- Health and Nutrition
Breathe Away Anxiety
Daily practice key to calm
Anxiety can strike behind the blocks before an important race or interrupt quality sleep. In the worst situations, it can make every day a stressful experience. Studies show that most Americans breathe incorrectly. Poor posture, tight-fitting clothing, diets that raise heart rate and blood pressure, and rushed, stressful living all interfere with breathing quality. Improper breathing can impair health, whereas quality yoga breathing can improve immune function, hypertension, asthma, autonomic nervous system imbalances, and stress-related disorders.
According to the University of Rochester Health Encyclopedia, the average adult breathing rate at rest is 12 to 16 breaths per minute. People suffering from serious illness may breathe as often as 30 times per minute. Fast breathing reduces oxygenation of the cells in the body. Slow breathing nourishes the body and relaxes the mind. Yogis trained in breath regulation are often comfortable taking three to five breaths per minute. Anyone who practices breathing regularly can improve breathing quality.
Most people tend to do shallow chest breathing, rather than deep, diaphragmatic breathing. Shallow breathing can trigger a flight or fight response in the body, even when a tiger isn’t about to attack. It can also give you the feeling you’re not getting sufficient air.
Debbie Krejci, the owner of I Love Yoga Maya offers 200-hour Yoga Alliance trainings for yoga instructors in Sayalita, Mexico. Her sessions include exercises in yoga breathing, also known as pranayama. In Sanskrit, prana means vital energy and yama means to control or master. “A proper breath is allowing the diaphragm to lower by letting the belly expand or get larger,” Krejci says. “The exhale is assisted by pulling the belly back towards the spine as the diaphragm lifts, pushing the air out of the lungs.”
Krejci recommends practicing breathing daily. By getting comfortable with breathing and learning to breathe properly, you’ll find it easier to implement breathing strategies whenever stressful situations strike.
How to Breathe
Sit in a comfortable position, with the shoulders relaxed and the chest open, Krejci explanins. “Align the spine from the tailbone to top of the head.” As long as you’re not congested, inhale and exhale slowly and steadily through your nose, keeping your mouth closed and relaxed. “Leave a slight space between the upper and lower teeth,” Krejci says.
To get comfortable with diaphragmatic breathing, start by focusing your attention on the expansion of the abdomen during the inhalation. Place one hand on the abdomen above your navel to feel it being pushed outward. During this phase of the breath, the diaphragm is expanding and pushing down. During the exhalation, focus on drawing the belly in and up. This forces the air out of the lungs and causes the diaphragm to lower.
After a few breaths, try to feel the rib cage expanding along with the belly during inhalation. Place the edge of the hands alongside the rib cage at the level of the sternum to feel the lateral expansion of the rib cage.
Once these breaths feel comfortable, “deepen the inhale and elongate the exhale. Do this by counting. Count to, say, five, on the slow steady inhale with the belly rising. Then exhale with the same slow and steady breath. Try to clear your mind and concentrate on counting and how the air feels as it enters your nostrils.”
Making the exhalation longer than the inhalation or 1:2 breathing facilitates the deepest relaxation. Without straining, try to “lengthen the exhale by twice the duration of the inhale,” Krejci says. For example, if you inhale for four counts, try exhaling for eight counts. This breathing pattern can work well at night to spur sleep and can be done in any comfortable reclining position. But because this pattern is so relaxing, 1:2 breathing might not be a good choice for a swimmer to employ just before a race. Rather, in that situation a 1:1 breathing ratio would work better to calm your body and ready you for the task ahead.
Now that you know how to breathe properly, you need to practice this skills, Krejci says. “Dedicate 5 to 10 minutes a day to breath work for two weeks and see the difference. Practicing daily will bring you a greater sense of calm under any anxiety provoking experience. Not only does this practice lower blood pressure and pulse, but it can also increase your lung capacity.” And realize there’s lots of room to grow with this practice: Yogi Master B.K.S. Iyengar could inhale for longer than a minute without strain.
No swimmer wants to be awake all night due to anxiety over a race the next morning, but with breathing practice, you can control your prerace jitters. “When you purposely slow your respirations, you’re sending a message to your brain that everything is OK,” Krejci says. “The brain’s response is to tell the body to calm down, there’s no need for a fight or flight response.”