We are now said to be in the midst of an “epidemic of stress”, meaning that both the hormone and nervous system are out of kilter, set to “go-go-go” with no chance to rest or reset. This has a knock on effect on every aspect of our physiology and health. The breath shortens when we are stressed, and conversely when we are relaxed, the breath deepens and lengthens. We can therefore re-align the nervous system by conscious breathing with longer, deeper breaths to alleviate some of the stress symptoms; done consistently over a period of time, learning to breath more fully can resolve anxiety and stress, leaving one more able to cope with the demands of everyday life.
Mammals on the physiological level, respond to stress as something we can “run away” from, and so the stress hormones direct energy to the external muscles, the limbs and away from the inner organs. Leaving you able to outwit a beastie perhaps, but unfortunately in the modern day not to get away from the inner stresses of the mind, or the relentless demands of the “on the go” culture. Flight, fight or freeze is a survival mechanism that is controlled by our Central Nervous System (CNS) that enables us to utilize a lot of energy under stressful situations to survive. This can come in two different forms; flight is when we run to escape the danger; fight is when we are prepared physically protect our body, freeze is when we are simply overwhelmed and therefore do nothing externally, although the mind may have shut off (dissociated, the body is still pumping stress hormones).
Over time with the inability to rebalance the stress hormones and the nervous system which is switched to “on” side or “flight, flight, freeze”, we weaken our immune systems therefore becoming ill more often, develop chronic disease(s) in the body and the mind. Patanjali the great sage and author of the Yoga sutras described this, giving instruction in how to balance the prana, the body-mind’s vital energy, by balancing the breath. In current research performed by the Department of Neuroscience, Roehampton University, London, UK has found that the vagus nerve which travels from our brain to the vital organs, is stimulated and enhanced by the practice of Deerga Swasam (3 Part Breath). The vagus nerve controls the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which is responsible for reducing anxiety, lowering levels of cortisol production, lowers blood pressure and reducing our heart rate.
So the best way to reset this stress cycle of the nervous system and the hormone system, and one which is readily available to all of us is through the breath. Since stress results in breathing which tends to be shallow- short puffs of air into and out of the chest, we need to practice breathing into the abdomen first and foremost.
3 part breath/ full yogic breath/ deergha swasam
Lying on your back with hands to the side or hands on abdomen, have a cushion/bolster under your knees, and make your neck comfy with a folded blanket.
Firstly focus the breath into the lower abdomen so it rises as you inhale and releases down as you exhale. Allow the practice to be done gently with ease. Continue for 5-10 breaths or until it feels easeful and familiar.
Now continue dieting the inhale to the abdomen but add in an awareness of the lower ribs broadening as you inhale, and as you exhale the ribs slightly narrowing and abdomen sinking. Continue for 5-10 breaths or until it feels easeful and familiar.
If you have been really stressed recently stay with this. If you feel good add in the last part: breathing in as before to abdomen, side ribs and then topping the breath up to the chest; then exhale from the chest to the ribs and the lower abdomen.
You may like to imagine the breath as a wave simply floating up and down the body, rocking all the different muscles and organs and bones gently in its flow.
As you prepare to release from the practice, let your mind be conscious of what you’ve been doing and any effects- how do you feel now, just observe, allowing yourself to witness the experience of your body and mind in this moment. See if there is anything of value- a sense of ease perhaps, that you can bring with you into your day. Be aware you can take a deeper breath anytime you choose. Now slowly and with awareness roll onto your side, rest here for a moment, then press in your hands to sit up keeping your neck as relaxed as possible.
Three part breath is the safest method of breath to start with for beginners. But remember stress expresses itself through the breath so any breathing technique must be approached with caution.
As you teach, wander around gently and see if they students are managing. If anyone has very short breaths be aware they are probably feeling stressed right now. And give plenty of time with stage one – bringing the breath down towards the abdomen. Sometimes this is enough- without adding in the latter stages. Bear in mind also that as people age the breath tends to shorten, or if anyone has a rounded upper spine their breath will tend to be shorter.
As you talk students through the approach, give them time with each stage and DO NOT affect their NATURAL RHYTHM i.e. explain the technique but without counting or suggesting a time-scale.
I would suggest both starting and ending class in this way for students to get comfy with the method and as a time to check in with themselves.
The best position is lying flat on the back, with a bolster under the knees or thighs to help soften the abdomen but without bolsters/ props under the spine, as this lengthens the abdomen and make it more taut.