Need
A pillow or rolled blanket to place under your knees.

What It Does
This technique focuses on expanding the diaphragm and solar plexus, where you tend to grip and tighten when you're mad. Once you've become familiar with the practice, you won't need to lie down to experience its benefits. "The next time you get angry, remember to relax the belly and breathe deeply into it," Strom advises. "This will help you to respond with wisdom instead of an emotional outburst."

How to Do It
Lie on the floor with the pillow under your knees, resting one hand on your lower belly and one hand on your chest.

-Inhale through your nose and send your breath into your abdomen, feeling your stomach expand like a beach ball.
-As you exhale through the mouth, breathe loudly while partially constricting the passage of air (ujjayi breathing).
-Close the mouth and continue breathing this way -- feeling your belly gently rise and fall -- for at least five minutes, or until you feel calm and relaxed.

What's Your Breath Trying to Tell You?

It's a powerful tool for managing stress and processing emotions. But your breath also reflects and signals your response to everyday events -- something you do without even thinking. Pay attention to your breathing patterns throughout the day and you'll be better able to assess your inner state before your emotions take their toll on you.

When you feel:
Inspired or pleasantly surprised
You will often:
Gasp, inhaling deeply and suddenly

When you feel:
Disappointed or exasperated
You will often:
Huff, exhaling suddenly and sharply

When you feel:
Anxious or fearful
You will often:
Stop or hold your breath

When you feel:
Weary or relieved
You will often:
Exhale with a long, deep sigh

When you feel:
Stressed or angry
You will often:
Breathe rapidly and shallowly

When you feel:
Hopeful, joyful, or content
You will often:
Breathe evenly and deeply

Text by Kate Hanley

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Comments (2)

  • Kassey 18 Jan, 2010

    How often are you suppose to do the breathing exercise
    or is it dependent on were to are a given day

  • pt507 29 May, 2009

    Breathe and be alive!

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