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One of the reasons why yoga is so good for relieving stress is because of the breathwork component, Pranayama. Even if you’re not moving your body, you can still harness your breath to calm your nervous system, relax your mind and body and manage stress, which is exactly what I’m talking about today.

In this episode, I uncover some of the secrets of breathwork and its profound impact on our overall well-being. I explain the role of the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the relaxation response. You’ll discover how our breath signals safety to our brain, leading to reduced anxiety, lower heart rate, and improved overall well-being.

Three crucial principles for effective breathwork are nose breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, and maintaining ease. I dive into some detail about each of these aspects and talk about why nasal breathing is so important when it comes to helping the nervous system unwind.

Throughout this episode, I also introduce you to three easy and accessible breathwork techniques that can help you manage stress and anxiety effectively. These are all techniques that you can do throughout your day to help keep your nervous system calm. These techniques are extended exhales, spinal breath and alternate nostril breath (Nadi Shodhana).

I also discuss how conscious breathing leads to mindfulness and meditation and talk about the benefits of slowing down your brainwave frequency. During yoga, we go through physical poses with our breath to the realm of subtle mental awareness. I’d love to hear how these techniques transform your life for the better as you breathe your way to less stress.

[00:00:00] Monica: Welcome friends. Today’s episode is about a topic that’s gaining in popularity right now, breathwork, and I’ll share why breathwork is so effective for lowering stress, how the breath impacts the nervous system, and I’ll be sharing my favorite breathing techniques for lowering stress and anxiety. But before we begin, let’s take a deep breath in, and a long breath out.

[00:01:26] Now, what I’m about to share today is for entertainment purposes only. And it’s not medical advice, so be sure to check with your doctor if you have a medical or psychiatric condition. Now, to be honest, I’d never really paid that much attention to my breath before I started practicing yoga. And during yoga class, I actually used to hold my breath to try and squeeze into a yoga pose.

[00:01:50] I never really understood the breath connection until I trained to be a yoga teacher, which is why I place such an emphasis on the breath in my teaching, as I want you to understand how you can breathe your way to better health. Breath is a central feature in yoga and is often referred to as pranayama.

[00:02:07] Prana meaning life force energy and yama meaning control. Basically, breath work is about harnessing our life force energy. And yogis have known for thousands of years that our breath influences our state of mind. And that’s why it’s such a key part of yoga. Ancient yogis observed the animal kingdom and noticed that the animals that lived the longest, like elephants, tortoises and whales, had the slowest rate of respiration.

[00:02:34] And they concluded that we can live longer, healthier lives if we slow down our breathing. So not surprisingly, breath control or pranayama is a key feature in the system of yoga. And yogis believe that our mind follows the breath, and we can use our breath to influence our state of mind. And in the last few years, breathwork has really gained in popularity as people are seeking a natural and effective way to manage their stress and anxiety.

[00:03:02] So what exactly is breathwork? So it’s an umbrella term for a range of breathing techniques or methods. And there are hundreds of different breathing techniques and they all have different purposes and different benefits. Common to all of these techniques is taking some conscious control over our breath.

[00:03:21] And being more mindful or aware of our breathing patterns. breathwork is so much more than just oxygenating our body. The real benefits of breathwork are mental. You see, the way we breathe signals to our brain via our nervous system that we’re safe and free from danger. And this is all to do with the vagus nerve, spelt V A G U S, which means wandering in Latin.

[00:03:48] And this nerve starts at our brain stem, it runs through our neck and throat, chest, lungs, diaphragm, all the way down into our digestive organs. And the vagus nerve is the nerve involved in the parasympathetic nervous system. Otherwise known as the relaxation response or rest and digest. And the really interesting thing about our vagus nerve is that it’s one of the few nerves that actually sends signals from the body to the brain.

[00:04:17] Most of our nerves are one directional or efferent, meaning they go from the brain to the body. The vagus nerve has afferent fibers, meaning it communicates from the body to the brain and brain back to the body. So the vagus nerve is continually monitoring our body, things like our heart rate, our skin temperature, and our breathing, to detect subtle signs of danger in our environment.

[00:04:39] This is known as neuroception, which generally happens outside of our conscious awareness. So, when we consciously slow down our breaths, it sends a signal back to our brain via the vagus nerve that right now, in this moment, we’re okay, we’re safe. And it’s only when our nervous system feels okay and safe that we can begin to relax.

[00:05:02] And this kicks off a whole chain reaction of physiological functions like slowing down our heart rate, lowering our blood pressure. reducing anxiety and releasing muscular tension. So there’s a direct relationship between the quality of our breath and our state of mind. Now here’s some really important considerations when you’re about to embark on some breath work or just thinking of improving your breathing for better health.

[00:05:30] And the first one is nose breathing. So even though we’ve been breathing all of our lives, some of us are better at it than others, which is why some people really struggle with the whole breathing thing in yoga. So if you find that you hold your breath or you’re puffing and panting or breathing through your mouth, you’re not the only one, I can assure you of that.

[00:05:50] I still struggle sometimes to coordinate my movement with my breath and have to remind myself to close my mouth and breathe through my nose. So, yoga breathing really emphasizes breathing through the nose, unless of course you’ve got a cold or a blocked nose. And there are so many studies outlining why nose breathing is better than mouth breathing.

[00:06:11] But basically, absorption of oxygen from the air occurs on the exhalation. And since nasal breathing slows down the air movement, the lungs have more time to extract oxygen from the air. Nasal breathing draws more oxygen to the lower lobes of the lungs, which promotes deeper relaxation. Nasal breathing results in a lower heart rate and the rate of respiration, or that breathing rate, compared with mouth breathing.

[00:06:37] Nasal breathing also slows down our brainwave frequency. That’s the speed at which our brain cells communicate to one another. And the slower our brainwave frequency, the more relaxed we’ll feel. Whereas when we breathe through the mouth, it’s actually a sign of stress and it increases the speed of our brainwaves so we feel more anxious and on edge.

[00:06:59] Mouth breathing also drives the mouth out and it can lead to gum disease and bad breath. It’s also linked to anxiety, stress, addictions, sleeping problems and negative emotions. And finally, mouth breathing leads to poor posture and a lot of tension in the neck and shoulders. So if you experience Stress and anxiety or you have a lot of muscle tension. Notice if your mouth breathing throughout the day because many of us do it without realizing. Of course, if your nose is blocked or you’re doing intense exercise, you can breathe through the mouth. But optimal breathing for physical and mental health is done through the nose.

[00:07:37] Now the next thing to consider is belly or diaphragmatic breathing. So the diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle at the base of our lungs. And it separates our lungs from our digestive organs. The diaphragm is our main breathing muscle. But if we don’t use it properly, our body has to rely on the accessory breathing muscles in the chest and throat, which can lead to tension in the upper body and shallow breathing.

[00:08:03] So when we breathe deeply and we engage our diaphragm, it activates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve actually travels through our diaphragm. And when our nerve is activated, it calms our nervous system and our state of mind. Diaphragmatic breathing improves digestion because when we’re stressed, our body diverts energy away from digestion to deal with the stressor.

[00:08:27] And so deep breathing and relaxation helps to stimulate the digestive process, which can lead to less bloating, less cramping, less constipation, all of those digestive issues. And just anecdotally, over the last decade, I’ve had loads of clients with Irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis, Crohn’s disease, all of which are digestive problems that can be exacerbated by stress.

[00:08:53] And when these clients start breath work, they have a noticeable improvement in their symptoms. It’s not a magic fix or anything, but Breathwork reduces the stress, which often makes the condition worse. So as they lower their stress levels, their symptoms abate or subside and they have a noticeable improvement in how they feel.

[00:09:13] Diaphragmatic breathing increases oxygen into the bloodstream, helping our vital organs to function better. And it also brings, oxygen to the brain, boosting our memory and our cognitive function. Diaphragmatic breathing is known to reduce stress and anxiety because of its calming effect on the nervous system.

[00:09:33] So really important that we recruit or engage our diaphragm when we’re breathing, not just in our yoga class, but in our day to day breathing, especially when we’re at rest. Often when you ask somebody to take a deep breath, you’ll see their shoulders raise up or their collarbone raise up to their ears.

[00:09:51] And this is an example of poor recruitment of the diaphragm and overuse of the neck and intercostal muscles. When we are breathing optimally, we won’t see much movement in our shoulders or collarbone because optimal breathing is all about. allowing the lower rib cage and belly to expand. Another really cool benefit of engaging the diaphragm is that the more we use it, we strengthen it.

[00:10:15] And a strong diaphragm stabilizes the spine and improves our core strength. So, When we have a weak diaphragm, we’re lacking that support because our diaphragm is attached to our lumbar spine and our thoracic spine. We lose some of that spinal stabilization, which can result in low back injuries and tension or pain, because when we don’t have that spinal support of the diaphragm.

[00:10:41] So, we want our breath to be through the nose. We want to be breathing using the diaphragm, and the third thing to consider is that we don’t want the breath to be forced or stressful. We want the breath to be easy, and many people in a yoga class actually over breathe. They’re even hyperventilating. When we take too deep an inhale, it can cause stress and disrupt the natural chemical balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen.

[00:11:10] To reduce stress and to have that calming effect on our nervous system, we want our breath to be low, Slow and quiet. If we try to extend our breath too much, or our breathing causes us to feel short of breath or hungry for air, we’re sending a signal to our brain that we’re in danger, and our brain is always spying on our breath via the vagus nerve, and being overly forceful, controlling or restrictive will be counterintuitive when it comes to using breathwork to calm the mind.

[00:11:42] Now, over the last 10 years, I’ve taught breathing to thousands of people and have really refined what I teach based on observation and feedback. And the biggest lesson is that if someone has trauma, there are certain breathing techniques that I don’t recommend. For instance, a lot of popular breathing techniques will encourage you to hold your breath, but this can make stress and anxiety worse.

[00:12:06] So let me explain. So when we’ve experienced trauma, it’s any event that overwhelmed our nervous system. And there’s trauma with a capital T, which is the big stuff like violence, abuse, major injuries and accidents. And then there’s the little t traumas that we’ve all experienced like losing our job or going through a bad breakup, fighting with your best friend, or…

[00:12:29] Being ostracized at school. And when we experience trauma, it’s our nervous system that’s overwhelmed. And ordinarily, our body will go into the fight or flight mode of our sympathetic nervous system. We either fight and defend ourselves, or we run away. But when we experience trauma, fight or flight isn’t enough.

[00:12:52] We exceed our window of tolerance and our nervous system is overwhelmed and we go into what’s known as dorsal vagal shutdown, otherwise known as the freeze response. Animals in the wild freeze when they play dead because they can’t escape from their predator. And the freeze response is characterized by immobility and numbness.

[00:13:13] And the animals that manage to get away, they shake it off and they go on to living their best animal lives. But unless us humans have support to discharge the huge amount of nervous system energy and can co regulate their nervous system with someone safe, then that energetic charge associated with the trauma remains stuck or imprinted in our nervous system as a memory.

[00:13:37] So when people with trauma practice breathing techniques that are about holding their breath, like the 4 7 8 technique, they can experience that immobilization again, and it reactivates that trauma in their nervous system. And this can make them feel incredibly anxious, and on top of feeling anxious, they feel like a failure or they’re ashamed that they feel worse for doing breath work that’s supposed to be relaxing.

[00:14:01] So that’s why I don’t recommend breath holds or breath retention for anyone with anxiety, panic, anyone in acute distress or past trauma, because it often makes them feel worse. So remember, you’re the best person to discern what’s right for you. So if any breathing technique doesn’t feel good, just stop, you’re in charge of your body.

[00:14:23] You need to do what feels right for you. So now that we’ve got all the theory covered and you understand why breath work is so important, I’m going to share the three best breathing techniques for stress and anxiety. when most people think about breath work, they focus on the inhale. My approach is to focus more on the exhale.

[00:14:44] So generally our inhales are energizing and our exhales are calming. And for people with a healthy vagus nerve known as having good vagal tone or heart rate, our heart rate will increase on our inhale and slow on our exhale. And so the first technique I’m gonna share with you is about extending our exhales.

[00:15:04] We’re gonna make our exhales twice as long as our inhales, so you can try it now. Inhale for count of two and exhale for count of four.

[00:15:19] Inhale for two. And exhale for four.

[00:15:30] And just keep going to your own count here, making the exhale twice as long as the inhale. And we want to keep the breath low in the diaphragm. We want to keep the exhale slow. And most important, we want it to be easy. So the biggest mistake is trying too hard and over breathing. We want the inhale to be easy and natural, as we focus on extending the exhale.

[00:15:57] Making the exhale long, slow. And smooth. Now, sometimes in my yoga classes, I see people doing this breathing technique and, you know, they’re being really earnest, they’re trying really hard, but they’re inhaling for a count of 10 and exhaling for 20. And they’re just overdoing it. This causes more stress and defeats the purpose of the breath work.

[00:16:23] So let your inhale be natural. Focus on long breaths. slow exhales. Now, if you feel hungry for air, you can inhale for a count of one and exhale for two, or if you naturally have a deeper breath, you can inhale for three and exhale for four. You can experiment with what feels best for you. But for me, even though I’ve been practicing yoga for a long time, I think maybe 16 years now, two and four feels the best for me.

[00:16:52] If I make the exhales too long, it causes me to feel hungry for air. So I just stick to the ratio of inhaling for two and exhaling for four. And we want to make sure that the exhale is out the nose. So keep the mouth closed the whole time. And as you inhale, the shoulders and the collarbones stay relatively still.

[00:17:12] Now this breathing technique of slowing down our exhales can be done anywhere, anytime. You can do it sitting down. You can do it standing up. You can do it lying down or in a relaxing yoga pose. And I do this breathing technique throughout the day. Uh, I do it when I’m waiting for the kettle to boil, I’ll take ten slow exhales.

[00:17:32] When I’m at the traffic lights, I do it before bed. Just throughout the day, whenever I’m feeling a little bit stressed, or whenever I’m feeling a little bit wound up, or whenever I remember. And breath work has a cumulative effect, so the more we do it throughout the day, the more we’re bringing our nervous system into that parasympathetic state, then the more we’re calming our mind.

[00:17:54] breathwork is more of a preventative, so don’t wait until you’re on the verge of a panic attack to do this technique, because it won’t work. It’s not a cure. It’s more of a preventative. If you are having a panic attack, becoming aware of your five senses is a much better approach than trying to slow down your exhales.

[00:18:11] So if you liked this breathing technique, try to do 10 rounds several times a day, remembering that the more you do it, the better you’re going to feel. Now, the next technique is called the spinal breath, and you can do this one seated or lying down, and we imagine that we can breathe into the spine. So, as you inhale, send your breath down your spine to your tailbone, and as you exhale, imagine sending the breath up the spine to the top of the head.

[00:18:41] Inhale down the spine. Exhale up the spine. And this is a hack to activate our diaphragm. Many people think that an inhale is an upward movement because they’re so used to using their neck and chest muscles to breathe, but our diaphragm actually descends on the inhale to draw air into our lungs, and it ascends on the exhale to expel air out of the lungs.

[00:19:08] So when we breathe down our spine, we’re automatically engaging our diaphragm. This is the correct movement of our breath. And when we breathe into our spine, we’re bringing our awareness into our spine and our spine houses our central nervous system. And this inner awareness or interoception is calming in and of itself.

[00:19:31] The more attention we can bring to the felt sense inside of our body, the more calm and relaxed we’ll feel. Breathing into the spine can lengthen the spine and create space in between the vertebrae, and it can be really helpful to release chronic tension, especially in the cervical and lumbar spine. Now, from a yoga perspective, our spinal column houses our main energy channel, the Shashumna.

[00:19:58] And when we activate our shushumna with conscious spinal breathing, it creates a sense of instant calm. The word shushumna actually means joyful mind, and it’s when our prana or our energy is balanced and flowing freely through this central energy channel that has this calming effect on our state of mind.

[00:20:16] And just as a side note here, I will do a whole podcast episode on energy anatomy, things like prana, nadis, and how they affect our emotions and inner state. So spinal breathing is an excellent technique for anyone with physical tension or back pain. And I often combine it with relaxing yoga poses like supported bridge pose or surfboard to really amplify the calming effects.

[00:20:43] this is what we do in our yin yoga classes. We combine calming breath work with relaxing yoga poses. So you can really think and feel better. And I think that’s why our yin yoga classes are so popular because we have such a heavy focus on our nervous system and mental health. Now the third breathing technique I’m going to share requires a little bit more effort, but it’s definitely worthwhile.

[00:21:07] This one’s called Nadi Shodhana or alternate nostril breath. did you know that breathing through your right nostril will give you more energy and that breathing through your left nostril will help you to relax and calm down? That’s another reason why we breathe through the nose in yoga. The nerves in our nasal passage correlate to the different hemispheres of our brain and the different branches of our nervous system.

[00:21:31] So breathing through the right nostril will stimulate the rational left side of the brain and the sympathetic nervous system, helping to increase our energy and improve left brain functioning such as speech, communication, problem solving and analysis. Whereas breathing through the left nostril has the opposite effect.

[00:21:51] It stimulates the emotional or right side of the brain and promotes the parasympathetic nervous system or the relaxation response. This helps us down and improves our right brain functioning such as creativity, intuition, imagination and ability to see the whole picture. Now, throughout your day, one nostril will tend to dominate, and it’s often the right.

[00:22:14] But when we lie on our side, the nostril that’s on top will dominate. And that’s one of the reasons why we roll to the right after Shavasana, to promote relaxation through left nostril dominance. So think of the left nostril as the brake and the right nostril as the accelerator. So this breathing technique where we alternate breathing through each nostril is a great one for stress and anxiety.

[00:22:38] You can do it before a job interview, you can do it before going to the dentist or any situation that causes you to feel nervous or anxious. It only takes a couple of minutes and what we want to do is bring our right hand up to our face and place the index and middle finger between your eyebrows. Rest your thumb on your right nostril and rest your ring finger and your little finger on the left nostril.

[00:23:03] Now close the right nostril and inhale through the left nostril. Close the left nostril and exhale out the right nostril. Inhale through the right nostril, then close the right nostril and exhale out the left nostril. And just keep repeating this for a few At least five rounds, but you can do it up to 10 minutes.

[00:23:29] It’s closing one nostril down at a time as you breathe through the other.

[00:23:36] a lot of people do alternate nostril breathing for anxiety and stress. For some people it works really, really well to clear their head. And I often use it as a centering technique before meditation. So doing a bit of breath work before meditation will make meditation so much easier. But I’m going to do a whole podcast episode on meditation coming up soon.

[00:23:57] So as I mentioned, there are lots of different breathing techniques and the three that I’ve just shared work for most people in my experience, but you might have another technique that you do that works for you and that’s fine. In my experience though, the simpler the better. So often people try to complicate the breath, they try to over breathe, uh, they have a, you know, multi or complex breathing pattern.

[00:24:22] It’s not necessary. When it comes to calming the mind, simpler is better. So if you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, you will become increasingly more aware of your breath. Our breath starts to become the focal point in our practice, which then Creates a bridge between our mind and body. Our breath invites our mind to come back into our body and to drop into the present moment.

[00:24:46] And present moment awareness is also known as mindfulness. And mindfulness is rapidly gaining traction as a really effective tool in dealing with stress and anxiety. And mindfulness is just about paying attention to the present moment without judgment. It’s the opposite of mindlessness or everyday thinking, and it really helps to free us from unwanted, repetitive, and incessant thinking.

[00:25:11] And a really common technique is to watch the breath without judgment. Watch yourself as you inhale. Watch the exhale. And watch yourself react to the observation of the breath. This sounds really simple, but it’s incredibly relaxing because the mind stops racing, the thoughts slow down, and you can find some breathing space.

[00:25:37] And before you know it, you’re meditating. Paying this much attention to our breath will naturally lead us into a meditative state. So conscious breathing slows down the speed at which our brain cells communicate to one another. This is known as our brainwaves. And the slower our brainwaves, the more relaxed and calm we feel.

[00:25:59] So yoga, breathwork and meditation takes us brainwaves, where our brainwave frequency is really fast and we feel stressed and anxious, into an alpha state of mind where we’re alert and awake, but we’re feeling quite calm. And it can even go into a theta state of mind where we’re awake and alert, but we have no thoughts.

[00:26:20] And this is a really blissful place to be. So the mind follows the breath. So when we actively slow down our breathing, We slow down the brainwaves, which means fewer thoughts and more space in between our thoughts. And in that space between our thoughts, we find bliss. And this is the whole point of yoga.

[00:26:42] This is where yoga leads us. Starts with the physical poses. Moves through the breath and then to the subtle mental realms. And remember, yoga is so much more than a stretch. It’s a holistic practice designed to calm the mind. And when it comes to calming the mind, the breath is so much more important than the pose.

[00:27:03] So we’ve talked a lot about the breath today, how it influences our nervous system and our state of mind, how we want our breath to be low, slow, and through the nose. And the main thing to remember here is that breathwork is cumulative. The more you do it, the better you feel. Taking a few exhales here and there isn’t going to change your life, but if you start incorporating these breathing techniques into your day and do it consistently, you’ll be feeling calmer, thinking more clearly.

[00:27:33] I’m making better decisions in life.

[00:27:36] So if you want to discover the calming power of breath work with me in person, then come along to our East Brisbane yoga studio and find out for yourself why people rave about our studio. Our yin yoga classes feature breath work with relaxing poses, while our vinyasa yoga classes combine movement with breath, which is perfect for those with anxiety and high stress.

[00:27:58] Our classes are beginner friendly and filled with all shapes and sizes, and most of our clients are over 50 and they love that our classes deliver on our promise to cultivate calm. And if you haven’t been to our studio before, your first three weeks of yoga are only 77, so you can try us out and see if you like it.

[00:28:19] And we’re so confident that you’ll be thinking and feeling better after three weeks that we’re offering a calm mind guarantee. You can check out the fine print on our website. So keep calm my friends, take a deep breath, until next time.